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If you’ve never read Alix Ohlin, you should. She’s one of the good ones out there, and she’s no slouch when it comes to publishing. Two story collections and two novels in seven years – perhaps not an impressive haul for bionic typewriters like Stephen King or Joyce Carol Oates, but plenty impressive to me. She may not have won a Pulitzer or a National Book Award yet, but Ohlin is someone I look up to, because she’s just a very solid writer.
April 08, 2012
A year ago Martin Amis famously said he’d have to be brain damaged to write a young adult novel. This upset a number of people (almost all of them young adult authors, their editors, and various vampire fanboys), but didn’t bother me much. Probably because I enjoy and admire Mr. Amis’ writing. But not all of it. He’s written two dozen novels, and their quality, understandably, varies. So it made me wonder if you’d have to be any more brain damaged to write a lousy literary novel than a fantastic novel in an easily dismissed genre.
March 23, 2011
News moves fast.Bombs in Libya, radiation in Japanese food, but I’m stuck.Still stuck on that case that broke earlier this month, about the eleven year old girl gang-raped in Texas.
March 13, 2011
I’m a Pittsburgh Steelers fan. A fair weather one—I don’t start paying much attention until the playoffs—but lifelong, and when I give my attention to a game, I’m there all the way. My body reacts as if it’s the one straining and slamming. My tape measure’s out—just ram your shoulders forward one . . . more . . . yard. My mind spits questions about players’ mental states. It’s cathartic to get that far out of myself. So goddamn it I was angry at Ben Roethlisberger when the grumblings about his sexual assault charges started up again around playoff time. Why you killing my buzz, Ben?
I sought only the most basic information before turning away—a bar in Georgia, a bathroom, a college student, a lot of alcohol and a raft of bodyguards who might or might not have blocked a door, but charges were dropped, just as they’d been the year before when an incident had been reported in Nevada. And what was that one about again? Oh, never mind.
On the one hand, my hesitation was characteristic: I don’t follow celebrity scandals; I’ve clicked not a link about Charlie Sheen. On the other hand, I do tend to get obsessive about sexual assault stories that don’t involve the NFL. There was the dust-up when Keith Oberman and Michael Moore appeared to shrug off the rape allegations against Julian Assange. There was the gang rape of a fifteen-year-old girl outside her school homecoming dance. For these events and others, my initial reluctance—because who wants to spend their days thinking about rape?—gave way to frenzied clicking. I read everything I could get my hands on, hunted down small news items, scrolled through hundreds of comments in an effort to understand or to bear witness, I wasn’t sure which, and I got angry and brittle and nauseated in the process. I’m a woman who’s broken a lot of rules in the course of pursuing independence and played closely by a lot of others because I’ve been aware of how vulnerable that made me. I’m a woman who’s been afraid. The discussion around assault—especially of the she’s-lying or she-was-asking-for-it variety, and they’re almost all of that variety—can make my heart shake as if even now I were walking down a dark street or laying awake in a bed where I had chosen to sleep alone behind flimsily locked doors after talking too long to, or maybe just strolling past, a man. I’ve never been raped, but I’ve asked myself again and again whether that’s because I’ve been smart, or lucky.
To compensate for my own ill-informed unease about Roethlisberger, I gave loud voice to complaints about him at the dinner table. I wanted a pound of flesh from my husband—there’s nothing fair weather about his fandom—and I wanted, mostly I wanted, him to let me off the hook. And that’s what he did.
Football players are assholes, he said. The Nevada thing always looked really shaky, and the Georgia charges . . . it’s hard to say, but they were dropped a year ago. He was suspended for them. But he’s an asshole. The Rooneys are on him. The fans are off him. You don’t see many Roethlisberger jerseys anymore. It’s all Palamalou.
Troy Palamalu. A soft-spoken, philanthropic family man. Have you seen his beautiful hair flying like a badge of all that’s noble as he sails across a whole line to hold them at the two? It’s all well and good for feminists who don’t like football to call for a ban, but for those of us who do, can’t we watch it with our eyes open? And the Nevada charges—those ones at least—they were pretty thin. Women do go bat shit over celebrities.
