The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz

Character-driven versus plot-driven stories: Readers of literary fiction often claim the former while just about everyone else stakes the latter. (Just look at the bestseller lists.) But they are not mutually exclusive, of course. You can have both. One fairly recent example where varied readers said, “You have to read this,” to other readers would be “Gone Girl,” the plot a bucking bronco of she said/he said. Twin this with its strong character development, and you can count literary fiction readers among the beguiled.

I’ll add to that an example from this very year, fittingly titled “The Plot” by Jean Hanff Korelitz. The novel centers around Jacob Finch Bonner, a literary novelist who peaked early in his career. His first book actually made it into “The New York Times Book Review.” But his second — and then his third — book tanked, leaving this once “young and upcoming” novelist neither young, nor upcoming. He doesn’t even have a literary agent anymore.

Still “theoretically (as opposed to actually) working on’’ a current novel, he agrees to teach (strictly for money, doubtless) a writing workshop at some never-heard-of MFA school (Ripley). Anyone can sign up, and anyone does. Even the most earnest of students run the gamut, as in “the guy who’d wanted to correct Victor Hugo’s ‘mistakes’ in a new version of ‘Les Misérables’ and the woman who’d conjured the indelible non-word ‘honeymelons.’”

Then there is Evan Parker, a student who appears to have never read a story, let alone aspired to write one. He’s a flat-out jerk who clearly doesn’t want Bonner’s advice. He’s there, he finally discloses to Bonner, to make connections that will lead to his finding a literary agent who will then, in turn, help him secure a book deal on the novel he’s writing. Bonner, in disbelief of all this, tries to convey how unlikely this is, especially since he won’t share any of his writing.

Parker’s unfazed, because the plot of his novel is a “sure thing.” He reluctantly acquiesces and allows a few pages to be read. Bonner inwardly concedes that this guy can write. It’s not great, but neither is it hackneyed. Then Parker unpacks the plot, and Bonner is stunned: The plot is amazing.

The workshop ends and Bonner moves on to other side gigs that are becoming less “side” than “main” because he has all but ceased writing. He creates a website “touting his editorial skills,” and it does not go well. “The writing he encountered in this new role of online editor, coach, and consultant (that marvelously malleable word) made the least of his Ripley students seem like Hemingway.”

A few years pass and Bonner wonders what became of Parker and his “sure thing.” After some online investigating, he learns that not only does the novel remain unpublished, but that Parker has died. And this is the moment, the crossroads. This amazing plot is now authorless. You can almost feel the rush of euphoria surge through Bonner as he justifies his decision. How can he deny a plot that needs a writer? Ignoring it is not an option; it would forever gnaw at him, at any true writer. And are not new stories mere retellings anyway? “’Miss Saigon’ from ‘Madame Butterfly.’ ‘The Hours’ from ‘Mrs. Dalloway.’ ‘The Lion King’ from ‘Hamlet,’ for goodness’ sake!” He was given an “urgent, shimmering thing,” so he, the literary writer, must write it.

Once published, Bonner’s book becomes every bit the success he hoped. Straight to the top of the bestseller list. Oprah blesses it. His appearances and readings now fill auditoriums. (He no longer has to suffer through the indignity — as he did during his earlier books — of having only his parents show up at a reading.)

He’s living the successful writerly life he has always wanted. Yet he’s terrified. At any moment someone could stand up during a reading and yell out that he is a fraud. And come it does, the allegation, via an anonymous email: “You are a thief.”

To say any more about what happens next would be criminal. (I will say: It’s engaging.) Stephen King has a blurb on the jacket calling it “Insanely readable.” I’m not quite sure what he means by that, but I’ll agree. And it’s more than the plot. Korelitz made Bonner a curious joy to spend time with. He’s pleasant enough on the outside but sardonic on the inside. To wit: Before his fame — and while teaching — he expresses to a colleague who teaches poetry that he wished he read more poetry. In reality: “He didn’t, actually, but he wished he wished he read more poetry, which ought to count for something.” After he’s famous, and after yet another bloke says to him, “My wife read your book,” Bonner thinks, “Five monosyllabic words, speaking volumes.”

Bonner’s genial affect belies his inner turmoil. But even if there wasn’t something weighing on his conscience during the height of his book’s success, I can’t see that he would be much happier. Not as stressed, sure. But adulation only goes so far. An old cliché fits Bonner perfectly: Be careful what you wish for, you might just get it.

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Icebound: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World by Andrea Pitzer

