Incidentally, this is the best of MacDonald’s work I’ve read, efficiently pulling together all of the psychological and stylistic elements he uses consistently, and doing so in the service of a story that’s actually surprising (which is not always necessary, as suspense and mystery are entirely different things, and you only need a bit of the one and none of the other to build creditable hard-boiled). Also perhaps incidental (or perhaps very telling): in addition to the mix of gothic psychology and crisp streamlined style, this novel might feature the most color from its narrator, interesting because of MacDonald’s notion of Archer as necessarily two-dimensional, merely a conduit for the drama surrounding him.
“Within a few minutes a fingerprint man and a deputy coroner and a photographer had taken over the room and changed its character. It became impersonal and drab like any room anywhere in which murder had been committed. In a curious way the men in uniform seemed to be doing the murder a second and final time, annulling Helen’s rather garish aura, converting her into laboratory meat and courtroom exhibits. My raw nerves jumped when the bulbs flashed in her corner.”—Ross MacDonald, The Chill | Knopf 1964
Mall-bred, Gatsby-manque Richard now in the adult present tense, which Tartt gives occasional glimpses of throughout, puts the point on. Again, Tartt does a very delicate thing with this character, and with the set of characters she’s working with. They’re magnetic when they’re introduced, attractive and only a little unsettling: over the course of the book, they become monstrous, and then banal and small and sad.
Two side notes: Tartt’s skill and awareness more than anything else sets this story head-and-shoulders above something like Tana French’s The Likeness, which absolutely steals its setup from The Secret History. And this is one of those moments where the story starts out like a tragedy, but eventually becomes something much more ordinary and much less grand.
“Our shared language is a language of the intricate, the peculiar, the home of pumpkins and ragamuffins and bodkins and beer, the tongue of Ahab and Falstaff and Mrs. Gamp; and while I find it entirely suitable for reflections as these, it fails me utterly when I attempt to describe in it what I love about Greek, that language innocent of all quirks and cranks; a language obsessed with action, and with the joy of seeing action multiply from action, action marching relentlessly ahead and with yet more actions filing in from either side to fall into neat step at the rear, in a long straight rank of cause and effect toward what will be inevitable, the only possible end.”—Donna Tartt, The Secret History | Knopf 09.05.92
Part of the reason Tartt is so good here is that she captures her characters’ uneven development: their highly-developed tastes and intellects, as measured against a less-developed or even stunted notion of money and morality, and most importantly a general lack of irony or negative capability.
Not really much of a plot to this one — but significant in illustrating the way that Archer works. There are a couple of points in the story where other characters have made judgments they are satisfied with, that they’re willing to stick to and accept the consequences of; not so Archer, who always holds judgment in reserve, and instead lets events run as long as they can. This is MacDonald’s method — just like he wants Archer to melt into the background, serving as a conduit for the characters in the foreground to talk to or act out against, so too does the notion of judgment and justice often recede as a hasty mistake.
“'You're very honest, Mr. Archer. I gave you an opening, but you didn't try to use her on me as a wedge. You could have said that he was crazy about her, thus fanning the fires of jealousy.' She winced at her own self-mockery.
‘I try to be honest with honest people.’
She gave me a flashing look. ‘That’s intended to put me on the spot.’”—Ross MacDonald, The Galton Case | Knopf 1959
This seems to be one of those ideas that surfaces once, and then you see it again and again: it’s not quite confirmation bias, but there is a word for it (and if I’m not mistaken, that word’s even in English, not just in German). Tragedy, classical tragedy, played out not as tragedy but as revenge, two entirely different forms with the same outer shape but very different psychological innards.
“I remain unimpressed with the mathematical arts in general. What are the so-called exact sciences but the failure of metaphor and metonymy? I’ve always experienced mathematics as a personal affront. It is a form of torture for the imaginatively gifted, the very totalitarianism of thought, one line being made to march strictly in step behind the other, all leading inexorably to a single undeviating conclusion. A proof out of Euclid recalls to my mind nothing so much as the troops goose-stepping before the Supreme Dictator.”—From Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s 36 Arguments for the Existence of God. (please note that, for the character speaking the lines, this is entirely in earnest.)
This comes from an argument about immortality, or at least about medical research radically extending the lifespan (to eliminate senescence, making all deaths sudden and swift: “by the laws of probability, something’s going to get you, sooner or later”). The argument is one of the versions of the discussion at the heart of the book, between religion, probability mathematics, and science, and it’s an argument that gets repeated in various differently-weighted permutations throughout the novel.
Do not be critics, you people, I beg you. I was a critic and I wish I could take it all back because it came from a smelly and ignorant place in me, and spoke with a voice that was all rage and envy. Do not dismiss a book until you have written one, and do not dismiss a movie until you have made one, and do not dismiss a person until you have met them. It is a fuckload of work to be open-minded and generous and understanding and forgiving and accepting, but Christ, that is what matters. What matters is saying yes.
