Archive | April, 2013

49 Steps by Roberto Calasso

26 Apr

49 Steps

In his interview with The Paris Review, Roberto Calasso said the following:

I feel thought in general, and in particular what is unfortunately called “philosophy,” should lead a sort of clandestine life for a while, just to renew itself. By clandestine I mean concealed in stories, in anecdotes, in numerous forms that are not the form of the treatise. Then thought can biologically renew itself, as it were.

It would appear that Roberto Calasso’s own works set out to do just that. The 49 steps alluded to in the title of Calasso’s book refer to a sequence of meaning in the Talmud. Here, however, the sequence, or something like it, is used not on the Talmud but on the whole plane of western thought in the past few centuries.

In freeing himself from the philosophical treatise of which he spoke, abandoning the essay as we know it today with a strong supportable thesis, and without resorting to the constant chain of overcoming that often happens in western thought—you know, the easy academic distinction which believes that analytic philosophy supersedes Derrida, who supersedes Heidegger, who supersedes Nietzsche, who supersedes Plato—Calasso resorts to those very anecdotes, stories and other forms he favors to weave a narrative of the modern world.

The project that Calasso seems to take on here is a means of exploring those more latent features of history that, while not belonging to the socially accepted sequence of historical influence, may have left a definite imprint on modern consciousness.

One can’t so easily accuse him of jazzing around unseriously with history. Calasso, rather, seems to ascertain that if one doesn’t weave one’s own narrative, one is weaved by someone else’s narrative. Yet, all the while, he feels somewhat easy with the recognition that we are always wrapped up in some narrative not of our own making; another feature of life.

Most systems of thought have come about through someone trying to escape history, whether it be Marxism, The French Revolution or The Society of the Best Sunday Cheeses. Revolutions and intended revolutions, gigantic cultural gestures, act as instant points by which we can map out human progress or history.

Rather than escaping history, Calasso, rather, digs deep into the sediment of history, burrows through its tunnels, pays careful attention to its sequential blips and interruptions, comes out the other side and explores the secret rooms of the ancient cities of civilization. He walks the dark alleyways of society, lying adjacent to the boulevards filled with the humbuggy chants of party members making political changes, and in these alleyways a secret history is played out.

In Calasso’s narrative, everything new is actually an eventuation of something incredibly ancient. The peculiar, bisexually misogynistic message of Otto Weininger, which captivated a few college boys and girls in the early part of the twentieth century, is not a new psychological breakthrough but merely a more immediate and honest manifestation of how men have viewed women for countless millennia. Likewise, the mostly discarded writings of Marx (even by most Marxists) on the role of women in society can be seen as a hyper-reduction of an almost primitive tendency to view women as mere agents of sexual utility.

In like manner, many specific artists, politicians and historical figures make ‘cameos’—to use a theatrical phrase—on Calasso’s stage in order to embody a specific problem or a very distinct yet ongoing thread of thought or behavior. Yet, because this is not a story in the classic sense, Calasso’s narrative takes the form, not of a theatrical stage, but a sort of web. Each thread is connected to a different branch. Each essay is a branch on which Calasso sits for a time to gain a different thought.

He returns frequently to Walter Benjamin and Karl Kraus. There is one amusing anecdote in which Calasso tells us that we can ascertain the shape of Walter Benjamin’s thought by some of the things he reviews—as is the case when Benjamin employs his knowledge of Freud alongside philosophy of identity and pleasure when reviewing a book about toys.

Calasso’s frequent return to Kraus gives special attention to his prolific periodical, Die Fackel, along with The Last Days of Mankind. Kraus is depicted as the careful scribbler of uncareful half-truths and truth-and-a-halfs. Calasso gives us a picture of Kraus holed up during the Nazi-apocalypse, more intent on determining the perfect placement of commas than fighting the devil, with the firm belief that good grammar prevents future genocide.

Max Stirner earns an awkward place in the anxiety of influence, as most philosophers who’ve read him seem anxious to even admit his obvious influence on their work.