Tales of polar expeditions haunt because we know how they end. In the early 20th century, pack ice crushed Ernest Shackleton’s ship, dashing his race to trek Antarctica. Even this is a relative success as all crew members survived. Not so for John Franklin’s 1845 expedition to find the fabled Northwest Passage. He and his crew were never heard from again. (The British government subsequently investigated their disappearance. Perhaps they should’ve left well enough alone lest unpleasant answers surface, such as those told via eyewitness Inuits: The shipwrecked crew cannibalized each other. News of this scandalized England.)
In “Icebound: Shipwrecked at the Edge of World,” Andrea Pitzer takes us back even further, to William Barents’ 1596 quest to find a northeastern route to China. Brisk and informative, it’s also stress-laden from bow to stern. Precariously, we sail up and around Nova Zembla, an archipelago in the Arctic Ocean just north of Russia. Storms threaten to snap our mast. Polar bears prowl and then attack. It’s constant tacking to slip evermoving sea ice, some akin to floating mountains. On one occasion, we pass through an ice canyon, which is equal parts mesmeric and terrifying. (“Snow and hail lacquered the ships white, turning them into ghost ships.”) We’re sailing into the unknown. And Barents attempts this journey three times.
A Dutchman, Barents manifested his country’s spirit of the day: capitalize on Far East trade. Spain and Portugal had already made numerous entries into the Southern Hemisphere, so the Dutch looked for a way to expedite trade that avoided the arduous journey around the Cape of Good Hope and awaiting pirates. Of course the Dutch knew that there was a reason no northern route yet existed. But they also were hoping to underscore a long-standing argument that if one could make it past the ice, there’s a chance conditions would moderate. The idea of a temperate North Pole was something that respected cartographers took seriously. As Pitzer notes, Barents and Dutch merchants chose to believe this “lethal delusion.”
Barents didn’t command these voyages; he navigated. While he was in high standing among the crew, his singular goal to complete a voyage often collided with the crew’s singular goal to survive. Most of the book surrounds the third voyage and the sea ice’s eventual victory. Barents and crew must winter on Nova Zembla, and Pitzer’s telling of their ordeal is as harrowing as you can imagine. Without trapping arctic foxes, it’s hard to see how they would have survived. Scurvy had weakened them to the point they could barely function, not that they could do much outside anyway. Often, the structure they built was completely buried in snow during the long polar night.
And then, of course, the polar bears. Pitzer writes of their “lethal magnificence,” and that “each bear offered the same fusion of the mundane and the mythic as the Arctic itself.” Even a felled polar bear almost killed the crew. Desperate for sustenance, but loathing polar bear meat, they devoured the bear’s liver. This almost killed them because a polar bear’s liver contains a lethal dose of Vitamin A.
The asides that Pitzer offers throughout the book are welcome relief from reading of the sailors’ miseries. I learned that most European sailors of the time didn’t know how to swim. And even though we are in the nascent stages of the scientific revolution, superstition still often carried the day. Dutch sailors crossing the equator for the first time had to pay a fine in honor of Poseidon, god of the sea. Also, seeing a parhelion (where ice crystals in the atmosphere refract the illusion of two or three suns) was a good omen to sailors. (Of course, superstition and sailing seem forever entwined.)
Pitzer states that, in terms of making preparations, it’s somewhat perplexing that Barents didn’t learn from his two erstwhile attempts. It’s a good point because he was almost snared by ice during those voyages as well. Perhaps it can be attributed to European hubris of the era: The rest of the world is to be conquered, and we are the ones who will do it. On one of the earlier expeditions, the crew, sailing Russia’s northern coast, came across an indigenous man. Instead of inquiring how he and others survived in this unforgiving climate, they asked him if the territory they were on belonged to “the grand duke of Moscow.” The Nenets man had no idea whom they were talking about. No matter. They tried to kidnap him nonetheless. The same applied to animals. See a walrus? Kill it and take only the tusks. Tragi-comically, on their first expedition they thought they could catch and actually hold a live polar bear aboard the ship. They were quickly disabused of that notion.
Escape from what they called Ice Harbor did not happen until June 1597. Barents did not survive the return, dying next to the sea that would bear his name. (Sailors would also call the sea “the devil’s dance floor.”) He and his crew had discovered Spitsbergen, sailing farther north than any known human. But it’s their story of survival that captivated. A handful of years later, Shakespeare made mention of it in “Twelfth Night”: “where you will hang like an icicle on a Dutchman’s beard.”
Barents’ voyages changed how polar regions were seen. They became destinations to be explored, not thoroughfares to other lands. According to Pitzer, Barents “launched another identity for explorers: the beleaguered polar hero.” These new explorers would be less concerned with linking known lands than with exploring the unknown as the end itself. And their hallmarks were suffering and endurance.
Pitzer eventually discusses what most readers will be thinking throughout the book: Barents sailed 400 years too soon. Disappearing sea ice is a fraught subject, and Pitzer’s book shows us what’s being lost. The polar wild now includes emaciated polar bears clinging to melting floes. In writing the book, Pitzer made a trip to behold Ice Harbor. The current that sent driftwood to the shores—thus providing life-saving fuel for Barents and crew to burn—now sends plastic trash. As I said, this book is stressful.

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Inside Story: A Novel by Martin Amis