Friends of ours came over for dinner this playoff season—Packers fans and fellow flag-football coaches. The Roethlisberger thing came up (guess who couldn’t quit picking that scab?) and we got into the discussion of what it must be like to be these guys. We talked about the aura that surrounds even the fourth grade football star at our kids’ school. The way a lifetime of such intense grooming and fawning and pressure—not the mention the blows to the head—must mutate players’ sense of self long before they make it to the pros, the way their career affects everyone around them. Of course they’re assholes. They’d have to be almost superhuman—like Troy Palamalu—not to be.
I like to swim in the grey area of almost any dirty pool, and when my friend posed the question of why the hell would a girl go into a bathroom with big, drunk Ben Roethlisberger, I was up for some discussion about how stupid women can be, especially when it comes to the mix of fame and men and money. (For the record, I’ve done some more clicking as I’ve been writing this, and it’s not at all clear that the Georgia accuser agreed to go into a bathroom with Roethlisberger.) We talked about our culture, how sexed up it is, how even clothes for little girls are provocative. How at four years old girls are already wearing short shorts with writing across the butt when they should be wearing smock dresses until they’re ten. But when I caught myself nodding as if there were some causal link between the selection in the Target girls’ department and rape culture, I took a few steps back.
Being stupid doesn’t mean that a woman deserves to get raped, I said.
No. It doesn’t, my friend agreed. And we were quiet for a moment. The men in the room had been quiet for a while.
Then my friend, who’s from Green Bay, ventured that Packers players couldn’t get away with such boorish behavior. Their coach is very religious; they live in such a small town; they all go to same churches as everyone else.
Maybe you’re right, I said doubtfully. Maybe she’s right, I thought, and I tried to kindle a flicker of hope. And then I thought about all the preachers and priests accused of sexual abuse and the statistics about how the states with the highest number of churchgoers are also those with the highest pornography usage, and I wondered about what keeps anyone clean when rules don’t seem to apply to them, and I wondered why we need so many rules, and why rule-followers themselves buck so hard against the laws they lay down. What is our nature?
Just a few days after the dinner, my eye alighted on news item recounting allegations of sexual misconduct against members of the Packers. They’d been participating in a charity golf tournament in the Wisconsin Dells, land of family water parks and theme restaurants, when two women claimed to have been raped by them. Charges were dropped after the women changed their initial story, although the consensus seems to be that sex of some kind was had.
I didn’t forward the link to my friend. I was fighting my told-you-so obnoxiousness, but I also understood all too well her impulse to give her players the benefit of the doubt—most of us want to think we’re exempt. The world’s going to hell, but not my country, not my congressmen, not my neighborhood, not my man, my men, my boy, my boys.
To function fully, we almost have to believe that. When the story of the fifteen-year-old girl’s gang rape broke, about one out of every four or five commenters in the local paper lambasted the victim for having gone into the school’s darkened courtyard with her classmate in the first place, which is where the attack took place. What kind of girl goes off to imbibe alcohol alone with a boy? But what kind of world do we live in when a high school student is supposed to look around her classroom and see every male in it as a potential rapist? In my fits of compulsively searching for information about sexual assault, I’ve read about various universities whose rape prevention programs consist mostly of cautioning women to watch each others’ drinks when they’re at parties and to never walk alone at night or deviate from the campus’s blue-lighted paths. What kind of culture expects women to socialize in environments where they’re so likely to be drugged they have to keep their hand over their cup as they talk to a guy with whom they might be hoping to get lucky? We have to believe that the attitude that gives rise to the gang rape of a school girl, that accepts running rough shod over a woman’s hesitation as if any kind of resistance is a linebacker blocking a first down, is one that doesn’t permeate our own immediate world, where we work and play and fuck and fall in love and raise our daughters and sons.
Green Bay beat The Steelers in last months’ Super Bowl, of course, so news feeds are no longer flashing as many updates about players’ sexual misconduct. But the Roethlisberger issue’s been on my mind because I’ve been fixated on the recent story of the eleven-year-old girl gang raped in Texas by eighteen men and boys and by the outrage over The New York Times’ reporting of it. The backlash against the Times concerns its framing of the story, and in the debate about whether the writer is blaming the victim or just reporting on locals who are, here’s an oft-mentioned quote:
“Residents in the neighborhood where the abandoned trailer stands — known as the Quarters — said the victim had been visiting various friends there for months. They said she dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s. She would hang out with teenage boys at a playground, some said.”
