One-Minute Book Reviews

November 5, 2009

Jonathan Lethem’s ‘Chronic City’ – Cursed by the ‘Genius Grant’?

Paranoia with a side of wasabi cashews

Chronic City: A Novel. By Jonathan Lethem. Doubleday, 467 pp., $27.95.

By Janice Harayda

Do MacArthur Fellowships have a counterpart to the “curse of the Nobel” said to keep writers from doing their best work after they become laureates? You might think so after reading the latest novel by the “genius grant” winner Jonathan Lethem.

Chronic City draws on an idea that science-fiction writers have used for decades: simulated-worlds theory, which says that computers will someday become powerful enough to create a facsimile of the universe, full of people who really believe they’re alive – they don’t know they’re fakes. Lethem brings the idea to literary fiction in a surrealistic fable about Manhattan during the economic meltdown: You’re never certain whether his characters are real or created by forces beyond their ken. This premise might seem ideally pitched to novel born of a financial crisis that has caused many people to think: This is can’t be real. But the idea holds a trap: If you invent characters soulless enough to have been created by computer, how do you keep them human enough to support a novel?

Lethem doesn’t avoid that danger in this tale of two friends whose lives intersect with those of a billionaire mayor and others who can still afford cocktails with wasabi cashews and “a nice black-market unpasteurized  fromage.” Chase Insteadman is a semi-retired actor, a man whose work involves selling illusions, whose fiancée is an astronaut trapped with Russians at a space station threatened by Chinese mines. Perkus Tooth is a paranoid stoner and former culture critic who believes New York has become unreal, a simulation of itself. Yes, those twee names are typical of this novel in which words seem to run away with Lethem.

The plot turns partly on Perkus’s efforts to ease his anxieties by enlisting Chase and others in his quest to obtain rare ceramics called chaldrons that may have magical powers. A subplot weaves in phantasmagorical elements such as a giant escaped tiger that is ravaging the Upper East Side, that bastion of old money and property. Many undergraduate theses will be written about all symbols-within-symbols in this novel. (Sample title: “Different Stripes: The Meaning of the Question ‘Who Made This Tiger?’ in William Blake’s Poem ‘The Tiger’ and Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City.) And worthy questions underlie its cat’s-cradle of pop-cultural references, including: Who owns New York? Those references support a theme that Chase’s fiancée suggests in one of her letters home from outer space: “we’ve defaulted to an illusion of substance.” She’s talking about the deteriorating condition of the trapped astronauts, but her words describe New York as a whole: In the novel the city has only “an illusion of substance.” The condition is chronic.

Yet Chronic City reads more like a simulation of a novel than the real thing. It has a turgid pace almost no conflict, suspense, or heart. Most characters appear soulless. And the writing is repetitive to the point of bloat and, at times, graceless. Critics have compared Lethem’s early novels to the works of contemporary titans, but Chronic City has more in common with Herman Melville’s numbing final novel, The Confidence-Man. Even a mayoral aide’s sexual encounter – described as “wildly odd and erotic” – fails to supply the missing spark. Lethem writes: “Remembering it, Richard’s crotch throbbed, grew hotter, the itching more intense.” A bit, perhaps, like the itching you may feel to put aside this book after many pages of sentences like that one.

Best line: “His mind’s landscape was epic, dotted with towering figures like Easter Island heads.”

Worst line: No. 1 (quoted above): “Remembering it, Richard’s crotch throbbed, grew hotter, the itching more intense.” No. 2: “It was my first green chaldron. (Like sexual positions or travel to distant locales, I’d been semiconsciously cataloguing seminal moments, breakthroughs.)” No. 3: “I wanted Oona in the morning. I could still conjure her slippery smoothness in my arms (and divergent cuppable breasts in my palms, where they left ghost trails of a peach’s weight), but Oona kept dunning lights and pulling curtains, and dressing and undressing stealthily, while I was at the sink or refrigerator, or asleep.” No. 4: “My shame took its place in a vast backdrop of shames – oxygen-starved astronauts, war-exiled orphans, dwindling and displaced species – against which I puttered through daily life, attending parties and combating hangovers, recording voice-overs and granting interviews to obscure fan sites, drinking coffee and smoking joints with Perkus, and making contact with real feeling unpredictably and at random, at funeral receptions, under rain-sheeted doorways.” No. 5: “Richard’s unrestrained sarcastic inflection of this last word served not only to reinforce what a poor selection he thought I’d made in Strabo Blandiana but to assuage Perkins that the two of them still spoke above my head, and so his promise of future listening was sincere.”  [Note: As opposed to a promise of past listening?]

Published: October 2009

Furthermore: A good analysis of the pop-cultural references in Chronic City and of some of Lethem’s influences appeared in a review in Bookforum. Novelist Mark Lindquist says he loves the novel but warns in a Seattle Times review, “You can find more plot in a Jethro Tull album.”  

