Hard to believe another entire year has passed since the last ‘Worst of’ list, but there’s our emblematic elephant-crap picture to prove it! That picture symbolizes not just what’s awful and redolently crappy, but the worst of what’s awful and redolently crappy – the books listed here.
As always, there was a great deal of garbage published this year, in every genre, in every month, in every format. I read a huge percentage of that garbage, and a huge percentage of what I read will find no place on this list, either because it wasn’t bad enough (several fiction debuts, for instance, and about 350 Lincoln books), or because it was so predictably bad that listing it would be redundant (it wasn’t a banner year for Star Trek fiction, for instance). No, these are the cream of the crap, the books that stand out in my memory even against the vast multitude of their crappy brethren:
10. The Post-American World by Fareed Zakaria – an infuriating little piece of America-bashing that would be laughable if it hadn’t managed to find such a widespread audience (president-elect Obama is said to have read it, but I think he can be trusted to tell a bad book from a good one), Zakarian’s screed pats poor, ailing America on the head and tells her she’ll be OK, that life as just another post-empire Britain isn’t all that bad, that she’ll never be so fat or so ugly that the boys in the G8 won’t dance with her at least once (probably while that foxy Indonesia is in the ladies room). Zakarian obviously thinks his book raises all kinds of penetrating questions about America’s waning influence in a growing world, and in response to it, I had a few questions of my own, like: whose schools trained you? Whose institutions pay your living? Who published your book? Whose talk-shows host you? Who has the most nuclear launch-codes? And ultimately (asked with the proper Brooklyn accent), Aw, who needs you?
9. The World Is What It Is by Patrick French – This long-awaited authorized biography of the largely talentless Czechoslovakian author V. S. Naipaul (I know, I know – but you nearly exploded when you read that , didn’t you? Proving my point: without his endlessly trumpeted and synonymous nationality, this guy is virtually nothing) proves beyond a doubt that Naipaul is just as boring and loathsome to know as he is to read.
8. Too Fat to Fish by Artie Lange and Why We Suck by Dennis Leary – impossible not to list these two as one entry, since they’re basically the same book and equally disgusting. There’s a very specific picture of an American guy being painted in both these books: he’s brash, crude (refers to any affection expressed in any way between any two men as “homo shit”), and horny, and he absolutely under no circumstances thinks about anything. He’s a man’s man, knows what’s right, stands up, never backs down, walks the walk, shit like that. He smokes, he drinks, he makes fun of everything, and as a good friend of mine once said (with appropriate scorn), he’s never had a thought that somebody else didn’t have first. Actually caring about anything at all (other than beer, pizza, and The Game) is the worst possible sin in this guy’s world. These two books exult in exactly the kind of brainless-goombah version of the Ugly American that was decisively rejected in the last presidential election and that will no longer be represented in the Oval Office, which brings us to:
7. American Lion by Jon Meacham – The stunning sales success of this book about America’s second-worst president (I know all of you young people out there are nodding, thinking I’m reserving the bottom spot for the worst president of your lifetime, George W. Bush, but sorry: nobody is ever likely to be worse than Richard Nixon) is troubling, to say the least. As I’ve had to point out to more than one potential buyer of Meacham’s credulous, execrable book, Andrew Jackson was a liar, a braggart, an inept military leader, a moron, a hopelessly out-of-his-depth president, and a thoroughly bad person – none of which you’ll learn from this brazenly mendacious campaign biography. Jackson was all of those things and one more: a fraud – it’s not possible to be an exponent of ‘popular democracy’ if you personally own human slaves. Like I said, the country has decisively rejected this kind of destructive, moronic prank-puller as a fit occupant for the White House. Meacham should be ashamed of himself, and so should all the hundreds of thousands of Americans buying his book.
6. Netherland by Joseph O’Neill – Yeesh talk about commercial success! This wretched, boggy misfire of a novel has been wildly popular in 2008, despite the fact that it’s just about the crassest, most cynical, laziest botch-job of an alleged 9-11 novel imaginable (although Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close comes incredibly close). That O’Neill couldn’t exercise sufficient self-control to turn his cricket-research into the Esquire essay it should have been is bad enough; that he grafted onto that research one of the worst tragedies in American history is pretty much the ultimate addition of insult to injury.
