[4 February 2014]
In books as in music and I reckon all my daily life, I favor the inevitably flawed rather than the perfect. While some of these books betray a lapse of narrative flow or structural stability, I recommend them, for in such moments, they remind us of our human predicament and our own gaps. PopMatters gives 9’s to nearly perfect and 10’s to perfect, but while 12 selections below were reviewed by me for PopMatters and none scored quite that high, they all will grace a warm room.
Of those three included but not reviewed here on PopMatters, two delve into ideological concerns which, although beyond the scope of this publication, invite speculation or consideration of worthy topics, by wise writers. And certainly George Saunders’ increasingly deft navigation between satire and sentiment merits a special mention.
The range spans rock music, belief systems, mind-altering possibilities, suppression and liberation. It starts in Manchester, moves around Britain and Ireland, sidles Stateside, and takes in places as different as Prague, Ceylon, and Jerusalem. The tellers tend to focus on the near-present, but many look back.
Shifting from song to print, Steven Patrick Morrissey keeps his suave air and deepens his cultural allusions. His raw but sometimes reticent Autobiography, drawn from popular and erudite sources, will appeal to his fan base, but this uneven if spirited contemplation of five decades deserves a wide readership. Morrissey’s decision to let the flow slacken as his fame grows and the albums, from the Smiths and solo, accumulate may reflect the verisimilitude of how he views his later life, one more gig, one journalist after another to spar against, one more star to share his sorrows and joys with.
Similarly, his Manchester colleague Peter Hook skirts the typical rock-star’s telling of his tale as Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division. While chronological, Hook mixes humor and history in a sly but sensible fashion. (Morrissey appears more than once.) Joy Division’s timelines feature comments on gigs, album tracks, and studio work among chatty chapters narrating the band’s fortunes. Hook shepherds us rapidly along as punk bursts and fades as quickly into a cold future.
Any British child of that punk generation grew up with rock on the radio. Beatles vs. Stones captures the battle for #1. The conventional wisdom claims both bands loved each other; any rivalry was only hype. Historian John McMillian marshals evidence, gleaned from chronicles, biographies, interviews, and his own expertise as a scholar of the underground press, that suggests the contrary.
Even a humble English product conveys the burst of pride that nation enjoyed during the ‘60s, as well as the gloom that permeated Morrissey and Hook’s childhood before Beatlemania, and the ‘70s decline of their homeland after that band broke up and left the Stones as claimants to the title of the world’s greatest band. Chris West in A History of Britain in Thirty-Six Postage Stamps documents how the Beatles boosted revenue. West’s fondness for a “true Summer of Love” during 1966, when Revolver appeared, while the Kinks’ “Sunny Afternoon” provided the season’s theme for Swinging London, makes England’s World Cup triumph proclaimed on a stamp all the more splendid.
Certainly Psychedelia: An Ancient Culture, a Modern Way of Life, as Patrick Lundborg’s massive study testifies to another source of energy during that Summer, and many before and after. Hefty if unwieldy as a paperback, it’s a solid resource on what’s been too often left for silly flights of fancy or sophomoric pronouncements an ephemeral topic. Lundborg, as a diligent tour guide through his theme in theory and practice, keeps moving forward in time and space. But like his swirling subject, he cannot help pursuing byways, tracking trains of thought, and wandering off on rewarding detours.
In related distortion, what may appear as a footnote expands into its own revealing dimension. The impact of the East on the West and vice versa finds welcome exploration in Buddhism in Ireland: From the Celts to the Counter-Culture and Beyond. Sociologist Laurence Cox applies theories of social movements and Marxist humanism to reveal how Ireland and the wider world intersect, in a dimension beyond the stereotypical limits of sectarian belief and cultural practice, there and abroad.
Those limits conspire to preoccupy John Banville. Writing under the name of Benjamin Black for the sixth in his Quirke series under the suggestive title of Holy Orders. The connivance of a compliant, cowed government with the lordly Church in this oppressive era of postwar Irish history looms; it’s very difficult to shake the sensation that this novel of a pathologist-playing at detective is not happening over a half-century later, amidst continued revelations of clerical abuse and conspiracy.
While the Ireland of this postwar era may not appear ideal to many overseas, the Midwestern writer J.F. Powers moved there, and back again, four times during that period. His daughter, Katharine Anne Powers, tells in Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life—the Letters of J.F. Powers, 1942-1963, how her mother and siblings coped with her willful father’s combination of idealism, thrift, and stubborn determination to resist Ike’s American war machine and capitalist propaganda through an appeal to Catholic, pacifist resistance. J.F. conveyed his radical conservatism subtly in stories, many about priests, and in his own headstrong refusal to make an easier living.