As Calasso weaves this narrative, it is easy to get lost in the euphoria of his poetic command. As a reader, I want to believe that his various curiosities and interests give us a more likely sequence of historical movement, even if it is only along some sub-current. But to trust the very finitude of Calasso’s narrative, bound by the walls of the book and its bindings, is to betray the spirit of the work, for part of the euphoria offered by the reading experience, I suspect, comes from a sense of inexhaustibility.

Following a similar trajectory through history as 49 Steps, there are all kinds of places one can go, suspicions one can entertain and conclusions one can draw. It acts almost as a mystery story through the walls of history, as we try to trace, not necessarily its origins, but how we relate to it.

Toward the book’s close, in a chapter called ‘The Terror of Fables,’ Calasso talks about our modern relationship with the word ‘myth’ and its having become a sneering synonym for ‘lie.’ He tries to restore myth as an ancient form of truth.

Thus now we can own up to what was—what is—that ancient terror that the fables continue to arouse. It is no different from the terror that is the first one of all: terror of the world; terror in the face of its mute, deceptive, overwhelming enigma; terror before this place of constant metamorphosis and epiphany, which above all includes our own minds, where we witness without letup the tumult of simulacra.

No, if myth is precisely a sequence of simulacra that help to recognize simulacra, it is naïve to pretend to interpret myth, when it is myth itself that is already interpreting us.

Perhaps it should be no wonder that Roberto Calasso only wrote one novel. After that, history itself was novel enough.


Roger’s Version by John Updike

21 Apr

Roger's Version

Divinity professor, Roger Lambert, seems to have a great deal of problems. Being hassled and annoyed by a young science-minded evangelical student named Dale about a grant for a project involving the proof of God’s existence is a minor inconvenience on the scale. It would seem that Dale is just as determined to find God behind every biological and cosmological corner as Roger’s wife, Esther, is determined to corrupt Dale’s already fragile faith with fornication.

As the divinity board decides whether or not they want to give Dale the grant, his faith slowly diminishes as his grant-project, symbiotically linked to his faith, becomes more difficult.

Thrown into the mix is the ‘trashy teenage girl’ for whom Roger longs, as the back of this paperback, Ballantine Books edition phrases it. I suppose they thought this description of the girl was tantalizing enough and less likely to repel airport readers than the fact of the matter: The teenage girl is, in fact, Roger’s niece.

As Roger’s incestuous longings are slowly teased into fruition, Dale’s longings assault us abruptly, having given us little build-up save an awkward Thanksgiving dinner at the Lambert home. The assault takes the form of Roger’s fist-person narration morphing into a personal but emotionally uninvested God’s-eye view of what takes place in the bedroom between Dale and Esther. The violence of this high style is first evident as the reader questions what the implications of this narrative choice might be. We’re given no answer, ultimately. It serves, at most, to give Roger’s narration a set of jealous wise-cracks. Sometimes he sadistically (yet reasonably) says something to make Dale self conscious about the adultery business, but that’s about all.

Where, then, does the tension lie? Is it the considered abortion of his niece? Well, considering Roger is both in favor of it and not the father, not really. Is it Dale’s impending loss of faith? The potential breakup of the Lambert marriage? Very little comes of any of it. In this case, Roger and the gang’s problems are dealt with just as tidily as Updike’s sentences.

One wonders why he feels the need to take omniscient first-personal narrator liberties when he is capable of such fine regular old first-person perceptions as this one about his childhood:

‘My deserted, husbandless, pitiable mother and I would visit her people, the men horse-faced and leathery and placidly sexless but the women wide sloping mounds of fat trembling on the edge, it seemed to me, of indecency, with their self-conscious shrieks of laughter, their heads at each shriek darting to cover their mouths, their little teeth decayed and crooked, and the steaming food they were copiously setting on the table a malodorous double-entendre, something that excited them, served up in an atmosphere heavy with barn-yard innuendo as well as lugubrious piety.’