About the author: Lethem has written seven novels, including The Fortress of Solitude, and Motherless Brooklyn, which won a National Book Critics Circle Award. He received a MacArthur Fellowship, sometimes called a “genius grant, in 2005.

You can follow Jan Harayda on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda, where she has posted more of her thoughts on Chronic City.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 21, 2009

Kate Kelly’s ‘Street Fighters: The Last 72 Hours of Bear Stearns, the Toughest Firm on Wall Street’

As a rule, the business of business books is anything but good writing. But the Wall Street Journal ran an excerpt from a new book by one of its reporters, Kate Kelly’s Street Fighters: The Last 72 Hours of Bear Stearns, the Toughest Firm on Wall Street (Portfolio, 256 pp., $26.95), that had sprightlier writing than most in the category. And Tim Rutten quotes a telling paragraph from this hour-by-hour account of the last days of the Bear Stearns investment bank in his Los Angeles Times review:

“Regulators may never know what really happened [to cause Bear Stearns to collapse in 2008]. But one thing is clear: Once confidence in a company falls away on such a grand scale, it can never recover. Bear started that week with more than $18 billion in capital, its largest cash position ever. Three days later, negative headlines, a stock drop, lender reticence and big withdrawals from client accounts had cut those capital levels in half. Eight hours later, it was nearly dead.”

The first sentence of that paragraph, Rutten rightly notes, is chilling: “Regulators may never know what really happened.” He adds:

“ … this was a situation so threatening to the fabric and substance of global finance that Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke would subsequently insist that, absent government intervention to essentially force the deal with JPMorgan, Bear would have gone into bankruptcy, causing a ‘chaotic unwinding’ of investments in all the American markets.

“Yet regulators may never know what really happened.

“That’s the intolerable fact of public policy on which this whole mess turns, along with all the pain it set rippling through the nation’s human economy, the one where ordinary people struggle to pay the deceptive mortgages that backed all those derivatives and where women and men who’ve lost jobs as a consequence of this calamity now scratch to find new livings.

“There are timeless human failings to ponder anew in Kelly’s artful narrative journalism — ego, hubris, venality and folly, the whole sad crew. They, unfortunately, will always be with us, consequences of our fallen nature. What we need not tolerate is a federal regulatory structure that is blind to the operations of those who wheel and deal at the very center of the global economy and federal officials who are so uncertain of their aims and prerogatives that they fumble in the face of crisis.”

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

April 16, 2009

In the Land of the Jane Fonda Urinal Target — ‘What’s the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America’

[You can find some of my comments on the 2009 Pulitzer Prizes for books, which will be announced Monday, at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.]

How ignoring the economy and lifting up wedge issues got us into a mess

What’s the Matter With Kansas? By Thomas Frank. How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. Holt, 336 pp., $16, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Why did the Republican Party for years attract so many Americans who recently have lost their homes, jobs or life savings to its policies? How did the GOP recast itself as the party of working-class voters, who for generations had lined up behind the Democrats?

Thomas Frank gives bracing and witty answers in What’s the Matter With Kansas?, a former New York Times bestseller that is still one of the best books on the political roots of the current fiscal mess. Frank argues that for decades, Republicans have been eroding the traditional Democratic base by focusing on wedge issues such as abortion, gun control, and “filth” in the media, not on the economic policies that separate the parties. And since the Clinton administration, the Democratic Leadership Council has played into their hands by promoting “triangulation,” a business-friendly stance that downplays its differences with the GOP.

The result: The line between the parties blurred, and year after year Americans elected Republicans whose laissez-faire economic policies eventually would wipe out their 401(k)s.

Frank refracts the changes through his native Kansas, once a hotbed of progressive ideals, a state that has paid a scalper’s price for its march to the right. A portent of the American economic meltdown occurred when the attacks of Sept. 11 halted the orders to the Boeing, a mainstay of the Wichita economy. The aircraft manufacturer laid off many union workers and said that, this time, their jobs wouldn’t be coming back.

“In the summer of 2003, unemployment in Wichita passed 7 percent and foreclosures on homes spiked as these disasters reverberated through the local economy,” Frank writes.

But Kansans didn’t seem blame the Republican union-busting policies exemplified by Ronald Reagan’s decision to fire striking air traffic controllers. The state went for George Bush in 2004. And Frank’s pessimism about its political climate seems well-founded, if not prophetic, given the economic free fall that has occurred since the publication of his book. Even as the recession was spreading around the world, Kansas voted Republican in the 2008 presidential election.

Best line: At Kansas Vietnam Veterans reunion in 2002, trinket vendors sold “such items as the Jane Fonda urinal target.