A frequently asked question of authors in “The New York Times Book Review” goes something like this. “You’re hosting a literary dinner party. Which authors do you invite?” From the answers, we are to glean literary leanings. To me, what’s also being revealed is authors’ idea of a dinner party.
I’m partial to lively dinner gatherings, so you, dear reader, will be seated next to Norman Mailer (the Mailer from the 1970s). Across from him will be the essayist Christopher Hitchens (the Hitchens from any decade). And it just so happens that Hitchens’ good friend is a fellow Oxford-educated writer, and one of my favorite novelists, Martin Amis. He’s the quintessential English wit to add a cool levity that will attenuate the other combustible personalities at the table. Let’s seat him across from you.
Amis is renowned for using his high style of prose to unveil modernity’s excesses and absurdities, often writing about characters you would never actually want to know (which, trust, works). He is in his seventh decade and has stated that his latest novel, Inside Story: A Novel, could very well be his last. It’s a work of autofiction, so some might be frustrated in delineating fact from fiction. It nonetheless certainly reads like an autobiography. (Amis doesn’t spare himself in the book. He quotes George Orwell: “Autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful.”). Plus, those who like his work will not really care one way or the other. Amis knows how to turn a sentence, so we are willing to afford him a wide latitude. Example: In one of his earlier novels he placed himself as an actual character. This was too much for Amis’ father, the venerated novelist Kingsley Amis; for when he came across the portion of the novel that introduced the character “Martin Amis,” he threw the book across the room.
Here, Amis more/less oscillates among three individuals. Because Kingsley was a large presence in Martin’s excellent 2000 memoir, “Experience,” he’s not one of them. But, just you wait, one of these three will hand Martin some big news concerning Kingsley.
First is the novelist Saul Bellow, whom Amis revered. Conversations between the two came naturally, and Amis recounts many. We learn that Bellow, winner of the Nobel Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, and three National Book Awards, “despised with every neutrino of his being” what often passed as literary pedagogy. He did not abide attending literary conferences only to be told such things as what “Ahab’s harpoon symbolizes.”
We already know that novelists are users by nature. “Novelists are power-crazed usurpers,” cautions Amis. If you friend one, don’t be surprised to find yourself in a novel. Bellow, apparently, ran with this notion, ruining many of his marriages and driving some of his family members to cease speaking with him. Yet, according to Amis, Bellow’s last wife possessed an “atavistic fire” of devotion as Alzheimer’s plagued him.
“Writers die twice,” writes Amis. And it happened to Bellow. When Amis looked into his eyes one day, he knew that Bellow’s writing days were over. Gone was the prose that was a “force of nature.” Bellow was experiencing a “death of the mind: dissolution most foul.”
If Bellow’s prose was a force of nature, it could be said that Christopher Hitchens was a force of nature. To say he was a columnist and an orator understates Hitchens. He used the pen and the lectern about as fiercely and masterfully as one can, possessing “no ordinary powers of restiveness and mental orchestration.” And no institution or individual was safe. At times, especially in his later years, it almost seemed that Hitchens was becoming a contrarian for its own sake. But he remained consistent in challenging anything fascistic or nonsensical, which, to him, included religion.
Amis and Hitchens met in the early 1970s, their lives eventually following a similar pattern of marriage, children, divorce, and then remarriage. Amis has plenty of stories to share about his friend. And no recounting of Hitchens would be complete without mentioning his copious intake of alcohol and cigarettes. To wit: one night, Amis and Hitchens had an epic go with vodka, wine, and various other spirits. The next day, a severely hungover Amis found that not only had Hitchens made it to an early morning television appearance and debate, but he also wrote an article for publication. At noon, Hitchens let himself into Amis’ place, poured a whiskey for himself and inquired how Amis was feeling. In response to hearing of Amis’ dreadful state, Hitchens devilishly replied, “Mm. I don’t get hangovers. Can’t see the point of them.”
The point of them, of course, is to listen to your body’s distress moan: “Slow down, man.” This lack of communication caught up with Hichens in 2010 when he was diagnosed with stage four esophageal cancer. Amis says that Hitchens had a “compulsion to stride into his fears.” But still, there’s no small degree of poignancy to read that Hitchens quietly lamented the finality of it all: never seeing England again; missing his niece’s upcoming wedding. Hitchens’ two deaths were in proximity, and Amis was a dot-the-i friend to him through it all; he was by his side during treatment and at his death.
Then there is Phoebe Phelps, a girlfriend of Amis from the late 1970s, a woman he found “alluringly amoral.” When she went broke from gambling, Amis invited her to live with him. But cohabitating did not change the fact that she did not return love in kind. He knew he had made a mistake, that he was “out of his depth, and going under.” (You can find characters like her in Amis’ fiction. And you can see this version of Amis as well. In “The Information,” our protagonist awoke one morning “at six, as usual. He needed no alarm clock. He was already comprehensively alarmed.”)
Their relationship ended after five years. Decades later, Phelps reentered Amis’ life. On September 12, 2001, still shocked from the terrorist attacks the day prior, Amis was met with another jolt. Phelps rang him up to announce, “It’s been bothering me for twenty-four years and I don’t see why it shouldn’t start bothering you.” The bother: Phelps said that Kingsley had told her that he was not Martin’s father. The poet Philip Larkin was.
Martin’s wife tells him that this was just another contrived cruelty from Phelps. (And it certainly appeared that it was.) Martin can’t help but mull it about, however. Yes, Kingsley and Philip were friends. Yes, too, Martin appreciates Larkin’s poetry. But the thought of being “a Larkin” chills him. It’s clear that so much of Larkin repulses Martin: that Larkin skirted fighting the Nazis, that he was a sour and gloomy mess who hated children. (And Martin’s love life fell more on the Kingsley side of the ledger, meaning Kingsley had a staggering number of affairs. While Martin did not go to quite that extreme, he was more in line with Kingsley’s camp than with Larkin’s “irreducible church-mouse penury.” This clearly bothers Amis. Take from that what you will.) Phelps was jealous that it was Martin who went on to marry and have children. She couldn’t stand that it was she who became, in essence, “a Larkin.”
Amis also has plenty to impart on a range of topics, including writing. Here’s one: want to write a religious novel? Don’t, says Amis, “because fiction is essentially a temporal and rational form.” That’s why Amis can’t get on with Graham Greene. He likens reading Greene to riding a train. The prose moves along smoothly enough, but the tea trolley is rattling away. To Amis, that annoying rattle is religion.
As of this writing, I’ve left the last handful of the novel’s pages unread, for two reasons. 1) I don’t want good books to end. 2) I know that Amis is saying goodbye to his readers, so I’m trying to delay my bereavement. Over decades, he’s taken great care of his readers, his guests. If he had never written a word, Amis states that he would have been more than content with being just a reader. Because no other art form better reveals the depth of an inner life than literature. When we read of others doing, as Bellow writes, “the silent work of uneventful days,” we see in them derivatives of our own. Well, Mr. Amis, I’m pleased you wielded a pen and did the long work. And if this is it, and our visits have come to an end, then know this: Believe, the pleasure was all mine.

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The Price of Peace: Money, Democracy, and the Life of John Maynard Keynes by Zachary D. Carter

If there’s one college course that seems to fall into the “liked it/hated it” dichotomy, it’s probably Macroeconomics. For every student who leans into studying the national economy, there’s another who will be just fine to never again read such phrases as “elasticity vs. inelasticity of demand.” There’s one man to credit (or blame) for this: John Maynard Keynes.

Keynesian economics (read: macroeconomics) has pulsed throughout our political economy since the New Deal. In short, some of its main tenets concern full employment, aggregate demand clearing supply, and inflation. Still, I knew very little about the British economist himself. “The Price of Peace: Money, Democracy, and the Life of John Maynard Keynes” by Zachary Carter certainly took care of that knowledge gap.

Mathematics, not economics, was Keynes’ University of Cambridge degree. After a brief stint as a civil servant, he returned to academic life at Cambridge, which was where the Exchequer’s office found him just prior to World War I. A banking crisis afoot, Keynes’ keen mind was known and needed. So he crammed his 6’7″ frame into a motorcycle sidecar and made his way to London.

