Commentary Magazine


Topic: Philip Roth

Philip Roth, the Nobel Prize, and History

Today’s New York Times Book Review contains an interview that Philip Roth gave to Daniel Sandstrom, cultural editor at the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet. The interview features a classic 25-word Roth answer to a 50-word question about his failure to win the Nobel Prize:

You have been awarded almost every literary prize, except one. And it is no secret that your name is always mentioned when there is talk of the Nobel Prize in Literature — how does it feel to be an eternal candidate? Does it bother you, or do you laugh about it?

I wonder if I had called “Portnoy’s Complaint” “The Orgasm Under Rapacious Capitalism,” if I would thereby have earned the favor of the Swedish Academy.

Sometimes you cannot earn the favor of the Academy even if your accomplishments reflect a full half-century of some of the finest works of modern American literature, 31 books in all, ranging from Goodbye, Columbus in 1957 to Everyman in 2007. Sometimes you can earn the Academy’s favor with no accomplishments at all.

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Today’s New York Times Book Review contains an interview that Philip Roth gave to Daniel Sandstrom, cultural editor at the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet. The interview features a classic 25-word Roth answer to a 50-word question about his failure to win the Nobel Prize:

You have been awarded almost every literary prize, except one. And it is no secret that your name is always mentioned when there is talk of the Nobel Prize in Literature — how does it feel to be an eternal candidate? Does it bother you, or do you laugh about it?

I wonder if I had called “Portnoy’s Complaint” “The Orgasm Under Rapacious Capitalism,” if I would thereby have earned the favor of the Swedish Academy.

Sometimes you cannot earn the favor of the Academy even if your accomplishments reflect a full half-century of some of the finest works of modern American literature, 31 books in all, ranging from Goodbye, Columbus in 1957 to Everyman in 2007. Sometimes you can earn the Academy’s favor with no accomplishments at all.

 

The interview also features Roth’s remarkable response to a question about his treatment of the male characters in his novels — a sentence extending 116 words, which begins with Roth’s description of the challenges facing those characters and ends with an important insight about history:

[I]f you look at the male characters in your books, what traits do they share — what is their condition?

The drama issues from the assailability of vital, tenacious men with their share of peculiarities who are neither mired in weakness nor made of stone and who, almost inevitably, are bowed by blurred moral vision, real and imaginary culpability, conflicting allegiances, urgent desires, uncontrollable longings, unworkable love, the culprit passion, the erotic trance, rage, self-division, betrayal, drastic loss, vestiges of innocence, fits of bitterness, lunatic entanglements, consequential misjudgment, understanding overwhelmed, protracted pain, false accusation, unremitting strife, illness, exhaustion, estrangement, derangement, aging, dying and, repeatedly, inescapable harm, the rude touch of the terrible surprise — unshrinking men stunned by the life one is defenseless against, including especially history: the unforeseen that is constantly recurring as the current moment.

History is not a matter of bending arcs; or something the right side of which one gets on; or warning the 21st century against returning to the 19th. Those are mere rhetorical constructs. History is the result of daily acts in an ever-changing present: “the unforeseen that is constantly recurring as the current moment.”

One day literary historians will marvel at the Academy’s failure to honor Philip Roth, while diplomatic historians will marvel at the decision to honor Barack Obama, whose Nobel Prize address, given “at the beginning … of my labors on the world stage,” noted that “my accomplishments are slight,” a statement still true more than five years later. 

Roth’s interview is a major piece of writing masquerading as an interview. Nowhere in his own book, Reading Myself Among Others, and nowhere in Claudia Roth Pierpont’s book, Roth Unbound:  A Writer and His Books, does he make anything as poignant,   eloquent,  and clear as the magnificent summation of his life’s work in this interview on the eve of his 81st birthday, which is March 19, 2014. 

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The Literary Fallacy Revisited

Ted’s wonderful addition to our knowledge about the provenance of the “crazed veteran” stereotype is also a welcome reminder to be skeptical — very, very skeptical — when listening to literary types like me. For we are prey to what Bernard DeVoto, the historian and twenty-year columnist for Harper’s, called the literary fallacy. That is: the shiftless and insular mistake of thinking that we can somehow (in DeVoto’s words) “judge our society by means of literature and nothing else.”

DeVoto published The Literary Fallacy in 1944. (Fred Siegel, writing in COMMENTARY two years ago, called it DeVoto’s most important book, despite a Pulitzer Prize in history for Across the Wide Missouri and a National Book Award for The Course of Empire.) To the literary way of thinking, DeVoto said,

the criterion of an idea is its rightness as idea, not the knowledge which it represents or its correspondence to reality. The method of literary thinking proceeds from idea to idea by way of idea, with no check or control outside idea. It deduces ideas from assumptions, general principles, and universal abstract truths. It requires facts to conform to logic and it ascertains facts by determining what logic implies.

