Contents | September 2001
In This Issue (Contributors)
More on books from The Atlantic Monthly.
The Atlantic Monthly | September 2001
Books & Critics
New & Noteworthy
This fall's hot novel; Rushdie's latest; correcting the blather about "globalization"
by Jonathan Franzen
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 576 pages, $25.00
ince The Twenty-Seventh City, Jonathan Franzen's amazing debut way back in 1988, American fiction has seen a host of smart-guy writers, some of whom have garnered that dubious laurel, literary celebrity. Franzen, who may be the most rewarding of the lot, last surfaced in 1992, with Strong Motion, another daring performance, but since then he has published only essays and excerpts, whetting readers' appetites for this, his long-awaited third novel.
The Corrections follows the tribulations of the Lambert family, from the stolid midwestern city of St. Jude. The children have long since grown and fled to the hipper East Coast, leaving Enid to tend Alfred, whose health, like their relationship, is declining precipitately. Enid's dream is to have one last perfect Christmas together as a family—after she and Alfred take their dream cruise. The action opens with a stop in Manhattan to see Chip, their middle child, an ex-professor dropped by his college after a humiliating affair with a student. Pushing forty, Chip has never lost the attitude of the too cool grad student whose view of the world comes from the French poststructuralists. He has pinned his hopes to a screenplay that is nothing more than a thinly veiled version of his own downfall. He's an unmitigated failure, dead broke, yet he retains—through a combination of denial and pride—a desperate, last-ditch optimism. As his parents arrive, his girlfriend is in the process of leaving him, delivering her long-suppressed opinion that his screenplay, just sent to his producer, is flat-out bad. Chip understands that she's right and heads off to rescue his screenplay before it's too late, frantically coming up with the corrections that will save it.
Despite a complex and involved plot, the driving force of the book is that simplest, most intricate of engines, the unhappy family. Deep down these are insecure people, often miserable (sometimes buoyed, it must be said, only by the author's virtuosity and humor), and much of the drama springs from what they feel they need to hide from one another. Some of the guiltiest laughs come when these secrets are revealed in worst-case confrontations or loopy coincidences.
Franzen's dialogue between family members contains a barely restrained violence, comfortable chat suddenly turning barbed. In straight narration his powers of language are astonishing. Here's Alfred trying to lower himself onto a chaise longue in Chip's apartment: "He'd realized only recently that at the center of the act of sitting down was a loss of control, a blind backwards free fall. His excellent blue chair in St. Jude was like a first baseman's glove that gently gathered in whatever body was flung its way, at whatever glancing angle, with whatever violence; it had big helpful ursine arms to support him while he performed the crucial blind pivot."
As the Lamberts go their own ways (and they do, if only to escape one another), Franzen casts a wide net, pulling in the principles of metallurgy, quotations from Schopenhauer, railroading, the rivalry between Sweden and Norway, The Chronicles of Narnia, the short-lived rock band Mission of Burma—a whole goofy stew. But as in any great satire of attitudes, the frozen component parts of the book don't convey the power of the living whole. Franzen is a wizard, endlessly inventive in his thematic connections and scene setting. He can run riffs on Lacan or the post-Cold War instability of the Baltic states, yet isn't above the pleasures of slapstick and low jokes (the names of some supporting characters are Pynchonesque bonbons: Fenton Creel, Dale Driblett, Eden Procuro). The Corrections is a wide-open performance showcasing the full range of his skills and his eclectic intelligence.
Because of the book's preoccupation with the individual caught in complex social and political systems, comparisons with Don DeLillo's White Noise are unavoidable, and perhaps also with William Gaddis's work or with Evan Connell's Mr. Bridge and Mrs. Bridge in their more domestic moments. But ultimately The Corrections, with its emphasis on sibling rivalry, the break between generations, and the clash between pious bourgeois respectability and the slippery mores of this new and alien America, recalls no novel so much as John Cheever's The Wapshot Scandal. The Corrections is just as funny and sad and smart as that masterpiece, and Franzen, like Cheever, reminds us of the timelessness of human folly.