I remember when Eggers said this, and I remember wishing he’d used some term other than “a critic” — a term too easily mistaken for a profession, a position — when what he really means is a critical person: the Merriam-Webster 2. definition of critic (“one given to harsh or captious judgment”), rather than either the 1a. (“one who expresses a reasoned opinion” on matters of “value, truth, righteousness, beauty, or technique”) or 1b. (“one who engages often professionally in the analysis, evaluation, or appreciation” of art). If he meant that last one, all he’d be saying is that he made a spectacularly shitty critic, which is not his point — although he does seem happy to let the lines blur between these things, to let it be inferred that critics are merely critical, just like it says on the label; this is what’s known in the world of not-saying-YES as a “dick move.”
Really what he’s telling in this paragraph is the story of an age cohort, or at least a certain segment of one. He is a person of the 90s, you know, part of a cohort that once rode high on a wave of useful irony and suspicion and overclocked bullshit detectors — all things that seemed necessary, at some point, even refreshing, even productive of real truth. He started a magazine (Might) that thrived on snarky pop-culture jokes at a time when snarky pop-culture jokes seemed to say something useful about the world. But then they didn’t. And then, growing slightly older, this clever cohort turned around and began issuing prophetic warnings about the danger of the very habits they’d once indulged in, mourning the loss of sincerity and belief, lining up against now allegedly oppressive levels of cynicism and snark, urging reconnection with real sincerity and what DFW liked to call “basic human verities,” things that these very same people had once sandblasted with caustic irony/suspicion/cynicism because they’d been handed down in such tarnished condition that they kinda needed a sandblasting. Having successfully, caustically, eroded the gunk off what their ancestors believed, they felt a strong, sudden, imperative urge to figure out what they believed, to act not corrosively but constructively, to talk honestly about finding things to say YES to.
Ah but here’s the rub: meanwhile along come a whole bunch of younger people for whom these issues are not all that vexed or pressing, people who are fluent in irony and sincerity both and don’t need to be told how to love earnestly, people for whom “say YES” is not a profound and meaningful shift in mentalities but just a stitched-sampler reminder of something very, very basic, and maybe in this sense every generation digs a hole and then goes around preaching about the importance of climbing out of it while young people nod politely at them and dig different holes entirely.
Re: the previous, on confusing criticism with just being critical.
Joshua Mohr’s bit on reviewing, or his difficulty with reviewing, has been niggling at me for the past couple of days. And, despite him being gracious enough to anticipate disagreement, not to mention soliciting another point of view (Ron Currie’s perspective that a reviewer or critic should judge a work by how well it fulfills its goals), there’s a disconnect at the root of Mohr’s conception of criticism — the point and the practice of it.
The problem is with the image of a team. Mohr starts out with the idea that “peer review” suddenly feels like violation, now that he’s published his first book; continues to question the reasons one writer would “want to criticize” another writer’s book; and concludes with the feeling that he shouldn’t be criticizing. All of this is written from Mohr’s perspective as a novelist, one who sinks a great deal of self and effort and time into an artistic endeavor.
But that’s not what a critic does. Some artists may be great critics; some works of criticism are artistic; but they are not identical roles, with identical tools. Instead, a critic occupies a space between writer and reader, ideally sympathetic to both, and with the expertise to assess and translate the value of a book to its audience. The critic doesn’t belong to either side of the equation, either team; he or she necessarily can’t, in order to serve a critical function.
It’s no news at all that professional criticism is dying, contracting with newspapers and publishing, rejected in part in favor of direct interaction, comments and user ratings and amazon stats. And, naturally, as a professional writer and a trained critic, I’ve got an interested perspective on this, similarly interested like Mohr’s. But the case for the critical role, as distinguished from the artist’s or the consumer’s role, is important to recognize. But it can’t be as an advocate for the artist, as that’s a disservice to the audience; and it can’t be simply a reflection of popularity, unless we’re willing to cede the point that the majority (or the loudest) have the best aesthetic judgment.
All credit to Mohr for approaching this so seriously; it’s only a shame that his own perspective keeps him from criticism, or makes him confuse criticism with merely being critical. It seems that, in this transitional moment (in art, in technology, in the business of aesthetics and entertainment) criticism can shuck some priestly or professorial robes — but at the same time it needs to rely on commitment and expertise, an ability to contribute (through dedication, perspective, access, whatever) to an ongoing conversation.
This is a wife’s speech, to her husband, after he reveals that he is about to end an insider trading scam that he’s headed for years. Now, certainly, these characters live in a world that is foreign to me (and after all, isn’t that one of the great excitements of fiction, that we get to look inside the heads of others, and see out their eyes for a little while?) — but I’m pretty sure that I’ve never met a woman, much less a mother with children, whose first response to a long-term deception over illegal behavior that could easily result in prison and bankruptcy would be this sort of ego-massage. Mind you, these lines are delivered in earnest (making Adam feel like “a holy warrior”), without any trace of sarcasm.