A literary historian may succeed, then, in tracing the figure of the “crazed veteran” through the literature of the Vietnam vet from Joseph Hayes to Philip Roth without any awareness at all that the true source might exist outside the literature. The fallacy has a power not unlike that of psychosis: no facts can penetrate from without, because they are converted into literary facts at the door.

Some novelists make sport of the fallacy. They have a lot of fun trying to show that the game of fiction — what Philip Roth calls the “game of let’s pretend” — is indistinguishable from the many ordinary ways in which we construct and comprehend the physical world. (Paul Auster comes to mind. See my review of his novel Invisible.) I like to think of this as the Kafka strategy, in which objective reality can be altered by a single sentence. (Except that Kafka then remains faithful to the alteration, which became as inalterable for the length of his fiction as any reality.) The glorification of the literary fallacy is Derrida’s deconstructionist axiom (self-refuting, but never mind) that literary thinking must proceed from idea to idea by way of idea, because there is no getting “outside idea.”

There’s a better way for writers to come to terms with the literary fallacy. Not surprisingly, it is Philip Roth who says it best. In American Pastoral, defending his approach to telling another person’s story, Nathan Zuckerman reflects:

You fight your superficiality, your shallowness, so as to try to come at people without unreal expectations . . . and yet you never fail to get them wrong. . . . You get them wrong before you meet them, while you’re anticipating anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you’re with them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion empty of all perception, an astonishing farce of misperception. And yet what are we to do about this terribly significant business of other people, which gets bled of the significance we think it has and takes on instead a significance that is ludicrous, so ill-equipped are we all to envision one another’s interior workings and invisible aims? Is everyone to go off and lock the door and sit secluded like the lonely writers do, in a soundproof cell, summoning people out of words and then proposing that these word people are closer to the real thing than the real people that we mangle out of ignorance every day? The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong.

And how we know we’re dead — intellectually, at least? When we give up on trying to get them right. Whatever lies outside literature and encourages some writers to struggle (and fail) to get it right, including the history of slandering Vietnam veterans that Ted so ably sketches below, is the only thing that gives literature any value. Otherwise it is a dazzling illusion empty of all perception, like so much contemporary American fiction.

Ted’s wonderful addition to our knowledge about the provenance of the “crazed veteran” stereotype is also a welcome reminder to be skeptical — very, very skeptical — when listening to literary types like me. For we are prey to what Bernard DeVoto, the historian and twenty-year columnist for Harper’s, called the literary fallacy. That is: the shiftless and insular mistake of thinking that we can somehow (in DeVoto’s words) “judge our society by means of literature and nothing else.”

DeVoto published The Literary Fallacy in 1944. (Fred Siegel, writing in COMMENTARY two years ago, called it DeVoto’s most important book, despite a Pulitzer Prize in history for Across the Wide Missouri and a National Book Award for The Course of Empire.) To the literary way of thinking, DeVoto said,

the criterion of an idea is its rightness as idea, not the knowledge which it represents or its correspondence to reality. The method of literary thinking proceeds from idea to idea by way of idea, with no check or control outside idea. It deduces ideas from assumptions, general principles, and universal abstract truths. It requires facts to conform to logic and it ascertains facts by determining what logic implies.

A literary historian may succeed, then, in tracing the figure of the “crazed veteran” through the literature of the Vietnam vet from Joseph Hayes to Philip Roth without any awareness at all that the true source might exist outside the literature. The fallacy has a power not unlike that of psychosis: no facts can penetrate from without, because they are converted into literary facts at the door.

Some novelists make sport of the fallacy. They have a lot of fun trying to show that the game of fiction — what Philip Roth calls the “game of let’s pretend” — is indistinguishable from the many ordinary ways in which we construct and comprehend the physical world. (Paul Auster comes to mind. See my review of his novel Invisible.) I like to think of this as the Kafka strategy, in which objective reality can be altered by a single sentence. (Except that Kafka then remains faithful to the alteration, which became as inalterable for the length of his fiction as any reality.) The glorification of the literary fallacy is Derrida’s deconstructionist axiom (self-refuting, but never mind) that literary thinking must proceed from idea to idea by way of idea, because there is no getting “outside idea.”

There’s a better way for writers to come to terms with the literary fallacy. Not surprisingly, it is Philip Roth who says it best. In American Pastoral, defending his approach to telling another person’s story, Nathan Zuckerman reflects:

You fight your superficiality, your shallowness, so as to try to come at people without unreal expectations . . . and yet you never fail to get them wrong. . . . You get them wrong before you meet them, while you’re anticipating anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you’re with them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion empty of all perception, an astonishing farce of misperception. And yet what are we to do about this terribly significant business of other people, which gets bled of the significance we think it has and takes on instead a significance that is ludicrous, so ill-equipped are we all to envision one another’s interior workings and invisible aims? Is everyone to go off and lock the door and sit secluded like the lonely writers do, in a soundproof cell, summoning people out of words and then proposing that these word people are closer to the real thing than the real people that we mangle out of ignorance every day? The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong.

