Friday, October 13, 2006

In the Penny Press! The Many Lives of Anthony Burgess!

Here at Stevereads, we're accustomed to the reliability of certain cosmic forces. The sun being too bright and hot, for instance, or the comment-silence of 90 percent of this blog's readers, or the gassiness of basset hounds (neighbors' basset hounds, of course: our own dogs, Leni and Blondi, never pass gas at all). Enshrined on such a list from time immemorial (= since Tina Brown) is this: the content-slightness of the New Yorker.

So imagine our distress when for the second consecutive week, the venerable magazine has been relatively PACKED with interesting stuff. The world whirls.

This week's double-sized 'media' issue is so full of noteworthy stuff that it's getting an entire entry of its own. Let's hit the highlights:

David Denby reviews the new Martin Scorcese film 'The Departed' to generally lukewarm effect, writing at one point:

All the characters are unusually intelligent, and the fast, scurrilous talk binds the tightly edited short sequences together. Scorcese, however, is trying to do with words what he used to accomplish with the camera, and he doesn't produce the kind of emotional involvement that once made his movies so exhausting and also so satisfying.

I disagree that Scorcese's movies have always or even often been either of those things, but again, this isn't the blog for that. But while we're on the subject, I will say this: I can't wait for 'The Departed' to be old, to be no longer getting reviewed. Why? Because then there'll be no reason for EVERY SINGLE REVIEW to feature that same still from the movie. I'm sure you know the one I mean: Leonardo DiCaprio in the GAYEST POSSIBLE punch-windup and Matt Damon in the GAYEST POSSIBLE 'not the face! not the face!' defense posture. If I never see that picture again, it'll be too soon.

Also in this issue was Jill Lepore's review of a new Tom Paine biography (it hardly matters which one, since she says virtually nothing about it), in which she gives a lively recap of the high and low points of Paine's life and times.

I liked the piece well enough, except for this:

Adams, who had been the colonies' most ardent advocate for independence, refused to accept that Paine deserved any credit for Common Sense.

And I wouldn't object to this either, if Lepore were talking about the right Adams. But unfortunately, she's referring to John, when in fact it was Samuel Adams who'd been the most ardent advocate of independence, talking it up in taverns and farmers markets and meeting halls long before cousin John jumped on board the movement. The only reason there WAS a movement to jump on board was because Samuel Adams started one. You should all keep that in mind while taking in the Boston Public Library's excellent new show, 'John Adams Unbound.'

Under the already-alarming section headline of 'The Wayward Press,' Nicholas Lemann writes a piece about the continuing appeal of conspiracy theories, and it starts out well.

His initial focus is of course 9/11, and he points out some genuinely disturbing questions that have not been answered:

... the debris found near September 11th sites does not match debris from the purported planes; that Larry A. Silverstein bought the Twin Towers and took out a large insurance policy that specifically mentioned terrorist attacks, only days before September 11th; that the two American Airlines flights that crashed that morning had not been scheduled to fly.

But about half-way through his article he stumbles rather badly:

We've been too deeply conditioned by years of reading books with bibliographies and footnotes to be entirely persuadable by those which don't have them; and prose itself, when deployed at length by people less gifted than James Joyce, is a somewhat plodding medium, demanding the use of conventional logic and temporal sequencing. The most powerful and memorable material about what misdeeds the Bush Administration may be secretly up to appears in documentary films.

To which we here at Stevereads offer the only fitting rebuttal: Fuck you and the horse you rode your lazy ass in on.

Plodding enough for you, you illiterate dickhead?

But it's his conclusion that really irks:

It [the paranoid mindframe]'s a view of how the world works that mistakenly empowers particular, and evil, force with the ability to determine the course of events, and it misses the messiness and contingency with which life actually unfolds ... One doesn't have to deny the horrors of the story to see it as not so neatly explicable. Tragedy is more profound if it is permitted to entail not just malignancy but also people screwing up.

What irks about that, you ask (well, you DON'T ask - you wonder about it privately while reading this and then don't respond at all, but let's use it rhetorically)? I mean apart from the misuse of both 'contingency' and 'malignancy' (guess Joyce wasn't available for the rewrite)?