5. The Rose Labyrinth by Titania Hardie – I don’t know what’s worse, the porn star name of the author or the tortured, pointless meanderings of the book; oh wait, yes I do – the book is worse, because unlike the name, it holds out not even the illusion of enjoyment. The historical fiction segments of this morosely awful novel read like dislodged Wikipedia fragments with bad dialogue pasted on, and the present-day segments (the book plays the one against the other, of course, because as we all know, the past only existed to give focus-depth to the maguffin-chasing antics of the present) are unendurably wooden – a description that brings us back to Titania Hardie, and so prompts us to move on to:
4. 2666 by Roberto Bolano – The specter of one’s imminent demise, a wise man once said, wonderfully concentrates the mind. Alas, it doesn’t do squat for the creative powers. This enormous, multi-tentacled monstrosity by the late Bolano is a heartbreaking picture of a dying writer’s urge to get out on paper all the various ideas, fantasies, and fixations that still remain inside him, but since that’s only half the job of being a writer (and since Bolano died before he could do the shaping and pruning that is the other half), the end result is about as satisfying as if Evelyn Waugh had published the disjointed, half-coherent final ravings of the dying Lord Marchmain as a book in their own right. Since nobody likes to speak ill of the dead, and since book critics are generally craven in the face of very long books, this thing has had a holiday among the reviewers (Sam Sacks at Open Letters being, once again, a godsend of an exception) – and so a lot of people have bought a bookshelf-curio they’ll never actually finish. Lucky them.
3. Downtown Owl by Chuck Klosterman – Who exactly decided that this garrulous idiot was a writer? Who, after reading his stoned, paint-by-numbers hackwork in the various magazines thought his attempts at writing fiction would be worth razing a forest to print? Gawd only knows what Downtown Owl is about – Klosterman seems to be trying to write about his parents’ generation, back in, you know, olden times, but the scene-setting only lasts as many sentences as Klosterman feels like writing at any given time (and as for revising? Pshhhhhh-yah! Not!), and the dialogue is from a pretty bad movie of those olden times, and what’s the point of all of it anyway? What could this loser possibly write that wouldn’t make “Have you read the latest Klosterman?” the grim, dutiful setup to a punch line?
2. Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell – The author of The Tipping Point (i.e. Follow Blindly) and Blink (i.e. Don’t Think) has dashed off a new sure-fire bestseller, Outliers (i.e. It’s Not Your Fault), and it’s every bit as anile and preposterous as the previous two. This time around, Gladwell’s … well, ‘theory’ is clearly overstating things … his madcap idea is that cultural differences account for much more of what makes outstanding thinkers and leaders (in the Gladwell universe – and especially in the minds of the Gladwell target audience – those two things are always the same) than individual capacity or effort. The ‘outliers’ of the title are those few, isolated, industrious little brown people who abandon their kooky aboriginal cultures and come to enlightenment (i.e. Target) from odd, invigorating angles. And we can all be outliers! All we need to do is mimic some of that outsider flair! Just don’t forget to pay them their social security while they’re cleaning your pool and you’re mimicking them – you can get into such trouble if you don’t!
1. Churchill, Hitler, and the ‘Unnecessary War’ by Pat Buchanan – That Buchanan is a pig-eyed, pea-brained, arch-conservative, close-the-borders, two-guns-in-every-garage nutjob is well-known, but before this disastrous, poorly-written, ineptly-researched single worst book of 2008, it was possible to believe he wasn’t actually insane. The ‘Unnecessary War’ removes all doubt. His overriding animus is of course bigotry, in this case thinly disguised as ‘real-world politics’: that America should have steered clear of the foreign entanglements of World War Two, that Hitler was at heart just a misunderstood German statesman trying to find a modus vivendi with the irrationally touchy great powers of Europe, that the fight erupting between them was a local matter that shouldn’t have embroiled the United States. Buchanan’s book sank into richly-deserved obscurity almost instantly after publication, but Buchanan himself deserves a different fate: he should be hooked up to a saline drip and monitored by a hospital triage staff, so he stays alive as each living Allied serviceman and woman, the descendants of each dead Allied serviceman and woman, each living Holocaust survivor, and the descendants of each dead Holocaust victim takes a turn giving him one solid punch in his fat, smug face. When all of them are done, every living actual historian should also get a shot. Whatever’s left of Buchanan should then be patched up and deposited in the nearest courtroom to be pauperized by the world’s biggest libel action.
And there you have it – the worst of the worst of 2008! Luckily for all of us, the clowns don’t yet run the circus, so next time, we’ll talk about the good stuff, the best of the year!