Please correct me if I’m missing something, but I’ve always considered V. S. Naipaul more of a monument than a writer. I make it a habit to ask friends and acquaintances what books they are excited about or which they consider lifelong favorites and I have never heard Naipaul’s name come up. The several times I’ve tried to read him I got quickly mired down in pools of self-satisfied dullness and quickly concluded that I must have picked the wrong title among his many, many books to try. Yet George Packer calls V. S. Naipaul “the greatest English novelist of the past half century” on the cover of today’s New York Times Book Review. Admittedly, I have a hard time finding an obvious counter-suggestion — Doris Lessing? Salman Rushdie? Ian McEwan? John Fowles? Barnes and Amis pere and fils don’t make the cut and Osborne and Pinter wrote plays — but V. S. Naipaul just can’t be the right answer, because that would be too depressing for England.
Packer’s reverent review of Patrick French’s biography The World Is What It Is focuses entirely on Naipaul’s love life, and that’s pretty depressing for England too. Still, when I turn to Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s fascinating review of Piers Brandon’s The Decline and Fall of the British Empire 1781-1997 I have to pause at the title’s suggested comparison to Edward Gibbon’s Rome. Rome fell because it was besieged, starved and invaded. The British Empire has dissolved in the age of national self-determination, but London has not been besieged, starved or invaded. Still, if V. S. Naipaul is the greatest English novelist of the past half century, they may be doing worse than I thought.
Today’s Book Review serves up some good fiction coverage, including lively praise for Antonio Lobo Antunes’s What Can I Do When Everything’s On Fire? by Will Blythe, author of To Hate Like This is To Be Happy Forever. Is everybody creating titles like Miranda July now? This is the only foreign novel under review today, but Stacey D’Erasmo treats Carolyn Chute’s militia-strewn deep Maine as a foreign country in her review of The School of Heart’s Content Road, which seems to match Chute’s intent in this story about an alternative communal settlement in the Maine woods, “decidedly suspicious of the United States government, Nafta and public schooling … very prepared for a global emergency”. D’Erasmo is quite pleased by this book, and her excitement is absolutely infectious. The article is accompanied by what must be one of the best author photos ever taken, though clearly this gun-wielding couple is posing for the camera. I’m going to read this book.
Deb Olin Unferth’s Vacation doesn’t fare as well in the hands of Madison Smartt Bell (“Unferth’s characters are so abstract that no one would weep over their fates. This makes plausibility almost beside the point, and the sense of contrivance perhaps even an asset.”).
I like Matt Weiland’s endpaper about “The Chicagoan”, a midwestern New Yorker wannabe magazine now remembered in a book called The Chicagoan: A Lost Magazine of the Jazz Age. The book costs $65, so I won’t be buying it, but I will certainly sit down and have a good time with it in a Barnes and Noble or Borders aisle shortly.
I don’t have much background in science books, but I also like Steve Jones’s review of The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance and Strangeness of Insect Societies by Bert Holldobler and Edward O. Wilson, a book with an arresting thesis:
Holldobler and Wilson’s central conceit is that a colony is a single animal raised to a higher level. Each insect is a cell, its castes are organs, its queens are its genitals, the wasps that sting me are an equivalent of an immune system. In the same way, the foragers are eyes and ears, and the colony’s rules of development determine its shape and size. The hive has no brain, but the iron laws of co-operation give the impression of planning.
This captures my interest,and in fact reminds me of some observations I came up with myself after reading Carl Jung during our past election season. I’m just not sure that human societies are completely different from insect societies in this regard, though of course we like to believe that we are.