Thursday, April 17, 2008

In the Penny Press!



Sometimes, the penny press will turn in a banner week on almost no issues, and this is one of those weeks. Sometimes, we here at Stevereads will take the cullings of our interns, hole up in our office, and read through the most wretched pile of doo-doo imaginable, all of it coming from a dozen periodicals (and before you ask, yes, sometimes the problem is the interns - hence our policy of random mass-firings, to keep herd-turnover at a steady simmer). But every so often, a mere handful of titles will yield a bounty of great stuff.

In this case, a mere two periodicals, the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books. Both were jam-packed with interesting, irritating, and noteworthy things, but even amidst such a cornucopia, one piece stands out: of course we're referring to Nick Paumgarten's lamentably titled New Yorker piece "Up and Then Down," all about elevators. It's a joyful tour de force, one of the best pieces of periodical literature we've read in years. Everything you'd ever want to know about elevators is here set down in pithy, compelling prose, starting with all the juicy stuff:

Still, elevator lore has its share of horrors: strandings, manglings, fires, drownings, decapitations. An estimated two hundred people were killed in elevators at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 - some probably in free-fall plunges, but many by fire, smoke, or entrapment and subsequent structural collapse.

But our favorite quote - in a piece full of great quotes - has to be from Rick Pulling, spokesman for Otis elevators:

To the age-old half-serious question of whether a passenger barrelling earthward in a runaway elevator should jump in the air just before impact, Pulling responded, as vertical-transportation professionals ceaselessly must, that you can't jump up fast enough to counteract the rate of descent. "And how are you supposed to know when to jump?" he said. As for the alternate strategy - lie flat on the floor? - he shrugged: "Dead's dead."

Cheery guy - just what you'd expect from an elevator specialist.

The piece isn't perfect only because it isn't comprehensive. Speed is duly mentioned, but not the great elevator sequence in Poseidon; elevator shaft deaths are mentioned, but the out-of-the-blue shaft-demise of scheming, evil Roz on L.A. Law isn't evoked - and most glaringly, the turbo-lifts of Star Trek don't come up at all: elevators that are voice-activated and can go horizontal as well as vertical? The world had never seen the concept before Star Trek debuted it.

We here at Stevereads remember vividly the first time we rode on an elevator. It was a deeply unpleasant feeling of helplessness, and we have not often repeated it since (we take the stairs, and now we require all our wretched interns to do likewise). If you are somebody who routinely trusts these infernal machines, Paumgarten's piece will give you grave doubts about ever doing so again. But in a good way - in the best way, as all great essays do.

The issue has other high points - Lynne Cox's piece on swimming the Northwest Passage is wonderfully constructed, and Caroline Alexander's piece on the few remaining tigers in the wild will both inform and infuriate. In any other New Yorker issue, either of these pieces would have carried the day with top honors. But nothing really beats a good elevator piece, as we all know.

The latest New York Review of Books had fewer clear-cut winners. The great Frank Kermode tries to do something with Ezra Pound, which we here at Stevereads can tell you is an utterly hopeless endeavor; Pound was a spineless Nazi collaborator whose works should be studiously ignored by everyone for that reason. Trying to say anything more about him or his work, trying to make it anything more than the work of such a person, is both pointless and vaguely traitorous. Certainly Michael Chabon has more luck examining Richard Price's latest book Lush Life, largely to useful issue. Chabon is a very bright writer who really ought to be doing book reviews for a living, instead of writing hithertofore slightly disposable novels, and his review of Price - an author who, decades ago, broke out the exact same case of tricks Chabon currently uses (Chabon should view Price as the ultimate cautionary tale, and yet in his piece he persistently refuses to do so ... perhaps in private, we can only hope).