The Great War and the British economy would engulf his life. He wouldn’t fight in the war, as he applied for conscientious objector status, a position he came by honestly. Keynes was part of the Bloomsbury Set, which included such notables as Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster, and Lytton Strachey. Of the many things that formed their bond, with the arts at the pinnacle, pacifism was certainly a part. For some in the group, that Keynes would work for the government during wartime went beyond the pale.

The frustration was returned in kind by Keynes. Someone, he argued, had to address the awful reality and manage a wartime economy. This wouldn’t be last time there was tension within the group. Years later, Keynes fell for, and subsequently married, a Russian ballerina. This was contrary to the Keynes they knew. Bloomsbury Keynes was a homosexual.

At war’s end, Keynes vehemently opposed the Treaty of Versailles. Forever an enemy of austerity measures, he believed the harsh economic terms would destabilize a defeated Germany and potentially lead to another world war. The treaty put Keynes at war with himself. As a young man, obtaining a post at the esteemed British Treasury was his singular goal. Now, having seen firsthand how important the roil of politics is, he could not sit quietly as a future disaster was being orchestrated.

He penned “The Economic Consequences of Peace” which became a sensation in both Europe and the U.S. His intellectual might was on full display, doubtless, but so, too, was his acid tongue. Sparring no one also effectively ended his government career (at least until World War II). Keynes is famous today for his economic theories. In the early 1920s, however, his fame was as a polemicist.

Had a pre-war work—finally published in 1921—augured more than just an acknowledgement that it “made a contribution to the field,” Keynes may have swiftly returned to university life, but, this time, in the philosophy department. His “A Treatise on Probability” was overshadowed by one of his friendly rivals. For when Wittgenstein’s “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus” was published, the gravity shifted and all of academia fell in with the Austrian philosopher.

Keynes continued to publish on economics and, in so doing, challenged conventional (classical) economics. At the macro level, the study of economics was firmly entrenched in laissez-faire thinking: You let the business cycles work and equilibrium will be achieved. Keynes certainly agreed that supply/demand was the driving force. But what of those moments of disequilibrium? Laissez-faire’s response: It will won’t last; the market will stabilize in the long run. “In the long run,” Keynes returned, “we are all dead.” This rejoinder has been bandied about ever since and in a myriad of contexts. But here’s the rest of the quote: “Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if, in tempestuous seasons, they can only tell us that when the storm is long past the ocean is flat again.”

Keynes advocated what economists now call “demand management.” Demand did not always clear supply, especially during times of war and depression. To Keynes, government expenditures via fiscal policies would shift the demand curve. Such movements would have a positive multiplier effect on other areas of the economy. His multiplier theory argued that laissez-faire’s inaction was actually actionable in that it allowed economic distress to reverberate.

While Keynes’ work would be seen as “revolutionary,” the man behind it was somewhat uncomfortable with that adjective. In many ways, his worldview was formed as a Burkean conservative. But he also valued some of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s egalitarianism. Merging the two philosophies to thwart authoritarianism was, to Keynes, a laudable enterprise. He loved his posh Bloomsbury life too much to see it end. Plus, he wanted the rest of us to have a chance to live such a life as well. So he was no Marxist. In fact, he believed that Marx’s argument that capitalism would inherently fail was inherently wrong. At the same time, he didn’t believe that there was any natural law that destined capitalism’s success either.

Keynes taught his theories at Cambridge, yet, initially, they were not winning the day among graduate students. (Marxism was.) This began to change. Not only were these students beginning to embrace Keynesianism, some would travel down to the London School of Economics and provoke impromptu debates with the students still fixed in laissez-faire. Eventually, American economics students embarked to Cambridge to study under Keynes.

Still, Keynesianism was at the periphery. Keynes knew he needed to codify it into an esoteric work meant for academics. (In the world of academia, “you need a theory to kill a theory.”) This was realized in the “The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money.”

The Great Depression resulted in Keynes becoming Churchill’s de facto chancellor of the exchequer. Particular attention was given to the fiscal policies put in place in the United States, as they were seen as test cases for Keynesianism. The result: American economists who initially resisted Keynes became Keynesians in the same decade of his death.

According to Carter, “No European mind since Newton had impressed himself so profoundly on both the political and intellectual development of the world.” The revolution had come. And as happens with so many revolutions, so comes the counter-revolution.

In the U.S., the aristocracy saw Franklin Roosevelt as a traitor to his class. Riled moneyed men were willing to fund academics and publications willing to challenge Keynesianism. William F. Buckley Jr.’s “National Review” used Friedrich Hayek’s “The Road to Serfdom” as its intellectual base and went to work. Keynesians were up for the fight. What left them reeling, however, was McCarthyism.

Keynesianism would have many morphisms throughout the latter half of the twentieth century. American Keynesians, at turns, embraced more corporate-influenced policies the British Keynesians found abhorrent. Another famous quote concerning Keynes came from President Richard Nixon: “I am now Keynesian in economics.”

Enter Milton Friedman’s monetarism and decades of strident debate concerning the size and role of government in fiscal and monetary policy, and here we are. (Economists can be an acerbic lot, where things get really personal, really fast.) And you don’t have to go back too far to see Keynesian fiscal initiatives at work, as in the 2008 financial dilemma.

Regardless of the modern relevance of Keynes, here’s what Carter wants us to take away from his astute book: Keynesianism isn’t so much about economic theory as it is about radical optimism. Keynes lived in a time of dire economic crises that gave rise to authoritarians who then took their respective countries off the cliff. For him, economics was the light by which we could find our way out. For us, Keynes was every bit a philosopher of war and peace.