And how we know we’re dead — intellectually, at least? When we give up on trying to get them right. Whatever lies outside literature and encourages some writers to struggle (and fail) to get it right, including the history of slandering Vietnam veterans that Ted so ably sketches below, is the only thing that gives literature any value. Otherwise it is a dazzling illusion empty of all perception, like so much contemporary American fiction.

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Do American Novelists Even Deserve the Nobel Prize?

On Monday, three days before Tomas Tranströmer was announced as the winner of the Nobel Prize in literature (“because . . . he gives us fresh access to reality”), Alexander Nazaryan predicted in Salon that there would be “the usual entitled whining” if an American didn’t win. I haven’t come across any, but at least one of my readers overheard some such whining in my reaction to Tranströmer’s favorite-son award.

It’s no secret that I believe Philip Roth is far and away the greatest living novelist. He represents what I have taken to calling, in a phrase freely plagiarized from John Erskine, the moral obligation to write well. And despite my reservations about literary prizes, which are (to repeat myself) little more than publicity stunts to sell more books, it follows that I would like to see Roth win the Nobel Prize, I suppose.

I pray daily to God to keep me from whining if he doesn’t. Nabokov never did, after all, despite annual predictions that this year at last would be his turn! Among American novelists aged 65 and older — the mean age of a Nobel winner is 66.73 — only Cormac McCarthy is in Roth’s league as a Nobel hopeful. Last year, when he took over as the oddsmakers’ favorite, I suggested that McCarthy would make a good winner, at least in the terms of Alfred Nobel’s original bequest, which specified that a writer of “idealistic tendency [idealisk rigtning]” be honored.

Joyce Carol Oates is admired by critics I respect and despised by critics I respect, and though I am in the latter camp, the more important point is that she does not have a reputation as a major novelist. She has written about a hundred minor novels. (Okay, only 39 plus collections of stories and poems and essays and she’ll probably finish a novella or two before you finish reading this sentence.) Nobody ever seems to mention Cynthia Ozick, although she is a far more significant novelist than Oates with a far broader range, in many fewer books. Marilynne Robinson, who will be 68 next month, is America’s other great novelist, but her problem is the opposite of Oates’s — only three novels in 31 years so far.

American novelists, according to Nazaryan, have only themselves to blame for not winning a Nobel since 1993. And he knows exactly what American literature needs:

America needs an Obama des letters [sic], a writer for the 21st century, not the 20th — or even the 19th. One who is not stuck in the Cold War or the gun-slinging West or the bygone Jewish precincts of Newark — or mired in the claustrophobia of familial dramas. What relevance does our solipsism have to a reader in Bombay? For that matter, what relevance does it have in Brooklyn, N.Y.?

Nazaryan obviously belongs to that corner of the intelligentsia (more like three corners of it, plus a lot of chairs dragged over from the fourth) which still believes, against all evidence, that Obama is “what the historical moment seems to be calling for.”

What the historical moment in literature is calling for is anybody’s guess. There is no such thing as prospective criticism. Nazaryan, however, knows just what it is. He believes the Swedish Academy has been trying to tell American novelists what they lack and what they need. In a word (Nazaryan’s word), they need to be universal. (The italics are his too.) Hence his dig at Roth’s Newark. It is “solipsistic,” you see, to know one place inside out. Far better to be able to congratulate oneself on knowing a little something about all the capitals of Europe. Such knowledge will obviously have “relevance . . . to a reader in Bombay.” I do wonder, though, if Nazaryan believes that a novelist of Bombay like, say, Amit Chaudhuri has relevance for readers in Newark.

The truth is that the demand for universalism in literature is a demand for its extinction. Universalism emphasizes what all human beings have in common, but what all human beings have in common is their biology, and (to paraphrase Ozick) if a human being is no more than his limbs and organs, then what matter that the body is burned and scattered or dismembered and fed to pigs? Good fiction explores how the world looks to someone who is different from me, and the possibility that the world is different from the way I understand it is a real and positive gain in knowledge: the very opposite of solipsism.

By and large, the Swedish Academy awards the Nobel Prize in literature to second-rate writers with agreeable politics. Occasionally a mistake is made and a first-rate writer like Mario Vargas Llosa, J. M. Coetzee, V. S. Naipaul, or Seamus Heaney slips through. No American writer is likely to be awarded the Nobel any time soon, however, unless — like Toni Morrison, the country’s last winner, and just like an Obama des lettres, come to think of it — she can flatter the Swedish Academy’s self-image in selecting her. And who knows? The right sounds of an ideological universalism, which is to say a self-hating anti-Americanism, might just do the trick.

