Other Reviews

Scandalmonger

What Was She Thinking?
by Zoë Heller
Henry Holt

At first glance the narrator of What Was She Thinking? might easily pass for one of Anita Brookner's sexless and sardonic spinsters. Barbara Covett is a sixtyish schoolteacher with no friends, a beloved cat, and a pronounced distaste for contemporary British life. Her students are thugs, her colleagues are prattling nitwits. The local supermarket strikes her as a preserve of freakish loners. Even a display of fireworks on Guy Fawkes Day manages to rub this devoted anti-sensualist the wrong way: "I suspect that only the tiniest fraction of the crowd gathered on the top of Primrose Hill was genuinely invested in the spectacle, but we all stayed there for a full, frigid hour, dutifully manufacturing sharp intakes of breath and other symptoms of ingenuous wonderment."

What brings Barbara out of her shell is an entirely different sort of fireworks. First she is drawn to a new arrival, Sheba Hart, a pottery teacher with deliciously upper-class diction and a diaphanous wardrobe. Then she learns that Sheba, married with two children, is carrying on a high-octane sexual relationship with one of her fifteen-year-old pupils—a fact that promptly ignites a tabloid firestorm. The scandal has a tonic effect on the narrator, transforming her into (as one of the tabloids puts it) "the saucy schoolteacher's spin doctor." Indeed, the book we're reading turns out to be Barbara's own account of Sheba's liaison, including the dirty bits that she couldn't possibly have witnessed. Her mixed motives for concocting such a voyeuristic tall tale are ultimately what give Heller's novel its queasy, heartbreaking kick. "For most people," Barbara says, "honesty is such an unusual departure from their standard modus operandi—such an aberration in their workaday mendacity." Her own mendacity is more refined, wonderfully entertaining, and deeply (which is to say tragically) unconscious. —James Marcus

Rock On

All Shook Up: How Rock 'N' Roll Changed America
by Glenn C. Altschuler
Oxford

You know the jokes. Writing about music—in a line that is variously attributed to Laurie Anderson or Steve Martin, among others—is like "dancing about architecture." And writing about rock music, as Frank Zappa famously observed, involves "people who can't write interviewing people who can't talk for people who can't read." Well, we've come a long way. The vandals have not merely taken the handles; they've been invited inside the mansion and are helping themselves to brandy and cigars. Oxford University Press's Pivotal Moments in American History series, edited by the eminent historians David Hackett Fischer and James M. McPherson, brings us All Shook Up with no apologies and no reason for any.

Rock writing, no less than the music itself, has developed well beyond its easily mockable roots. But although we have any number of significant and scholarly biographies, including the two-volume work on Elvis Presley by Peter Guralnick, and first-rate collections of criticism by such luminaries as Greil Marcus, Simon Frith, and Robert Christgau, All Shook Up, by Glenn C. Altschuler, is one of the first to do rock-and-roll the significant service of locating it within the cultural and political maelstrom it helped to create. Altschuler does so with a good ear for the music and a deft hand, making this account a pleasure to read and ponder. He is not a flashy writer, but so much the better for his storytelling, which shows intelligence and narrative discipline. All Shook Up is not a history of rock-and-roll per se—it barely reaches the Beatles, only to skip all the way to Bruce Springsteen and end there. The story is really about the emergence and impact of rock-and-roll as a force in American society.

It isn't easy today to conjure up the sense of panic that 1950s America experienced at what was being done to its children. Overnight they seemed to want nothing more than to cavort with Negroes and simulate copulation on the dance floor. Time compared rock concerts to "Hitler's mass meetings." The New York Times provided expert opinion from a psychiatrist who branded the music "a cannibalistic and tribalistic" form of expression that might be likened to a "communicable disease." A Times reviewer found that the young Elvis had "injected movements of the tongue and indulged in wordless singing that were singularly distasteful." All shook up indeed. But of course the music never stopped. There was simply too much money to be made, and too many teenagers around claiming rock as a birthright.

Altschuler's capsule histories of rock's early pioneers won't seem particularly earth-shattering (unless you happen to be one of the few people on the planet who didn't know that Jerry Lee Lewis and Jimmy Lee Swaggart are cousins). But Altschuler surpasses the admittedly sparsely populated field in the nuanced way he places the music within the conflicts—racial, sexual, commercial, and political—that it variously helped to encourage, exacerbate, and (occasionally) ameliorate. Altschuler tells a story of liberation and fear, of inspiration and exploitation, of repeated attempts to homogenize a form of cultural expression that sprang from somewhere so authentic in Western youth culture that it proved bigger and more powerful than any combination of its myriad opponents. Indeed, it's hard to imagine how anyone ever managed to grow up without rock-and-roll, bless its bastardized soul. —Eric Alterman

Just the Facts

The Photograph
by Penelope Lively
Viking

Penelope Lively is the bard of briskness, a novelist whose heroes think, act, even suffer, with no-nonsense, consummately British dispatch. When the successful landscape historian Glyn Peters, "facts man, par excellence," discovers the infidelity of his deceased wife, Kath, he plunges into an obsessive quest for answers, interviewing her former friends and acquaintances in a belated attempt to understand her. Kath's lover turns out to be the husband of her older sister, Elaine, who responds to the posthumous revelation with alacrity by dumping her philandering spouse, no questions asked. If one can get past The Photograph's soap-operatic, faintly ludicrous premise, there's fun to be had watching Glyn and Elaine's tidy assumptions be undermined by Kath—"a mute subversive presence" they can't explain away. Like Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, Kath has become "like some mythical figure, trawled up at will to fit other people's narratives." Lively continues, "Everyone has their way with her, everyone decides what she was, how things were."

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