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Books Short Reviews

The Biographer's Tale
by A. S. Byatt.
Knopf, 304 pages, $24.00.

Phineas G. Nanson, the grad-student hero of A. S. Byatt's thirteenth work of fiction, has had enough of the postmodern literary theories in vogue at his London university. Putting Lacan and Foucault behind him, he plunges instead into the world of facts, using as his springboard an obscure biography of a Victorian scientist and explorer, Sir Elmer Bole. Nanson's plan is to unearth the true story of Bole's biographer, Scholes Destry-Scholes, about whom nothing is known except that he vanished into Norway's notorious Maelstrøm. At first Nanson's inquiries leave him stranded in a sticky web of book fragments and false leads. Eventually, however, the pursuit of his quarry lures him into erotic entanglements with Scholes's niece, a morbidly beautiful radiographer, and with a radical Swedish ecologist whose hair is "a crown of golden fire." His sleuthing also lands him a job at an exotic travel agency, Puck's Girdle, where he is besieged by the fearsome snuff-movie enthusiast Maurice Bossey.

Unfortunately, The Biographer's Tale is not nearly so ripping a yarn as this summary suggests. Theory and esoteric allusion dominate the action from start to finish. Byatt remains an author of daunting erudition and precious phrasing. Her characters' names alone -- Vera Alphage, Fulla Biefeld, Ormerod Goode -- could provide grist for many a semiotic mill. But whereas the author's Booker Prize-winning Possession (1990) was able to work these academic concerns into a genuinely affecting story, this novel is too brittle to support the scholarly showmanship she heaps upon it.

-- Stephen Amidon

The Hiding Place
by Trezza Azzopardi.
Atlantic Monthly Press, 288 pages, $24.00.

It's hard to believe that this astonishingly accomplished lyrical account of loss upon loss -- "Children burnt and children bartered: someone must be to blame" -- is a first novel. Against a drizzly backdrop of Cardiff docklands in the process of demolition, Dolores Gauci, the sixth girl born to a brutal, ne'er-do-well Maltese father and a neglectful, adulterous Welsh mother, untangles skeins of memory, story, and speculation to try to find the threads that tie together her burnt left hand, her vanished older sister, her runaway father and his murdered friend, her mother's insanity, and, finally -- as the loss of her five fingers foreshadowed -- the scattering of her remaining sisters soon after the oldest's wedding. That her family disintegrated before Dol turned six makes much of what she feels "ghost pain," "miss[ing] what [she] never had," and ultimately she's propelled by her desire to collect the people she has lost -- particularly to reattach to her sisters, who are as "slippery as a set of new cards." She wants to share their histories and secrets, to be at last included in the family.

Trezza Azzopardi's characters are so sharply drawn that they bite, and her details, evoking muddy back yards, stained sheets, rubbish-strewn streets, and scuzzy cafés, are strangely lovely. What makes this novel brilliant, though, is its tone. Despite the misery they express, the sentences, written in quick-paced present tense, lilt and caper. Dol's voice and sensibility match those of the third-person narrator, who slips in and out of this rich and complexly structured novel to reveal events that the little girl could not have seen. Both note the most minute images, such as the scum on the surface of a cup of tea, and Dol is entirely without self-pity, just as the third-person narrator is without pathos. Near the end of the novel Dol's adult awareness of her sorrow and resentment slightly tarnish the brightness of her straightforward tone. Remarkably, here for the first time the dark surroundings feel oppressive.

"Someone must be to blame." But throughout this dazzling novel Dol recognizes that it's difficult to say precisely who. Azzopardi allows Dol to construct an order with herself at the center, but both the novelist and the character understand that "as with all truth, there is another version."

-- Christina Schwarz

The Constant Gardener
by John le Carré.
Scribner, 480 pages, $28.00.

Yes, John le Carré is a "master storyteller" (Time), but so is Tom Clancy. Le Carré's storytelling is in the service of a tragic moral vision. "Today one must think like a hero to behave like a merely decent human being," says Barley Blair, the sodden spy-for-love in The Russia House (1989), voicing Le Carré's bleak take on our time. Love is the only country to which Le Carré's characters are fully loyal, and their heroism often consists in dying for it.

