“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

Thursday, October 30, 2003

Bollettino

I heard John Kerry on NPR a couple of days ago. It was a completely sad experience. Kerry was asked what he would do, if he was president, about Iraq. His answer was that he would go to the U.N.

Now, Kerry is a smart man. He is an experienced man. His committee investigations of B.C.C.I in the 90s, and of the Central American conflicts in the 80s, were smart and well done, although limited. But to answer with the favored gesture of the Dembots � to promote process as an answer in itself � is just the kind of thing that will reelect Bush. The only thing you get, when the answer is process, is processed cheese.

How should he have answered? This is what I would have said:

I�m not president right now, and right now is a crucial time in Iraq. So let�s talk about what President Bush should do to remove Iraq as an issue next year. Three things come to mind immediately

1. End the p.r. aspect of the war. In Vietnam, the army would take a hill simply to have it reported on the news that they took a hill. That soon demoralized troops, and eventually corrupted the whole military effort in that war. In this war, we are hearing all about troops building schools. Meanwhile, on the side, we are also hearing that the guerillas are supplying themselves from huge dumps of conventional weapons, including surface to air missiles, because we don�t have enough military personnel on the ground to destroy these things. This is, to put it bluntly, lunatic. If you don�t prioritize military missions for the army in a hostile situation, you shouldn�t have any responsibility for the army. Be a man, pull the school builders, cut off the enemy�s ability to acquire weapons. Period.

2. Dispel the air of sleaze about this war. The war wasn�t fought for the top ten contributors to the Republican party. The President needs to make an example of Halliburton, which has been caught price gouging to the tune of almost 400 million dollars in its reselling and mark up of oil in Iraq. Busting Halliburton would send a message that this war is not about exploitation. If you want to give free propaganda to the enemy, continue awarding juicy contracts to the likes of Worldcom, and continue letting politics, rather than the marketplace, determine the bidding process.

3. Stop the constitutional madness. Constitutions are paper. If we think that leaving a constitution behind is going to guarantee our interests, we are na�ve to a dangerous degree. The administration should immediately start an election project, and plan to hold nationwide elections for an assembly in the next three months. The Iraqis want this � polls show it. If Iraqis don�t have something to defend, they won�t defend it. If they don�t have something to support, they won�t support it. The general rule of thumb, in history, is that occupying powers become more, not less, unpopular as time goes on. Shaky analogies to the exceptions, in Germany and Japan, aren�t going to change this. The dynamic in Iraq has to change now, it has to change in such a way that the Iraqis are left with the impression that Americans are allies, not bosses, and it has to change at the top.

Easy. Instead, we get Dem candidates who�ve been advised by their managers and their entourages to remain as mealy mouthed as possible. We don�t think Kerry is going to get elected. But he does really have things to say � he is alive, he is experienced, he is a better person than the wanker on NPR. He should try to remember this.
Bollettino

Are we thinking enough about coitus interruptus?
You there, in the back. I�m talking to you.

The question is prompted by an article in The Journal of Interdisciplinary History entitled, "They prefer withdrawal". If this sounds like a distant echo of Bartleby�s cry (I prefer not to) � well, surely some scholar somewhere is even now busily connecting Bartleby�s angst to forms of birth control you can invent in your very own home.

Here�s the intro graf:

Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, contemporary advocates of "modern" methods of birth control denigrated withdrawal as ineffective, unpleasant, and even physically and psychologically harmful. Yet, the available evidence on birth control in Britain (and elsewhere) has consistently suggested that withdrawal continued to be the most widely used method of family limitation even into the interwar decades, after more than a half-century of sharply falling national fertility. The use of withdrawal was frequent despite such contemporaneous developments in reproductive technology as the invention of caps and diaphragms (often confusingly called pessaries or check pessaries), their dispersal in a growing number of birth-control clinics, the manufacture of spermicidal pessaries, the commercialization of sheaths, and, in the 1930s, the production of the latex condom. Why, the interwar experts wondered, "in spite of such obvious disadvantages, is this method practised by millions of people?"