It's the patronizing tone, the underlying assumption that because all conspiracy theorists are paranoid nutjobs, all conspiracy theories are nutjob fantasies. But conspiracies do exist; little ones and big ones come to light virtually every day. Evil people do things, orchestrate things, that they don't want anybody to know about. I'm very much unconvinced that the plane crashes of September 11 were one such instance, but honestly - is there ANYBODY who isn't convinced that the Bush administration orchestrated a lying cover-up of its motives for invading Iraq? Some conspiracies are real, alas.

Orchestration of a different kind was the focus of Malcolm Gladwell's fascinating article on Epagogix, a company in the business of predicting - and manufacturing - Hollywood blockbusters.

I'm no expert on the movie industry (if only there were a funny, irreverent, authoritative blog by someone who was...), but I found this article absorbing. But then again, according to no less an authority than William Goldman, "Nobody knows anything ... Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what's going to work. Every time out it's a guess ... why did Universal, the mightiest studio of all, pass on 'Star Wars'? ... Because nobody, nobody - not now, not ever - knows the least goddamn thing about what is or isn't going to work at the box office."

But according to Gladwell, Epagogix would like to prove Goldman wrong. The article is full of 'hit clusters' and 'neural networks,' but the main point of Epagogix's equations is that they don't care about being in Tom Cruise's Myspace Friends list:

It doesn't care about maintaining relationships with stars or agents or getting invited to someone's party. It doesn't care about climbing the corporate ladder. It has one master and one master only: how do you get to a bigger box-office? Nobody else in Hollywood is like that.

Of course, the idea of a future in which artistic intent is entirely removed from movies - where formulae and statistics command everything that's there on the screen - is pretty depressing. But I confess to a deep fascination in the road we take to get there (and on the plus side, if you remove all personal or artistic elements from movie-making, future generations would be spared their equivalents of 'Garden State' ... no small incentive, that ...)

But by far the most interesting thing in the latest New Yorker was Ian Parker's long and beguiling profile of Anthony Burgess, an incredibly prolific and often brilliant British ex-pat with disasterous hair and posture, a penchant for dim-bulb leggy wives, and a bottomless, hopeless addiction to tobacco and alcohol.

Ooooops ... my mistake: Parker's actually writing about Christopher Hitchens! Which means either we're dealing with an uncanny coincidence, or Christopher Hitchens is, as many have long suspected, a living, breathing trope.

Either way, the piece is fantastic. Not only does Parker quote his subject liberally, but his quotes ABOUT his subject are all stellar:

He also has the politician's trick of eliding the last word of one sentence to the first of the next, while stressing both words, in order to close the gate against interruption.

He seems to be perpetually auditioning for the role of best man.

He writes a single draft, at a speed that caused his New Statesman colleagues to place bets on how long it would take him to finish an editorial. What emerges is ready for publication, except for one weakness: he's not an expert punctuator, which reinforces the notion that he is in the business of transcribing a lecture he can hear himself giving.

Regular readers of Stevereads (the Silent Majority, as it were) will recall that I myself have now joined the swelling ranks of those who've publicly tussled with Hitchens, but I nonetheless approached the article with a hopeful neutrality - the fact is, Hitchens has given me a great deal of reading pleasure over the years. His literary essays prior to about the mid-90s were almost always beautiful and startlingly eye-opening, and his evisceration of Mother Teresa, The Missionary Position, is gleeful malice (or do I mean 'malignancy'? Dammit, when is that Joyce guy getting back from lunch?) pressed between book-covers.

But I'm not the only one who's noticed a change, a diminution, in the last few years. This isn't ideological, it has nothing to do with whether or not I agree with his political beliefs (although I think his central tent-post, that it was right for the United States to remove Saddam Hussein from power, is dead wrong). It's completely about his prose, about his innumerable articles - is there anyone reading this who doesn't think the quality of these things has been in steady decline for some time now?