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The Silence by Don DeLillo

Illusory though it is, there’s an endorphin-rush moment when you begin a novel that feels as though it was written just for you. The story’s arc is almost irrelevant. What blows your hair back are the observations in sentences that seem perfectly formed. It’s as if your limbic system has been waiting for this moment. And from this instant, you know that you will need to read everything ever written by this author, this new shadow of you. For me, one such author is Don DeLillo.
I don’t recall how it was in my twenties I ended up reading DeLillo’s “Libra,” a novel about Lee Harvey Oswald. I wasn’t particularly interested in traveling into an imagined rendering of Oswald’s mind. By novel’s end, however, I felt as though I learned more about him than any nonfiction book could reveal. But more than anything, it was DeLillo’s writing that had me up, pacing and reading. There was a rhythm to the words. To this day, I will reread a chapter of DeLillo, much in the same way we listen to our favorite musicians over and over.
DeLillo’s awards and accolades are many, his influence on a generation of writers legion, notably Jonathan Franzen and the late, great David Foster Wallace. His modernist style made him a talisman to those pondering modern life. While DeLillo may not be a widely read author, his writing reminds me of what someone said of The Velvet Underground: not many listened to their music, but those who did started a band. Reading DeLillo made one want to write. And, after 50 years as a published author, he’s still at it.
His latest novel, “The Silence,” could actually be considered a novella. It’s only 117 pages, double-spaced. (The fact that such a svelte book was released in a fickle publishing industry speaks to DeLillo’s reputation.) It takes place on Super Bowl night, the year 2022. A couple, Tessa and Jim, are flying back to New Jersey from Paris. As they approach stateside, the commercial plane loses its lift and plummets. Whereas Jim had been staring at the screen that tracks the plane’s location, airspeed, and estimated time of arrival, he now visualizes the soon-to-be news footage reporting their fiery demise.
At the same moment, another couple, Max and Diane, are ready to watch the game in their Manhattan apartment and are also waiting for Tessa and Jim to join them. Already there is Martin, a former university physics student of Diane’s. Then all electric currents and signals disappear. When it dawns on them that this outage is widespread and not likely to end soon, Max (who appears to have a slight gambling problem) loses it a little. He stops just staring at the blank screen and starts to announce a made-up football game, replete with commercials.
Martin, already a man with “a nowhere stare,” begins spouting thoughts that are sometimes thought-provoking, sometimes absurd. For him, that blank screen means so much more than a power outage. “What is it hiding from us?” Not knowing what else to do, Diane observes and listens to these two, a low-grade panic beginning to well insider her. “The pauses were turning into silences and beginning to feel like the wrong kind of normal.”
Tessa and Jim survive the crash and eventually find their way to Max and Diane’s apartment. (On the shuttle ride from the crash site to a medical clinic, the van comes across a woman jogging amidst this grid shutdown. An odd site, the van’s driver slows to the jogger’s pace, the shuttle riders watching her as she blithely jogs.)
DeLillo is a master of dialogue. In this novel, however, the characters don’t really converse with each other. More than once, someone will exclaim that they are just going to say what comes to mind, for—given the current situation—no one is going to remember it anyway.
During the Cold War, DeLillo’s work explored how life plays out under the threat of mutually assured destruction. There was a dread mixed with weapon-worship, as evidenced in his noting that we named warheads and rockets from Greek and Roman mythology. On this night, in the year 2022, there’s no electrical power to launch such force. The conversation is no longer about nuclear arms; it’s now “the language of living weaponry. Germs, genes, spores.” To Martin “the war rolls on and the terms accumulate.” In fact, he seems to think that this blackout is just the beginning of World War III.
If you have yet to read DeLillo, I would recommend beginning with earlier works, such as “White Noise” or “Libra.” The former devilishly satirizes university culture in an era of unyielding media saturation; the latter shows us how a disillusioned loner can make history. (I am not saying don’t read his latest novel, for it was certainly prescient, being that it was written before our own upheaval that greeted us soon after last year’s Super Bowl. I am saying that his earlier works are that of a virtuoso.)
Another theme DeLillo mines is the formidable nature of crowds. In the “Silence,” our characters try to avoid what they know is taking place on the streets. (Max ventures out briefly to take in the growing tension, “a thousand faces every minute,” “curses rising into the air.”) This power is on full display in “Mao II” (another recommendation), the book beginning with a mass wedding ceremony officiated by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon.
In “Underworld,” DeLillo’s brilliant magnum opus (and my favorite), we begin with “an assembling crowd,” making their way to game three of the 1951 National League pennant, these New Yorkers bringing “with them the body heat of a great city and their own small reveries and desperations, the unseen something that haunts the day.” Outside the Polo Grounds, a black kid, with “a shine in his eye that’s halfway hopeful,” gathers with other kids—black and white—who can’t afford a ticket. They briefly strategize the best way to jump the turnstiles.
Inside, during the game, Jackie Gleason holds comedic court. An F.B.I. agent whispers to J. Edgar Hoover that the Soviets detonated their first hydrogen bomb test. This is the game where Bobby Thomson hits the series-winning home run with “the shot heard around the world.” The kid who jumped the stiles catches the ball. “This is the people’s history and it has flesh and breath.” Such events are life-defining. Yet they are, as all moments are, fleeting, “fading indelibly into the past.” It’s an electrified blend of fact and fiction that reveals truth, the very reason we read serious fiction. This is why we read Don DeLillo.

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The Standardization of Demoralization Procedures by Jennifer Hofmann

East Berlin, early November 1989. Protestors seeking political reforms thrum the city. You can feel it: The old communist order is falling apart. And so is Bernd Zeiger, Stasi officer.

While you and I know that the Berlin Wall is set to topple, the characters in Jennifer Hofmann’s excellent debut novel The Standardization of Demoralization Procedures do not. And, really, the protests that contribute to the wall’s cracking are just sporadic backdrops throughout the novel. What Hofmann gives us is a small cast of characters trying to lurch their way through daily life in a regime that has already taken so much from them.

Zeiger, nearing the end of his career as an officer in East Germany’s brutal secret police organization, is—like the wall—on the verge of total collapse. He has “developed a death wish, passive but pronounced.” The impetus for his breakdown: Lara, a waitress at the café he frequents, has disappeared. Apparently, Zeiger is so starved for human connection that an accidental near fall at the café, resulting in Lara catching herself by placing her hand on his shoulder, has reduced him to a vessel of total need. His life is a double helix of loss of meaning and a yearning for the one thing that might restore some balance: Lara. Driving Berlin, he sees her everywhere. “Lara, the blinding cherry lights ahead. Lara, the speckle of dried dirt on his windshield. Lara in the stratosphere. Lara in the ether.”