Kate Fisher and Simon Szreter, the authors, have no single answer for that question. However, they have gone back over a fascinating, if rather bizarre, survey of old age pensioners in a town in Northern England. The survey concentrated on these folks former marital sexual practices. As Fisher and Szreter point out, these surveys are usually skewed female, since it is rare that males participate in family studies. Why? They don�t explain this. But the survey, or at least Fisher and Szreter�s explanation of it, seems to confirm several broad Foucaultian theses about the interaction between popular practices and the disciplinary technostructures that sought to capture and organize those practices. A lot of work has been done about the great onanism scare of the 18th century. This work has a sub-text � my, aren�t we more sexually liberal now. But sexual liberalism as a program necessarily entails its own coercive agenda. Apparently, the great war on coitus interruptus � a war launched on behalf of �health� and �psychological well being,� a war waged on behalf of tolerance and pleasure and all of the other bullet points of the sexually liberal, was based, itself, on selected truths. As Norman Mailer suspected half a century ago, the devil (insofar as the devil is a technician) was trying to annex the sexual sphere � to purify the site of pleasure before pleasure begins, an airbrushing gesture that still shapes sex as entertainment -- through science:

"THE SAFEST FORM OF CONTRACEPTION": WITHDRAWAL AS A RELIABLE METHOD OF BIRTH CONTROL Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, birth-control campaigners were united in condemning withdrawal as a highly unreliable method of birth control, prone to failure and frequent unwanted pregnancies. Cox in Clinical Contraception maintained that it was both the most "primitive" and the "most unreliable method in use" and highlighted four causes of failure: "premature emission"; "presence of spermatozoa in the pre-ejaculatory secretion"; "re-entry after ejaculation," "without effective cleansing"; and "motile sperms ... which succeed in traversing the vagina and reaching the os." 5

Subsequent scientific and medical advice has mellowed somewhat. By 1971, Peel and Potts could take a much more agnostic position in their medical Textbook of Contraceptive Practice: "If there are no good reasons for recommending it neither are there any obvious grounds for discouraging it among couples who have already decided on the method and appear to be relatively happy with it." In fact, recent data on the efficiency of withdrawal has concluded that its failure rate is similar to that of the diaphragm and the rhythm method (withdrawal 19 percent, rhythm 20 percent, diaphragm 18 percent, condoms, 12 percent, and contraceptive pills 8 percent). However, Peel and Potts were not prepared to recommend the method to newcomers; they were more favorably inclined toward the appliance and chemical methods available by the 1970s. Contemporary advice and family-planning literature has continued in this vein, only actively promoting "modern" methods. The failure rates for withdrawal are sometimes highlighted in such literature, one author insisting by contrast, "for consistent and correct users, barrier method effectiveness is quite high." Rarely has anyone suggested that withdrawal might be an effective [End Page 270] technique with the proper care and skill; rather, such care and skill were to be seriously doubted. 6

Of course that skill is doubted. Whether the struggle is against masturbation or against withdrawal, the principle is always the same: people don�t have the skill to use the genitals they were supplied with in the womb. That most secret and divided moment in the Enlightenment project � riven between freedom, on the one hand, and the control of nature, on the other hand � finds its natural subject in the sexual, where freedom and nature clash by night, an ignorant army of withdrawers, masturbators, male gazers, and whores against the know-it-alls, purveyors of survey questions, doctors and academics.

The ignorant constitute the only army I belong to. Onward Christian soldiers.

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.

Sunday, October 26, 2003

Bollettino

We recommend New Yorker�s film issue. The New Yorker has shook off, mostly, the baleful influence of Pauline Kael � thank God � P.K.�s style and p.o.v. having the effect, on us, that mold has on a immune deficiency shut-in -- and has a real writer on films in Anthony Lane. We resisted Lane at first � what, another English critic at another major magazine? Wasn�t one James Wood enough? But luckily, Lane is a much better writer than Wood, and not so given to his own agenda � as Wood is given to judging everything under the viewpoint that Saul Bellow is the central novelist of our time � that he can�t lapse, happily, into spontaneous likes and dislikes. Too much eclecticism in a critic is bad � it shows a lack of that conscious impressionability that we presume must accompany the experience of however many years� worth of art. To remain an ing�nue after seeing five, ten years of films, you have to be as brainless as Rex Reed. However, too little willingness to depart from one�s ideology � too little willingness to grudge the surprises of pleasure � make a critic rigid. Only this kind of mental arteriosclerosis could explain, for instance, Wood�s displeasure, in his well known review of Delillo�s Underworld, that the novel was really good. Of Denby, the other critic, we can�t say anything good. We�ve never read him and liked it. He is one of those critics who grasps a clich� the way a child will grasp the guard-rail going up the stairs. He doesn�t have any aesthetic sense that he brings to films � that is, any more than the average guy who watches enough tv might house in his soul. In other words, he�s just another popcorn muncher. Most movie critics are.

