Reviewing the Review: October 5 2008

This weekend’s New York Times Book Review promises much, with a Julian Barnes book on the cover and a rare Steven Millhauser essay titled “The Ambition of the Short Story” in the endpaper spot. I turned to this final piece first, ready to enjoy almost anything Millhauser might have written, but found the droll postmodernist serving up thoroughly familiar sentiments about the difference between novels and short stories:

Large things tend to be unwieldy, clumsy, crude; smallness is the realm of elegance and grace. It’s also the realm of perfection.

I’ve read this essay several times before, probably because I browse Houghton-Mifflin’s volume of Best American Short Stories every year (the last volume that impressed me, unfortunately, came out in 2005), which more often than not contains an introductory essay putting forth claims similar to Millhauser’s about the sublime art of the short story. How can Millhauser and the NYTBR editors not realize how hackneyed this thesis is? It also barely stands up to examination. Look at Henry James’ The Real Thing, Aspern Papers and The American: one is a short story, one a novella and one a novel, and they are all different, but the differences correspond to the essential characteristics of each work and do not conform to Millhauser’s template. Also, I’ve read a few short stories by Steven Millhauser but can’t remember a single one today — the best thing I know of that Millhauser wrote is Edwin Mullhouse, a novel. To generalize about forms of fiction is, ultimately, as pointless as to generalize about human beings.

Let’s turn to Julian Barnes, whose new Nothing To Be Frightened Of is a memoir about the author’s fear of death. I’ve enjoyed Barnes and his parrots and ten-and-a-half chapters in the past, but this book sounds dreadfully unnecessary to me. If the biggest problem Julian Barnes has is the inevitability of death, then he must be doing far too well to write a memoir anybody I know would find relevant. Most people I know are dealing with more immediate and earthly concerns. We also prefer to grapple with problems that, unlike the inevitability of death, have some chance of being solved. Garrison Keillor’s positive review is uncharacteristically flat. He utters “a prayer for retail success” in his closing paragraph, and the rest of the piece feels similarly distant and unconvincing.

A dull patina of irrelevance hangs over many pieces in today’s issue. Sven Birkerts delivers the promising news that John Barth’s new The Development: Nine Stories may be more accessible than his previous works. John Barth clocking in at 167 pages? Maybe I’ll finally finish a John Barth book. That’s something to get a little excited about, I guess, and Ian Buruma’s The China Lover may or may not be as well (it’s hard to tell from Joshua Hammer’s mixed review).

Jonathan Freedland provides a useful summary of Thomas Friedman’s Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution and How It Can Renew America, certainly a timely book and another example of a topic more worthy of consideration than the healthy 62-year-old Julian Barnes’ looming death.

But James Traub’s fawning affection for General David Patraeus, revealed in his article about Tell Me How This Ends: General David Patraeus and the Search for a Way Out of Iraq by Linda Robinson, is even less original than Steven Millhauser’s cliches about the inherent merits of the short story form. These days, even Barack Obama won’t come straight out and express what many frustrated Americans feel about the military leadership behind the “surge” in Iraq: we understand that it is succeeding in military terms, but we don’t see that it is helping to end this war or secure a lasting peace in Iraq. Traub concludes:

Indeed, Robinson leaves the reader feeling that, however the war turns out, our country owes David Patraeus a debt of gratitude.

Not this reader. Patraeus does seem more tuned in to reality than the rest of the Iraq War management team, but I’m not thanking anybody involved with this shameful American adventure until the whole mess is over and American troops are home.

Let’s hope for a more relevant and satisfying New York Times Book Review next weekend.

4 Responses

  1. I can’t think of any more
    I can’t think of any more “immediate and earthly concerns” than the inevitability of death. If your criterion is to only “grapple with problems that have some chance of being solved”, as you wrote, please elucidate, with constructive examples. I sincerely hope that politics, money, religion and sex do not find their way into your list of acceptable problems.

  2. Hmm, well, yes, politics and
    Hmm, well, yes, politics and the economy are on my shortlist of problems that can be solved! You know I’ve been quoted as saying that peace in regions like the Middle East or the Balkans or Tibet can be achieved more easily than we commonly realize. I really do believe this. As for problems with the American economy, I believe we’ll take one positive step towards solving these problems one month from today when we elect Barack Obama as President.

    As to problems involving religion and sex, though, yeah, I agree with you, these are as persistent as the problem of inevitable death …

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