Few are the writers who make their quips and witticisms seem so easy. A Quaker on the Divinity Board is ‘ecumenically imperturbable.’ When Roger’s secular wife tries to quiet his boiling irritation with Dale by making light of their common religious ground, he replies, ‘Another end of it … Not distribution. You might call it quality control.’

John Banville once said that most writers are either writers of sentences or writers of paragraphs. Though Updike has a great many beautiful paragraphs, he probably leans more toward being a master of sentences. This probably has something to do with the stubbornness of his sensuality. He pays as much attention to a woman’s cleavage as he does to a soiled diaper or a sketchy clinic, and often with little space between them on the page. Updike has his narrator proposition his niece, Verna, for sex, only moments after demanding she get an abortion. It would be to Updike’s technical favor if she wasn’t up for it. She is, in fact, up for it. This forces me to conclude that it is not simply the character but Updike himself who is bad at timing.

The book layer’s abruptness on top of abruptness until the book ends, not with a bang, not with a whimper, but something more like a shrug. It is one of the few times you’ll see a novel where everything that could go wrong seems to go wrong, but where no one really seems miffed or troubled by it.

Ironically, just as the intellectually eager, spiritually earnest Dale tries to reach a height at which there are no more questions as to the exact nature of God, Updike gives us a story in which there are no real questions either. Perhaps, after a long career of writing about adultery in some form or another, Updike thought this would be an interesting technique to change things up. It’s just unfortunate that the casualty to this change ended up being a sense of wonder.

Chi Cheng of ‘The Deftones’ Passes away.

16 Apr

Chi Cheng of ‘The Deftones’ passed away this past weekend after holding out for a long time. A terrible loss for fans and for music.

Here’s a link to the story.

Musical Musings– On Celestial Music by Rick Moody

12 Apr

On Celestial Music

Gone are the days when the most renowned musicians were middle-aged men in powdered wigs who changed the arts with a few daring compositions after drafting away in their youth. In the 21st century, music belongs to the young. With the musicians of note getting younger, the music got younger. As the music got younger, the compositions got shorter. As communication technology spread throughout the world, music became a very different commodity no longer reserved for aristocrats in big concert halls. Songs were served up in little spurts of marketability in the form of singles or potential singles. Popular music is now just as available to The Prince of Wales as it is a car mechanic. As music became easily distributable, it was able to influence a greater number of people, very quickly, and thus go through much quicker evolutions.

In the constantly changing world of music and the ever greater rate of change—we mark its evolution by decades and even years now rather than the centennial or bicentennial—there has been a just as quickly changing world of writing about music. Unfortunately, that writing is almost purely journalistic in nature—frustrated ex-guitarists, music majors and moonlighting ditty-writers for dog-food commercials. What happened to the days when philosophers, novelists, poets and intellectuals were music-minded and had something to say on the matter? It seems that over the past century (a relatively short time in the long history of music) that all we hear on the subject from these types are a few old-man grumblings from established non-musician artists who, otherwise, are thought of as hip in their respective fields.

Novelist and musician Rick Moody’s On Celestial Music is admirable for at least trying to engage with the world of contemporary music of the past fifty years in a way that doesn’t betray the writer’s need to approach subjects with a fresh, cultural scrutiny while keeping the old-man youth-hate grumblings to a minimum. ‘Trying’ is the key word here, however.

Some of the musical biases that pop up are unsurprising, given his generation and artistic temperament, and I read this book sort of expecting these. Aside from the mention of a few artists who come off like his exceptions, Moody doesn’t seem to think much of Hip-Hop on whole. Same goes for Heavy Metal. He doesn’t like Phil Collins-era Genesis and arguably doesn’t like them with Peter Gabriel much, either. One gathers that he prefers guitar music to synth music. This is all pretty standard stuff.

Thin-skinned readers are bound to find no interest in books like this if they wish only to read something that espouses and reviles different musicians in keeping with their own tastes. However, those of us who appreciate the relativity of varied musical opinion are quite okay with Moody saying he doesn’t much like Eric Clapton. He reserves the right do dislike whomever he wants. If it happens that we can agree with Moody on something—as I did, sharing his hatred of the overstated sentimentality and cloying vibrato of show-tunes—it is all the better that he can supplement his opinion with some well articulated reason.

