Reviewing the Review: May 2 2010

The “Up Front” note in today’s New York Times Book Review tells us this about Christopher Buckley, who enthusiastically reviews Tom Rachman’s newspaper novel The Imperfectionists on the cover today:

Although Christopher Buckley’s most recent book, “Losing Mum and Pup,” is a memoir of his parents, William and Pat Buckley, he’s known primarily as a political satirist and the author of darkly comic novels like “The White House Mess,” “Thank You for Smoking,” “No Way to Treat a First Lady” and “Boomsday.”

I’m not so sure about that. This fortunate son’s career has had a couple of high points (getting kicked off his father’s magazine for endorsing Barack Obama over John McCain has certainly been the peak), but his mild novelistic satires tend to be safe as milk. They’re genial and accessible, and that’s exactly the problem. From H. L. Mencken to Paul Krassner, the greatest satirists tend to be angry misfits. Christopher Buckley is way too smooth for the job, and it shows in the resulting work.

Buckley’s got a lot of praise for young Tom Rachman: “The novel is alternately hilarious and heart-wrenching, and it’s assembled like a Rubik’s Cube.” But I’ve never had the patience to solve a Rubik’s Cube, and I don’t think I’ll have the patience to read this book. Buckley is enraptured, but his praise comes across as limp, especially when he tells us twice that he read the book twice, as if to hammer home the point that he really liked it. But that’s not literary criticism. That’s emphasis.

I don’t agree with a word that European conservative Josef Joffe says in his harsh dismissal of European liberal Tony Judt’s Ill Fares the Land, though at least this article has a strong point of view and a clear (if misdirected) line of logic. Joffe pegs Judt — a brilliant historian, whose Postwar I am currently reading — as an advocate of big government neo-socialism, and spends the entire article attacking big government neo-socialism. It’s a shame that Judt’s book is barely quoted or discussed on its own terms at all (and it’s a bit of a low blow for Joffe to accuse Judt of setting up “straw men” in this book, when Judt is used as a straw man throughout this entire piece). Something tells me the haunting specter of Barack Obama stands behind the straw man Joffe is attacking here, and I don’t think either Tony Judt or Barack Obama really aim for the “Hegelian” approach to government that Joffe adamantly attacks. I think the case for liberal reform in areas like health insurance, financial regulation and the environment is rooted in basic common sense. I know a lot of smart liberals; I’ve never yet met a Hegelian.

Beatrice and Virgil, the much-anticipated Holocaust-with-animals novel by Yann Martel, author of the very successful Life of Pi, has gotten terrible reviews, so terrible that Robert Hanks’ moderate appraisal almost comes across as an act of mercy. “At times, the whole thing reads like an attempt to flesh out a dictionary definition of ‘postmodernism’,” Hanks says. This is about the best explanation of the novel’s purpose I’ve read so far.

Gaiutra Bahadur brings up magical realism and feminism in her evaluation of Isabel Allende’s historical novel about Haiti, Island Beneath the Sea, sadly concluding that the novel has “not much magic”.

I still think of Brian DePalma’s badly overcooked movie The Untouchables when I hear of Al Capone or Eliot Ness. James McManus’s bright review of Get Capone: The Secret Plot That Captured America’s Most Wanted Gangster provides some relief from these deadening images, and I bet the book is a great read.

I was going to lay off my frequent target William Vollmann today, especially since Pico Iyer does a perfectly good job of making fun of his latest release, Kissing the Mask: Beauty, Understatement and Femininity in Japanese Noh Theater With Some Thoughts on Muses (Especially Helga Testorf), Transgender Women, Kabuki Goddesses, Porn Queens, Poets, Housewives, Makeup Artists, Geishas, Valkyries and Venus Figurines, the 14th book Vollmann has published this year (okay, Vollmann hasn’t published 14 books this year, but that really is the book’s subtitle). My friend Ed Champion, who tends to like Vollmann’s books as much as I don’t, finds Pico Iyer’s review abominable. As far as I can tell, Pico Iyer is speaking for a whole lot of us who just don’t buy into the whole William Vollmann literature-as-extreme-suffering act, so I don’t agree with most of what Ed says. On the other hand, Ed has actually managed to tunnel through Vollmann’s entire 504 page book about Noh theatre, which is a hell of a lot more than I would do if I had ten lifetimes left on this earth. So you may find some value in his analysis too.

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