Beauty and the Beasts: Woman, Ape and Evolution
by Carole Jahme
Soho Press, 416 pages, $25.00
odern primatology could be regarded as the scientific offspring of one man's sex drive. Beginning in 1954, Carole Jahme writes, the paleontologist Louis Leakey began recruiting unproven young women for field research under his sponsorship, in part because he believed in their innate ability to observe primates in nature without fatigue or prejudice and in part because he wanted to seduce them. Jane Goodall, his first famous "ape lady," was so "appalled" by his romantic overtures in 1958 that Leakey, crestfallen, turned to her mother, and pursued a lasting affair with her instead. As grossly insensitive as he was lascivious, he advised the newly wed Biruté Galdikas to get a clitoridectomy before she journeyed with her husband to Borneo in 1971 to study wild orangutans. She'd then be uninterested in sex, her aging mentor reasoned, and thus unlikely to get pregnant and abandon her research.
Jahme considers in panoramic detail the burgeoning of female primatologists in the past forty years, surveying the lives and work of Goodall, Galdikas, Dian Fossey, and scads of others. Never sentimental, she insightfully intertwines the personal with the professional. These women's outré sacrifices would seem to rival their scientific accomplishments. Galdikas, for instance, rescued and rehabilitated orphan orangutans in Kalimantan. The first, Sugito, slept with her each night and drenched her with his urine, "his strong fingers gouging her skin." The author's feminist perspective is less ironically detached (and less enriching) than was Donna Haraway's in Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science (1989). Also, she is annoyingly chary of footnotes. Still, Jahme, an English primatologist, reveals much that is fascinating, from the controversial theories of Sarah Blaffer Hrdy on the evolutionary significance of the female orgasm, based on her study of langur monkeys, to Sue Savage-Rumbaugh's research on the linguistic talents of chimpanzees and bonobos. According to Jahme, 90 percent of primate sanctuaries are now supervised by women, and the listings in the World Directory of Primatologists are 62 percent female. She shows us how Leakey and his women disciples are, in a way, a self-designated and self-generating species—one formed by a man as well as by "his" feminists.
Eva Moves the Furniture
by Margot Livesey
Henry Holt, 223 pages, $23.00
n most ways Eva McEwen, the protagonist of this perfectly structured novel, is strikingly normal. Born in 1920 in a country town in Scotland, she is raised in a happy household, enjoys the usual attachments and suffers the usual loneliness, learns nursing during World War II, gains and loses love, marries and has a daughter of her own. But owing to her mother's death just after Eva was born, there is in Eva's mind "confusion between two categories commonly held to be opposites: the living and the dead." Like living friends, her ghostly companions, a woman and a little girl, are sometimes selfish and inconvenient, but though at one point it costs her a great deal to hold on to them, she cannot bring herself to let them go, and ultimately they repay her loyalty in spades.
Margot Livesey is a disciplined writer. In prose direct and precise she limns Eva's story with steady authority. Because her tone is warm but never overwrought, events that might make her conclusion sentimental are at once intensely sad and comforting. Love and friendship continue, this book suggests, well beyond the grave.
Global Political Economy
by Robert Gilpin
Princeton University Press, 416 pages, $59.50/$18.95
he Princeton political economist Robert Gilpin has written an important book for both academics and a general audience interested in (and these days who isn't?) international economic affairs and "globalization." Although he eschews polemics and writes in a low-key, analytical style, his forceful points serve as a needed antidote to Thomas Friedman's The Lexus and the Olive Tree and other facile works about the subject. As Gilpin points out, the struggle between markets and states is nothing new in international politics. In contrast to neoclassical liberal economists (in the United States there seems to be no other kind), who view markets as autonomous and self-regulating, he shows that markets are deeply embedded in larger political and social structures. Gilpin corrects Friedman's breathless, unreflective claims that globalization is inexorable, and the arguments of others that globalization is leading to the retreat of the nation-state. He shows, rather, that the notion that globalization has deprived states of their autonomy in economic policymaking is vastly overdrawn—big states today have much more control over their economic affairs than they did in the decades before World War I.
