Sunday, October 08, 2006

In the Penny Press! Darwin and others!

The latest New Yorker has two pieces of interest - and one that most decidedly AIN'T.

The AIN'T piece is a little thing called 'What is a Novelist?' by Milan Kundera, and it's broken up into many nonsensical parts which, taken all together, go a long way toward proving that Kundera is a few transepts short of a cathedral. Calling these confused ramblings fragments would insult every jigsaw puzzle in Christendom. If only the piece had been called 'What is a Good Novelist?' - that way, Kundera would have been disqualified and we might have heard from somebody who DOESN'T have a bunch of little burrowing worms in his head.

Fortunately, the other two pieces of note were compensurately good. The first was a short story called 'Landfill' that was one of the best stories I've read in the New Yorker in quite a while. Which is noteworthy, but not half so noteworthy as the author - hold onto your hats, boys and girls:


Yes, it's true, and nobody's more amazed than yours truly: I actually LIKED a short story by the odious, self-referential, theatrically mandarin Joyce Carol Oates. And only a little while ago in the New Yorker, I actually liked a short story by Martin Amis. What's the world coming to?

The second piece was a nonfiction article about repeat prison-escapee Richard McNair by Mark Singer, and it's a picture-perfect example of the way reporting that's really well done makes you interested in things you'd otherwise ignore. I love that quality in the best journalism, and this piece is steeped in it.

Singer's main source of joy in the piece is the fact that at one point a police officer actually stopped McNair to question him about the fact that he very nearly matched the description of this wanted fugitive everybody was looking for - and the entire encounter is caught on the video camera operating in the cop's car, so the whole world can marvel at the cop's stupidity:

McNair is a convicted murderer. The bulletins in the wake of his most recent escape - his third - noted that he should be considered 'exremely dangerous.' His encounter with the police officer in Louisiana, however, which lasted about ten minutes and happened to be recorded by a video camera mounted on the dashboard of the officer's cruiser, hardly suggested this. Within two hours of receiving instructions to be on the lookout for a freshly escaped prisoner, the cop spotted a man jogging along a railroad track who turned out to be carrying no identification and who roughly matched a description of the fugitive. Yet, somehow, the men's conversation ended with the jogger saying, 'You have a good day now,' and the cop replying, 'Be careful, buddy,' and sending him on his way. Only by wrestling the officer to the ground and seizing his weapon could McNair have demonstrated more literally what it means to be disarming. By the time his new friend had grasped whom he'd been talking to, McNair was miles away.

'The general drift is that Barney Fife would have made the collar. It's easy to imagine the recording being appropriated as police-training instructional material, a concise depiction of how to be bamboozled by a sociopath: cop stumbles upon fugitive, has good reason to take him into custody, yet, astonishingly, lets him go. Having watched it now more than twenty times, I find myself at moments talking back to the screen ('Hey! Carl! Eye on the ball!')'

A charitable interpretation of this episode is that Bordelon [the cop] inadvertently saved his own life. Had he been more aggressive or skeptical, McNair might well have reacted violently; one man wore a gun, but the other was plainly in a superior state of readiness. 'I think he was really lucky,' Lieutenant Clay Brister, of the Rapides Parish Sheriff's Department, said of Bordelon. 'Knowing what I know now about McNair, I think he would've killed him. He's just a cool, calm guy. He used everything to his advantage.' ... Within twenty minutes of assuring McNair that he'd be on duty 'till we find this son of a gun,' Bordelon, back in his patrol car, happened upon a pair of B.O.P. employees, told them about his conversation, showed them the tape, and - dang.


The sarcastic laughs keep on coming over in the latest TLS, where the ever-reliable J.C. weighs in on syrupy America:

Over the past year or two, many American novelists have felt obliged to hitch their narratives to the events of 9/11 (cf Paul Auster, Jay McInerney, Richard Ford, John Updike, Claire Messud), with mixed results. So here we make a plea to poets not to follow. If a demonstration of what lies that way is required (and it's not, really), read Babylon Burning: 9/11 five years on, edited by Todd Swift. after doing so, let us know if Joe Ross has eased your pain:

I wake up too early
and want to tell my too young son
that the world is fucking up

Hee. The thing I love most about really bad poetry is how unreasonably it haunts the minds of poets who are actually good. My young friends Tyron and Sebastian are both very good poets, and they're both secretly terrified of turning out something like the above, even though there's no chance whatsoever they actually would. I guess that's the service ALL bad art provides to good art.