Parker's article holds the answer, I think. As in any profile of Hitchens, his soggy substance-abuse takes center stage. We're told that he smokes and drinks pretty much incessantly (vignette after vignette has him already drinking at noon, with the vague assertion floating around that he does a peck of work in the mornings, before the day's imbibing)(as I mentioned, the Burgess echoes are deafening, all throughout the piece), but Parker resorts to the tired, stupid old cliche of the writing man who somehow manages to keep all this incessant smoking and drinking separate from his work - the tiresome Dorian Gray dichotomy: TWO Hitchenses - one who lounges around drinking all day and partying all night, and the other who spends what would have to be vast amounts of time reading, researching, and above all writing, the physical act of writing.

Parker seems to buy this line entirely:

He was not a 'piss artist,' he explained, 'someone who can't get going without a load of beer, who's a drunk - overconfident and flushed. I can't bear that.' He went on, 'I know what I'm doing with it. And I can time it. It's a self-medicating thing.' I took his point. Hitchens does drink a very great deal (and said of Mel Gibson's blood-alcohol level at the time of his recent Malibu arrest - O.12 per cent - 'that's about as sober as you'd ever want to be'). But he drinks like a Hemingway character: continually and to no apparent effect.

Quite apart from the fact that no Hemingway character would be caught dead using such a whining, telltale word as 'self-medicating,' there's the obvious parry to such a claim: there IS apparent effect. The writing has suffered. Somebody who's very often drunk all day very often grows to NEED to be drunk all day, and there are certain things you can't do while drunk. You can teach undergrad courses while drunk. You can beat up on opposing talk show panelists while drunk. You can write sloppy, off-the-cuff prose while drunk.

But you can't meaningfully read while drunk. You certainly can't research while drunk. And despite what a million authors known and unknown have claimed, you can't write WELL while drunk. All of those thing require CONCENTRATION, which is one of the first attributes to disappear when somebody starts drinking.

Of course, this is where the Burgess comparison comes to a complete halt - since Burgess drank if anything more than Hitchens and yet was eerily, almost superhumanly productive AND good (usually) throughout his entire career. As good as The Missionary Position or The Trial of Henry Kissinger are, it's nevertheless true: Hitchens has yet to produce a book that will outlive him. But by the time Burgess was Hitchens' age, he'd produced ... what? How many books that would outlive him?

My young friend John Cotter (visit his grim website at and see how damn depressing it is to be young, handsome, well-friended, and talented! Search the site in vain for a single non-hipster smile!) is, believe it or not, one of the world's foremost authorities on Anthony Burgess. I'm sure the Silent Majority would be interested in his thoughts on the whole Hitchens/Burgess comparison. Alas, he stopped reading this blog once he saw that it was entirely devoted to young adult fiction ... but maybe he'll come across this entry one day and treat us all to a few paragraphs on the subject.

In any case, just LOOK at how much matter was crammed into that single issue of the New Yorker! This will certainly make the NEXT issue a colossal letdown, but let's smell the roses while we can!


Anonymous said...

burgess sucks! we had to read Clock Work Orange last year, and we all agreed on how bad it was

steve said...

I seem to have picked up a teen reader! I wish you'd identify yourself, so I could a) find you on Myspace and determine your worth as a human being by the number of Friends you have and b) write your papers for you.

Kevin Caron said...

Where's John on this post? You called him out and everything!

Never seen someone offer John a mic which he passed on before...

steve said...

Where's John indeed?

steve said...

While we're on the subject of things not-responded-to: what did you-all think of my ruminations on Vanity Fair? Funny? Thought-provoking? Or did you-all skip the entry because you disdain the magazine?

Kevin Caron said...

Loved it - especially:

"Surely, surely that sentence would rank high on two different lists: Things Surely Written by a Gentile, and Things Surely Written by an Anti-Semite."

Great stuff.

John said...

After a brutal search of my apartment, I've come to the conclusion that I don't actually OWN the Christopher Hitchens New Yorker article. I have no idea if it ever arrived or, if it didn't, WHY it didn't.

As for any comparisons between Burgess and Hitchens -- well, why don't we spend our time more productively and compare Nat King Cole to the nearest rum-soaked Catskills Elvis impersonator? Something, you know, that wouldn't make me laugh.

Kevin Caron said...

There he is.