Got around to reading Philip Roth’s 2004 counterfactual The Plot Against America which I found compelling and kind of scary. It’s a re-imagining of American history in which Republican candidate Charles Lindbergh defeats F.D.R in 1940 on an anti-war, anti-semitic, covertly pro-German (or at least pro-accommodationist) platform. What makes it really get under your skin is that Roth seems to be drawing heavily on his own Newark childhood, so it reads not as science fiction or fantasy but as a creepily plausible rethinking of both U.S. and his own family history if the country had taken a drastically different turn in the late 1930s. So, for example, the depiction of his brother who embraces the new Lindbergh regime seems charged with real and intense family memories and conflicts. The novel also feels obviously of its 2004 Bush administration moment in its detailed thinking through of how a truly fascist U.S. might play out.
Recently read both The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the sequel The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson, a Swedish journalist who, to what must have been the deep frustration of the international publishing world, had actually died at age 50 in 2004 prior to the publication of any of his novels. The third of the trilogy is due out in the States soon. These are interesting blockbusters. They’re pulpy and have some of the limitations of most blockbuster fiction: the characters can be cartoonish, the plots implausible, sensationalist and heavily dependent on techno-thriller conventions of various sorts. (For example, a whole lot of both novels involves descriptions of computer hacking.) But, they’re total page-turners, really hard to put down and a lot of fun (I gave Sarah the second one at Xmas and over the last few days we were reading it simultaneously, with me picking it up when she put it down; we each had our own bookmark). I guess I felt the second one was inferior and in the end closer to that techno-thriller cliche than the first, which is more thoughtful and interestingly broody about Swedish politics, patriarchy, and misogyny. Has there ever been an international blockbuster series of novels whose major theme is male violence against women? The Swedish title of the first one is Men Who Hate Women and the hero, Lisbeth Salander, is a female avenger against male sadists and abusers. Salander is in some ways too Hollywood-ready, kind of Laura Croft-like in some ways, but she’s also a great heroine in her weird combination of Sherlock Holmes (she’s Asbergers-y, a genius/savant with a photographic memory), Jason Bourne or the Fugitive, and Batman or something. The novels also reminded me a bit of a recent favorite of mine, the Danish thriller The Exception by Christian Jungersen of a couple years ago; they share a left-wing, anti-racist Scandinavian perspective on problems of contemporary globalism such as sex trafficking, war crimes, and the like.
One more thing: one of my favorite things about the novels and about Salander is that she’s a kind of superhero version of Pippi Longstocking: uses “V. Kulla” as a fake name on her doorbell at one point for example (cp. Pippi’s Villa Villakulla).
Read two Patricia Highsmith novels while in Cambridge for the holidays, inspired by reviews of the new Highsmith biography which make her sound like a very weird and fascinating character (did you know she worked as a writer for superhero comic books, for example?). One of her most famous, Strangers on a Train, and a more obscure one, The Blunderer. Similar plots and characters: “men who hate women,” actually, or men who want to get rid of their wives. Strangers on a Train is a brilliant “double” novel and a novel of homosexual panic — it would’ve fit perfectly into Eve Sedgwick’s Between Men.
Best Music Writing 2009, this year guest edited by Greil Marcus. I threw this into an Amazon order as a stocking stuffer for myself. Someone gave me the 2007 volume, which I loved, and I haven’t missed one since (ok, that only makes 3). I’m a longtime fan (and erstwhile practitioner) of rock/pop music criticism, which can feel like a dying mainstream art. But these collections inspire confidence that there’s loads of brilliant, imaginative and funny writing out there about pop music, albeit sometimes in hard to find places. The books tend to collect a really diverse mixture of artist profiles from Rolling Stone or The New Yorker with pieces from little magazines and quasi-unpublished bits from blogs and whatnot. A few favorites from this one:
- Vanessa Grigoriadis “The Tragedy of Britney Spears” — a long investigative piece from Rolling Stone, itself a voyeuristic peek at this train-wreck of a career but also a thoughtful analysis of Spears’ downwardly spiraling dependency on celebrity/paparazzi culture (she is now romantically involved with a paparazzi she met on one of her daily chases). Reads a bit like a Bruce Wagner novel.
- John Jeremiah Sullivan, “Unknown Bards: the blues becomes transparent to itself.” Reflections on John Fahey and other collectors and aficionados of early 20th-century blues recordings. Really smart and interesting on the paradoxes and ironies attendant on old white men obsessing over old records made by Southern black men. Also an argument for blues as great, transcendent art.
- James Parker, “Unauthorized! Axl Rose, Albert Goldman, and the renegade art of rock biography.” Hilarious overview of the disreputable genre of the “unauthorized” rock biography, including analysis of several biographies of “persistent, near-magical malignancy.”
- A nice short piece by Jonathan Lethem about the nature/meaning of rock vocals in “post-Elvis, post-Sam Cooke, post-Ray Charles popular music” in which he makes a case that “the singer in rock, soul and pop has to be doing something ineffable that pulls against any given context.” I actually found this argument surprisingly original and persuasive.
- An investigative piece by Josh Eells about “the eyeliner wars,” e.g. the harrassment and persecution of “emos” (androgynous fans of Dashboard Confessional and My Chemical Romance) in contemporary Mexico. Reminded me of a good piece from the anthology of a year or two ago about the surprisingly enormous cult of Morrissey in Mexico.
- Paul Ford’s “Six-word reviews of 763 SXSW Mp3s.” Just what it sounds like: 763 reviews of 6 words or less (tweets, in effect) of bands performing at the South by Southwest conference, a reducto ad absurdum of the Blender-style capsule review genre. In the introduction Greil Marcus aptly describes this feat of reviewing and of dismissal as “heroic, or demonic” and as a performance that implicitly dismisses “music and criticism at the same time.” Maybe you’d have to have put some time in a music reviewer to fully appreciate this one.