On Monday, three days before Tomas Tranströmer was announced as the winner of the Nobel Prize in literature (“because . . . he gives us fresh access to reality”), Alexander Nazaryan predicted in Salon that there would be “the usual entitled whining” if an American didn’t win. I haven’t come across any, but at least one of my readers overheard some such whining in my reaction to Tranströmer’s favorite-son award.

It’s no secret that I believe Philip Roth is far and away the greatest living novelist. He represents what I have taken to calling, in a phrase freely plagiarized from John Erskine, the moral obligation to write well. And despite my reservations about literary prizes, which are (to repeat myself) little more than publicity stunts to sell more books, it follows that I would like to see Roth win the Nobel Prize, I suppose.

I pray daily to God to keep me from whining if he doesn’t. Nabokov never did, after all, despite annual predictions that this year at last would be his turn! Among American novelists aged 65 and older — the mean age of a Nobel winner is 66.73 — only Cormac McCarthy is in Roth’s league as a Nobel hopeful. Last year, when he took over as the oddsmakers’ favorite, I suggested that McCarthy would make a good winner, at least in the terms of Alfred Nobel’s original bequest, which specified that a writer of “idealistic tendency [idealisk rigtning]” be honored.

Joyce Carol Oates is admired by critics I respect and despised by critics I respect, and though I am in the latter camp, the more important point is that she does not have a reputation as a major novelist. She has written about a hundred minor novels. (Okay, only 39 plus collections of stories and poems and essays and she’ll probably finish a novella or two before you finish reading this sentence.) Nobody ever seems to mention Cynthia Ozick, although she is a far more significant novelist than Oates with a far broader range, in many fewer books. Marilynne Robinson, who will be 68 next month, is America’s other great novelist, but her problem is the opposite of Oates’s — only three novels in 31 years so far.

American novelists, according to Nazaryan, have only themselves to blame for not winning a Nobel since 1993. And he knows exactly what American literature needs:

America needs an Obama des letters [sic], a writer for the 21st century, not the 20th — or even the 19th. One who is not stuck in the Cold War or the gun-slinging West or the bygone Jewish precincts of Newark — or mired in the claustrophobia of familial dramas. What relevance does our solipsism have to a reader in Bombay? For that matter, what relevance does it have in Brooklyn, N.Y.?

Nazaryan obviously belongs to that corner of the intelligentsia (more like three corners of it, plus a lot of chairs dragged over from the fourth) which still believes, against all evidence, that Obama is “what the historical moment seems to be calling for.”

What the historical moment in literature is calling for is anybody’s guess. There is no such thing as prospective criticism. Nazaryan, however, knows just what it is. He believes the Swedish Academy has been trying to tell American novelists what they lack and what they need. In a word (Nazaryan’s word), they need to be universal. (The italics are his too.) Hence his dig at Roth’s Newark. It is “solipsistic,” you see, to know one place inside out. Far better to be able to congratulate oneself on knowing a little something about all the capitals of Europe. Such knowledge will obviously have “relevance . . . to a reader in Bombay.” I do wonder, though, if Nazaryan believes that a novelist of Bombay like, say, Amit Chaudhuri has relevance for readers in Newark.

The truth is that the demand for universalism in literature is a demand for its extinction. Universalism emphasizes what all human beings have in common, but what all human beings have in common is their biology, and (to paraphrase Ozick) if a human being is no more than his limbs and organs, then what matter that the body is burned and scattered or dismembered and fed to pigs? Good fiction explores how the world looks to someone who is different from me, and the possibility that the world is different from the way I understand it is a real and positive gain in knowledge: the very opposite of solipsism.

By and large, the Swedish Academy awards the Nobel Prize in literature to second-rate writers with agreeable politics. Occasionally a mistake is made and a first-rate writer like Mario Vargas Llosa, J. M. Coetzee, V. S. Naipaul, or Seamus Heaney slips through. No American writer is likely to be awarded the Nobel any time soon, however, unless — like Toni Morrison, the country’s last winner, and just like an Obama des lettres, come to think of it — she can flatter the Swedish Academy’s self-image in selecting her. And who knows? The right sounds of an ideological universalism, which is to say a self-hating anti-Americanism, might just do the trick.

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“The Plot against America” as a 9/11 Novel

No novel is better than Philip Roth’s Plot against America at summoning up the Jews’ fear that, after 9/11, their enemies would find some way to drive a wedge between the majority of Americans and themselves. Roth’s great 2004 novel is a “parable for the post-Sept. 11 world.”