Worst line: Frank describes how the national swerve to the right affected his hometown, the affluent Mission Hills, Kansas, and says you “can observe the same changes” in Shaker Heights, Ohio. No, you can’t. Parts of Shaker Heights — where I lived for 11 of the years when those changes supposed to be occurring — may look like Mission Hills with its castellated stone fortresses. But the Cleveland suburb is 10 times the size of Mission Hills, has a far more diverse population, and for other reasons does not fit the pattern he describes. Shaker Heights has lost enough of its cachet in the past several decades that the elite suburbs now lie farther to the east. Those suburbs include Hunting Valley, which more closely resembles his hometown.

Editor: Sara Bershtel

Published: June 2004 (hardcover), April 2005 (paperback).

Furthermore: Frank’s latest book is The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and former book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 12, 2009

If Only the Recession Were Like This for Writers and Artists — More on R. A. Scotti’s Forthcoming ‘Vanished Smile: The Mysterious Theft of Mona Lisa’

The cover of the advance reader's edition of 'Vanished Smile'

I’ve been reading R. A. Scotti’s historical true-crime book Vanished Smile: The Mysterious Theft of Mona Lisa (Knopf, April 2009), which I mentioned yesterday. And it’s been a pleasure after trudging through the finalists for the 2009 Delete Key Awards for bad writing in books, the winners of which will be announced Monday. Another quote from Scotti’s fascinating tale, this one about Picasso’s Rose period:

“In those happy days, Picasso would sell his art by the armful – a hundred francs (then worth about twenty dollars) for a stack of drawings; two thousand francs for thirty canvases. A few dealers – notably, Ambrose Vollard, astute and fair, and Clovis Sagot, an unscrupulous ex-clown who sold art out of an old apothecary – were scooping up Picasso’s harlequins and saltimbanques for the price of a meal … money was a luxury, and freeloading was a way of life. ‘You could owe money for years for your paints and canvases and rent and restaurant and practically everything except coal and luxuries,’ Picasso remembered.”

(c) 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 10, 2009

The True Story of an Unemployed Manager’s Brutal Search for a Job: G. J. Meyer’s ‘Executive Blues: Down and Out in Corporate America’

Filed under: Memoirs,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:48 am
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Riches-to-rags stories are the morality tales of recessions, and G. J. “Jerry” Meyer’s is one of the best. Excerpted in Harper’s and hailed by Studs Terkel as “astonishing” on its first publication in 1995, Executive Blues: Down and Out in Corporate America (Franklin Square Press, 245 pp., $21.95) is one of the most honest memoirs of our time about the pain inflicted on decent white-collar Americans who lose their jobs in a brutal market.

Meyer is a former vice-president of the McDonnell Douglas aircraft company who during a bruising job search came to see executive recruitment as a form of Kabuki theater, which requires actors to play roles based on myths. The process had little room for job-seekers who told truths that clashed with corporate folk wisdom. So Executive Blues is more than a diary of Meyer’s harrowing quest for work. It is the story of his effort to retain integrity in an age that routinely asks the unemployed to lie: about how much they want a job, what they can do for a company, and whether they are consummate “team players” or creative iconoclasts.

Like Aristotle, Meyer believes “how we’re supposed to live our lives is the biggest question of all.” And one of the many virtues of his memoir is that it reflects a struggle to keep his life from becoming a subsidiary of his work, or lack of work. Meyer doesn’t give advice to job-seekers – let alone flog them with bulleted lists – but offers a quietly powerful reminder that all of us are more than what we used to do.

(c) 2009 Janice Harayda.

January 29, 2009

Fed Up With the Low Writing Levels in High-Priced Books? The Delete Key Awards Finalists Will Be Announced on Feb. 26, 2009

Filed under: Delete Key Awards,News,Uncategorized — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:01 pm
Tags: , , , , ,

“Just before the ax fell, lightning struck and my life changed, never to be the same again.”
From Barbara Walters’s Audition

Clichés, bad grammar and psychobabble in self-help books. Inanity in memoirs by athletes, politicians and movie stars. Dumbing-down in bestselling novels written at a third- or fourth-grade reading level.

These are bad enough when the nation is economically healthy. They may sting more painfully when, in a recession, many books are overpriced.

Had enough? You can nominate offenders for a 2009 Delete Key Award for bad writing by leaving a comment on this or any other post related to the awards. One-Minute Book Reviews will announce the finalists on Feb. 26 and the winners on March 15. (Remember that I need time to verify quotes you submit or to check out candidates you suggest.) A list of possible finalists appeared in the Oct. 8, 2008, post, “Which Is Worse, the Stock Market or the Writing in This Year’s Books?” For more on the awards, click on the red tag at the top of this post that says “Delete Key Awards” or on “Delete Key Awards” under “Categories” at right.

Thank you for visiting One-Minute Book Reviews, a site for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

Editor’s note: I review books for children and teenagers on Saturdays and occasionally at other times (as earlier this week after the American Library Association named the winners of its annual Newbery and Caldecott medals). So a lot of students visit this site. Can you explain to the kids what’s wrong with the Barbara Walters quote above?

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

The Rubric Theme. Blog at WordPress.com.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 367 other followers

%d bloggers like this: