April 29, 2004

Busy, busy, busy

As a rule—well, okay, not as a rule, but as a general habit—I try to read only one book at a time. Lately, though, I’ve been leafing through a number of different books, and it’s a bit hard to keep everything in line. As playground monitors across the world know, all those voices end up collapsing into a dull din, and it’s impossible to figure out who pushed who down the slide, etc. So consider this post a little call to order. Over the past week:

1) John Kenneth Galbraith's The Crash of 1929. The book mostly focuses on the events and causes of the great stock market crash, which Galbraith separates from the Depression. Hopefully I'll write up a brief summary of this book, which offers some spectacularly uncanny parallels to the 1998 stock market boom 'n' bust.

2) Robert Allen Rutland's The Republicans: From Lincoln to Bush. Nice little historical overview of the GOP, but not a whole lot in the way of analysis. Why, for instance, did the GOP become the party of big business around the time of McKinley? Who knows?

3) Jim Mann's The Rise of the Vulcans. I'm only about 200 pages into this, but this has my vote for best recent book on Bush. It's non-partisan, and some of the anecdotes are cute—Did You Know that Reagan only narrowly selected Bush pere for the veep slot? The narrowly spurned bridesmaid was our very own Donald Rumsfeld, who could well have been president in '88.

More importantly, though, Mann does put the current Bush foreign policy in a historically coherent context. For instance, Reagan wavered between appeasing US-friendly dictators and forcing reforms on our more despotic allies, as his foreign policy team drew on often contradictory lessons from the Carter administration. These actions, in turn, underwent some rather sticky-slow metamorphoses in the Bush I administration. And so on. If anything, the main lesson of the book seems to be that foreign policy visionaries are sometimes flexible (as when Powell agreed to support the Somalia invasion, even though it violated his beloved doctrine) and sometimes dogmatic (as when Cheney refused to cut defense spending after the Soviet Union collapsed), and at any given moment it's impossible to predict whether dogma or flexibility will prevail.

4) Ken Auletta's The Underclass. This is really a fascinating book, an in-depth profile of those men and women who seem irredeemable, who live on the margins of society in almost hopeless poverty or crime or truancy. Auletta looked into some of the work-training programs run by the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation (MDRC), and notes that the reality of extreme poverty is usually only crudely described by the dry shibboleths of the left and the right. To some extent, conservatives are right in that programs like welfare can create dependency and laziness among the underclass. And to some extent, liberals have a point that there are some pretty dire structural conditions that prevent people from helping themselves. But the reality, murky as ever, sits between these two extremes. Well, yes, naturally. But Auletta's book really digs into it. I'll try to write more about this as I get further along.

5) Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim. Read this one a long while ago, but I can't recall a single plum passage. And there are plenty of plum passages. The best parts, so far, thrust poor Jim Dixon into hangover hell, after a night of ill-conceived drinking:
Dixon was alive again. Consciousness was upon him before he could get out of the way; not for him the slow, gracious wandering from the halls of sleep, but a summary, forcible ejection. He lay sprawled, too wicked to move, spewed up like a broken spider-crab on the tarry shingle of the morning. The light did him harm, but not as much as looking at things did; he resolved, having done it once, never to move his eyeballs again. A dusty thudding in his head made the scene before him beat like a pulse. His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he'd somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beat up by secret police. He felt bad.
Amis keeps his dutiful ironic distance from the writhing lad here, but later on, when Jim realizes he has burned his sheets with a cigarette in his sleep, Amis is a bit more tender, while being equally funny:
Had he done all this himself? Or had a wayfarer, a burglar, camped out in his room? Or was he the victim of some Horla fond of tobacco? He thought that on the whole he must have done it himself, and wished he hadn't.
After 80 or so pages, I admit that Amis is very good at two things in particular—there are others, but these two things will be discussed. First, making motion: "not for him the slow, gracious wandering from the halls of sleep, but a summary, forcible ejection." Or this: "They all looked round at [Jim], Bertrand impatiently, Mrs Welch censoriously, Welch with incomprehension, Bertrand's girl without curiosity." Not only are we following the serene and often breathless movements of the narrator's camera, but things are actually happening off-screen, such that when Amis finally focuses on a long-neglected character, he or she is in mid-movement, as if he or she forgot to stay still while the narration was elsewhere. Elaine Scarry once wrote a whole book about narrative techniques for creating motion. Amis should be considered an advanced case.

Second, and maybe related, Amis is fairly good at noticing that people become very different personalities when they are around different people. (As opposed to simply acting and speaking differently around different people.) Even Shakespeare didn't depict this very well, but maybe for interesting reasons (characters too obsessed with their own continuity?). This narrative technique probably goes back as far as Don Quixote, where Sancho Panza is only Sancho Panza when he is bantering with Don Quixote. With anyone else, he loses that synergy and becomes a flailing little sycophant. But Quixote is a special case. I'm thinking more of a work like O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night, in which characters semi-consciously shape themselves differently when they are around different people.

Something similar takes place in Lucky Jim, as when Christine and Jim become very timid around the domineering Bertrand. It's not just that they act timid and hold back things they would like to say. It's that they actually can't think of things to say. (At one point, Jim actually gets his thoughts out of order.) Now, there's a limit to how far such interpersonal influence can stretch, since this is still a very mannered book about a mannered society, and all interactions take place on a somewhat glossy stratosphere. Still, it's a method worth musing…

And on the end tally, the book is an outright riot—effortlessly funny and painfully funny.
-- Brad Plumer 7:15 PM || ||