I’ve read so much about the incident in the past week that even if I could formulate some insightful thoughts, it’d be hard for me to write about my reactions without inadvertently plagiarizing. Still, I have to say this: So, according to some of the town’s residents, the girl dressed like a woman in her twenties. That makes it understandable that boys and men would gang rape her? Because it’s OK to gang rape twenty year olds? Because it’s . . . what?
She was eleven.
Yeah, I’m not ready to write about it.
But I’ve been staring at the train wreck since the article appeared. The people quoted are distancing themselves from the girl—she’s not like my daughter; I’m not like her mother—and sympathizing with their favorite team—their sons, friends, students. I don’t want to narrowly equate dropped charges against some NFL players with the documented gang rape of a child, but the two things are on the same continuum. I see them as part of the same lesson to be studied about people’s—my—reaction to things we don’t want to believe.
I had a dream when I was in college that’s recurred in various forms since. I was in a bedroom of a house, and I knew that in the next room a woman was being raped. Instead of bursting through the door and trying to disrupt the crime, I went downstairs, where a party was raging, and shrilly tried to rally a group of men to go up and into the room with me. Hysterical, I physically tried to push the men up the stairs when they weren’t moving fast enough, but I remember staying firmly behind the broad back I had my hands on. I remember being glad a guy was in front of me. When I recounted the dream to a friend, she said: I think many men give tacit approval to rape, and that’s what you were responding to. I was relieved at her analysis, which took a page from the women’s studies classes we were both enrolled in, but I felt it was off. My biggest sense upon awakening was that I had failed to some extent, that under the guise of rallying help, I’d been mostly self-protective.
We have to all work together on this one, though: How about we teach boys not to rape? How about we acknowledge that, yeah, you know what, life does have a lot of grey areas. We should talk about those. And if you have your penis out and something looks like a grey area? Guess what. It’s probably not one.
Last night, when my son’s eye caught on an article about the Roethlisberger accusations that I had open on my computer, I slapped my laptop’s cover down: That’s not for you to read, I said.
My son is nine, which I feel is too young for this discussion.
And that girl is fucking eleven.
* * *
If you want more discussion on the Texas rape and the media response, Jezebel’s covered the whole thing well, starting here.
Roxane Gay has an impassioned response at The Rumpus.
Major Depressive Disorder (Source: NIMH)
I had to look those numbers up, because too often I feel alone in my diagnosis.
You see, contrary to most people’s impression of me, I am depressive. Clinically. Sometimes, debilitatingly. But only my two closest friends and my psychiatrist (no, not even my family) know how grim I can get.
Here’s how it usually goes when I mention it to the uninformed:
“But your life is so awesome. You are so awesome. Cheer up!”
I don’t know how to write about it. It’s embarrassing. And I don’t understand it.
But I do know what pisses me off about it.
Articles like this one, recently published in The New York Times:
The article examines the switch from psychiatric talk therapy to becoming mere pill factories and how disgruntled older psychiatrists are (or aren’t) about it and how patients are suffering nonetheless.
I was going through a crippling wave of depression about seven years ago. I was finally convinced to see my friend’s psychiatrist. I was terrified. This would be my first trip to a real, live, “New York Shrink”.
I had been to one social worker/therapist in Chicago six years before that, but with awful results. After two visits and a recommendation for a bottle of St. John’s Wort and a couple bars of dark chocolate, I was sent home with a treacle-dripping “Feel better!” and a wave.
And that was during the truly borderline years.
So while I told myself that a ‘professional’ would be better than that particular weirdo therapist, I knew I didn’t want drugs to solve my problems. I knew I was a smart person and that I could figure things out if someone would just listen to me and understand me and give me some tools to help me fix the sadness.
I got a prescription for Zoloft at the end of my first visit.
“After you’re chemically balanced, we’ll be able to figure out what’s really going on.”
After I was chemically balanced, I had nothing to talk about.
Sure, I was no longer on the emotional roller coaster, but neither did I have the capacity to talk about what was making me so miserable, because suddenly nothing was making me miserable.
I spent two years rehashing broken relationships, parental annoyances, professional disappointments, but they seemed so inconsequential. I was putting on a performance for her, because that was what I felt I was supposed to be doing, and I didn’t want to waste a penny of my $200 45-minute hour.