At his worst, however, Moody sometimes uses words that give an innateness to his opinions which puts them immediately in the realm of fact. The Cure simply is ‘outdated.’ Tool simply is ‘mediocre.’ After a while, the assertions go beyond mere claims to a particular artist’s talent or lack thereof, as happens when he insinuates that Velvet Underground was more influential than Bob Dylan—albeit, in a throw-away statement as if this was something we all know already. As words like ‘mediocre’ and ‘outdated’ replace what would be more appropriate to list under ‘not my cup of tea,’ Moody’s struggle to say something fresh and informed about contemporary music falls ever nearer that pit of previous-generation-grumblings that the whole ambition of his project seems intent on surpassing. On those occasions he does try to supplement an opinion in favor of an artist, it is usually a coupling of personal experience with some quote in a common rock magazine.

The prose itself is earnest, passionate and musical with a feeling of freedom like much of the jazz he favors. Take this passage about the music of the Roots, for example:

‘The whole thing rolls forward like a sermon from the cracks in your floorboards, a sermon for lost souls, like some politics of bipolar disorder, complete with hallucinations, and in which all the isms, all the ideologies, collapse, and then there’s just the black American stuck in the state of permanent urban exile, trying to find a way to survive amid the Darwinism to which the power elite is so happy to consign him, and all this with a really, amazing, beautiful improvisation happening in the background, mixing electronic effects with live drumming, Baraka rising up from the sound bed like he is being challenged in a way that he long resisted, after which—if in fact there can be an “after”—the album falls into two blanks, two blank tracks, a suitable silence, a sepulchral silence, a reprieve, forty seconds thereof, the silence of the beyond the grave of African American history and identity and oppression …’

There is, however, the other side of that earnestness and freedom. One wonders if Moody perhaps feels uncomfortable employing sarcasm without gunshot-like exclamation points to make sure his reader knows that he is being sarcastic. ‘Only problem is: Pete Townsend didn’t even write them!’ ‘Wow! Bob Dylan was dead meat! We should all be so badly decomposed!’ ‘Kiss … created a multinational merchandising juggernaut!’

The whimsy transcends mere punctuation. The title piece, ‘On Celestial Music,’ is a short reckless stew of aesthetics and theology together, giving Moody the opportunity to go abstract on the divine and its relationship with music.

But something peculiar happens when we get to ‘The Pete Townsend Fragments.’ Pete Townsend of The Who earned himself uncoveted attention in 2003 when the police found his credit card information on a child pornography website. It was dismissed when Pete was able to prove that he was researching child porn in order to fight it. As I read this, it became clear that the whole lengthy essay acted, not only as an in-depth study of The Who’s career and music but, adjacently, it acted as a peek-a-boo psychoanalytic search through Townshend’s art and life for signs of Pete as pederast or Pete as childhood abusee.

Moody’s curiosity reaches the height of its vulgarity when he says:

‘I sort of want to know more about Pete’s grandmother, about the period of his real or imagined child abuse. This is a fascinating autobiographical subplot for those who are interested in such things.’

This insensitivity actually incited me to write ‘Yuck!’ in my notes. Of course it’s a fascinating autobiographical subplot. But you’re not supposed to say it. You’re not supposed say it. Moody says it. Moody asks the crass questions and goes on wondering until I find myself reading only to satiate my own vulgar curiosity along with him, which becomes the primary hook of the essay.

‘The Problem of Impairment’ has a similar format. It takes the dipsomania of The Pogues frontman, Shane McGowan, as its aesthetic entry point into the band’s music. The piece is redeemed, however, by its muscularity and maturity over the Townshend piece as it says something much bigger about artists and substance-abuse on whole. Moody handles this piece with greater sensitivity as he relates to the subject directly as a recovering alcoholic.