So at least Adam Kirsch argued in Tablet on Tuesday. And following his lead, readers have now written to ask why The Plot against America is not included in my list of 9/11 novels.

The answer is simple. It’s absurd to suggest that Roth’s Plot is any kind of “parable for the post-Sept. 11 world,” that’s why. The novel was an experiment in imagining what it would have been like, as Roth himself put it, for “America’s Jews to feel the pressure of a genuine anti-Semitic threat.” But if Jews are now under the threat of genuine anti-Semitism — and they are — the threat does not come from the quarter described in Roth’s Plot.

The book is about what might have happened if Charles A. Lindbergh had won the Republican nomination for president and defeated Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940. For unexplained reasons, Lindbergh’s election causes Philip’s mother to start crying at the sight of a leather-jacketed D.C. motorcycle policeman, leads Herman Roth to be called a “loudmouth Jew” in a restaurant, and gets the Roths kicked out of their hotel. (The leading characters in this nightmare vision are drawn from Roth’s own family.)

After President Lindbergh mysteriously disappears, his protofascist successor (Burton K. Wheeler, an antiwar Democratic senator from Montana who in historical reality cofounded the America First Committee along with Lindbergh) imposes martial law and accuses “warmongers,” by which everyone understands him to mean the Jews, of seeking to maneuver the U.S. into war against Germany. Anti-Semitic rioting kills 122.

On the literal level, the parallel between 9/11 and Roth’s Plot is hard to discern. It’s true that crackpots like the poet Amiri Baraka shrilled that “4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers” had been told “To stay home that day.” There is no popular audience for anti-Semitism in America, though. Baraka was booed when he read the poem at a poetry festival, and New Jersey officials eventually found a way to remove him as the state’s poet laureate.

It’s also true that some Democratic Party isolationists, who might perhaps be called latter-day Wheelers, argued against taking the war on terror to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. But not even the most extreme of conservatives accused them of being fascists. And what is more, American Jews continued to vote for Democrats in numbers that suggested they did not associate the party with anti-Semitism.

The real fascists on 9/11 were the Islamist terrorists who brought down the towers. Shortly afterwards, Christopher Hitchens described the ideology behind the attacks as “fascism with an Islamic face,” and since then he has not flinched at the term Islamofascism. The fascists in Roth’s Plot, however, are native-born Americans. They are suspicious of the Jews as a foreign element in the American bloodstream. But the post-9/11 suspicion of a “foreign element” in this country, at least according to sources like the Center for American Progress and the novelist Kamila Shamsie, is directed toward Arab Muslims, “America’s persecuted minority of the moment,” as Heeb magazine called them. Yet Roth’s foreign element are warmongers, while American Muslims overwhelmingly opposed the war in Iraq.

I’m confused.

The confusion is not merely the result of misreading The Plot against America as a parable, however. Much of the confusion belongs to the novel itself. As Ruth R. Wisse said in her masterful review in COMMENTARY, the genuine threat to American Jews, “aside from the real possibility of Islamic terrorism,” arises from a “kind of homegrown anti-Semitic coalition, combining elements of the isolationist Buchananite Right (Lindbergh’s direct heirs) with the much more energetic and influential forces of the anti-Israel and anti-American Left,” which increasingly find a welcome refuge on American university campuses. Such a threat could easily serve as the basis of a frightening dystopic novel, but as Wisse observed, that novel would not be entitled The Plot against America. Nor would Adam Kirsch be likely to praise it even if it were.

No novel is better than Philip Roth’s Plot against America at summoning up the Jews’ fear that, after 9/11, their enemies would find some way to drive a wedge between the majority of Americans and themselves. Roth’s great 2004 novel is a “parable for the post-Sept. 11 world.”

So at least Adam Kirsch argued in Tablet on Tuesday. And following his lead, readers have now written to ask why The Plot against America is not included in my list of 9/11 novels.

The answer is simple. It’s absurd to suggest that Roth’s Plot is any kind of “parable for the post-Sept. 11 world,” that’s why. The novel was an experiment in imagining what it would have been like, as Roth himself put it, for “America’s Jews to feel the pressure of a genuine anti-Semitic threat.” But if Jews are now under the threat of genuine anti-Semitism — and they are — the threat does not come from the quarter described in Roth’s Plot.

The book is about what might have happened if Charles A. Lindbergh had won the Republican nomination for president and defeated Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940. For unexplained reasons, Lindbergh’s election causes Philip’s mother to start crying at the sight of a leather-jacketed D.C. motorcycle policeman, leads Herman Roth to be called a “loudmouth Jew” in a restaurant, and gets the Roths kicked out of their hotel. (The leading characters in this nightmare vision are drawn from Roth’s own family.)