Also, I got fat.
Zoloft stopped what little metabolism my diabetically-inclined body has, and because I was an emotionless blob, I started eating and staring at the television all the time.
More than usual, anyway.
Add ‘overweight slob’ to my weekly schpiel.
Eventually, thankfully, my rational senses took over and I weaned myself off of the drugs and the shrink’s staid head-nodding, non-responsive “um-hmm” attempts at fixing me.
And for a while, I was better. I was. My brain came back. I met a guy. The thrill of meeting him was exhilarating, the orgasms were mind-blowing and the break-up was devastating.
As it should be.
Life resumed its normalcy.
Slowly, ever so slowly, the depression came back. I don’t know where it came from. It’s genetic, I had learned that, so certainly it was in my DNA. A chemical imbalance? Maybe. A learned coping mechanism? Sure. I could see that.
But whatever it was, things were getting bad again.
And I didn’t know how to deal, other than I knew I needed to talk and I didn’t want to keep bothering my two friends. I know friends say that’s what they’re there for, but nobody is there for long when things get like my things get.
So I looked for another psychiatrist.
But no drugs this time. I was adamant.
Plus, it took me two long years to lose those additional 40 lbs.
And I was lookin’ good.
I found one. One who was in the business for all the right reasons. He didn’t think I needed drugs. He even gave me a massive discount because I was broker than broke.
He talked back.
And it helped.
I’ve been away from him and our bi-monthly sessions for nine months and I can feel the all-too-familiar twinge creeping back.
But I recognize it now. And I know what to do before it gets too ugly.
I have to go talk to someone.
My appointment’s next Tuesday.
October 19, 2010
Recently, The New York Times published an article by Julie Bosman titled, “Picture Books: No Longer a Staple for Children” which kicked up a lot of dust – and not from the picture books on the shelves.
July 29, 2010
Judith Gurewich: One always runs the risk of reverting to platitudes when one talks about one’s publishing vision, and why should I be any different? After all, I am a little greener than most in the business and therefore even more prone to superlatives than my seasoned colleagues. The old saying goes, “You are what you eat.” For publishers, it should be, “You are what you publish.” If so, I’d prefer to jump right into the kitchen and talk about the books. Since I love to cook as much as I love to edit, my authors often move into my house in Cambridge so I can feed them as we talk, fight, and work around the clock. Mind you, they love the food—it helps the editorial medicine go down—and they like the results: great publicity, beautiful covers, lavish ads in the New York Times and strong sales even while the depression rages on. The Glass Room by Simon Mawer is a case in point, with over 40,000 copies in the market place and more than 25,000 of those already avidly read.
But life has not always been so easy. A while back, I published an array of remarkable literary novels in translation, by the likes of Hanna Krall, Icchokas Meras, Alberto Moravia, Erri De Luca, Peter Stamm, George Konrad, and many more. In my view, they all qualify as classics, for they each reveal not only the their authors’ talent but also the mentality, the culture, and the psychology of a different era, often the second part of the twentieth century. I only wish that then was now! We were small at the time, and did not have the incredible Random House sales force to push our books, thanks to whom we have acquired credibility among booksellers, as well as the friendship and support of many. I could easily spend my time touring the country and hanging out with what I have discovered is the secret intelligentsia of our country.
These booksellers did not need to read more than one page of the galley of The Wrong Blood by Manuel de Lope to realize that this Spanish novel, translated by the award-winning John Cullen, is the kind of literature that only comes by once in a blue moon. Written like a dream with resonances of Borges, Proust, and Baudelaire, and just enough dark wit to give it spice, The Wrong Blood shows us the Spanish Civil War as seen from the perspective of two women who share a secret that will give you the shivers. It isn’t far-fetched to say that I am always searching for a “classic” feel, even in the most contemporary and avant-garde literature I publish. It is no coincidence that Charles Elton, whose Mr. Toppit, a huge bestseller in England that really captures the pulse of our celebrity-obsessed era, read the early novels of Joan Didion and Philip Roth over and over again in order to shape his writing style and his story line. Learning to Lose by the celebrated Spanish author David Trueba also fits the bill, though it falls into the entirely different genre of “cool.” Here we find the joys and woes of soccer and young love under the sun of modern Madrid.
