Thursday, January 26, 2012

Strange Religion

The Tehran Initiative by Joel C. Rosenberg

"Dead bodies were all over the scene."

Imagine! A pro-war novel, one of a string of pro-war novels, by self-proclaimed Christian Joel C. Rosenberg. What happened to the Prince of Peace?

"Blood was everywhere. Khan was writhing and screaming in pain."

Rosenberg presents a distorted, cartoon version of the Christian religion, within a story about an apocalyptic world with insane rulers in Tehran opposed by scarcely less insane rulers in Washington.

"He didn't want to kill them, but they were armed and hostile, and if he had to do it, he wasn't going to feel guilty about it."

This sounds to me more like a Nietzschean than a Christian. Nietzsche mocked Christians for being poor, guilt-ridden, and meek. He never met Joel C. Rosenberg! Jesus himself of course was crucified by the dominant empire of the day. The choice then was: Caesar or Jesus? Power against weakness. The World versus Salvation. It discredits the religion, in my humble opinion, to throw out the religion's message, its spirituality, and its integrity in defense of Caesar, which is what Rosenberg is doing.

"David smashed him over the head with the iron, sending him crashing to the pavement, bleeding and unconscious."

As for the novel itself, it's a grim propaganda piece full of props and puppets. The hero, David Shirazi, is of the Nietzschean superhero variety. Shirazi works for the CIA. The CIA demi-god heroes rescuing American Empire are thoroughly secular, consumed with high-tech weaponry, high-tech toys, pausing to pray every so often to Christ to help them save high-tech civilization as they work within a hysterical narrative for Caesar and his Pilates, their actions accompanied by gallons of blood and numerous flying body parts. The fanatical bad guys, cartoon Islamists, are projections of the author. The protagonist is a sociopathic robot. Rosenberg needs to give him a sliver of humanity, so he has his mother dying. There's only one semi-intriguing character in the entire work: The mad Mahdi, an insane but mysteriously powerful villain. He's no less cardboard than the other characters, but at least it's a colorful cardboard. Meanwhile, hero David Shirazi is busy.

"He righted himself, took aim, and squeezed off two more rounds at the officer's chest, killing him instantly."

Rosenberg's novel is an obscenity, due to its falseness. In an Author's Note, Rosenberg proclaims how Christian he is. Yet his book is one of the more un-Christian books I've read, which says a lot, given the context of today. There's a Christian way to oppose evil, but Joel C. Rosenberg hasn't found it. You'll discover no Alyosha Karamazovs in his unhappy pages.

In its way, The Tehran Initiative is as insane a novel as the one I recently reviewed by Ann Beattie. I have to rate his book higher simply because it is a page-turner. Which is fine. One doesn't need to linger long over those fast-moving pages. Meanwhile, duck your head, because more missiles are flying.

"What David didn't know was that death was already on its way . . . At an altitude of 17,429 feet, the CIA's $4.5 million, state-of-the-art unmanned aerial vehicle known as the MQ-1 Predator had already received its encoded orders . . . Now, a five-and-a-half foot, one-hundred-pound AGM-114 Hellfire air-to-ground missile was sizzling through the crisp morning air at Mach 1.3."

Does this sound like it was written by a Christian? Or by someone consumed with armaments, war, and death?

PUBLISHER: Tyndale House
REVIEWED BY: King Wenclas

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

More Is Less

Saints and Sinners by Edna O'Brien

This opening of a story, "Old Wounds," is what passes among the refined literary crowd as good writing:

"In our front garden, there were a few clumps of devil's pokers-- spears of smoldering crimson when in bloom, and milky yellow when not. But my mother's sister and her family, who lived closer to the mountain, had a ravishing garden: tall festoons of pinkish-white roses, a long low border of glorious golden tulips, and red dahlias that, even in the hot sun, exuded the coolness of velvet. When the wind blew in a certain direction, the perfume of the roses vanquished the smell of dung from the yard, where the sow and her young pigs spent their days foraging and snortling. My aunt was so fond of the piglets that she gave each litter pet names, sometimes the same pet names, which she appropriated from. . . ." Etc. etc. etc.


Is this how to open a story?

Has the reader thrown the book across the room?

No writer today can afford to open a short story or even a novel with such dawdling prose. Get to the friggin' point! No one has time today for such shit. This isn't 1835 upper-class England lounging around the estate.

