Is there anything better than having an abundance of time to read? Having access to so much of the imagination and information and experience that the scribes of our civilization have put to paper is not just a blessing, it’s a responsibility, even a challenge. Here are a few more words about a few more selections.
Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield[i], by Jeremy Scahill
I actually read Dirty Wars back in the fall, so there are things about it that I don’t remember all that well. Then again, there are a number of things in this book that I wish I could forget.
Dirty Wars is a long chronicle of the misguided and depraved Global War on Terror, launched on the heels of 9/11. Scahill begins by taking us back to a simpler time, when the choking dust of the World Trade Center still hung on the air of America’s consciousness. Many lungs burned with pain and loss, but Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld smelled opportunity and power. Scahill traces their relentless push to plunge America into war in Iraq. He also documents their assiduous dismantling of Clinton-era safeguards and procedural structures designed to prevent deadly acts of warfare from being launched at will from shadowy departments within Washington DC’s labyrinthine corridors.
If you have followed US foreign policy over the last several years, you’ll know that even after Bush and his cronies abdicated, their legacy remained. Obama picked up the GWOT more or less where it left off, and fine-tuned the formula to make it palatable to mainstream democrats (who sprouted a fine plumage of hawk feathers in the years following 9/11). Obama decreased torture and made noise about closing Guantanamo, but increased the number of drone strikes and allowed defense and intelligence agencies continued access to carte blanche.
The main character of the story is the Joint Special Operations Command. JSOC JSOC JSOC. Dirty Wars is the terrifying story of how JSOC was gradually granted the power to kill any human being on the earth anywhere, for any reason, without ever having to answer for it[ii]. Also covered are the aforementioned drone strikes – Including the notable killings of Anwar al-Awlaki and later, his sixteen-year-old son Abdulrahman. There are night raids, including one in which US Armed Forces dug the bullets from the corpses of the pregnant women they had shot in order to attempt a cover up. Also included are the Raymond Davis incident (oh that wacky Raymond Davis), and the death of Osama Bin Laden.
Scahill is a very sober writer – more journalist than dramatist – so the dystopian themes emerge on their own. There were times when I felt myself literally becoming sick from reading about the raw injustices perpetrated by my country. Torture, civilian death, airstrikes killing dozens, sponsoring cruel warlords, perpetual war, all so callously prosecuted by power-seeking politicians with big houses and bodyguards and kids in private schools. Beyond that, Scahill makes a strong case that almost every large-scale strategic decision made in the GWOT has backfired and created more support, recruiting and popularity for terrorist organizations.
There is a lot of procedural and technical material in Dirty Wars. For example, many pages are spent on the differences between covert and clandestine operations. However the thoroughness is appreciated. I never felt like I was reading a screed or a document guided by agenda. No, just the real, terrible, horrible no-good facts about America’s bad reaction to 9/11. The end result is a sort of globe-hopping, multi-threaded tale of military action, deceit, intrigue and power. It’s like an inverse Tom Clancy book, in which the veneer of blind patriotism and gee-whiz military adventure is removed, and non-American civilians are actually figured in as having intrinsic human value.
Fear of Flying, by Erica Jong
Over the years, Fear of Flying made a few appearances in episodes of The Simpsons[iii]. Naturally I grew curious about the book, and finally got around to reading it. The book is a semi-autobiographical romp across Europe, chronicling the wild, near-liberated, quasi-feminist adventures of our narrator, Isadora Zelda White Stollerman Wing.
I can’t get over how funny Fear of Flying is. I don’t feel as though I’m missing some larger point by enjoying Erica Jong’s brilliant humor. There are just so many sharply observed, humorous parts, written with brilliant timing and word choice. I was smiling and laughing the whole way through.
That’s not to say that there aren’t serious themes. The sections that concerned becoming a confident writer – and hopefully by extension, a confident, self-realized person – resonated strongly with me. I couldn’t identify as closely with the parts about womanhood, but having read The Feminine Mystique over the summer, it was interesting to see how these very different books took on some of the same subject matter.
The covers of the paperback edition I borrowed painted a picture of some hyper-salacious erotic novel. There was a blurb of praise from John Updike, and you could actually see the spots where he salivated on every copy of the edition[iv]. There is sex in Fear of Flying, but not as much as one would think, and it’s mostly used to often emotional commentary on some aspect of Isadora’s relationships or situation. There is also a lot of vulgar, bawdiness[v], but it’s usually humorous, or used to convey Isadora’s break from old norms of polite expression and sexual repression.
However, it’s not always easy to root for Jong/Isadora. I consider myself moderately well-read, but Jong’s constant stream of references to the classics made me feel like an ignoramus. Isadora also wallows in privilege and self-absorption at times. It seems there is some self-awareness about this, but it grows tiresome nonetheless.