Ever since Tina Brown organized the synergy between celebs and the New Yorker mystique (which is much like saying, ever since Stalin organized the collective farming in the Ukraine � it smoothes over a, to say the least, controverted history), the magazine has made an effort to pump out some good stuff re pop culture. Contra Renata Adler, the New Yorker isn�t dead, and the writing sometimes achieves a sprightliness reminiscent of the golden age. It is, at the very least, light years from the sycophantic dribble that Vanity Fair sprinkles on its half clothed ing�nues � who, in the moment of the camera flash, have already expended their little fame half lives, and are already on the way back to the dinner time theater. As for the breathy appreciations of flawless super stars, they are as inhuman as a car company�s press releases about next year�s models. At VF, its all merely the skin above the skull. I look at those stars, their skins as bumpless as nylon � and, one feels, as liable to a run if handled ungently -- and their hair � oh, to have the money to buy the shampoo to give my hair even a tenth of that bounce and body, as they say on the ads! and I simply want to dine on them. To eat all of them. Or to quote Thom Gunn's Moly:

"Into what bulk has method disappeared?

Like ham, streaked. I am gross---grey, gross, flap-eared.

The pale-lashed eyes my only human feature.
My teeth tear, tear. I am the snouted creature

That bites through anything, root, wire, or can.
If I was not afraid I'd eat a man. "


To return to the New Yorker -- there�s a profile of a screenwriting guru, who was represented in that stinker Spike Jonez film that wasted Meryl Streep � he�s the guy the Nicolas Cage character goes to when he�s stuck on his script. But we really liked best a piece by a Tad Friend � is there, really, a man named Tad Friend in L.A., and did he escape from some as yet undiscovered Nathaniel West manuscript? -- who provides a microscopic view of the fine art of screenwriting � which is all in getting credit. Here�s a good graf:

�Studios almost always want two things from a revision: it should "raise the stakes" and "make us care about the main character more." A script doctor often accomplishes both feats at once by adding what the director Sidney Lumet has called a "rubber ducky" scene: a backstory explaining that a character became cruel or troubled because his mother took a rubber ducky away from him when he was a little boy. (The standard rubber duckies are being orphaned, being orphaned and poor, having your wife die, and having a bad woman do you wrong.) The director Garry Marshall gave "Pretty Woman" a rubber ducky when he spruced up the scene in which Edward lolls in the bathtub with Vivian and reveals that his father left his mother for another woman when he was young, taking his money with him, after which the mother died. "I was very angry with him," Marshall has Edward say, explaining why he became a corporate raider and plundered his father's company. "It cost me ten thousand dollars in therapy to say that sentence: 'I was very angry with him.' " Marshall told me, "When the actors are both naked in the tub, it's a good time to do exposition-the audience listens."

That exposition, man. Gotta have that. And the rubber ducky thing, gotta have that. Actually, this explains almost half of the suck films I�ve ever seen.

Or this:

Every script bears traces of its procession of authors, like rings on a tree stump. Carl Gottlieb, one of the screenwriters of "Jaws," has been a W.G.A. arbiter more than thirty times. "Reading the first version of something like 'The Terminator' or 'The Hulk,' you say, 'Oh, I see-that's why they bought it,' " Gottlieb says. "By the third or fourth writer, they're punching the material sideways. Then, two or three writers after that, a writer introduces one or two ideas that really make it work, and you think, This is a terrific fucking script. Then you read draft No. 9, and think, O.K., the director has put his stamp on it. Then No. 10, and the main character has much longer speeches: Aha, this is where Schwarzenegger signed on and they had to make him happy. Then you read the final script, No. 12, the movie you see, and it's O.K., but, boy, you wish they'd shot No. 7 or No. 8. The problem is the people responsible for fabulous draft No. 7 didn't have to worry about casting it, or about having a big opening weekend, which requires explosions, shattering glass, exploitative nudity, and a lesbian scene that the lead actress can talk about on Leno."

I could keep quoting, until I reproduced the entire piece. Friend gives excellent graf. Trust me on this one. Read it.