Indeed, the phenomenon of globalization is simultaneously overhyped and misinterpreted. Overhyped because by most measures the international economy was more "globalized" pre-1914 than it is today. Misinterpreted because the real trend in today's international economy is not globalization but the formation of regional trade blocs like the European Union and NAFTA. These blocs reflect the ways in which states seek to pursue their national interests in order to enhance their relative power in the international system. The EU exists because the powers of Europe realized that they could compete more effectively in, and exercise more control over, the international economy collectively than separately. NAFTA is in part America's power-driven response to the EU grouping.
In this as in his previous works, Gilpin reminds us that the great powers make the rules for the international economy, and the struggle for wealth is an integral part of their ongoing competition for power. Like the one previous era of international economic openness—the mid-nineteenth-century Pax Britannica—today's era of globalization reflects not the triumph of the autonomous market but the fact of geopolitical hegemony, in this case America's. Economists may cling to the logic of markets, but the real world is shaped by the logic of state power.
Bargains in the Real World
by Elizabeth Cox
Random House, 240 pages, $19.95
he thirteen stories in Elizabeth Cox's new collection memorably capture those moments when quiet lives are changed forever by sudden acts of violence or catastrophe. Set mostly in rural Tennessee, these stories pulse with car crashes, gunshots, tornadoes, and self-slaughter—cataclysms that strand characters in a no-man's-land between the hard circumstances of their present lives and the dizzying possibilities of an unexpected future. Time and again these emotional refugees are forced to grapple with a reality for which they never bargained.
Cox's harsh vision is all the more effective for being conveyed by a disarmingly genteel prose. She is at her best when depicting how characters come to recognize that their lives are gradually slipping beyond their control: "Harold didn't think things had changed all that much, but he remembered when Nadine had seemed soft. Her softness had unraveled with the years, and he felt left with just a thin wire of who she was." Occasionally Cox's writing loses its edge by covering too familiar territory, most notably the philandering revivalist preacher in "Biology," whose actions could be predicted by any attentive reader of southern fiction. But such lapses are rare in a collection that manages to map that elusive territory where devastation and hope miraculously intersect.
by Salman Rushdie
Random House, 272 pages, $24.95
alman Rushdie's newest novel is surprisingly slim, in contrast to his usual flatulent, overweight tomes. If we didn't know better, we might be tempted to think that he is narrowing his sights—that the literary machismo of recent efforts such as The Ground Beneath Her Feet (1999), The Moor's Last Sigh (1995), and The Satanic Verses (1988) has mellowed into a more controlled style of fiction. The first few chapters of Fury would seem to confirm this impression: Rushdie, the cosmopolitan Asian, has momentarily strayed onto the alien turf of Roth, Bellow, and Updike.
The narrator is fifty-five-year-old Malik Solanka, an Indian professor of philosophy turned high-concept doll maker and, eventually, Web designer. Propelled by mysterious feelings of rage against his beloved wife and son, he has fled his comfortable London life to seek refuge in New York. The dandyish Solanka—part Mr. Sammler and part Humbert Humbert, with a dose of Moses Herzog's objectless disgruntlement thrown in—observes the imperial excess of boomtown Manhattan with precision: "The city boiled with money ... New restaurants opened every hour. Stores, dealerships, galleries struggled to satisfy the skyrocketing demand for ever more recherché produce: limited-edition olive oils, three-hundred-dollar corkscrews, customized Humvees ... featherlight shawls made from the chin-fluff of extinct mountain goats ... America insulted the rest of the planet."
Rushdie lives, as the saying goes, in interesting times, and he has all the mental equipment necessary for skewering contemporary vanities and fears. But the book's promising beginning is soon drowned out by more typically Rushdian overkill: the cacophony of voices, plots, opinions, allegory, puns, magic realism, multicultural mythology, historical clues, and pop-culture references he has never attempted to edit. He cannot trust the story he is telling to hold its own. The point, for him, is not the tale he tells but the sound of his own raucous and frequently hysterical voice raised in its telling.