Jong/Isadora is also really mean and spiteful sometimes. It can be very funny, like when she talks about dumpy hausfraus with sensible beige shoes and lumpy Tyrolean hats, but there’s actually a chapter titled “Arabs and Other Animals” – Yeesh. I suppose she spreads her mockery around to people of many nationalities and origins, but all the judgments and insults seem small at times, especially coming from her well-educated, fairly well-heeled character.
These bothers aside, Jong/Isadora’s quest for the Zipless Fuck is an entertaining exploration of a good many issues. The maturation of the artist, the complicated terrain of sex and love and marriage, the overcoming of inhibiting fears, the acceptance and rejection of parental authority, religion and Freudian psychoanalysis are all fair game. Fear of Flying has a charming youthful uncertainty to it, a chronicling of the unpredictable, seemingly inflexible events of young life. It’s much more than a sex romp or feminist handbook, it’s a personal work of literature that has lessons to share, even all these years later.
The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, by Haruki Murakami
The Wind-up Bird Chronicle was my second Haruki Murakami novel[vi]. It was recommended to me by two friends that I trust culturally. When I checked it out, the librarian told me it was her favorite book in the world. Favorable signs seemed to be aligning. I was excited to read it.
When I told one of the recommending friends that I was reading The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, he replied by writing “I miss reading that book.” It seemed a peculiar way to phrase things. As I got further into Murakami’s tale, my friend’s words began to make perfect sense.
Murakami shows tremendous patience and restraint in setting up the story of The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. The main character, Toru Okada, is a plain-spoken, unremarkable narrator. His observations, perspectives and experiences unfold at a naturalistic, seasonal pace. Things never feel rushed; events come and go, passing out of anticipation and into the fog of the past and memory. No matter what is happening, the rhythms and responsibilities of daily life are kept mostly intact.
There is something refreshing about not being swept up into an adventure in which everything is dropped for some contrived rising action. I’m not going to suggest there is some miraculous level of “realism” here, because in fact, a number of very strange things happen throughout the story. However, thanks to the unhurried way in which the reader gets to know Toru, and the unadorned honesty of his voice, it does truly feel as though the reader-character distance has been patiently shaved away; one experiences both the mundane stretches of reflection and the inexplicable and mysterious events right alongside Toru. I took this as the meaning of my friend’s statement.
There is also a wonderfully deliberate rhythm to Murakami’s writing itself. His characters tend to take time to ruminate on the meanings of the things said in conversation. There is little of the snappy, confrontational, probing, outlandish dialogue that American audiences seem to love. There are plentiful pauses for thought, and many moments of slow-dawning humor. Often characters simply do not know how to react to words or events. There’s something inclusive about this. Toru’s thoughts and actions seem like they could just as well be ours. Though he is unpredictable at times and has his unique quirks, Toru is an everyman, the central pillar upon which the extravagant oddities of The Wind-up Bird Chronicle are supported.
By the third part of the book, things have branched out into multiple narratives. Apparently with Murakami you have to be prepared to accept a good deal of loose ends and unexplained phenomena. It’s an exchange in a way. There are rich veins of compelling writing in the harrowing tales from Japan’s imperialist days in Mongolia, and in the series of poignant letters from May Kasahara to our humble narrator. Wherever the other events[vii] may seem capricious or superfluous, they are forgiven, because the story at the heart of The Wind-up Bird Chronicle is so impeccably crafted.
Very Highly Recommended
Mao II, by Don DeLillo
This book stinks. Don’t read it.
White Noise, by Don DeLillo
The reason I actually came to The Wind-up Bird Chronicle with a relatively open mind was because of Don DeLillo. I read White Noise on the recommendation of one of the friends who recommended The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. I loved White Noise. Looking for something else by DeLillo, I grabbed Mao II off the shelf, and found it to be really lousy. The lesson was that prolific writers can apparently have an off-novel or two. Thus I took another chance on Murakami after the Kafka on the Shore debacle.
Why did I love White Noise? Because it’s hilarious, but also has depth. It captures the great wealth of the unsaid, the unchangeable – the often futile and frustrated grapplings with mortality and culture that the well-to-do and intelligent engage in[viii].
Our narrator is Jack Gladney, a department head at a university who has captured a good deal of prestige through his pioneering work in “Hitler Studies”. His family is modern, in that Jack and his wife Babette are raising children from a number of marriages, brought into coexistence under one roof. The children are somewhat preternaturally written, but they are important characters. DeLillo gives them a good deal of credit, often more than the adult characters.
I really loved the humor in White Noise. Events like college move-in and trips to the supermarket become satirical dissections of the largely unquestioned rituals of American life. The character Murray Jay Siskind acts a sort of untethered man, offering philosophies and actions unmoored from the expectations of reasonable behavior. The dialogue and accompanying narration is very sharp. Lines like “’Denise said that?’” and “What did he mean by that?” become comedy gold in DeLillo’s well-crafted context. Gladney relates to each of the book’s many characters differently, and the humor and cultural significance of each interaction is maximized for our benefit.