Love's agent in this stylish and resonant literary entertainment is Justin Quayle, a Foreign Office mediocrity keeping a stiff upper lip in the British embassy in a Kenya rife with corruption and suffering. Like Jonathan Pine, the hero of Le Carré's The Night Manager (1993), Quayle is shaken out of his moral inertia by a courageous woman: his wife, Tessa, an idealistic young lawyer, who is brutally killed while investigating a giant "pharma" that is testing drugs with lethal side effects on unknowing Africans. Justin was unaware of Tessa's campaign ("We all betrayed her," one character says to him. "How about you, sitting on your arse and growing flowers while she was out there being a saint?"). But now, shedding his Etonian diffidence, he arms himself with her knowledge. How he discovers and wields it is the efficiently discharged burden of the plot. The author's dramatic gifts, his irony, and his humanity are all in evidence. Le Carré inventories the things one character thinks worth fighting for: "Truth, tolerance, justice, a sense of life's beauty, and a near-violent rejection of their opposites" and "above all, a ... belief ... that the system itself must be forced to reflect these virtues, or it had no business to exist." Playing that sentence back and listening for echoes of the whole of his work since The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (1963) makes clear that it is Le Carré's own credo.

Globalization in its uglier aspects -- the international arms trade in The Night Manager, international finance in Single and Single (1999), multinational corporations exploiting the Third World in The Constant Gardener -- has replaced the Cold War as the moral backdrop in Le Carré's work. His Cold War novels did not spare the conscience even of citizens on the "right" side, confronting them with crimes committed in their name, and the globalization novels do not spare the stockholder.

-- Jack Beatty

Pinochet and Me
by Marc Cooper.
Verso, 157 pages, $22.00.

Impeaching Richard Nixon for Watergate, Noam Chomsky said at the time, was like indicting Al Capone for tax evasion. Chomsky had in mind episodes like the 1973 CIA-nurtured overthrow of the legally elected government of Chile, which resulted in the murder of nearly 4,000 Chileans and the torture of many more. After the Chileans elected the socialist Salvador Allende President, in 1970, Nixon slammed his fist on the table at a White House meeting and ordered his CIA director to make the Chilean economy "scream." Allende, representing Chile's rotos, the "broken ones" in the shantytowns ringing its cities, had dared to nationalize American mining and communications (IT&T) interests. The poor would get only repression from the fascist general Augusto Pinochet, who led the treasonous coup against Allende that ended 150 years of Chilean democracy. Marc Cooper, a contributing editor of The Nation, served as Allende's translator, and this "personal journal" is commendably less about him -- though it chronicles his escape from Santiago -- than about the suffering and redemption of a people, and about a great power's murderous meddling in a small country. In its commitment to infusing memory with truth Pinochet and Me is reminiscent of George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia.

Allende's revolution was "painfully democratic," and that was its undoing. "Allende had been scrupulous in his commitment to a constitutional, legal, and peaceful transition to socialism," Cooper writes. "The only guns in the country, he vowed, would remain in the hands of the armed forces." So when generals whom Allende had promoted took the military into revolt, the left had no organized force with which to defend the government.

Cooper returned to Chile repeatedly. In 1975 Pinochet's secret police were an evil fog blanketing Chilean society with fear. In 1983 Cooper heard half the 60,000 fans at a soccer match between Chile and Uruguay burst out with "It's going to fall! The military dictatorship is going to fall." In 1998, when Pinochet had been out of power for eight years, it seemed to Cooper that the advice the general had received from University of Chicago economists, after nearly wrecking the economy in the 1970s and 1980s, had at last created a sharply unequal prosperity. Last year Cooper visited one more time, to watch as justice finally caught up with Pinochet and his bloody-handed henchmen.