If this is not too big a worm to offer up in too small a piece of cake, the book’s comic-book exclamation points and vulgar curiosities are, in the end, redeemed by the care and sheer ambition of pieces like ‘The New York Underground’ and ‘Europe, Forsake Your Drum Machines!’

In a book edited by Moody on The New Testament called A Joyful Noise, he refers to himself in his introductory essay as an ‘armchair hermeneuticist.’ This is where he shines and this is precisely how he approaches the drum machine essay. Using the history of the drum machine, Moody says some very interesting things about the nature of art, dehumanization, secularism and how different genres bifurcate.

Is what he says in this piece true? Do the pieces to the historical puzzle he presents fit so neatly? Who cares? One could, perhaps, compare what Moody is attempting in this book to what Roberto Calasso does in 49 Steps or Foucault in The Order of Things. He’s developing a historical narrative. He’s developing an interpretation.

His addressing the musicians of Europe reaches the height of his earnestness and militancy, and you have to at least admire his attempt to turn it into an invested appeal rather than an alienated gripe.

‘In the pursuit of a globalized, corporate Europe, an EU, you are going to flatten out all this difference and apply a nearly uniform sound to it, a martial, regimented sound to it, which is the sound of the drum machine? You are going to rhythmically organize Europe so that in its new secular guise its music is wholly explicable, without mystery, or you are going to take every immigrant music and subject it to this same spin cycle that wrings out all the differences and gives the music the same dull intention? And in the process you are going to rid the world of the actual music makers so that there is no one left making the music, just the ill-at-ease boys with their laptops?’

I welcome the response of European music to this appeal. I also welcome the challenge this book presents to other writers to invest this much thought to different kinds of music that space, time and personal taste didn’t permit Moody to address. Perhaps this will become its own mini-genre—the nonjealous investigation of music by other kinds of artists.

First Sentences #1

8 Apr

This begins a new series on this site called First Sentences about—as you’d imagine—the first sentence of particular books. With all kinds of lists out today—The Top 100 Best First Sentences, The Top 10, The Most Overlooked and all the like—I thought it would be just as fun to explore a few first sentences of well-known books at a time in order to figure out what makes good first sentences to good books good, or, what makes bad first sentences to relatively good books bad.

Today I’d like to bring some first sentences into account from two books considered classics of their kind. The first one is The Recognitions by William Gaddis.

‘Even Camilla had enjoyed masquerades, of the safe sort where the mask may be dropped at that critical moment it presumes itself as reality.’

What makes this first sentence great is that, in a very nuanced way, it sets us up for the theme of the novel to follow, which then unfolds and reveals itself in a very complicated manner. Throughout this novel, forgery and counterfeiting act as a mask for a much bigger message about sincerity and integrity. This sentence is just one among many that attempt some metaphor of the main point, but its genius is in its placing.

Dozens of characters come in and fade out of this novel with a thousand different voices, clipped, started and half-finished conversations at dinner parties, on the street, in churches and small-town pubs, and abroad in foreign lands. There’s so much going on in this book that it almost feels like a different book each time you read it. Gaddis pays the reader a kindness in letting her know—even if she’s not aware of it in the beginning—what will pick this story up and carry it along from the instant of the first sentence.

It’s the kind of experience that seems so unextraordinary until the whole book is finished and one flips back to the beginning to remember how such an epic book began and where it initially thought it was going. It turns out, the book always knew where it was going from sentence number one. Gaddis’s first novel (hardly fitting into whatever mold we’ve ever imposed on the metaphysical idea of a ‘first novel’ as genre) is a perfect eventuation of the kind of big ‘novel of ideas’ that became a model for ‘serious literature’ in the 19th century.

However, Gaddis wasn’t hindered by the journalistic or periodical method of writing that many of the greats like Dickens and Dostoyevsky were, often resulting in strange contradictions and narrative blunders. Rather, he wrote the full book in a lonely room, stacking hundreds and hundreds of manuscript pages up until he had a tight, wonderfully constructed gem in which everything that might have been accomplished in a great novel of 1860 was accomplished in 1955, but in a brilliant, original prose and a very definite sense of narrative structure that took its time, with long chapters, with a modernist gamesman-like execution and a seriousness of detail that rivaled most of his contemporaries.

