Sunday, April 27, 2008

Bloodsport in the Book Review!

Ordinarily, we here at Stevereads would have folded in anything of interest we found in the Sunday Times Book Review into our next Penny Press roundup, but this week was just too tasty to ignore! We'll return to our regularly scheduled long, obscure, and totally ignored book reviews in due course!

If you've read the Book Review this week, you doubtless already know which piece caught our eye: yep, the one featured on the cover - New Republic brontosaurus Leon Wieseltier reviews Martin Amis' The Second Plane, and the results aren't pretty. Wieseltier has been TNR's literary editor for a quarter-century, and in all that time he's managed to stay open-minded to the feel of writing - amazingly, his ear has not been corrupted, jaded, or deafened. He can be a delighted friend to the darndest books that cross his desk, but if he doesn't like what you write, hoo boy, you feel it in every sentence.

He doesn't like The Second Plane, and that would be bad enough, but in addition he's also at the top of his game in the review from first to last - this is a bad combination for Amis, alas, no matter how much fun it is for readers:

He [Amis] has a hot, heroic view of himself. He writes as if he, with his wrinkled copies of Bernard Lewis and Philip Larkin, is what stands between us and the restoration of the caliphate. He is not only outraged by Sept. 11, he is also excited by it. "If Sept. 11 had to happen, then I am not at all sorry that it happened in my lifetime." Don't you see? It no longer matters that we missed the Spanish Civil War. No pasaran!

Haymaker follows haymaker:

And what is gained by preferring "horrorism" to "terrorism," except perhaps a round of applause? Amis's freshness is flat and neurotic and genuinely tiresome. He writes as if Orwell never lived. He is dead to the damage his virtuosity inflicts upon his urgency. Instead, he pulls focus, and pulls, and pulls. His book reminds me of what Heath Ledger is said to have remarked, in disappointment, about Philip Seymour Hoffman's Oscar: "I thought it was for the best acting, not the most acting."

There is a pitch a really good reviewer can reach in a piece such as this, a pitch during which the writer can scarcely put a foot amiss. It's exhilarating to watch but also terrifying: it incurs a certain involuntary sympathy toward the victim. We here at Stevereads have never been a fan of Martin Amis - indeed, we've spent many a profitless hour de-programming young people who, having read nothing else, read him and think the sun shines out his arse. But even so, how can we help but feel a twinge of empathy for somebody on the receiving end of a pile-driver like this:

Pity the writer who wants to be Bellow but is only Mailer. What we have here is a hormonal unbeliever. Amis's sympathy to Islamism is based upon a more comprehensive antipathy to religion. In Amis's universe, you are either religious or you are rational. Or to put it in the bracingly original terms of The Second Plane, it is misology that is the cause of thanatism. Amis calls himself not an atheist but an agnostic, but still he is catching a wave to Dover Beach. "Today, in the West, there is no good excuse for religious belief - unless we think that ignorance, reaction and sentimentality are good excuses," whereas in the East, well, you know.

As good as that is, as expertly excising as that is, it's not the best Wieseltier has to offer. When he digresses, when he pauses to talk about the things Amis has written about, you want nothing so much as to read the book he'd write on these same subjects:

But does Amis really think that reason has no blood on its hands? I do not say this to extenuate holy murder, obviously. All murder is unholy. I wish only to suggest that the simpleton's view of the world that Amis is angrily promoting contributes not very much to the study of the passions that are scalding the planet. There are religious people opposing the terrorists and secular people supporting the terrorists. After the 20th century, the question of which worldview kills more, the godful one or the godless one, was made infernally moot. Anyway, the safety of the West cannot wait upon the progress of enlightenment in Waziristan.

He concedes a number of the basic points Amis makes in his book - points about Islamic fanaticism and the like - but it's no victory for Amis:

I have never before assented to so many of the principles of a book and found it so awful. But the vacant intensity that has characterized so much of Amis's work flourishes here too.

He finishes by mentioning Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke in connection with Amis' book and draws doleful parallels between them:

They are both productions of misplaced literariness. They treat the most fundamental matters of politics and philosophy - what individuals and societies should live for, and what they should die for - as occasions for the display of artifice and the exhibition of temperament. The consideration of their arguments is regularly diverted by the consideration of their effects. For this reason, such writings will have more impact than influence. The criticism of language may be required for the criticism of politics, but politics is not mainly language. History may be generously lighted by the bright beams of the imagination, but the student of history is not primarily an artist. And the great campaign against the medievals of our time will be dreary and long and homely.

In the final analysis, we cannot fault Wieseltier's damnation of Amis' book in any of its main or minor points - it's as thorough and painstaking an evisceration as anything the Book Review has published in a many a long moon. No, the only thing we object to coming from Wieseltier are his opening comments, in which he intones that book reviewing has become "decidedly less grand, less intellectually and aesthetically primary - no longer the literary or philosophical or political adventure that it used to be." Instead, "everything must now be short and pert and helpful."

To which we here at Stevereads naturally object! Not only is Stevereads a bastion of literary purty - no 'pert' sycophants we! - but the good lads over at Open Letters Monthly have created a bolt-hole in the literary landscape in which no past favors apply, in which neither fear nor favor is showed to any literary endeavor. If a damn fantastic old dog like Wieseltier feels so genuinely bleak about the state of the reviewing art, he's always welcome to mosey on over to OLM and start writing pieces! Fire from Olympus is always welcome - as Wieseltier himself points out, there is never enough reason in the world.


Sam said...

Oh, I loved this review! From the epigrammatic first paragraph ("people who would not know if a page of Arabic was upside down or rightside up will helpfully expound on the meaning of jahilliyah"; "after the mind breaks, it stiffens") on, it's a thrill to read.

Sam said...

Did you read "Human Smoke"? Is it as bad as Wieseltier says? It seems to be garnering an guarded respect, as a curio or something, in many quarters.

steve said...

I did indeed read it - and it's certainly the BRAVEST book I've read in quite some time.