If Zeiger had one life-defining event, it was penning a reference work entitled “Standardization of Demoralization Procedures” (SDP Manual). As a young Stasi officer, he was unsettled by the Soviet method of torturing subjects into confessions (real or not). So he codified a different kind of torture, where recipients were at the end of a barrage of mental maneuverings (ridiculous, yet effective) that led to mental chaos. If they confessed, great. If not, it didn’t really matter. A different charge awaited.

An example of its comic absurdity: Subchapter 1.1, “Demoralization through Repetitive, Tedious Speech,” where, in one case, a Party spokesman talked for so long he had “anesthetized an entire room of journalists with his old Berliner lilt.” Still, to Zeiger, it was his “life’s work, a substantial volume, the closest he’d come to fathering.”

I won’t give away what becomes of Zeiger’s search for Lara, but it’s ultimately both fantastical and beautiful. Throughout his pursuit, we learn that Zeiger was on his way to becoming a young orphan after his father was marched into oblivion, Germany having lost the Eastern Front during World War II. (The Eastern Front cost many German children their fathers, “when more stray dogs than grown men had roamed the streets.”) The process of becoming an orphan was complete after his mother received a small box, courtesy of the Soviets. Inside were the remains of her husband. Soon after, she had an “accident’ and “fell face forward into her Walther service gun.”

Dark stuff, indeed. However, the book is often wickedly funny. When a colleague presents a picture of his adult son (also gone missing), Zeiger sees in him “features reminiscent of circus performers with pituitary problems.” Further losing his repose, Zeiger says to this colleague, “I think I’m dying.”

“Differently than the rest of us?”

“I believe so.”

“What makes your death so special?”

“That it’s mine.”

Then there was that time in Zeiger’s career when he reported to work having not received the memorandum that the color gray had been banned within the Party. At HQ, everyone else wore clownishly bright attire. The concept of gray, he learned, “was the sustenance of skeptics.”

So there you have Zeiger, crushed by the Soviets in his youth and then made to do their bidding as an adult. And he knows it. “Failure and shame; iron and steel.”

There are moments in the novel when the question of “Why?” is asked. Why was insanity allowed to reign for so long? It’s almost impossible to find a satisfactory answer. One can only circle around it. “Misery was never content with its victories, not because it was greedy, but because it had no memory.”

The torturer ends up torturing himself. “Any room, he realized, can be a torture chamber. It need not be titled as such to become one. A bedroom, a pretty house, a state, one’s own porous skull.” Hofmann’s novel is a reminder that the building and ultimate tearing down of a wall that was meant to divide expended too many lives, lives that would have been better spent doing just about anything else.

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The Hardest Job in the World: The American Presidency by John Dickerson

The time is nigh, fellow citizens. This Tuesday, we shall exercise our franchise and elect a president. Many have made their respective choice already via absentee or mail-in voting, so tabulating the results among the 50 states could require some collective patience. Regardless, we do know that come January 20th, either Joseph R. Biden or Donald J. Trump will take the oath of office at noon, thus bestowing the privilege to wield the powers vested under Article II of the U.S. Constitution. Always a weighty event, now is a fine time to explore the office of the presidency.
This is what John Dickerson tackles in The Hardest Job in the World: The American Presidency. Mercifully, Dickerson doesn’t devote much time to what has been explored elsewhere, and for quite some time: that we are in the age of the “imperial presidency,” where the U.S. presidency now brandishes power beyond what the Constitution allows. It’s also known (perhaps somewhat erroneously) as the “unitary executive,” its more legalistic name. (I say “mercifully” because there’s plenty of excellent scholarship on this already.)
If anything, Dickerson addresses evolving presidential powers through anecdotes. For example, William Henry Harrison didn’t offer policy initiatives during his campaign, as he believed that would encroach on congressional prerogative. We now, of course, expect a whole array of presidential proposals, mostly of the domestic variety. However, when it’s realized that so much of the workday is spent addressing voluminous foreign policy matters, a new reality quickly manifests within a newly sworn president. Consider President Kennedy. Soon after taking the oath of office he was made privy to an operation that was already in full planning motion: The Bay of Pigs invasion.
President Eisenhower has received renewed interest in recent years, and Dickerson follows suit. Eisenhower developed a quadrant system where he assigned issues an importance level, Q1 housing the most urgent. He was prescient enough to realize that Q1 could swallow up a presidency; so the challenge was to ensure that the urgent didn’t crowd out other initiatives he wanted to achieve. (And did you know that Ike had such a bad temper White House staff referred to him, just among themselves no doubt, as “the terrible-tempered Mr. Bang”? Fully aware of his temper, Ike wrote in his journal, “Anger cannot win. It cannot even think clearly.”)
Dickerson doesn’t share such narratives as mere historical asides. He’s attempting to edify the reader on how our previous presidents led the executive and how historical events were met and managed by presidents, which in turn changed the presidency. Prime example number one is FDR’s initiated policies during the Great Depression. A lesser known example is that presidents were once not expected to be “on the scene” when natural disasters struck. LBJ changed that in 1965 after a hurricane devastated New Orleans. When his motorcade came across a 9th Ward high school sheltering displaced residents, LBJ addressed them: “I’m your president and I’m here to help you.”
Dickerson structured the book so that you can essentially pick any section and begin reading, as most anecdotes last only a handful of pages. But this is also the book’s greatest weakness. Just when you think you found a theme, we’re off to another president of another era, over and over again. Plus, there are too many plodding sentences telling us what a president should strive to accomplish. While I think Dickerson is correct on the merits, stylistically more than a few sentences made me wince. Dickerson was once a political reporter for Slate and Time. He’s a television reporter now, so maybe that’s why his writing has taken on a folksy sheen, where metaphors are freely mixed.
Still, the book certainly works well in spots. Dickerson seemingly knew that no U.S. political history book would be complete without revisiting the Constitutional Convention of 1787. The framers understood that the challenge was to establish a limited federal government that was still vigorous enough to function. While the will of the people manifests through elected representatives, their passions must be checked. In Federalist No. 51, James Madison wrote, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls would be necessary.” Thus the separation of powers: a bicameral legislature, an executive branch, and an independent judiciary. They knew that unscrupulous officeholders could be elected. What they hoped was that the institutions would survive.
I’ll leave it to you to wrestle with what the founders would think of the balance of power we have now. But I will say that they placed Congress under Article I of the Constitution for a reason. There are many factors that have led to waning congressional relevance (with gerrymandering leading the way), but it would be intriguing to know how the founders would process the practice of outsourcing legislation to the executive branch, where an executive order is decreed only for it to be summarily ended by the next president.
Dickerson uses his conclusion to offer modest remedies to the political realities we have now. I appreciate the effort, but I’m dubious. Dickerson acknowledges that there’s no longer an environment where a president and a ranking member of the opposing party will sit in a room and compromise à la President Reagan and Speaker Tip O’Neill. These two men were on opposite sides of the political spectrum, so they certainly argued. But when one crossed the line with a press comment, the other was called and offered an apology. They agreed on little, but they knew that governing such a large, heterogeneous country meant compromising so that there was working legislation to address complex problems. (Even President Clinton and Speaker Gingrich met privately to discuss legislation.) Anyway, yes, we should consider how to better our outsized presidency, as Dickerson proposes. But just as the political landscape we live in today resulted from accretion, so also is the hope for a return to a point where a moderating spirit between the two political parties is more rule than exception.