Rebellion in that same generation, for Ivan Klíma in Nazi- and Soviet-occupied Czechoslovakia, represented a danger that captured more Jews than Catholics, no matter their personal irreverence. He begins My Crazy Century: A Memoir by noting how most young people like to rebel, and how this mood led to the Stalinist takeover of his homeland, where, having survived the Nazis as a teenager, he came of age bristling against another regime as an underground novelist, dissident, and gadfly.
Contrary to persistent promotion of the inspiration for such Communist regimes as a relevant prophet, Jonathan Sperber in Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life, argues that Marx’s ideas have run their course. More a product of the French Revolution and Hegel, early English industrialization and political economies of the emerging modern age, than any avant-garde inspiration, Marx “is more usefully understood as a backward-looking figure”, who from his own century’s first half took the facts “and projected them into the future”. We may credit Engels more than Marx for much of our “Marx”.
Another founding figure boasts as wide a reach as Marx, at least, and certainly for far longer duration. While the gist of Reza Aslan’s popularization of critical biblical scholarship in Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth may not be that revelatory to those who have studied these arguments in academic or theological circles, his engaging telling of how a human Jesus transformed by re-branding via market research, so to speak, through ancient contexts, into an elevated and divine Christ merits inclusion for its ability to maneuver between arcane and accessible arguments deftly.
Power once claimed by Christians or Communists in a post-9/11 decade appears dispersed into more accessible if no less domineering channels. In Bleeding Edge, the networks of DeepArcher beckon as “a virtual sanctuary to escape from the many varieties of real world discomfort. A grand-scale model for the afflicted, a destination reachable by virtual midnight express from anyplace with a keyboard.” This being Thomas Pynchon, a shaggy-dog tale set in 2001 Manhattan unfolds. Another curious sort plays detective. She finds, loosely unraveled, conspiracies that stretch far beyond the scope of a Catholic Irish hegemony or even a Czech totalitarian system. They span the wires you and I share to read this review. And they contain “inside them forces of destruction” for all.
Merging a compatible view of corporate conformity and social commentary with satire, George Saunders’ stories in Tenth of December sustain his trademark style. He mixes send-ups of how Americans think and speak in a commodity culture full of pop psychology and catchphrases with sensitive subjects which edge into sentiment. As a funhouse mirror of our fragmented nation, he reflects back how we keep evolving, to resemble the caricatured citizens in a Pynchon saga itself.
This psychic dislocation, as people relentlessly must sell themselves or be sold, wears down the characters from two Southern California-based chroniclers. The King of Good Intentions conveys what it could have been like for John Andrew Fredrick to try to make it in the early-‘90s indie music scene in Los Angeles, when college radio mattered (a bit). At a party full of star-struck wannabees, pursuing a comely lass, the probably only slightly fictionalized John reflects: “Tonight I am lost and have eyes like a spirograph in the hands of a child on methamphetamine and utterly out of my head on good drugs and bad alcohol.” Poetic or introspective registers carom off John’s R-rated vernacular, the usual Angeleno’s articulation, or its lack. Infusing this spirited or spiteful melange of mundane rants and muttering satire, the novel celebrates an egghead’s low-life lived at the margins of celebrity.
Finally, at those same margins after a career ranging from plumbing sales to an assistant on Jeopardy!, Jim Gavin portrays the predicament of Angelenos caught between fame and misfortune. In this insular, congested, dirty, and sunny terrain, his characters, stuck at start-ups or peddling goods, wonder what keeps them there, and makes them face another day on the freeway. Gavin’s driven the same roads and done the same tasks, and his short story debut, Middle Men, dramatizes, in odd or mundane circumstances, the surprises that quiet epiphanies can present to the attentive wanderer.
Morrissey begins his Autobiography with a strongly Joycean evocation of post-war Manchester. Hook wanders the same streets. Both form bands as influential for such as Fredrick or Gavin’s post-hippie cohorts, arguably, as the Beatles or the Stones for West. Then, the allure of Jesus, Marx, or Stalin diminishes, even if the blowback to Aslan’s book betrays the refusal of some true believers to accept as gospel truth the gospel’s truths via scholarship. Powers’ letters, Cox’s study, and Black’s story share an Irish tension as concepts filter in from the wider world to challenge cohesion and resist coercion, when reform and radicalism seep in to weaken theological verities. Against ideology, Klíma, Pynchon, or Lundborg who welcomed the ‘60s and liberating sounds attest to the control exerted by popular culture pitted against political convention. Yet, Saunders warns of the subversive backlash which newer forms of technology and surveillance possess, able to spur us into submission.
Collating this list of books, fiction and otherwise, and some in-between, connections form. We all search for escape, and while music, drugs, radicalism, or fame may ease the monotony, the protagonists of so many of these tales find themselves at the end of their narratives still constrained. Echoing Pascal’s complaint that “all men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone”, let Morrissey in this nod to revelation by reading conclude this 2013 culling. “Finally aware of ourselves as forever being in opposition, the solution to all things is the goodness of privacy in a warm room with books.”
Restless as many of these characters prove, lots of them wind up reading.