“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Tuesday, October 28, 2003

We received a letter this morning from a p.r. guy at one of the big publishing houses. We'd squabbled with the guy over the galley of a book we are supposed to be reviewing. The squabble is over. However, he included a little jab in his message, about how he doubted, at one point, that we were a "legitimate reviewer."

How we wish that was true! Legitimate book reviewer? We would rather be accused of public wanking.

But that is unfair. With public wanking, at least, there are some benefits, some feedback. Friends that you can make in prison.

Be that as it may -- we wonder about the current craze for reviewing reviewers. Most book reviews suffer from tediousness more than � horrid, preppy word � snarkiness. Yet here comes James Atlas, doing a NYT magazine piece on Dale Peck solely because Peck has written few pans in the TNR slinging insults at Rick Moody and David Foster Wallace. As if this was new and noteworthy..

Well, since I am a professional book reviewer until they turn off the lights in this joint, why not pile on. In this case, piling on means reviewing Deborah Friedell�s review of Neal Stephenson�s Quicksilver in the TNR this week. It is a pan. And it is,as a review, so obviously badly made and so badly thought out that it can stand in for a lot of the vices endemic to the trade. This isn't to diss Friedell -- we can sympathize with every bad decision Friedell made, and that the editor allowed.

I have also reviewed Quicksilver � I did it for the News and Observer. Maybe it is even up on the net. My review was lukewarm. I thought Cryptonomicon was a beautifully done novel, and I was disappointed that Quicksilver was so � disorganized.

Friedell is not coy about her opinion of the novel: after quoting a comment about the book in Time Magazine, she writes: �There is nothing category-defying about this ridiculous book�

That sentence ends the third paragraph. It is characteristic of the TNR �rip em to shreds� reviewing style � it is how Peck reviews. We can see why the editor and the writer think it is a good idea to front an exaggeratedly ill tempered judgment. It gives the reader the idea that okay, the hanging court is in session. However, we think that the writer and editor should resist the temptation, most of the time, to start off with an extreme judgment, instead of building up to one. I�ve violated that rule myself plenty of times, but mostly in order to praise a book I think is not going to attract attention unless I do a little dance at the beginning of my piece. My worst reviews are when I let the bad temper out, prematurely. Far better to let the defendant hang himself.

However, the beginning of Friedell�s review commits a far worse crime against the rules of reviewing. It begins, a la Kael, by associating the book with other reviews.

That people you don�t like like a novel you don�t like is a cheap shot to take against a novel, usually. It�s malign sociology, and it depends on no control but the reviewer�s idea of some dreadful amorphous crowd that is brought together out of the reviewer's deepest dislikes. Reviewing can never wholly leave out snobbery, but the trick is in maintaining just the right dialectical distance. To review with reference to other reviewers, or a supposed audience, almost always collapses that dialectic, leaving in its wake a snobbery bereft of aesthetic values. The locus classicus of this kind of thing is Kael�s review of West Side Story, which reviewed, at length, the reviews of West Side Story. The reviews were by liberals, and they were by critics who didn�t like musicals. And, by an easy transition, West Side Story was accused of being a fake. Compared not to other musicals, but to the way it was compared to other musicals by reviewers. Now, there might be something in that, but reviewers should be very cautious about guilt by association. Kael�s review came some eight years after McCarthy had perfected that technique. It was unfair and ignorant in the hands of McCarthy, and in the hands of Kale, it bore those hallmarks still. Pauline Kael was surely the McCarthy of reviewers, and her influence has extended far beyond film reviewing -- which is why we are talking about her here. Friedell is probably unconscious that she is stepping in Kael's footsteps, but she is. Surely, if a work stinks, you can find reasons for saying it stinks in itself -- a sort of Kantian stinkiness.

It isn�t that I am immune to this kind of thing: I did it with a review I wrote of the last Houellebecq novel. I did it to be funny. I understand how it seems like a good intro. But really, it is a suck intro. It is coming into the ring and uncorking an under the belt shot first thing. It might amuse the crowd, but it is, for good reason, frowned upon by amateurs of the sweet art.

If, however, you are going to begin with a dirty shot, make sure you�ve covered your ass. For a reviewer, that means showing that you�ve read the book. Friedell, distressingly, shows that she has skipped around largely in the book. That makes sense, if she thinks it is a ridiculous book, but it vitiates her credentials as a reviewer. Now, Quicksilver is 900 some closely printed pages. There are longeurs in the book you could drive a Hummer through. But those nine hundred some pages are filled with, at the very least, extensive and multiple plots. Friedell tells us the plot of the first book as if it wraps around the whole novel. It very definitely doesn�t:

�Although Quicksilver has moments where it diverges into fantasy and science fiction, most of the novel is easily categorized as historical fiction. Its subject is one Daniel Waterhouse, a curious but far from brilliant scientist, whom Stephenson plops Forrest Gump-like into a Who's Who of early modern English thought. The novel begins in 1713, with the apparently amaranthine Enoch Root (a mysterious figure who appears also in the twentieth-century world of Cryptonomicon) convincing our hero to leave his home in Massachusetts Bay so as to end the discord of England's scientists over who first invented calculus. Newton discovered it first, but Leibniz published it first, and it is up to Daniel Waterhouse to patch these momentous things up.

