Today’s New York Times Book Review offers two textbook examples of what can be wrong and right about book reviewing: first, a good critic writing a useless review of a major book, then, a good critic writing a good review of a major book.
The first critic is Frank Rich, whose angry editorials in the Times opinion pages and whose theater criticism in Arts and Leisure I’ve always enjoyed. Unfortunately, Rich is overawed by the task of reviewing Don DeLillo’s new 9/11 novel Falling Man. Here’s his opener:
No matter where you stood in the city, the air was thick after the towers fell: literally thick with the soot and stench of incinerated flesh that turned terror into a condition as inescapable as the weather.
Yeah, and that first sentence is plenty thick too. With a new DeLillo novel to review, why would Frank Rich choose to drench the first half of this review in bathetic cliches about the way New York City changed after September 11, 2001?
For instance, this line contains a good idea: “In the ruins of 9/11, relationships are a non sequitur”. But I have to ask Mr. Rich to take a second look here — if relationships are a non sequitur (and they very well may be), then isn’t it true that they must have been before September 11 too? Frank Rich wastes our time by framing his review of DeLillo’s book inside this soapy “zeitgeist” hype. DeLillo is supposed to be the one telling us about 9/11, and Frank Rich is supposed to be telling us about DeLillo.
And, just for the record — the air at Ground Zero smelled like a weird otherworldly smoky cotton dust, but it did not smell like incinerated flesh. I’m guessing that Rich was at the Hamptons at the time and wouldn’t know.
Which is as good a segue as any into the superb major review in this week’s issue, Jonathan Rosen’s consideration of a new volume of Primo Levi’s unpublished stories, titled A Tranquil Star in USA (Rosen is right to point out that the collection’s original Italian title, If This Is A Man, is better). Here’s what Rosen does right here: he takes us inside the book, walking us through the stories one by one, even giving us a peek at what tricks this thorny and challenging (but totally worthwhile) Jewish writer and Holocaust reporter is up to. He makes several of these quirky science-inflected morality tales sound great, and I’ll certainly be reading this book.
Another even more surprising genocide-related book, Tova Reich’s My Holocaust, gets full-page treatment in this weekend’s very substantial and smart Book Review. This book seems like a sure stick of dynamite to me. It’s a satirical roman a clef about the (alleged) utter venal hypocrisy among the founders of the new Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. It was written by the wife of a former director of the Holocaust Museum who resigned in protest for reasons that have certainly never been explained before as they are being explained right now in this book. This is hardly a work of fiction, and critic David Margolick seems to feel a dislike bordering on disgust for the messy, offensive revelations contained within. But I’m intrigued enough — I’ll be checking this book out too.
Like I said, this is a pretty smart issue of the Book Review. In fact, I’d rather kick back on this Memorial Day weekend and not read any more (to tell the truth), but we’ve got an endpaper called Letter from Tehran: Seeking Signs of Literary Life by Azadeh Moaveni to read, not to mention the wonderfully named Siddhartha Deb’s review of postmodernist Lydia Davis’s Varieties of Disturbance. I’ve always thought of Lydia Davis and Don DeLillo as very similar writers — two birds of a feather, really — and even though I have moderate tolerance for the super-sized anomie and kaleidoscopic dissemblage that is the specialty of both writers, I cannot really stand the thought that I may have to puzzle through a new Don DeLillo novel and a new Lydia Davis collection this summer. And if so, I better rest up now. So it is with an appreciative sigh of exhaustion that I close this imperfect but satisfying issue of the New York Times Book Review and try to forget about postmodernism for a while.