The saddest of these visits was the one in 1998, when the upper-class supporters of Pinochet, including some of Cooper's relatives, were denying his crimes (with the help of a supine socialist government), and a society once proud of its solidarities, a polity in which 95 percent of the electorate had voted, had become a warped parody of America. Social organizations of all kinds had collapsed (the unions because Pinochet had killed their leaders), a sullen individualism ruled, malls were everywhere, the poor were hooked on easy-credit consumer goods, and in American-style elections barren of real debate "a full 41 percent of the eligible electorate either didn't register to vote, abstained, defaced the ballot or left it blank." Yet even amid the ruins of their political culture, the Chileans knew moments of civic grace. Cooper was riding on a bus full of commuters and young people when a middle-aged "street troubadour" started in on a protest song written by a leftist folk singer who had been killed by Pinochet.

Two or three young people clapped their Walkman earphones on as soon as he strummed his first chord. The thirty or so others on the packed bus listened quietly as they stared ahead or out of the window. But when he finished, almost everyone put coins in his cup.

-- Jack Beatty

Bright Young Things
by Brooke de Ocampo, with
photographs by Jonathan Becker.
Assouline, 192 pages, $50.00.

Bright Young Things -- which Vanity Fair declared last fall's "'It' book" -- will set you back fifty dollars. Here's what you get: a compendium of photographs featuring rich, youngish New Yorkers smirking at you from the hectic confines of their overdecorated apartments, not to mention (no extra charge!) the prose. We learn in William Norwich's worshipful introduction, which sets the tone for what is to come, that the Bright Young Things are "social sailors, negotiating modern gods and sirens in an odyssey of personal style on the treasured island of Manhattan."

They have also inherited a lot of scratch. Although some of the BYTs have ventured into the salt mines (among them Andrew Jareki, the inventor of Moviefone), most are the children of aging jet setters and have acquired their wealth by less taxing means: Marina Rust and Mathias Guerrand-Hermès, for example, are, respectively, heirs to the Marshall Field department-store and Hermès leather-goods fortunes. No matter what the origin of the money, the most efficient way to glamourize it, apparently, is to exchange wads of it for New York real estate -- but not some seven-figure duplex that any dolt with a bankroll would have the good sense to acquire. Much better to transform a "dump" into a Soho pleasure dome and then bask in the compliments. After closing escrow, the BYT shudders and sets to work, cramming in big-ticket paintings, huddling with a decorator, and heading off to the flea market (which turns out to be a marvelous sort of bazaar where rich people can snap up the fun, crazy stuff that poor people don't have the sense to keep) for all-important Bohemian overtones.

The profiles accompanying the photographs showcase the lineage of the BYTs, their superior educations, and their glamourous jobs: one is a landscape designer, another is an "aesthetic consultant," and even the money guys manage to suggest that they're in it just for the thrill. A substantial number (including De Ocampo herself, a former associate editor at Vogue) have been affiliated with New York fashion magazines. There was a time when the young people doing tours of duty at these institutions included the likes of Joan Didion and Sylvia Plath; one wonders how two young ladies of such humble origins would fare there today.

Clearly, De Ocampo did not intend to make her cherished BYTs look silly, but she has a positive knack for it, whether she's reminding us of the exacting nature of fashion-forward decorating ("Ferd was adamant about having a sofa with just one seat cushion. No subdivision") or describing the "ordeal" of finding decent living space in New York ("We had to fly over from London to interview for it. And it's just a rental!"). Bright Young Things is selling briskly, and unless this means simply that the featured players are stockpiling copies in their butler's pantries, we may deduce that interest in the lives of hugely moneyed New Yorkers, benefiting from a nudge by Candace Bushnell, continues to grow.

-- Caitlin Flanagan

Miss Garnet's Angel
by Salley Vickers.
Carroll and Graf, 352 pages, $25.00.