Alas, the bell-note of this TLS, its most memorable piece, is not only negative but personally, alarmingly so.

John Turner takes the opportunity of reviewing The Richness of Life, a new collection of the writings of the late Stephen Jay Gould, to take a hacksaw to Gould's very existence.

Turner's piece starts off with some carefully measured praise of Gould - so carefully measured that even while I was appreciating it, I was tensing up at what I increasingly felt was coming. But Gould was such an amiable figure, I couldn't guess how bad it would be.

Turner deplores Gould, and once he's done with his perfunctory bit of praise, his blows land fast and hard all over the man's life and work and psychology.

During the years when I worked at the late great Cambridge bookstore Wordsworth, I had occasion to traverse Harvard Yard twice every day, and I often ran across Gould. The first time I did so, I did the stereotypical thing: I thanked him, for all the hours of reading pleasure he'd given me over the years. I routinely do this with authors I meet face to face, and their reactions span the spectrum; Evangeline Walton visibly flinched, Eudora Welty patted my hand and said (with dubious prophetic ability) 'you'll do it too,' Julia Child grabbed me into a truly all-enveloping bearhug and said 'I simply NEVER tire of hearing that!', and the less-and-less immortal Dot Parker wonderfully quipped, 'well! You'll never get into a lady's panties with fresh talk like THAT'

Gould's reaction was intensely typical: utter, arrested seriousness. He stopped in his tracks, pushed back the shock of hair that always seemed to need pushing back, looked me straight in the face, and said, 'well thank you. I know what that's like, so thank you.'

After that, whenever we'd meet in the Yard, I'd ask him questions about whatever topic was the lead in the Globe that morning, or he'd ask me what was 'hot' at the bookstore. It wasn't in much of a way personal - if you dug up Gould and asked him, I'm sure he'd say he doesn't remember me. But it was enough of a connection for me to wince when Turner brought the sledgehammers out:

Gould generally 'knows the man his neighbor knows'. His literary quotations are familiar to the point of being patronizing. Like every successful popular writer, he has judged his readership perfectly, and most of the time tells them only a little more than they want to hear. His conclusions, though beautifully packaged, are too often trite. Hence he tackles big moral questions - the roots of evil, the responsibility of science - without offering more than platitude and reassurance; and he never frightens the horses.

Turner is a proponent of a recent pseudo-scientific wrinkle called 'evolutionary psychology,' and the fact that Gould was not apparently rates him fair game.

Of course it doesn't hurt that Turner, like SO many other people (most certainly NOT including Gould), deeply misunderstands the very nature of evolution by natural selection. Just listen to this vindictive windbag:

Gould agonizes about his career-long struggle of conscience over the theory of natural selection. Like Alfred Russel Wallace and George Bernard Shaw, he perceived its cruelty: nature might well be red in tooth and claw, but if we ourselves have evolved by natural selection, the claws are ours. Any evolutionary biologist who can think has at some time had to confront the applications of natural selection in, successively, social Darwinism, eugenics, and the Holocaust.

Well, no ... not so much. It is, in fact, entirely possible to think about evolution by natural selection without thinking about eugenics or the Holocaust - it certainly isn't necessary to think of them all at the same time. Eugenics and the Holocaust were intentional creations, ideological creations with long-term goals in mind. 'Any evolutionary biologist who can think' should be able to see a difference between an intellectual construct of man and a natural phenomenon.

Natural selection, it apparently bears repeating, isn't cruel. Breeding creatures seize on mutations and specific attributes that have immediate, practical applications to their day-to-day lives. They see a potential mate who's found a unique food source, or who leaps higher, or whose fur is pale enough to blend in against a snowy backdrop, and they compete and mate accordingly - and all of it done in complete blindness, as to the long-term future. No plan, no grand design - which is, in my opinion, the REAL problem control-freak Christians have with evolution.