Occasionally I relax a little and publish stories that are simply terrific page-turners. Even with these, I look to go beyond superficial entertainments, because a good book, even when not a literary masterpiece, must affect your soul, and leave you with something you did not have before—whether knowledge, emotional charge, or some particular insights. This is the case with Mitchell Kaplan’s By Fire, By Water, a novel that effortlessly introduces us to the world of conversos during the Spanish inquisition, filled with intrigues, love affairs, and real history. Similarly, The Debba by Avner Mandelman is both my first foray into thriller-land and an insider’s look at the incredibly complex texture of Israeli society from 1947 to 1972. The reader leaves the book totally exhausted, having taken a roller coaster ride while acquiring a very different perspective on the Middle East conflict.
As far as non-fiction is concerned, I am proud to have published the much-lauded memoirHurry Down Sunshine by Michael Greenberg. It seems everyone has heard of this brilliant memoir but few connect it to Other Press. Hurry Down Sunshine was also my first international success, having been sold to eighteen countries and becoming a big best seller in Spain, Italy and Sweden.
This October, Montaigne comes to America in the form of an amazing biography by Sarah Bakewell called How to Live. It is my pride and joy of the season. I think you already know this because I saw the tweet on your blog.
My goal is to get Montaigne on the Colbert Report – it would do Steven and America a lot of good to finally learn “How To Live.” In a nutshell, Sarah’s wonderful book epitomizes what I want people to associate with my publishing house: it is at once immensely instructive, entertaining, intelligent, and beautifully written. And it puts you in a good mood!
Rodent’s proposal for a scholarly paper had been accepted.
For 4 months he’d been preparing his paper entitled “All’s Boman!” (“All’s Good!”) about cant language in London in 1724, which only 3 other people in the world would fully understand. All 3 of them would be attending the lexicography conference at Oxford, carefully noting his research and discoveries about the language that criminals used to communicate with each other.
I figured my role was as Adjunct Rodent—or, more precisely, Rodent Control, because he’s often unaware of other people, his mind preoccupied with research. No one is more ruthless at research than dear Rodent. No one. He would cut his granny off his list of credible sources if he couldn’t corroborate her stories.
Before we left for Oxford, I began carefully calibrating my every word in order to advance dear Rodent’s aims, saying such things as “Perhaps the 4 pages explaining the difference between ‘hicked’ and ‘kicked’ could be shortened to a paragraph” and “It might be entertaining to include newspaper reports of Jack Sheppard’s arrest and hanging.”
As always, Rodent was way ahead of me, but he sweetly responded to every Rodent Control suggestion.
The week before the presentation, he had cut the paper down from 40 to 25 pages, but needed to lop off 5 more pages to meet the 20-minute time limit.
He sat at his desk with a kitchen timer and read his paper aloud, his sonorous voice describing 18th century cutpurses, pickpockets, whores and housebreakers. After several read-throughs, he had chopped off the final 5 pages, and we were ready to go to Oxford.
Once in our Oxford hotel room, he again timed his speech. A perfect 20 minutes. We were completely satisfied with it.
Because Rodent’s presentation was the last one of the conference, we got plenty of prior exposure to how the panels operated. While the paper presenters analysed Ukrainian phonemes, definitions of slang, and OED historical citations, I sat and doodled, silently praying for an all-college electrical failure.
Thankfully, things picked up during Q/A sessions as attenders flamboyantly showed off their knowledge, often interrupting and arguing with the presenters.
Finally, it was Friday. We arrived in Room 7. Two other panelists had also come early, as had the moderator, an expert at OED who collects examples of the earliest uses of words.
In a few minutes, 50 attenders filled up the room. They proved a lively group, throwing plenty of questions at pre-Rodent presenters.
Then dear Rodent stood up and distributed 3 handouts. He took his place behind the podium, placed his watch in front of him, and began reading his paper.
The last row was loudly mumbling as they reached for the handouts, but to keep to his allotted time Rodent neither stopped nor slowed his reading. I turned around and gave the back row A Look as Rodent’s first paragraphs sailed by unheard. At last things quieted. In fact, the audience seemed unusually attentive, turning to their handouts at the appropriate times, their eyes on dear Rodent’s handsome face as they listened to his Scottish lilt.