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The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States by Walter Johnson

History runs through St. Louis like a current.
It’s downtown as tourists spill around the Old Federal Courthouse—where the infamous Dred Scott case began—on their way to the glinting Gateway Arch, the national monument to Western Expansion, to empire. It flows westward to Forest Park, site of the 1904 World’s Fair, and through the architectural grandeur of surrounding houses. Wending northward yields a scarred history with dilapidated red brick houses and embattled residents. The transition is striking, leaving even the most casual of observers to ask: What happened to St. Louis?
Walter Johnson, author of The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States, has some answers. From the book’s subtitle, it doesn’t take much to conjecture that his answers are far from any feel-good musings over a once halcyon St. Louis. If you want a narrative that waxes poetic about, say, the St. Louis Cardinals as it relates to the city’s history, look elsewhere. What Johnson, a Harvard professor and native Missourian, does provide is a deep look at St. Louis’s racial and political economy history. A book with resounding vitality, it is, in a word, incendiary.
St. Louis was the early republic’s long reach westward. It became the outpost where William Clark (of Lewis and Clark), serving as superintendent of Indian Affairs, oversaw treaties that ceded over 419 million acres to the United States. Still, this did not stop white settlers from calling him a “race traitor” after he ordered the removal of several hundred settlers along the Arkansas River to avoid conflict on Indian land. They refused the order and he was swiftly removed from office.
Such settlers found an ally in Senator Thomas Hart Benton, a man who sounded “like an angry god in love with his own voice.” Johnson brands Benton as one of the many “second-chance strivers” who made their way to Missouri because they missed making their fortunes either back East or down South. Total Indian removal to make way for white expansion was the order of the day. (Or, as Johnson puts it, “Genocide was the vanguard of empire.”) And St. Louis housed the key garrison. The legendary names we know from the Civil War (Grant, Lee, Longstreet, Sherman) spent their early military careers as Indian fighters stationed out of St. Louis.
This new influx of white inhabitants also had little use for slaveholders as they owned a potential impediment to white labor: slaves. St. Louis became fiercely anti-black and the site of the nation’s first recorded lynching. In 1836, just hours after disembarking a steamship, a free black man was accused of murder and then burned alive behind the Federal Courthouse. This view that blacks were essentially disposable was solidified by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1857 Dred Scott case, Chief Justice Taney writing that blacks (whether free or enslaved) “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”
To be sure, St. Louis had its paradoxes. There was a relatively small slave population. Yet it had one of largest slave markets in the country. There was a white population that didn’t particularly care whether one owned a slave or not so long as said slave (and slave owner) didn’t impede their quest for property. The mid-1800s were complicated further with the arrival of Germans fleeing the Revolutions of 1848. And since many of them were Marxists, they believed private property should not exist at all, certainly not human chattel. As such, when the time came, quite a few Germans joined the Union Army. There’s a twenty-foot statue of Franz Sigel in Forest Park today. Sigel was a German-born St. Louisan who became a distinguished Union general. He was also, Johnson mordantly states, “a stone-cold communist.”
Following the war, Walt Whitman and William Tecumseh Sherman advocated moving the nation’s capital to St. Louis. And there was a brief period of unity between white and black laborers during the St. Louis General Strike of 1877, the first such strike in the nation. However, such solidarity had long since evaporated when, a few decades later, St. Louis passed its first segregation ordinance. Still, downtown St. Louis was full of verve and was nationally known as a “sporting city” (full innuendo). At the turn of the century, ragtime music, invented by black musicians, thundered out of St. Louis, the nation’s fourth most populous city.
But you wouldn’t find ragtime at the 1904 World’s Fair. (It was banned.) You would, however, find a spectacle that’s hard to fathom. In Forest Park, visitors could pay a nickel and pose for a photo with Geronimo. There was a “human zoo,” where Filipinos and Pygmies lived. During colder days, white ticket holders would throw rocks at their huts so that they would come out and perform. A young T.S. Eliot often bought daily tickets to the fair. A visitor might glimpse Mark Twain sitting down to dinner with Henry James.
Much of the twentieth century, according to Johnson, was a calculated effort to engineer a city that encouraged white flight to the suburbs (back when it was thought that the city would merge administratively with St. Louis County). The land where the Arch stands today was once seen by many as the “Greenwich Village of the West.” This mattered little to city officials, as it presented a “redevelopment” plan for the area. The 1935 bond issue passed overwhelmingly and 40 square blocks were bulldozed. (Yet it was soon revealed that the plan was a speculative real estate venture.) Interstates were expanded to encourage white mobility and racial restrictive covenants were common.
As with so many present-day municipalities, St. Louis struggles with viable ways to raise revenue. So enters the now ubiquitous TIF districts, where municipalities essentially have to “give it away.” Even if an area is blighted and developed, the resulting sales tax revenue comes at the expense of stagnant property tax levies. The result: perpetually underfunded schools.
Some may push back at Johnson’s stressing racial enmity as a constant thread running through St. Louis’s history. However, after reading of the 1917 East St. Louis Massacre, it seems that the onus shifts to having to explain how race was not a driving historical force. Officially, the death count is around 40. But historians believe the number is in the hundreds. (It also left 6,000 blacks homeless.) After the massacre, a congressional report concluded that the companies operating in East St. Louis cared nothing for the civic life of the area.
Johnson thoroughly unpacks the Ferguson of 2014 within the context of the Michael Brown shooting. There are reams of reports detailing how the city, via the police, went revenue-farming on poor black residents. But Johnson’s ire is focused on what was not included: the structural racism found in the area. (He notes that such racism is not unique to St. Louis; as we have seen, it’s fixed in many other cities as well.) This book is his response.
The St. Louis of today is one where a poor black child born in the North will have a life expectancy that is eighteen years shorter than a white child born in a nearby suburb. Such grim realities, Johnson notes, have an impact, and grassroots are forming. The challenges are legionnaire, but still they try. Johnson stops by a high school and watches a track meet. Even after the track coach’s son was shot dead by a police officer in 2017, she’s still there, trying. The kids are still out there running, some of them literally for their lives.