When you the reader after many arduous attempts do make it through a few of the stories, you find the punchlines range from the ordinary to the maudlin. Each is overwritten so as to hinder communication with the reader. We get the idea, Edna. You write very well. Delicately and finely well. Quite impressive. Not compelling. Less is more. Thank you.

PUBLISHER: Back Bay Books
REVIEWED BY: King Wenclas

Friday, January 13, 2012

Ms. Beattie

Mrs. Nixon by Ann Beattie
("A Novelist Imagines a Life")

"You won't have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore," Richard Nixon famously said at one point during his long political career. Little did he know that his critics would still be savaging him-- and his wife-- almost 40 years after he left office. Little did Richard Nixon allow for Ms. Beattie.

There aren't enough adjectives in the English language to adequately describe Ms. Beattie's book, but I'll try.

"Cruel," "bizarre," "obsessive," "regrettable," "embarrassing," "snide," "shallow," "hatchet job," "sneering," "smug," "superior," "scornful," "contemptuous," "sheer petty meanness," "40 year-old grievances," "insufferably condescending," "literary stalking," "third-rate insights of a high-schooler," "the most superficial of superficial writing," "272 pages of thinly-disguised hatred," "a terrible idea for a terrible book."

I could go on, but you get the idea.

Half of the book is Ms. Beattie trying to explain why she's writing about Mrs. Nixon. She never does explain. She's incapable of explaining.

"She may well have been unknowable even by her family," Ms. Beattie tells us.

Ms. Beattie does nothing to find out, to get behind the surface of Pat Nixon. Her sources, like Joe McGinniss, Jonathan Schell, and Albert Goldman, aren't exactly objective or reliable. Other than a stray quote or two used to show Pat Nixon in the worst possible light, Ms. Beattie doesn't dig up the perspectives of those who actually knew the former First Lady. Certainly not anyone who'd be sympathetic to her. Her family loved her. Her daughters turned out fine. There might be more to the story.

Ms. Beattie spends her entire 272 pages dealing with her constructed stereotype of Mrs. Nixon, a personality as one-dimensional as Ms. Beattie's Nixon paper dolls, the weirdest moment in a weird book.

Ms. Beattie tells us nothing about Mrs. Nixon not already known or believed, and which could've been encapsulated in a page, if not a paragraph. But Ms. Beattie does tell us a lot about Ms. Beattie.

The first question is, Why did Ms. Beattie write this book? A floundering writing career? A need to settle ideological scores from 40 years ago? Nothing else to write about?

There's not a hint of objectivity from Ms. Beattie. For instance, she contrasts John F. Kennedy, Camelot's golden knight, the attractively glowing icon of virtue, against scowling jowly dark-bearded bad guy Dick Nixon, embodiment of evil. Can we admit this is a stereotype? One that stems most from the legendary 1960 debate between the two men.

There's much to like about the JFK myth-- every nation requires myths-- but a writer of Ms. Beattie's reputation should be able to give us something more than the most superficial of contrasts. In actuality, Kennedy and Nixon were more alike than they were different. Both had great talents and enormous weaknesses. Both could be opportunistic and devious. Both engaged in actions that were dangerous and corrupt. Their ideologies were remarkably similar. (Lukewarm liberalism; intense anti-Communism.) They were creatures of the political system, and the milieus from which they sprung. Complex individuals. Curiously, or not, JFK and RN were also fairly good friends.

Ms. Beattie's view of the two men reveals to us how she views the world. The need for the appearance of virtue, for affirmation that her affluent class of well-bred liberals are virtuous. They need evildoers in order to accomplish this, someone to act as grimy backdrop so They, the Clean and the Saved, can gleam with virtuous light.

Much of the outsized hatred of Richard Nixon by the affluent Liberal class was caused not by what he did, but by what he was-- those aspects of his personality and background he was unable to hide. Awkward, striving, square, sweaty, transparent, social climber, nakedly ambitious-- the classic example of the self-made person who doesn't belong.

Ms. Beattie remains captive of the snobberies of high school. (Or prep school, whichever it was.) Ms. Beattie grew up in chic circles and has moved her entire life in chic circles. For such people, Image and Manners are All. Mr. and Mrs. Nixon lacked the superficial qualities which Ms. Beattie most values-- and which Mr. and Mrs. Kennedy, by contrast, had by the truckload.