After 10 minutes, the moderator held up a big green poster to Rodent that said: “YOU HAVE NO TIME LEFT.” Rodent didn’t see it. He then held up a bright red poster that said “STOP NOW”. Rodent didn’t see it. So he handed it to a woman seated directly in front of Rodent. She leaned forward, and with both hands shoved it onto the podium. He glanced at it, looked down at his papers, spoke two sentences, and stopped.
The moderator stood, thanked Rodent, and asked if there were any questions. Total silence in the room. I prayed. He repeated: “Does anyone have a question?” I waited for one of the 3 people in the world who knew what Rodent had been talking about to ask a question. No hands went up, no one spoke.
Desperate to spare Rodent embarrassment, I raised my hand and asked a simple question which he happily answered. Then someone asked a brief question which Rodent gratefully answered, and the moderator pronounced the session over.
When most of the attenders had gone, the moderator began furiously typing on his laptop. Rodent wandered over to see what he was doing, and they chatted a bit. He came back, and I said, “So what was he doing?”
“Oh,” said Rodent, “he was checking up on the OED mistakes I had pointed out in my paper.”
That evening we went to the conference’s final celebratory dinner at St Anne’s College. A fellow panel member waved at Rodent and sat next to him at the table, and they talked animatedly throughout most of the dinner.
Later, I asked who the man was.
“He writes the Language column for the New York Times”, Rodent said. “He’s buddies with the moderator, and said he had stopped his presentation early, too.”
Happy Rodent. Happy me. ALL’S BOMAN!
“And as commander in chief, I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan.”
—President Barack Obama, December 2, 2009
History, as the old saw has it, is written by the victors.
Had the South prevailed in the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln—who suspended habeus corpus, jailed dissenting journalists, and pursued a military strategy based on attrition, maximizing casualties on both sides, all to bring to heel those states who had legally declared their independence—might well be viewed as a dictator on par with Hitler or Stalin, and Ulysses S. Grant a war criminal. Instead, their visages adorn our currency, and the widely held, albeit bogus, view of that internacine conflict is that it was fought to free the slaves. Thus Lincoln is honored, disingenuously, as a champion of blacks.
In truth, war is never the clear-cut Good versus Evil described by St. John the Evangelist and George W. Bush. Consider the Second World War. The prevailing mythology is that the U.S. entered the fray to save the Jews and prevent a Nazi takeover of the world. So fanatical is this belief that to suggest otherwise amounts to heresy.
In Human Smoke, his brilliant pacifist’s history of the events leading to Pearl Harbor, Nicholson Baker suggests otherwise. I bought and read Baker’s book last spring, because the Washington Post’s Richard Cohen, a liberal whose columns I agree with most of the time, slammed it with such vitriol.
In a March 31, 2008, column entitled “Yes, It Was a Good War,” Cohen (who, incidentally, supported enthusiastically our ill-advised foray into Iraq) begins by lauding Baker as “a supremely talented novelist”—in other words, a guy who has no truck with actual non-made-up events—before pronouncing Human Smoke “dead wrong and very odd,” and concluding thus: “World War II was fought for several reasons but above all—and proudly—because the only way to stop the killing was to stop the killers.”
Cohen dismisses Baker’s thesis with derision: “Is any war, outside of direct self-defense, worth fighting? Baker suggests that even World War II was not—that the Jews perished anyway and that the war consumed more lives than anyone could have imagined and that, somehow, pacifism would have worked its magic.”
At times, his arguments have all the complexity of a four-year-old’s. Were the pacifists right? Cohen replies, “No, they were not.”
Well, OK then.
Based on Cohen’s column, I expected Human Smoke to be a long treatise in defense of pacifism—the make-love-not-war ruminations of a bleeding-heart novelist on his high horse. Not so. Baker tells his story in short blurbs, most no longer than a page, that encapsulate primary sources. These are presented as dispassionately as possible. For example:
Winston Churchill wrote Joseph Stalin a letter. It was July 28, 1941…Churchill assured Stalin that England would do all it could do to help Russia. “A terrible winter of bombing lies before Germany,” he wrote. “No one has yet had what they are going to get.”
Human Smoke is 474 pages long. 472 of those pages consist of these short blurbs. Only on the last two pages does Baker editorialize, but by then his point—which has eluded Cohen, who almost certainly did not read the entire book—has been made:
War is hell. All war, without exception.