His piece on Price is good. He regularly delivers good stuff:

It ought not to strike us as amazing that a novelist as gifted as Price can write black characters (nor, God knows, that he simply dares to write black characters). Price succeeded with Strike - as he would go on to do, turning the tables, with the black detectives in Freedomland and Samaritan - by writing him not as a black character but as a Richard Price character, half-assed, sharp-witted, a dreamer of vague and unremarkable dreams, filled with shame and remorse toward his mother and his straight-arrow brother, cursed with into his own useless superiority t0 those around him, too smart for his own good, and too hampered by conscience and scruple to succeed at any of the things his world offered him as means to success. Things are tough for a Price protagonist, it turns out, on either side of the color line, on both sides of the Hudson.

We have all taken a communal vow to like Chabon, so it behooves us not to point out the considerable number of problems with that paragraph (and lots of paragraphs like it), choked as it is with tautologies ("shame and remorse," or "useless superiorty" and "too smart for his own good"), red herrings (that nonsense about white writers not daring to write black characters), and pueriley circular argumenting (Price writes black characters by not writing black characters?). No, the important thing to remember is the undeniable enthusiasm with which Chabon sets about his task - and that enthusiasm is abundant, although it must be said that the piece as a whole lacks the verve (not to mention the impeccable gravitas) that Open Letters' presiding genius Sam Sacks brings to the same subject. Merely avail yourselves of the link to the right, and you'll see what we mean. The comparative proses speak for themselves.

The always-reliable Tim Flannery turns in a piece on two books about insects that's largely very enjoyable. He offers the drolly understated line "I have known a few spider curators in my time, and they can on occasion be troublesome" - which alone is worth the price of the piece. Flannery speculates most enjoyably on the seemingly cellular hatred humans have for spiders:

Hillyard believes that arachnophobia commences in childhood. Infants are not usually afraid of spiders, but as they get older their fears increase. Paradoxically, as adults, many recover from their fears. One could deduce from this that at some time in our evolutionary history considerable mortality was inflicted on children, as they played in the sand and mud, by a venomous spider. That spider, of course, would have to have lived in Africa, where we evolved. Is there any evidence for the existence of such a creature? Extraordinarily, there is.

Of course, there are low points too - one of them predictably provided by high-profile hack Joyce Carol Oates, reviewing - in that's the word - Keith Gessen's All the Sad Young Literary Men, the current crown jewel of the literary-masturbatory circle. Oates fruitlessly kicks the thing around for a while (wretched and disastrous comparisons to F. Scott Fitzgerald hover around the piece's peripheries) , unintentionally damns it in all the direct quotations she chooses, and finishes with the fatuous and mendacious assertion that if the book is faulty, it's the AGE that must be at fault:

In this debut novel there is much that is charming and beguiling, and much promise; if there is not, in these candid and unpretentious pages, the old Fitzgeraldian magic, one must concede that this is not an era hospitable to literary magic.

How to even categorize all that's wrong with those two slim lines, all the corner-cutting, all the prevarications, all the shim-shammery at which Oates so specializes? Let's leave aside the redundancy (we guess old dogs are as susceptible to it as young ones) of 'charming' and 'beguiling,' and passing over in gentlemanly silence the cowardly writerly manuever of fake substitution: are there passages of charm and beguilement, or aren't there? There cant be both, no matter how much you'd like there to be in order to get you off the hook - indeed, that hook is supposed to be the defining discomfort of all real reviewers: if you're blogging about something, that's one thing, but if you're actually reviewing it, you have to say things. Oates is clearly enamored of Gessen's admittedly impressive young literary journal n + 1, but that doesn't diminish her responsibility to call bad or weak writing bad, or weak.

Still, the week in the Penny Press fully validates itself in terms of quality. We'll see what next week brings around.

22 comments:

Imani said...

Does this mean that I shouldn't abandon my Tennyson for Pound like an errant English professor once suggested?

steve said...

Tennyson is where it's AT. But Pound has one or two contemporaries who didn't sell their souls to save their skins. You don't have to abandon them all!

Lee said...

Hi Steve. You can't really ignore Pound - if nothing else, he was influential. But the interesting question is whether, and how far, to separate aesthetic from moral judgements. What if I found out that Beowulf had been written by a mass murder?

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