Rushdie's theme is fury: "Life is fury ... Fury—sexual, Oedipal, political, magical, brutal—drives us to our finest heights and coarsest depths." He has chosen an appropriate setting in the overheated, overcharged city of New York, which anesthetizes its fury with material excess while various remote Balkan and Third World countries explode into localized furies of their own. But Rushdie can never resist trying to ennoble his fiction with mythic pretensions, and here what might have been a strong story—even a rather honest one, given the surface similarities between Rushdie and his hero—is altered to fit his chosen myth: the story of the Eumenides, the Furies. These ladies are given earthly shape in the persons of Malik's perfect but (let's face it) used-up and middle-aged wife, Eleanor, and his two New York babes, the Serbian Mila and the Indian Neela. (Get it? Malik, Mila, Neela—that old Rushdian linguistic playfulness, by now a little shopworn.)
Neela in particular is pure wet dream, and the pudgy Solanka's possession of her is one of the sillier episodes in this mostly very silly book. Although Rushdie poses as a sharp political realist, and occasionally—as in Midnight's Children (1980) and Shame (1983)—even fulfills that role, when it comes to the personal he is the complete romantic: the experience of fifty-four years and three marriages notwithstanding, he still seems to think that somewhere out there is a perfect woman for every man, perfectly beautiful, whose love will set him free. "Furia could be ecstasy, too, and Neela's love was the philosopher's stone that made possible the transmuting alchemy." (This, by the way, is all very fine for the famous, hip Solanka and his famous, hip creator, who don't have to rely on their beaux yeux, but most sedentary fifty-something intellectuals find it rather more difficult to lure nubile beauties into their beds.)
In a craven bow to modern bathos, Rushdie finally exposes the source of his hero's angst: Solanka turns out—surprise, surprise!—to have been a victim of childhood sexual abuse. This revelation, and Solanka's "working through" of his problems, bring the novel to an unconvincing denouement. In the end Fury is not so much a literary exploration of the forms and varieties of furia as it is a pandering to contemporary mores disguised as a critique of them, and a graceless rant against incipient old age.
The Complete Poems of William Empson
edited by John Haffenden
University Press of Florida, 504 pages, $39.95
mong the few who think about such things, William Empson (1906-1984) is generally regarded as the greatest English literary critic of the twentieth century. Some might add "alas," for in his later years Empson could be controversial, not to say eccentric: he was convinced that John Donne's love poems covertly dealt with space travel; that Leopold Bloom invited Stephen Dedalus to sleep with his wife, Molly; and that the Christian God was a monster of cruelty deserving repudiation, not reverence. Still, there's no denying the overwhelming impact on literary studies of Empson's cheeky first book, Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930), published when he was only twenty-four. Even now it remains the best introduction to close reading, that subtle art of staying alert to all the nuances in a poem or meanings on a page. The author of Seven Types —and of Some Versions of Pastoral (1935) and The Structure of Complex Words (1951)—really was one of those, to adapt Henry James's phrase, on whom nothing was lost. Yet Empson was rather more than a critic; in fact, he may ultimately be remembered primarily for his strange and melancholy poetry, lines of which can be as haunting as any in Philip Larkin or early Robert Lowell: "Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills./ The waste remains, the waste remains and kills" and "Not but they die, the teasers and the dreams." With his mathematically trained mind and flair for metaphysical conceits (worked up from contemporary physics and biology), Empson produced verse that was dense, argumentative, and at times dizzyingly obscure. Aware of this, he obligingly composed notes—some lengthy—to Poems (1935) and The Gathering Storm (1940), explaining the "odd bit of information" and any "incidental difficulties" in, say, "Arachne," "To an Old Lady," or "Missing Dates."
This book—the most sumptuous and attractive, and also the most painstaking and scholarly, edition any modern poet ever dreamed of—surrounds a mere hundred pages of verse with 400 pages of introduction and factual commentary. John Haffenden, Empson's biographer, knows everything about Empson, writes crisply himself, and cites letters, manuscripts, interviews, scientific studies, even record liner notes; he clarifies as much as possible the arcane matter that has been compacted into a poetry far more personal—and agonized—than it looks. To read Empson in this edition thus becomes a double pleasure: one has not only all of his seventy-five or so poems (most only a page long) but also the data to understand them. As Donne wrote, "dark texts need notes," and Haffenden illuminates Empson's brilliantly. "Imagine, then, by miracle, with me, / (Ambiguous gifts, as what gods give must be) / What could not possibly be there, / And learn a style from a despair."
Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; September 2001; New & Noteworthy; Volume 288, No. 2; 136-139.