But it’s not all humor. The latter part of White Noise deals more with feelings of mortality and fear. While perhaps not as fun, the back half does provide the book with a bit more heft. Gladney’s search for answers is both edifying and hard to watch.
Down and Out in Paris and London, by George Orwell
Reading early Orwell is fascinating because you know that he went on to write 1984. Down and Out in Paris and London is just so damn matter-of-fact, with only few judicious digressions into socioeconomic thought. The book follows George Orwell as he navigates extreme poverty and overwork in pre-war Paris and London. He lives in a number of dirty lodgings, suffers through a very poor diet, and works a couple of thankless, exhausting restaurant jobs.
It’s nice that this isn’t an exposé[ix]. Orwell doesn’t confide in the reader that he is thinking of calling his editor to bail him out. He doesn’t write letters to his family telling the children he’ll be back in a just one more month. What’s documented here is George Orwell’s shitty, uncertain, tedious, uncomfortable life in all its dim prospects and sustained humiliations.
In the end there are no profound revelations about poverty, just what we already know – that being poor is terrible and boring and robs people of purpose and health and dignity. Again, Orwell is a fairly dry writer at this stage, but we meet some interesting characters and learn a lot of unpleasant facts about the restaurant/hotel business.
Down and Out in Paris and London is a good companion piece to Tropic of Cancer, in which Henry Miller does a lot of remarkably similar bumming in many of the same low and dirty places, but from the perspective of a transgressive, sleazy, immensely ambitious artist.
Less than Zero, by Bret Easton Ellis
I remember liking this as I read it, but for some reason it did not leave a lasting impression on me. There is a serious case of ghost narrator here, to the point where one of the most common lines in the book is “I didn’t say anything.” Our hero and narrator Clay is back in his hometown of Los Angeles on winter break from college. He watches his rich friends (and himself) drift into various states of existential distress, including drug-addicted ennui and amoral depravity.
There is something really interesting about the way the characters constantly ignore, mishear and misunderstand each other. Identity becomes a slippery concept, as many of the characters care so little about themselves and others that they don’t even remember which of their friends are which[x].
There are also a lot of disturbing events involving sex, drugs and violence. The characters react with so little emotion to these events that at least to me, the volume seemed to get turned down on them. I suppose this is an achievement – the numbness of the characters extending beyond the page.
Easton Ellis’ understated, minimalist style is reminiscent of The Stranger, and I’m sure, a lot of other existentialist literature I’m not familiar with. It’s a short, engrossing read.
[i] This is a serious book, but I couldn’t help imagining this subtitle being sung to the tune of Pat Benatar’s “Love is a Battlefield”. Sorry Jeremy Scahill!
[ii] Every time the depressing story of the abducted Nigerian girls comes on television, I start chanting “J-SOC! J-SOC!” Alas, as long as none of the girls are American, there will be no “Zero Dark Thirty” or “Captain Phillips” style rescue mission.
[iii] One of the episodes from season six is actually named “Fear of Flying”. Besides that, I remember Edna Krabappel reading the book in one episode, and it might have been on the bookshelf with Tek War and Steal This Book in another.
[iv] Jong mentions a lot of her favorite authors in the book. Updike is one of them.
[v] I remember a part where Isadora talks about flies coming dangerously close to her anus as she took a shit by the side of the road.
[vi] My first experience with Haruki Murakami was Kafka on the Shore on audiobook. I hated it. Every time I had to change the CD I wanted to throw the previous one out of the car window. I suppose I liked things about it – Nakata’s search for the cats, the character of Oshima, the themes of solitude – But for the most part I found myself in the car shouting “This guy’s just throwing mysticism at the wall and seeing what sticks!” and “Somebody stop him, I can’t believe he’s getting away with this!” I also found Kafka’s character insufferable, perhaps in part because his chapters were read by a voice actor that sounded like Jude Law. Still, he reminded me of Jason Schwartzman’s horrifically smug little cretin-dweeb from Rushmore.
[vii] What really did happen in the night? According to Wikipedia, sections of the original novel were left out of the English translation. Whether these parts tied up any loose ends or not, I cannot say.
[viii] In my opinion it is the work that The Squid and the Whale, and a lot of other indie films have striven to be.
[ix] I think I’ve picked on these before. The kind of “Dark Times: My year without electricity” or “How I stopped worrying and learned to love sleeping outside” journalism you’d see in Rolling Stone or Playboy or whatever.
[x] This state of affairs is used extensively, to great effect, in the film American Pyscho (based on the Easton Ellis novel, which I have not read)