And, of course, the cops don’t ever come for him. Instead, he establishes a huge private foundation, and allows charity to expiate. Because, just as he wanted to determine his own rewards, and their pace, so too should he determine his penalties, and the prices he must pay for misdeeds, apparently.
And then return to the previous, the determining of his own rewards. I’m simply not sure to what extent Dee intends irony. It’s pretty clear in the final section of the novel, when the central couple’s children are adults unable to deal with the world after it’s been handed to them on a platter, that he’s reserving a critique for them. But their parents, who begin as a golden couple married just out of college, and finish as fixers and philanthropists? Their bad actions are unpunished (not that a novel has a duty to mete out justice, but there’s a sharklike lack of anguish or even doubt here) and they are impressively untouched by tragedy or adversity. Again, Dee has no responsibility to be ironic, and his irony may be too subtle or covert to satisfy me — but to read these characters unironically, especially during this recession and its aftermath, gets disturbing.
“But there was something in Adam that stiffened against that idea — more so after today than ever before. Some manor in the country to return to over and over again, in which to sit and drink among the plants and do nothing in particular: was that what he was supposed to want? All day long he had felt like the house, the car, the club, the view, that whole life was being conspicuously shown to him, held out in front of him. Patience, my son. Why didn’t he want it, then? Maybe he just wanted to determine his own rewards, and the pace at which they would come.”—
Again, a nice analogy, even if it doesn’t quite hold up to scrutiny. Although when you extend it through this year’s year-end lists, and this year’s broke-ass model year, things do get dire. Now, we have Toyotas: deeply boring, but sensible, perfectly willing to last forever, and this year at least nobody’s trading in for a newer sexier model.
“Across the radio and retail landscape, rock was in retreat. The latest generation of guitar heroes had abandoned the field… . From my jaded perspective, they seemed ridiculous. Rock and roll was supposed to be commercial! It was intended to reach as many ears as possible. The idea of rock as being something obscure, only for the cool kids, was antithetical to the purpose of the form. Jazz could be arcane, modern classical music could be obscure, but elitist rock and roll was as silly a notion as elitist chewing gum. Rock was for everyone who wanted to listen or it was useless.”—Bill Flanagan, in Evening’s Empire, on rock and roll in the early ’90s.
Sez Richard Nash, writing about the future of publishing. To split hairs: I’m not sure he means what he says, and am still less certain that Benjamin’s argument can be read as cheerful or approving: simply because digital dissemination is more soulless (or carries even less aura) than mechanical reproduction doesn’t make the earlier model better. However awful mp3 compression is for music, it doesn’t make an 8-track sound any better.
The advantages of digital media are numerous and clear enough, and Nash is hopeful that the digital / print divide is not a zero-sum game — but it’s a shame to retcon earlier aesthetics into welcoming the new and consoling things they once rejected.
Narrator Rosemary says to herself, assembling her first adult bookshelf at the age of eighteen: Balzac, Borges, James, and Melville. Which contrasts sharply with a lecture from a colleague, managing the rare book room:
Setting (post)adolescent against childlike, and aspiration for the future against captivity in the present: states divided by the value, or the reasons for the value, set on the common object of the book, whether that value originates in the ideas or the words on the page or instead in the object and its scarcity regardless of content.
Apparently, Amazon sold more Kindles than anything else this year. And while I don’t want to enter the debate between those who are certain e-readers will kill the codex and those who expect revolutionary triumph from transcending ink and paper, the Kindle does depress me as a symptom of something like a second-order, maybe an echo, effect. After all, Borders and Barnes and Noble have already done their best to squeeze out stores like the fictional Arcade (which one suspects resembles an idealized Strand, down to its surly employees), and are themselves being squeezed now by Amazon. And what happens, far more troubling than pleasure-reading becoming yet another terminal activity, is similar to Richard Rodriguez’s fears about the death of the local newspaper:
Hay’s Arcade, after all, is the city in miniature — in the same way that the New York Times represents a simulacrum, an aspirational idea of the city it serves, partially intentional but also partially determined — or the Chronicle, or the Inquirer, or the Freep. Of course, it’s not as simple as the death of a sense of place, or the transition to a different technology: a paper like the Free Press is as much the victim of poor product, poor management, and a city (or, um, metro area) too fragmented and deflated to support much more than a single, bifurcated local business. There are reasons for the failure of newspapers, or coffee shops, or bookstores, that lie outside a pure moral framework. But at the same time, the probably doomed few that are left — Fox’s, or Malaprop’s, or McNally-Jackson — have the potential, and the handicap, of their actual location, their status as business and as simulacrum.