Will he succeed where history failed? That may be fodder for Stephenson's next tome.�

Indeed. What Friedell is skipping, here, is the last two thirds of the book. There is the plot, in the second book, of Eliza and Jack�s ostrich feather market move, which brings us into physical contact with Leibnitz. There is Jack�s capture by pirates at the end of the second book. And there are the multiple court intrigues of the third book that result in the glorious revolution � with the term �revolution� borrowed from astronomy, and � in Stephenson�s version � promoted by Daniel Waterhouse. The novel may be bad or good, but it is definitely about the tying together of science, economics and politcs. That�s central to the thing. But one feels that Friedell just doesn�t care:

�Mainly we observe the goings-on of what becomes London's Royal Society, an organization dedicated to spreading the good tidings of the "New Philosophy"--a method of inquiry that would subject everything in the known world, from human language to optics and the heavens, to empirical study. Stephenson is adept at conveying the Royal Society's intellectual vigor, its sense that all was open to study and to debate, that the world was new and ripe for analysis. But what draws Stephenson to the Royal Society is surely its veneration of fact.�

At this point, we have to wonder whether Friedell has read Gulliver�s Travels. The relation between the Island of Laputa and what Stephenson is describing is pretty evident in the text, and one of the points of the thing is not just that the Royal Society venerated fact � it is that the Society experimented to make facts. To not understand that is to not understand the whole point. Look, act, describe � this is what is radical, what is new about the Royal Society, and the New Philosophy. There is nothing magic in facts -- a belief in ghosts is a belief that ghosts are a fact. The question is all in proofs. But it is obvious from the above paragraph that this is not obvious, or important, to Friedell. Fair enough � but if you aren�t interested in such things, surely a disclaimer is in order. As in: I have no interest in the history of science. Something like that. There are hosts of things that I, as a reviewer, am not interested in. I have read at least fifty short story collections all about the emotional lives of hard drinking divorcees in falling down blue collar neighborhoods, and I�ve realized that this is not something that interests me that much. Unless it is treated comically. That�s my blindness. As a reviewer, I think there are ways to work around that. But if you are reviewing for a magazine, and you have the room � instead of, say, for Kirkus � then you should come up to the bumper, baby, and just say it.

Instead, Friedell goes on a cherrypicking expedition. For someone who has obviously skipped through the mass of the book, this is a bold and hazardous course � and the signs are bad. For instance, she concentrates on, well, on the first fifty pages. For instance, to drive home the point that the characters talk like wax figures in a Disney exhibit about the 17th century, she quotes the following:

�Here is a typical exchange:

"He'd been pestering me with letters... He'd been doing it for years--ever since sending letters had become possible again."

"What made it possible?"

"In my neck of the woods--for I was living in the town of Saxony, called Leipzig--the peace of Westphalia did."

"1648!" Ben says donnishly to the younger boy. "The end of the Thirty Years' War."

"At his end," Enoch continues, "it was the removal of the King's head from the rest of the King, which settled the Civil War and brought a kind of peace to England."

Now, the Ben in question (Ben Franklin) is a schoolboy. And, in context, this is not such an awkward conversation. But more importantly, to cull items this heavily from the first fifty pages, after proclaiming your contempt for the novel, makes the reader think, hmm� did she really read this novel? And that is the worst thing for the reader to be thinking, because it de-legimates the whole process. We are surprised that the TNR book editor allowed this to go through.

Friedell does score some hits. Stephenson is terrible about his women characters. He is too nervous to give them the full sexist treatment, a la Mailer � but he is too sexist, or at least too much the pop author, not to want them to be sexy. So he makes them beautiful and brainy, in a very clumsy way � one is reminded of the Playboy Centerfold bios, where the questions are about favorite books and ambitions, as if the naked gals were job interviewing for a non-tenure position at a junior college. In Quicksilver, Eliza, a courtesan with all the airs of some up and coming Harvard grad, circa 1990. is the female interest. The anachronism of her gestures, talk and attitude is obviously intended � it is a cartoonish joke. But it doesn�t work.

Here�s the best part of Friedell�s review:

�What is remarkable about Jack and Eliza's exchange is its shallowness, its superfluity. (The same may be said of the whole book.) Stephenson does not seem to know what to do with his characters except to have them exchange facts. In the book's appendix, Stephenson provides a dramatis personae listing more than a hundred names. It is a dire necessity in a book in which it is simply impossible to tell characters apart. Any number of these people could exclaim, "He must still be representing the late Charles II, who was crowned in 1651 after the Puritans chopped off the head of his father and predecessor. My King was crowned in 1654." There is no evidence that Stephenson has given any thought to how a seventeenth-century woman might talk to a seventeenth-century man, about how her understanding of the world might infuse her speech.�

Hanging on to that criticism, she gets in some above the belt shots about Stephenson�s writing. Stephenson has the ability to create enormous prose riffs. However, he is also guilty of pages of stiff, wooden writing. Friedell doesn�t care about those riffs � which ultimately makes her pan less effective.

�When Stephenson tries to add romance to the mix, he is unable to lose his idiot-savant tone, and what results are the most embarrassing sections of the novel. "Monmouth got himself worked round to a less outlandish position, viz. sitting up and gazing soulfully into Eliza's nipples." Into the nipples? There is also an adolescent obsession with men titillated by lesbianism and women made fierce by menstrual tension. ("'This may fire or it may not,' she said in French. 'You have until I count to ten to decide whether to gamble your life or your immortal soul on it. One ... two ... three ... did I mention I'm on the rag? Four....'") But these sections are mercifully brief: Stephenson always needs to hurry back to the matter of when and where Charles I was beheaded.�

Gazing into the nipples � that is a genuine find. Sometimes, Friedell takes a scalp. If I was Stephenson, this paragraph would make me wince. Too bad it wasn�t backed up with a better structure. Too bad one�s impression is that Friedell never finished the damn thing.

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