The end result is not a master-race. The end result is the wild, beautiful, endless diversity of the living world. That living world includes both opportunistic omnivores like the coyote and extremely vulnerable specialists like the tree sloth. There is no cruelty - only age-old choioces that have wither worked out or not. No right or wrong, no good or evil ... just happenstance. Happenstance and time - no wonder evolution strikes so many people as unpalatable or incomprehensible.

Turner keeps slapping away, always around the edges: fighting monsters he had run the risk of himself becoming a monster. He could be a lot more radical when addressing excited students in the 1970s than he ever was in his essays. The editor's introduction reports with no hint of shame that E. O. Wilson, the founder of evolutionary psychology, was sufficiently distressed about getting in the lift to go past Gould's floor (they shared a building in Harvard) that Wilson was nicknamed - in print - 'the ghost in the elevator'. Around the launch of evolutionary psychology, things got fairly nasty: analogous to the kind of religious persecution that Gould excoriates in his essay on the Defenestration of Prague. And while Gould himself did not, I think, behave badly, he failed to distance himself from those who did.

You reach a point, in reviews like this, when you realize that the fix is in, that the SUBJECT of the review is never, in fact, going to get a fair shake. It's ultimately distracting:

Gould the historian evaluates Gould the scientist; Gould the scientist muddies the historical record. In The Mismeasure of Man, his history of the I.Q. controversy, he was so keen to show that male and female brains might be the same size that he applied the same statistical correction (age and its encroaching pathology) twice to obtain the result - exactly the sort of bias for which he shames the nineteenth-century pioneers. His overall conclusion about male and female intelligence is probably correct, but in science 'right for the wrong reason' still counts as wrong.

The affronted schoolmarm tone of all this (that is NOT the way we do things here at the Prentiss Institute, Master Gould) is all but unbearable, and the simple truth is, Stephen Jay Gould is not only not well-served by this huffery but not well-represented by it either. It's shameful that the TLS gave this space to Turner's vituperation - we'll have to hope that the volume's eventual stateside publication elicits more appreciative evaluations of the man and his work.

Nevertheless, the capstone to this edition of In the Penny Press isn't this graceless hack-job done on a man so many wish still alive (something that can't, one suspects, be said about Turner himself).

No, we must give the capstone to Jason
Epstein himself, over in the New York Review of Books. He writes a wandering, stuffshirt review of a handful of new books about Google and the rise of electronic library media (this is the very dictionary definition of the EVILS of omnibus reviews ...if it's not about ALL of the books, individually, it's really about none of them).

In the process of this weird, unedited rambling, he uncorks a sentence that needs to be enshrined forever in the Bulwer-Lytton archive of truly horrendous writing, a single sentence that is SO BAD it actually manages to blight an entire review of some 15,000 words. Here it is, boys and girls, from the pen of man who ought to know better:

Spurred by Google's initiative and by lower costs, higher profits, and immense reach of unmeditated digital distribution, book publishers and other copyright holders must at last overcome their historic inertia and agree, like music publishers, to market their proprietary titles in digital form either to be read on line or, more likely, to be printed on demand at point of sale, in either case for a fee equal to the publishers' normal costs and profit and the authors' contractual royalty, thus for the first time in human history creating the theoretical possibility that every book ever printed in whatever language will be available to everyone on earth with access to the Internet.

There you have it, boys and girls - the single worst single sentence in the written record of the last calendar year! Written by a man who's simply too old and too busy to THINK much about what he's writing (except that any well-educated person, Jew or Gentile, should know that Adam was not expelled from a 'prelapsarian' Eden ... by necessity, in fact). It's no great pleasure to report it in this tawdry place, but it serves as a cogent reminder: everybody, all of us, need an editor or two - friends, confidants, beloved wives .. otherwise, sentence-things like this escape us.


Anonymous said...

What's wrong with Joyce Carol Oates?

And who is Stephen Jay Gould?

john said...

What a great piece on Stephen Jay Gould! I don't do enough reading in the field to compare his work to Willson's, but I do know people who knew him personally, and they only have fond memories.