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Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness by Peter Godrfey-Smith

You and I stand on one of evolution’s most privileged branches. From this high vantage, eye some other branches and identify the animals you consider “smart.” Dolphins? Apes? Your dog and cat? Mostly mammals, I am guessing. (Although we should throw in select birds, especially crows.) Now dive off our branch and go back, down millions of years, well past the dinosaurs, and into the sea some 600 million years ago. You are at the early stages of animal evolution where the viciousness of predation has yet to arrive. While we do not know what our ancestor looks like exactly, nor the depth of water it best thrives, it is probably just a few millimeters long and receives sustenance via filtration.

Now ascend and return to the present. But instead of following the ancestral line whence we came, trail a different line that also emerges from this animal. Moving forward, here come the predators and prey with their various adaptations of assault and defense. One animal develops underwater jet propulsion to both overwhelm and flee. Follow that one. Returning to the present, but just below the water’s surface, look into the eyes of this creature that is intently watching you, an animal Claudius Aelianus in the third century C.E. described as one of “mischief and craft,” our long-lost “smart” cousin: the octopus.

In Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness, Peter Godrfey-Smith argues that the octopus is probably the closest we will come to meeting alien life. By appearances alone, we can see his point. The Mars Attacks!-like dome (the mantle). The busy, yet mesmeric, eight arms that are being fed blue-green blood that is pumped through three hearts. With no natural angles, it is a “body of pure possibility.” It can squeeze through an aperture that is only a little larger than one of its eyes. It can change colors and camouflage itself so that one could be just a few feet from you, and you wouldn’t know it.

Because its neural architecture is completely different from vertebrates, Godfrey-Smith maintains that it is, in many ways, more useful to study what an octopus can do than what it is. Prior to reading this book, I was aware that octopuses were great escape artists. To wit: Turn your back on one in a lab and you could quite possibly turn back around to see the last glimpse of an octopus that had scuttled out of its tank, scooted across the floor, and climbed up and into the drain that leads back to the sea. Continuing with this, Godfrey-Smith describes how octopuses are quick to learn things in the lab that are completely new, and in no way natural to them, such as using levers and unscrewing jars, even when the octopus is inside the jar (!). There are so many anecdotes in this book that show off what whizbangs octopuses are I could use the rest of my allotted space sharing them. Still, and because I cannot help myself, here are two.

First, in the ocean, octopuses devour crab. In the lab, their fare is less than five stars, arriving in the form of thawed shrimp or squid. They don’t like it but will eat it out of lack of choice. One day, a researcher was walking down a line of octopus tanks, dropping a bite of squid into each. Reaching the end, she backtracked and noticed that the octopus in the first tank was seemingly awaiting her return and holding up the uneaten squid. Without taking its eyes off hers, the octopus moved across the tank and then flicked the offending piece of squid down the overflow drain.

Second, off the coast of Australia, a diver discovered an area that was densely populated with octopuses. Since octopuses are not very social, this was a unique find. (Godfrey-Smith would later dive this location, an area both he and the diver named Octopolis.) After many dives, one octopus approached him, took his hand, and led him on a ten-minute tour of the area, culminating with the octopus showing the diver its den.

Intriguing as these vignettes are the thrust of Godfrey-Smith’s book moves beyond highlighting octopus razzmatazz. Given that octopuses have a “mental surplus,” what are we to make of them? They have so many neurons throughout their arms, you essentially cannot delineate where the brain begins and ends. The octopus is a brain. What then is the relation between an octopus’s central and local control, meaning how autonomous is one of its arms? Can one arm explore and process here while the others simultaneously do the same elsewhere? (Imagine discovering, right now, that one of your hands had been writing a letter as you read this.)

Godfrey-Smith, a professor of philosophy, quotes William James in the necessity of studying the origins of consciousness, for while we know that humans have it in spades, we most certainly know, too, that it did not just explode into existence with humans. Given that the human brain forms its own subjective reality regarding existence, asking, “What does it feel like to be an octopus?” may seem illusive. But Godrey-Smith investigates these questions from a relatively high altitude (meant as a compliment), balancing the narrative so that it lacks neither readability nor academic bona fides. Throughout the book, the questions are framed for our own independent thoughts. He does make one declarative: If we ignore the health of the oceans, it will be at our peril.

It’s understandable that our high perch results in instinctive stargazing and wonder. What if contact from out there was made? Would there be any hope of us understanding each other? Would they see us as we see the octopus? Would they see our intelligence? Would they find us worth the effort?

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