It was a similar visceral reaction in an otherwise staid newspaper that drew me to The Kindly Ones, Jonathan Littell’s Nazi opus that is, in many ways, a fiction companion piece to Human Smoke. In this case, it was Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times—with whom, like Cohen, I generally agree—throwing the proverbial tomatoes.
(Originally published in French as Les Bienveielles, The Kindly Ones won the Grand Prix du roman de l’Académie française and the Prix Goncourt in France three years ago. HarperCollins reportedly paid seven figures for the English-language rights, raising eyebrows on both sides of the Atlantic. The English translation, by Charlotte Mandell, came out earlier this year, to decidely mixed reviews.)
“The novel’s gushing fans,” Kakutani writes, “seem to have mistaken perversity for daring, pretension for ambition, an odious stunt for contrarian cleverness.” The Kindly Ones, she avers, is “[w]illfully sensationalistic and deliberately repellent” and “reads like a pointless compilation of atrocities and anti-Semitic remarks, pointlessly combined with a gross collection of sexual fantasies.”
And the kicker: “Indeed, the nearly 1,000-page-long novel reads as if the memoirs of the Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss had been rewritten by a bad imitator of Genet and de Sade, or by the warped narrator of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, after repeated viewings of The Night Porter and The Damned.”
In other words, Kakutani hated the book. Which, perversely, only piqued my interest. If not Höss by way of Patrick Bateman, I was expecting a bloated epic in the vein of Elfriede Jelinek’s Lust, a brutal work of questionable quality that was nevertheless lauded in the land which apotheosized Jerry Lewis. What I found instead was something altogether different: challenging, depressing, overwhelming, but riveting—and not at all pointless.
In one respect, Kakutani is bang-on: this is not pleasant stuff. You don’t want to bring The Kindly Ones to the beach. You don’t want to suggest it for your book club. You probably don’t want to read it at all. There is so much grisly material here that even if you excise the hundreds of pages concerning the Jews, you’d still walk away shaking your head. The experience of a German officer in Stalingrad alone is a horror show. As the novelist Michael Korda, a Littell admirer, wrote on The Daily Beast: “This is the real thing, a journey into the belly of the beast, a chance to live through the doings of mankind at its worst, a book that is relentlessly fascinating, ambitious beyond scope in that it tries to show us in every unforgiving detail what we least want to see, and which never once lets the reader, or the Germans, off the hook. You want to read about Hell, here it is.”
Which begs the question: why would I—why would anyone—want to read about Hell?
To make sure it never happens again.
“I am a man like other men, I am a man like you. I tell you I am just like you!” Maximilien Aue, the narrator of The Kindly Ones, insists at the end of the prologue. And while most of us are not matricidal former Nazi Obersturmbannfuhrers with a taste for sisterly sodomy, the guy has a point. Littell’s book couldn’t be more timely. In the two weeks it took me this summer to complete this leviathon of a novel—983 pages, tiny margins, small type, no paragraph breaks for quotes, and enough verifiable horrors to make the Saw franchise seem like an episode of Barney—President Obama declassified documents confirming what most of us already knew: despite assertions to the contrary by former president George W. Bush, the United States was engaging in torture.
Never mind who was right and who was wrong. The supposed Land of the Free was capturing people, holding them without trial, and torturing them, on the pretext of national security—just as the Nazis did to the Jews in Germany in the 1930s. It’s hard not to read The Kindly Ones as a cautionary tale.
And now, ominously, the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize has announced a plan to send 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan. I trust Obama’s judgment, and I believe that he understands the consequences of sending soldiers in harm’s way more completely than his predecessor could ever hope to. If he believes that the defense of the United States mandates that many troops fighting half a world away, I might arrive at the same conclusion myself, knowing what Obama knows.
But after reading Baker and Littell, I’m not so sure.
Here’s the good news. My first novel was reviewed by the New York Times.
Here’s the bad news. It was a horrible review.
I do not hyperbolize. It was really bad. So that you understand how terrible it is, I’ve included it entirely as the next full paragraph. Please feel free to gasp, snicker, or laugh aloud at any time during my cautionary tale, even if you think you shouldn’t. Release the humours. It’s healthier that way.