After President Lindbergh mysteriously disappears, his protofascist successor (Burton K. Wheeler, an antiwar Democratic senator from Montana who in historical reality cofounded the America First Committee along with Lindbergh) imposes martial law and accuses “warmongers,” by which everyone understands him to mean the Jews, of seeking to maneuver the U.S. into war against Germany. Anti-Semitic rioting kills 122.

On the literal level, the parallel between 9/11 and Roth’s Plot is hard to discern. It’s true that crackpots like the poet Amiri Baraka shrilled that “4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers” had been told “To stay home that day.” There is no popular audience for anti-Semitism in America, though. Baraka was booed when he read the poem at a poetry festival, and New Jersey officials eventually found a way to remove him as the state’s poet laureate.

It’s also true that some Democratic Party isolationists, who might perhaps be called latter-day Wheelers, argued against taking the war on terror to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. But not even the most extreme of conservatives accused them of being fascists. And what is more, American Jews continued to vote for Democrats in numbers that suggested they did not associate the party with anti-Semitism.

The real fascists on 9/11 were the Islamist terrorists who brought down the towers. Shortly afterwards, Christopher Hitchens described the ideology behind the attacks as “fascism with an Islamic face,” and since then he has not flinched at the term Islamofascism. The fascists in Roth’s Plot, however, are native-born Americans. They are suspicious of the Jews as a foreign element in the American bloodstream. But the post-9/11 suspicion of a “foreign element” in this country, at least according to sources like the Center for American Progress and the novelist Kamila Shamsie, is directed toward Arab Muslims, “America’s persecuted minority of the moment,” as Heeb magazine called them. Yet Roth’s foreign element are warmongers, while American Muslims overwhelmingly opposed the war in Iraq.

I’m confused.

The confusion is not merely the result of misreading The Plot against America as a parable, however. Much of the confusion belongs to the novel itself. As Ruth R. Wisse said in her masterful review in COMMENTARY, the genuine threat to American Jews, “aside from the real possibility of Islamic terrorism,” arises from a “kind of homegrown anti-Semitic coalition, combining elements of the isolationist Buchananite Right (Lindbergh’s direct heirs) with the much more energetic and influential forces of the anti-Israel and anti-American Left,” which increasingly find a welcome refuge on American university campuses. Such a threat could easily serve as the basis of a frightening dystopic novel, but as Wisse observed, that novel would not be entitled The Plot against America. Nor would Adam Kirsch be likely to praise it even if it were.

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Best Baseball Books

After reading my last post, John Podhoretz wrote privately to insist that the two best baseball books are Ring Lardner’s You Know Me Al and The Kid from Tomkinsville. He’s got an argument for John R. Tunis’s novel, even though it is a boy’s book. Joseph Epstein has made the best case possible for Tunis in a lovely essay for COMMENTARY nearly a quarter century ago. The book was also the subject of a superb passage of literary criticism, one of the best pieces of criticism ever written, in Philip Roth’s American Pastoral. After summarizing the book’s plot (and demonstrating that plot summary can itself be high art), Nathan Zuckerman explains that he read Tunis’s book at ten and “had never read anything like it.” Many years older, he says it could as well have been called The Lamb from Tomkinsville, even The Lamb from Tomkinsville Led to the Slaughter. He settles upon calling it “the boys’ Book of Job.”

Tunis’s moral concerns may not appeal to sophisticated 21st-century readers, although I am reading aloud Highpockets, a later Tunis about a cocky outfielder who accidentally strikes a child with the car he was awarded for winning Rookie of the Year, and my eight-year-old twins are eating it up.

About Lardner’s novel I am less sure. His son John Lardner, a marvelous writer in his own right, claimed that he had never read another piece of baseball fiction, besides his father’s, “in which there was no technical mistake.” Maybe so, but there is not a lot of technical knowledge on display either. Jack Keefe is a rookie pitcher for the Chicago White Sox. He tells of one time that he faced the great Ty Cobb:

Cobb came pranceing up like he always does and yells Give me that slow one Boy. So I says All right. But I fooled him. Instead of giveing him a slow one like I said I was going I handed him a spitter. He hit it all right but it was a line drive right in [Hal] Chase’s hands. He says Pretty lucky Boy but I will get you next time. I says Yes you will.

Lardner was more interested in baseball language, I think, than in the technical aspects of the game. He knew the technical aspects, though, and their shadowy presence beneath the plot, like the proverbial three-fourths of an iceberg below the surface, give the novel its unquestionable substance. The lack of baseball knowledge is what makes The Natural such a terrible baseball book.

Despite John’s prodding, I’ll stick with Mark Harris’s Southpaw as the best baseball novel of all time, although maybe it would be better to call it one of the five best.

