Tuesday, November 23, 2010

I am a double agent for the KGB, pt. 3

Just thought I'd mention that my review of Patrick Somerville's masterful and amazing short story collection, The Universe in Miniature in Miniature, is now up on the site for the KGB Bar lit journal.  Check it out here: http://www.kgbbar.com/lit/book_reviews/the_universe_in_miniature_in_miniature

Monday, November 22, 2010

Public Enemy Number One, Introduction

For some time now, I've thought about adding a feature to this blog, a category that -- alongside reviews and rants -- would constitute another kind of post in my repetoire.  Sometimes I considered calling it "Banned from the Shop."  Sometimes I considered calling it "File Under: People Who Should Be On Fire."  But I think the most accurate label for posts of this kind is actually the simplest: "The Chaw Shop Enemies List."  And so it shall be named.

I've been hard at work.

The main reason I didn't start the Enemies List sooner was that it's taken me some time to work out, what, exactly, constitutes an enemy of the Shop.  While one part of my brain just keeps screaming the words "Michiko Kakutani!" over and over until the syllables become shrill and meaningless as the blaring of a car alarm, I don't think that writing profoundly misguided, intellectually lazy, sentence-level uninteresting criticism is in itself enough to cast one forever from the Valhalla of my good graces. 

The fact is, as much as I dislike her articles, Kakutani -- like a precocious eleven-year-old with an Amazon account and a thesaurus -- is simply out to share her opinions with the world.  By all appearances, she truly believes in the validity of even her most hilariously deluded misconceptions.  When she writes a sentence like, "Alice Sebold's first novel, The Lovely Bones, is anything but a hokey, Ouija-board mystery," she is not, I think, giggling to herself about how she's just punked the nation's readers into taking what could have easily passed as a Lifetime movie novelization seriously as literature.  She's only trying to communicate her own (lamentably uninspected) experience of the book.  When she headlines her review of Kazuo Ishiguro's exquisitely constructed masterpiece The Unconsoled, "From Kazuo Ishiguro, A New Annoying Hero" and describes it within as a "shaggy dog narrative... [that] sorely tries the reader's patience," she's just expressing her frustration over the admitted failure of the jacket copy to spell out what in the heck is going on with the plot.  There's a sensibility at work here, and after reading a couple of her pieces, it's easy enough to recognize it: Kakutani doesn't like to be confused, not when her head hurts and she has a book report due.  She doesn't like to get lost, not even for a second, because that's weird and scary and might give her bad dreams.  So whenever these things happen, she complains, and loud.

Despite the disturbing cultural consequences of this bawling anti-intellectualism, concealed in a thin snugli of superficial erudition, I find someone like Kakutani -- or her somewhat less irritating colleague at the Times, A.O. Scott, who drew my ire here -- difficult to hate for long, for the simple reason that, although she may be allergic to serious thinking, she does value books, does look to them for at least some of the things they can in fact provide: instantly accessible entertainment and emotion, for example, if not formal originality or ideas or substance.  To someone like Kakutani, books do matter, do nourish and sustain (even if she prefers that nourishment to be minimally chewy).  They are a form of communication between human minds (even if what she prefers them to communicate would often be better suited to a tweet).  To her, books aren't mere products, valuable only in terms of their sales; they do have intrinsic worth (even if she assesses that worth haphazardly midway through her first and only speed-read of the work in question).  Kakutani cares about fiction -- she just has a painfully limited understanding of all the different ways that it can operate, and she's too impatient to sit still while someone else explains it to her.  Maybe she's just never seen the need to waste all that time thinking it through, since she doesn't write stories herself and she's got a steady job already.  But, whatever her reasons may be, although I don't respect her opinions, I could hardly call her an aesthetic psychopath.

Let me explain what I mean by that term.  It's my understanding that, in psychology, a psychopath is someone who understands human empathy and moral motivations intellectually, who can often "read" people exceptionally well, but who is incapable of feeling the corresponding emotions that come, for most, as a natural consequence of that knowledge: tenderness toward others; joy in emotional intimacy; guilt and shame when he sets out to deliberately hurt someone.  In this way, a psychopath is essentially different from someone who's ignorant or mentally challenged, in that he's fully capable of comprehending his full range of options and the consequences of choices he makes.  Psychopaths know what they "should" do; they just don't care.

An aesthetic psychopath, then -- and I use this term not as a psychological diagnosis, but strictly as metaphor -- would have to be someone who understood his art, who studied it closely and learned its tricks, and who knew, at least on some level, what it was capable of, the dizzying heights and devastating lows to which it could subject the human mind and heart, the scope of what it could convey.  In other words, he would have to be aware of the range of choices, and the consequences of those choices, available to a practitioner of his craft.  A non-psychopath, so informed by study and experience, might become even painfully sensitive to the inadequacies and subtle triumphs of his own work, and would engage ever deeper with others whom he recognizes are on the same quest, seeing their ambitions and shortcomings in excruciating relief.  He would, in time, become a master of his art, and a mentor to those he instructed.

An aesthetic psychopath, on the other hand, would be someone who knew all that stuff, sure, but who didn't, pardon my French, give a rat's ass about any of it.  Only someone like this -- the Patrick Bateman of the literary world -- could be a true enemy of the Shop.  And now, I'm both pleased and chagrined to say, I think I found him.

Please allow me to introduce our guest; he's a man of wealth and taste.  Submitted for your consideration as Chaw Shop Enemy Number one, I present...

James Frey, j'accuse.

In my next post, I'll dig into the particular grounds for thus awarding him, including this.  But in the meantime, thanks for reading.  You're still on my good side.

continue to Part 1...