The next sentence is a bit more problematic. This one is from Mickelsson’s Ghosts.

‘Sometimes the sordidness of his present existence, not to mention the stifling, clammy heat of the apartment his finances had forced him to take, on the third floor of an ugly old house on Binghamton’s West Side—“the nice part of town,” everybody said (God have mercy on those who had to live in the bad parts)—made Peter Mickelsson clench his square yellow teeth in anger and once, in a moment of rage and frustration greater than usual, bring down the heel of his first on the heavy old Goodwill oak table where his typewriter, papers, and books were laid out, or rather strewn.’

For a man that put such emphasis throughout his career on rewriting and perfecting craft, this is a pretty cumbersome beginning. It attempts to say too much, as if Gardner is terrified that if he puts any more energy into dividing these mere background ideas into more than one sentence, the reader will loose his sense of the ‘narrative dream’, as he called it, which keeps us excited and reading.

This sentence, however, didn’t keep me reading in and of itself. It almost stopped me from continuing. It was only on the good faith that others had read the whole book, had gotten some enjoyment out of it and considered it his best work that I continued.

I am now very happy to have read the whole thing several times. It is a work I often return to with great pleasure. Often, Gardner does succeed at continuing his ‘narrative dream’ in such a way that I found myself wanting to pick up the book and read for hours at a time, not simply to ‘see what happens’ (I’m not sure I’ve ever really been that kind of reader) but because of the sheer power of his imagery and language.

But blunders like the above do occur, it’s just unfortunate that such a terrible, arduous blunder—a sentence with sentences inside of it and ideas inside of ideas—kicks off an otherwise wonderful book. I suppose something similar to ‘Call me Mickelsson’ had already been done, so he went the opposite direction.

Modern Trifles —

6 Apr

The End of Modernity

The End of Modernity by Gianni Vattimo

This represents yet another of my wrestling matches with a writer who is hard to pin down precisely because he insists on tackling subjects that are hard to pin down. I first arrived at Gianni Vattimo—someone it keeps feeling necessary for me to read if only because of his proximity to other writers writing like-minded material—by way of Richard Rorty. The two were featured as part of a discussion in several books together and arrived at similar conclusions. However, it seems to me that Vattimo has always had just a little bit more to say than Rorty on a theoretical level.

While Rorty has been quite comfortable in his work to stop explaining some everlasting, cogent reason for his liberal project while still trying to criticize different vocabularies of progress (to his credit), Vattimo is interested in pushing ideas as far as they seem capable of stretching, as is the case with the terms ‘modernity’ and ‘post-modernity.’

As is the case with most of Vattimo’s work, one gets the feeling in this book that he’s explaining something while explaining the explanation with it. This probably comes from the fact that he doesn’t so much have a thought ‘system’ as a thought ‘style.’

Of course, Vattimo’s book would be impossible to ‘summarize’ in a short space. If it were possible, he wouldn’t have written the book but he would have, perhaps, written a blog entree or an essay. But this is the best I can do: Vattimo posits that the terms ‘modernity’ and ‘post-modernity’ have been used frequently as explanations, but are often unexplainable themselves. Here, Vattimo tries to both define them, make sense of them, map their respective ideological pedigrees and then radicalize new possibilities with those things in mind—but not necessarily in that order.

Neither term, he claims, can be traced to a specific ‘era’ or ‘timeframe’ in the strong sense, but both represent a style of thinking/living that are all tangled up together. Post-modernism can only exist adjacent to modernism, not necessarily after it.

Where Richard Rorty went as far as to say that he’d given up on trying to figure out what ‘post-modern’ meant, exactly—citing that he ultimately had no energy to figure out what Jacques Derrida, Thomas Pynchon and certain kinds of visual art all have in common—Vattimo’s aim in this book is to come to a very close interpretation of what it means.

To break it down further, Vattimo suggests that post-modernism is the culmination of a crisis which has to do with different ways of looking at Being. The crisis seems to reach its height with humanism, and here he draws on Heidegger’s interpretation of humanism as a radicalization of metaphysics. Vattimo is a pretty rigorous Heideggerian in that he thinks metaphysics needs to be done away with (‘left to itself’ as Heidegger said, if not ‘overcome’). The reason? Metaphysics are usually the result of a group of people making universal laws based on finite data, which history, especially the last century, has proved to be a violent process resulting in bigotry, wars, classicism and ethical short-sightedness.

The only way to ‘retrieve Being’ from metaphysics is a hermeneutic radicalization of the world and interpretations of and within it. But where does that put us?

Vattimo pulls a lot from other thinkers to arrive at his conclusions—or possibilities, I should call them—but one should at least be familiar with the question of and uncertainty about the meaning of modernity vs. post-modernity (which is not to say that one should know what these terms mean, for that is sort of the whole point of the book—this whole not knowing and trying to find out business). One should also be aware that most of Vattimo’s work is concerned heavily with questions of Being, which are ultimately existential questions. Though some will certainly be quick to consider his conclusions outlandish, one has to admire the degree to which he so meticulously sets out to play ideas off one another in order to both recognize and deal with different crises.

His radicalization of ontological possibilities is the reason Rorty considered Vattimo among his brand of ‘Ironists’—a former of new vocabularies who make use of the old, without any delusion that their new vocabulary will be the last to hold any weight.

Martin’s Inferno

1 Apr

the moronic inferno

The Moronic Inferno and Other Visits to America

America is the subject of this collection of essays by the novelist, Martin Amis. Oscillating between warm affection and perfectly timed quips, Amis brings us close (or close enough to say something amusing) to the worlds of Hugh Hefner, Brian De Palma, Gore Vidal and Gloria Steinem.

Hefner gets off easy, being a relatively easy target already, as Amis says after hearing what an average day in the old guy’s life is like, ‘That’s four movie’s a day.’ Norman Mailer’s career, on the other hand, gets a full moral and aesthetic interrogation in ‘Norman Mailer: The Avenger and the Bitch.’ Vidal earns referral as ‘probably the cleverest book-reviewer in the world.’

Other familiar names serve not as pillars under our romantic idea of great America but more as celebrated checkpoints, now antiquated by time and changing circumstances. One gets this feeling with the interview-less book reviews. Of Joseph Heller’s God Knows, he says, ‘[the paragraphs] get bigger and bigger—and say less and less. No reader should be asked to witness an author’s private grapplings with his thesaurus.’ Albert Goldman’s Elvis earns a place here as ‘a prodigy of bad writing.’

His post scripts are written just as post-scripts should be. They don’t separate us from the Amis of the original article but give us a much wider perspective, sometimes to a mere tickling effect, as in the Gore Vidal piece where the reader is informed that it was Vidal who looked over his piece and changed ‘homosexual’ to ‘pansexual.’ At other times, the post scripts are explanations, not to things that were necessary to change, but things that were necessary to put back in, as the case with the ‘Double Jeopardy: Making Sense of AIDS.’

The AIDS article, as well as the article on the child-murders in Atlanta, tackle their subjects unflinchingly, not sensationally, a brutal eye turned toward the truth with an earnest, definite sense of love and duty.

Amis is not awkward in his praise as some clever revilers are. He gives the book a beginning and a coda devoted to two different articles about Saul Bellow and his works—someone who surely stands out in Amis’s mind, not only as the ‘great American novelist’ if there was ever a candidate, but as someone who has plunged the depths of America in such a way that, if there is going to be anything new to say about America, it would have to start with and surpass him.

The book stands as a wonderful account of Amis’s love affair with the country and an invitation for us to open our eyes to its peculiarities, its violence, but also to its potential, its vigor and its impossible spirit.