After reading my last post, John Podhoretz wrote privately to insist that the two best baseball books are Ring Lardner’s You Know Me Al and The Kid from Tomkinsville. He’s got an argument for John R. Tunis’s novel, even though it is a boy’s book. Joseph Epstein has made the best case possible for Tunis in a lovely essay for COMMENTARY nearly a quarter century ago. The book was also the subject of a superb passage of literary criticism, one of the best pieces of criticism ever written, in Philip Roth’s American Pastoral. After summarizing the book’s plot (and demonstrating that plot summary can itself be high art), Nathan Zuckerman explains that he read Tunis’s book at ten and “had never read anything like it.” Many years older, he says it could as well have been called The Lamb from Tomkinsville, even The Lamb from Tomkinsville Led to the Slaughter. He settles upon calling it “the boys’ Book of Job.”

Tunis’s moral concerns may not appeal to sophisticated 21st-century readers, although I am reading aloud Highpockets, a later Tunis about a cocky outfielder who accidentally strikes a child with the car he was awarded for winning Rookie of the Year, and my eight-year-old twins are eating it up.

About Lardner’s novel I am less sure. His son John Lardner, a marvelous writer in his own right, claimed that he had never read another piece of baseball fiction, besides his father’s, “in which there was no technical mistake.” Maybe so, but there is not a lot of technical knowledge on display either. Jack Keefe is a rookie pitcher for the Chicago White Sox. He tells of one time that he faced the great Ty Cobb:

Cobb came pranceing up like he always does and yells Give me that slow one Boy. So I says All right. But I fooled him. Instead of giveing him a slow one like I said I was going I handed him a spitter. He hit it all right but it was a line drive right in [Hal] Chase’s hands. He says Pretty lucky Boy but I will get you next time. I says Yes you will.

Lardner was more interested in baseball language, I think, than in the technical aspects of the game. He knew the technical aspects, though, and their shadowy presence beneath the plot, like the proverbial three-fourths of an iceberg below the surface, give the novel its unquestionable substance. The lack of baseball knowledge is what makes The Natural such a terrible baseball book.

Despite John’s prodding, I’ll stick with Mark Harris’s Southpaw as the best baseball novel of all time, although maybe it would be better to call it one of the five best.

Read Less

Labor and Literature

It’s not clear any more exactly what Americans celebrate on Labor Day. As suggested by the rash of commemorative essays this weekend, including an especially doltish performance by an American novelist (you’ll forgive the expression) named Paul Theroux, its proximity to 9/11 may end up redefining the holiday.

But that’s not the whole of the story. As the late Anatole Broyard said in a 1980 review of Mary Lee Settle’s Scapegoat (which is, in large measure, a strike novel set in the coal-mining district of West Virginia), “[W]e have grown used to more complicated oppositions between good and evil or labor and management. . . .” If nothing else, this explains the literary flimsiness of so much “labor fiction.”

Whether organized labor is more committed to organization than labor remains open to dispute, but there’s never been any question where American novelists stood. Henry James may have been among the first to acknowledge the rise of the entrepreneur (Christopher Newman in The American, Caspar Goodwood in The Portrait of a Lady), but he was remarkably vague about how these hard-working men earned their “piles of money.” The likelihood is that he had no clue. Theodore Dreiser was the first American novelist whose image of man included wringing bread from the sweat of one’s face.

Since then, American writers have rarely failed to mention their characters’ jobs or professions, but have almost never dramatized the work they are said to do. The drama occurs in the characters’ off hours. In last year’s Freedom, Jonathan Franzen puts his on-again-off-again rocker Richard Katz (Patty Berglund’s adulterous lover) to work “building urban rooftop decks,” but though you supposedly hear him hammering and sawing, you never actually see him ripping a board with a table saw or deciding which side of the board should face down. You never learn what materials he uses. He performs manual labor to distinguish him from Patty’s office-bound husband Walter, a lawyer for a non-profit, and to infuse a faded red T-shirt with his smell, so that Patty can spend the day in the shirt that he wore.

Philip Roth is one of the few exceptions to the no-work rule in American fiction. He tells the stories of men whose work is fundamental to their identities. In American Pastoral, for example, Swede Levov patiently explains the technical problems of glovemaking to the young political radical who will later deliver a canting message from his fugitive daughter. In Indignation, he gives a full-length portrait of a kosher butcher at work:

First a chain is wrapped around the rear leg — they trap it that way. But that chain is also a hoist, and quickly they hoist it up, and it hangs from its heel so that all the blood will run down to the head and the upper body. Then they’re ready to kill it. Enter shochet in skullcap. Sits in a little sort of alcove, at least at the Astor Street slaughterhouse he did, takes the head of the animal, says a bracha — a blessing — and he cuts the neck. If he does it in one slice, severs the trachea, the esophagus, and the carotids, and doesn’t touch the backbone, the animal dies instantly and is kosher; if it takes two slices or the animal is sick or disabled or the knife isn’t perfectly sharp or the backbone is merely nicked, the animal is not kosher. The shochet slits the throat from ear to ear and then lets the animal hang there until all the blood flows out. It’s as if he took a bucket of blood, as if he took several buckets, and poured them out all at once, because that’s how fast blood gushes from the arteries onto the floor, a concrete floor with a drain in it. He stands there in boots, in blood up to his ankles despite the drain. . . .