A sadder tragedy about Ms. Beattie is what's revealed about Ms. Beattie the writer. She intersperses the thin narrative with her opinions and advice about writing-- what she no doubt inflicts upon her captive writing students. Her perspective makes her appear stuck in a time warp. Most of the names she drops, such as Raymond Carver, were big literary names at the same time Ms. Beattie was a big literary name-- 25 years ago. Not just in the subject of the book is Ann Beattie a living and breathing anachronism.

PUBLISHER: Scribners (a once-great company)
REVIEWED BY: King Wenclas

Monday, January 9, 2012

Upcoming Reviews

Reviews of the following are upcoming, in no particular order:

Mrs. Nixon by Ann Beattie.

Saints and Sinners by Edna O'Brien.

City of Ghosts by Stacia Kane.

All Her Father's Guns by James Warner.

The Tehran Initiative by Joel C. Rosenberg.

AND an appraisal/reappraisal of Freedom by Jonathan Franzen.

Some diversity in that line-up. Now all I have to do is write the reviews! Stay tuned.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Genre Novel

Trader of Secrets by Steve Martini

What makes a great novel? British critic F. R. Leavis believed that a great work of fiction was both morally significant and artistically accomplished. By "moral" he didn't mean ideology, but a larger knowledge about character and humanity.

The major problem with genre novels is that most of the characters are pawns who can easily be disposed of at any time without thought or regret. The genre novelist is a sociopath almost by definition. This was not the case with forerunners of genre fiction like Charles Dickens, H.G. Wells, and Somerset Maughm. Or even Raymond Chandler, who disdained the fictional puppets of other detective writers. But it's the case in novel after novel today.

Every death is a tragedy. Particularly when the bodies pile up (as they seem to do in my Crime City USA), you need to express a sense of the tragic; profound regret at the nature of the world.

At the end of the classic western movie "Shane," for instance, the hero expresses regret-- deep regret-- at killing the villain, for he knows that in so doing he's killed part of himself.

Unfortunately, this isn't the kind of regret one feels at the conclusion of Steve Martini's Trader of Secrets, but instead, regret that a skilled writer who's displayed the tools needed to write a very good novel has wasted his talents in conforming to the generic genre style.

Trader of Secrets is a spy/detective story in which hero Paul Madriani and friends travel the globe tracking down a supervillain named Liquida who's being used by a collection of terrorists bent on creating a device which could destroy much of the planet. The plot has obvious potential for melodrama, which would be fun, but Martini takes the scenario seriously, and makes it believable. Martini lays down his plot threads expertly. His characters are well drawn. One of them, a NASA scientist who's fallen in with the bad guys, is sympathetic. The villain Liquida is often fascinating.

The problem is with the heroes, who, in order to combat Liquida, become-- or always were-- as soulless as he is. Someone could argue that this is necessary to defeat villainy-- except that the AUTHOR at least needs to stand above this, needs in some way to convey the balancing morality of F.R. Leavis. Otherwise the novel degrades us more than improves or enlightens us as human beings.

There's nothing original in this novel, other than the technological premise. It's been done before, by Ludlum and countless others. Cookie-cutter stuff. Airplane-riding fare. Time filler. Martini is cranking out product, deliberately limiting his vision, in so doing saying, "I'm not an artist," because he doesn't push himself to be as good a writer as he could be.

I can pick out the exact moment when the author lost me, after hooking me for page after page. It occurs during the climax sequence, which is a small war. Martini's once in-control attorneys, Madriani and company, and his daughter Sarah, are suddenly in the middle of horror. It's not portrayed as horror, isn't shown as a nightmare, but as an everyday happening, after which the heroes will take a shower, brush their teeth, and go watch a football game. Another day at the office. Bodies everyplace.

Is America ancient Rome? Does the bloodlust appetite of the reading public demand to be satiated with dead bodies as if spectators at the Colosseum? Are we sociopaths?

Martini lost me when his hero-- the hero, not the bad guy-- with bullets flying everywhere, begins killing people (just the enemy) with his car. They're mowed down like store dummies. The tone is gleeful. I guess it's war. Undeclared, illegal, but still. If you're on the right side all is allowed. I'm sure Martini's heroes slaughter people in book after book and are never the worse for it. This is how the genre works.

(Study, by contrast, the outsized grief of barbaric Achilles and Priam in The Iliad.)

The moral failure of Trader of Secrets is also artistic failure. Any promise the novel gave of greater emotion and meaning isn't realized. Not that Steve Martini would care in the slightest.

PUBLISHER: HarperCollins
REVIEWED BY: King Wenclas

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