Reviewing the Review: March 22 2009

By any rational calculus, I’d be a big fan of 1960s-era postmodernist Donald Barthelme, subject of a biography called Hiding Man written by Tracy Dougherty and touted by Colm Toibin on the cover of today’s New York Times Book Review. Toibin describes Barthelme’s stories thus:

They take immense risks with tone and content; they bathe the known world in the waters of irony, rhythmic energy and exuberant formal trickiness.

It’s because I’ve heard praise like this before that I’ve spent a lot of time trying to appreciate the works of Donald Barthelme. Toibin is right that Barthelme takes risks with tone and content; the problem is that this is all he does, and I prefer writers who take risks with emotion or meaning. The very prototype of a “cool” postmodernist, Barthelme seems to have inspired many similarly dapper postmodernists to follow, from Don Delillo to Richard Ford to Lydia Davis. I like self-conscious fiction, I like barrier-breaking experiments — but I believe readers of the future who look back at this era will be more interested in the likes of Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, Lorrie Moore, postmodernists who can make us feel.

This weekend’s Book Review contains more fiction coverage than I honestly have patience for, and I say this not because I’m proud of it but because I wish I had more enthusiasm to share. I’m probably suffering from aesthetic information over-exposure lately (Twitter may be to blame), and I didn’t wake up this morning thinking “Wow! I can’t wait to read six or seven fiction reviews” like I do on my better weekend days. So, please pardon the apathy that follows. I’ll do my best.

I had a very bad experience with the last Susann Cokal review I read; this week she does much better with Bridge of Sand, Janet Burroway’s novel about a drifting woman who seeks meaning in an interracial relationship, but I still don’t care, and I don’t know if this is Susann Cokal’s fault, Janet Burroway’s or my own. Probably my own.

The tragic-minded Kathryn Harrison was born to review books by Mary Gaitskill, and she pulls out all the stops for Gaitskill’s new book of stories, Don’t Cry. It’s a well-written piece but, again, I don’t care.

Daniel “Snicket” Handler loves Mary Robison’s One D.O.A., One On the Way, which places East of Eden-esque biblical characters into a modern transgressive crime-novel framework. I really should care about this, and maybe I will later, though I don’t today.

Peter Dizikes’s endpaper, updating C. P. Snow’s famous observation about the modern bifurcation between arts and sciences, is pretty good. Steven Johnson is very good on Jonah Lerner’s How We Decide, while Gary Hart’s double review of Alan Wolfe’s The Future of Liberalism and Jedediah Purdy’s A Tolerable Anarchy is tedious and self-serving.

Then we have James Glanz on Donovan Campbell’s Joker One: A Marine Platoon’s Story of Courage, Leadership and Brotherhoood, which begins like this:

In a way that has always been awkward to discuss with friends, I feel pity for anyone who has never traveled a war zone in the company of Marines. That feeling has nothing to do with the experience of combat. Instead, it relates to something much more impersonal, something that comes with being around the toughest and most lethal fighters in the world.

Unlike James Glanz, I am not impressed by “the toughest and most lethal fighters in the world”. Show me somebody who struggles to cure our world’s obscene addiction to war, instead of a pack of proud and heavily-armed pawns in the game, and maybe I’ll be impressed.

2 Responses

  1. In Mogadishu, in ’93, I
    In Mogadishu, in ’93, I hitchhiked from the port to the airport with Marines to get vaccinations at a US Army field hospital there. I joined a ship just before it left Beaunont, Texas, too late to get vaccinations and thank providence that nothing happened to me in Mogadishu.
    Compassion is best, 24/7/365.
    Catch-22 is the only war novel I ever see at bookstores. Most war fiction is just a kind of pornography. I will give exception to Jarhead.

  2. I am in total agreement with
    I am in total agreement with Warren. The problem is fundamentally cultural. I would argue that it’s sexual, too; particularly how we view masculinity as the warrior species. One of my first books published was Anywhere, Anywhere, which was actually the first book published to deal with gay men as soldiers in Vietnam. Most war fiction IS a kind of pornography. I tried (and failed) to write something nuanced but it was attacked viciously. Often enough by gay writers themselves who fail to recognize that the “warrior class” is not a stereotype. Then the mainstream media got to stick its claws in me. Okay, Barrus (you liar) PROVE that gay soldiers actually exist. Oh, pleeeeze. Ho hum. That ditty has been done to death. I’m not sure it’s possible in American culture to dislodge a myth based so intransigently in gender. Even today, Wikipedia spits in my face with listing ONLY my mainstream books and steadfastly refuses to even list my gay books as existing at all. Apparently, they’re not really books unless they’re published in the mainstream media. American homophobia is palpable. The Vietnam book went Off-Broadway, but as far as mainstream culture goes, gender-based fiction is what it says it is. To wit: the New York Times Book Review’s twisted take on John Cheever as mutant when, in fact, Cheever’s fiction was extraordinary and his sexuality not just ordinary but irrelevant. — Tim Barrus, Amsterdam

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