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...


Dennis said...

I find it quite amousing that Philip Roth lampoons Ms. Kakutani with his character Kimiko Kakizaki since she's generally so nasty to him. Fun factoid.

amboycharlie said...

I have read a few of Ishiguro's novels and recognize the artistry of them, but he seems to me like a one trick pony, in that his main characters are pathologically self-involved. In the case of The Artist of the Frozen World and Remains of the Day, even in When We Were Orphans, because it is understandable, in that character's circumstances, it only creeps up on the reader that this is the case; so that only in the end is one left with the impression of what a narcissistic, self-deluded fool one has just read about.

In the Unconsoled; however, the reader is presented at the start with a character who is so self-involved that he cannot recognize anything or anyone of seeming importance to him, nor is the reader given any reason to understand how and why. Certainly, the author does a brilliant job of putting the reader in the character's head and making everything seem strange and surreal, but it is such an uncomfortable place to be that by page two hundred, or so, I no longer wanted to be there. I think it fails where his others succeed. Thus, I can well understand Kakutani's feeling about that particular novel. I haven't read The Lovely Bones, but what I read of Freedom, by way of Amazon's first look told me I need not go any further, so I would agree with you about Kakutani with reference to that one book.

The Chawmonger said...

Oh man, amboycharlie, I have to say I disagree with you about The Unconsoled, and probably most of Ishiguro's other protagonists too. I do think they're self-deluded (obviously), but I don't think the big reveal is that each one turns out to be "a narcissist", which implies the reader leaves the work feeling superior. Rather, I think KI is interested in the way *any* person's perspective defines and limits his view of the world. By literalizing this theme -- allowing us to see only images saturated with personal import, as in a dreamscape -- The Unconsoled fully realizes the aesthetic tendency present in his other books: our narrator may be unreliable, but we cannot see beyond his POV, any more than he can see beyond it himself. I can see why you find this uncomfortable, but I'd also argue it's the novel's great achievement.

Anyway, thanks so much for reading and commenting! I hope to see you around the Chaw Shop again in the future...

amboycharlie said...

I believe you are missing my point. It isn't that the reader feels superior to the character, its that the other novels were structured in such a way that the reader is eased into the vortex of the character's self-destructive obsession as what seems like something relatively unimportant takes on greater significance to the character with time. You are in the character's head as the obsession develops, and are empathetic right to the tragic end.

I agree that The Unconsoled succeeds in doing what it sets out to do quite brilliantly, but I felt as if I were dropped deep into the center of the vortex, to a place where I was drowning. I kept wanting to swim up and out to escape it, instead of riding it round and down.

I could easily imagine myself in the head of some super-celebrity whose true self had become so alien to him as to make everything about his own humanity seem alien to him. It made the perils of celebrity all too uncomfortably real, and gave me a great deal of insight into why so many of them crack-up with alcohol and drug addiction.

I got the notice of this as I finished Maria Bustillos's blog on the archives of David Foster Wallace. I felt it was very apropos to what The Unconsoled is all about. If you haven't been there I recommend it. Unfortunately, I closed that tab just before your comment came in and can't provide a link.