At its heart this superbly crafted novel is an anti-romance. Miss Julia Garnet, a retired schoolteacher, "confound[s] intimacy" like the reticent, astringent, and wry women who people Barbara Pym's or Anita Brookner's novels. She is "thrust ... into new ways" when her friend Harriet, "the only person she ever ate with," dies. Yes, her transformation begins when she travels from England to Venice. And yes, that city so works its charms that she eventually blossoms enough to buy a lilac dress and even silk underwear -- if not enough to wear the ensemble to its intended occasion. As Salley Vickers finely observes the subtle and often painful dawning of Miss Garnet's self-awareness, she uses such conventions, including even an angel, not to delineate the course of a traditional love affair (the object of Miss Garnet's affections turns out to be unsuitable in the Austen tradition with a very modern twist) but as a backdrop to Miss Garnet's yet more profound awakening to friendship and artistic beauty and unguarded emotion. She wins not a man but herself. Cleverly weaving her graceful rendition of "The Book of Tobit," from the Apocrypha, through the main narrative, Vickers gives Miss Garnet's revelations a weighty universality and timelessness. Although she is as clear-eyed and unsparing as Pym and Brookner when assessing her characters' limitations, Vickers's vision of human possibility is colored by hope.

-- Christina Schwarz

More Than They Promised: The Studebaker Story
by Thomas E. Bonsall.
Stanford University, 492 pages, $45.00.

To mark its centenary, in 1952, the Studebaker company put out a booklet, 100 Years on the Road, the cover of which depicts a graveled suburban driveway with Studebakers from three eras lined up in historic array -- a covered wagon, a 1920s touring car, and a sleek European-looking hardtop designed by the famed Raymond Loewy. This cavalcade of progress heads out of the frame as if into a future worthy of the company's past. Alas, there was a cliff at the edge of that frame, and within months Studebaker would fall over it. Already weakened by formidable competition from the Big Three, a shaky dealer system, and low productivity, Studebaker was caught in 1953 in a "mushrooming nightmare" of production bottlenecks, which cost it tens of thousands of sales of its popular coupe (in 1954 it sold 40 percent fewer cars than in 1953) and resulted in bad styling and engineering choices for its sedans. That year also saw Studebaker's executives decline an opportunity to take over Volkswagen, which was selling barely 1,000 vehicles a year in the United States, reject sports-car and compact-car designs offered to it by Porsche, and decide to buy Packard -- Packard! -- instead. By 1960 Volkswagen was selling more than 100,000 cars a year to a market that couldn't get enough of them, and the Packard was a museum piece. Not since Thomas Watson Sr., of IBM, declined to buy the process that became incorporated as Xerox had major-company executives made a worse decision than rejecting Volkswagen -- a decision rivaled a few years later when the same boobies passed up a chance to become the American distributors for Toyota.

Staggering into the 1960s, Studebaker had a brief success with the first American compact, the Lark -- which, in a whimsical nod to the company's days as America's premier wagon-and-carriage maker, sponsored Mr. Ed. Then, in 1963, one year before the Ford Mustang appeared, Studebaker introduced the country's first "personal" sports car, Loewy's climactic achievement, the enduringly handsome Avanti, which, equipped with a roll bar and disc brakes, leaped ahead of its day in safety engineering. But the Avanti was not an immediate hit with a public that didn't yet know it wanted the Mustang, and Studebaker lacked the financial strength to give the Avanti time. The company produced its last car in 1966.

One keeps wanting More Than They Promised to be a cultural history, but it stubbornly remains part business history, part car buff's book. In the end it gains dimension as -- to quote Raymond Loewy on Studebaker's decision to declare bankruptcy just as the Avanti was finally catching on -- "an industrial tragedy."

-- Jack Beatty

Readings: Essays and Literary Entertainments
by Michael Dirda.
Indiana University, 232 pages, $24.95.

In these brief essays Michael Dirda, a columnist for the Washington Post Book World, writes about his passionate entanglement with books -- as a voracious and wide-ranging reader, as a proselytizer who is almost childlike in his enthusiasms, as an obsessive hunter frequenting used-book shops and library sales, and as a generous, subtle critic. Echoing Randall Jarrell, one of his heroes, Dirda laments the shrinking of the common store of knowledge possessed by "well educated" readers, and he clearly sees his mission as one of enticing as many as he can to read -- and love -- the literary classics and serious works of history and biography. His obvious relish of books allows him to exhort without sounding self-important and without making reading difficult works seem like taking medicine. Dirda's greatest service, though, is leading his readers to unjustly neglected or forgotten titles: only a critic magnificently unconcerned with the intellectually and academically fashionable would (twice!) recommend to Post readers G. M. Young's long-out-of-print book-length essay Victorian England: Portrait of an Age, a masterpiece of literature as much as of history. Equally unusual is Dirda's preference for wit and style over "issues" -- hence his relentless championing of A. P. Herbert, P. G. Wodehouse, E. F. Benson (he perfectly captures the saccharine malice of Benson's characters), Ronald Firbank, Evelyn Waugh, and Cyril Connolly. Despite his near-rabid bibliophilia, in writers -- and other matters -- Dirda prizes wryness and detachment rather than zeal: "Clarity is as much a mental and emotional virtue as it is a stylistic one." Collections of previously published short pieces hardly ever work as books. This one does, thanks to Dirda's earnestness and charming old-fashionedness.

-- Benjamin Schwarz

He's Not All That!:
How to Attract the Good Guys

by Dr. Gilda Carle.
Cliff Street Books/HarperCollins,
304 pages, $20.00.

It is not uncommon for a snappy on-air personality to write a very dull book, and Gilda Carle, "TV's #1 talk-show therapist," has done so. That's unfortunate, because the subject of He's Not All That! -- how teenage girls can form satisfying relationships with reliable boys -- is an important one, and many of Carle's thoughts on the topic, when they can be glimpsed through the murk of statistics, personality quizzes, and multiple digressions, are sound. Essentially, Carle thinks that girls should focus on self-improvement, be true to one another, and not settle for boys who mistreat them.

There's no arguing with these sentiments, but the way Carle puts them across is numbing. She has evidently interviewed a large number of girls about their romantic entanglements, and she repeats their endless, addled tales with the dogged thoroughness of an anthropologist reporting on a previously unexamined tribe. The book gives the impression of having been slapped together in some haste: one of the many "Gilda-Grams" -- "feel-good statements that you can repeat and write down when you're bummed or when you want a boost" -- sprinkled throughout the text consists of the cheery reminder that "one quarter of all teenage girls experience dating violence." But the real problem with the book is Carle's attitude toward teenage boys. A more suitable title for He's Not All That! would be He's Probably a Real Creep! or, possibly, Look Out, He's Armed! The word "Columbine" appears several times in the book, a kind of depth charge reminding girls how bad boys can be, and the hateful chapter called "Understand Guys" informs readers that teenage boys are "encouraged to be hunters who use weapons." When they aren't taking a bead on their classmates, boys "pressure girls for sex, they burp, fart, act loud, and behave as Neanderthals." In Carle's world, it seems, a few lucky girls may snag the "good guys" referred to in the title, but for everybody else it's prom night of the damned.

-- Caitlin Flanagan

The Pilgrim Hawk:
A Love Story

by Glenway Wescott.
New York Review Books,
128 pages, $12.95.

First published in 1940 and now reprinted, this rueful novella muses with striking insight on the value and torments of love. Throughout an unsettling afternoon in a French village in the late 1920s -- when "it was not unusual to meet foreigners in some country as foreign to them as to you" -- the American narrator, disappointed in his own relationships, explores the ambivalent nature of attachment as he studies an emotional Irish couple battling over a pet falcon. In "the long course of true love, especially marriage," he observes, "... insult arises again and again and again; and pain has to be not only endured, but consented to; and the amount of forgiveness that it necessitates is incredible and exhausting." Wescott brilliantly uses the falcon, "the all-embracing symbolic bird," as a metaphor for a remarkable range of human attitudes. His capture of the abstract is masterly, but, as befits a meditation on love, in the end the book is satisfyingly inconclusive.

-- Christina Schwarz

Recent books by Atlantic authors:

Dangerous Games: Ice Climbing, Storm Kayaking, and Other Adventures from the Extreme Edge of Sports by Andrew Todhunter. Doubleday, 178 pages, $23.95. Many of the pieces in this book first appeared in The Atlantic.

Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; January 2001; Short Reviews - 01.01; Volume 287, No. 1; page 84-90.