The glovemaker belongs to management, though, and the butcher is a small businessowner. American literature has been hurt by the simple association of labor with unions. Perhaps on this day Americans (and their writers) should celebrate the importance of work to human identity, no matter who performs it, along with the unions that, at least historically, sought to give it some dignity.

It’s not clear any more exactly what Americans celebrate on Labor Day. As suggested by the rash of commemorative essays this weekend, including an especially doltish performance by an American novelist (you’ll forgive the expression) named Paul Theroux, its proximity to 9/11 may end up redefining the holiday.

But that’s not the whole of the story. As the late Anatole Broyard said in a 1980 review of Mary Lee Settle’s Scapegoat (which is, in large measure, a strike novel set in the coal-mining district of West Virginia), “[W]e have grown used to more complicated oppositions between good and evil or labor and management. . . .” If nothing else, this explains the literary flimsiness of so much “labor fiction.”

Whether organized labor is more committed to organization than labor remains open to dispute, but there’s never been any question where American novelists stood. Henry James may have been among the first to acknowledge the rise of the entrepreneur (Christopher Newman in The American, Caspar Goodwood in The Portrait of a Lady), but he was remarkably vague about how these hard-working men earned their “piles of money.” The likelihood is that he had no clue. Theodore Dreiser was the first American novelist whose image of man included wringing bread from the sweat of one’s face.

Since then, American writers have rarely failed to mention their characters’ jobs or professions, but have almost never dramatized the work they are said to do. The drama occurs in the characters’ off hours. In last year’s Freedom, Jonathan Franzen puts his on-again-off-again rocker Richard Katz (Patty Berglund’s adulterous lover) to work “building urban rooftop decks,” but though you supposedly hear him hammering and sawing, you never actually see him ripping a board with a table saw or deciding which side of the board should face down. You never learn what materials he uses. He performs manual labor to distinguish him from Patty’s office-bound husband Walter, a lawyer for a non-profit, and to infuse a faded red T-shirt with his smell, so that Patty can spend the day in the shirt that he wore.

Philip Roth is one of the few exceptions to the no-work rule in American fiction. He tells the stories of men whose work is fundamental to their identities. In American Pastoral, for example, Swede Levov patiently explains the technical problems of glovemaking to the young political radical who will later deliver a canting message from his fugitive daughter. In Indignation, he gives a full-length portrait of a kosher butcher at work:

First a chain is wrapped around the rear leg — they trap it that way. But that chain is also a hoist, and quickly they hoist it up, and it hangs from its heel so that all the blood will run down to the head and the upper body. Then they’re ready to kill it. Enter shochet in skullcap. Sits in a little sort of alcove, at least at the Astor Street slaughterhouse he did, takes the head of the animal, says a bracha — a blessing — and he cuts the neck. If he does it in one slice, severs the trachea, the esophagus, and the carotids, and doesn’t touch the backbone, the animal dies instantly and is kosher; if it takes two slices or the animal is sick or disabled or the knife isn’t perfectly sharp or the backbone is merely nicked, the animal is not kosher. The shochet slits the throat from ear to ear and then lets the animal hang there until all the blood flows out. It’s as if he took a bucket of blood, as if he took several buckets, and poured them out all at once, because that’s how fast blood gushes from the arteries onto the floor, a concrete floor with a drain in it. He stands there in boots, in blood up to his ankles despite the drain. . . .

The glovemaker belongs to management, though, and the butcher is a small businessowner. American literature has been hurt by the simple association of labor with unions. Perhaps on this day Americans (and their writers) should celebrate the importance of work to human identity, no matter who performs it, along with the unions that, at least historically, sought to give it some dignity.

Read Less

Complete Annotated Guide to 9/11 Novels

It took 14 years after the death camp’s liberation for Auschwitz to appear in American fiction (in Meyer Levin’s 1959 novel Eva), but 9/11 began to influence literature straight away. Roland Merullo was probably the first American writer to allude to the terrorist attacks. In a 2002 novel-as-memoir of growing up in the Sixties, Merullo observed in passing that “people did not bomb airplanes in those days, or fly them into buildings.” The first 9/11 novels, neither so unassuming nor so objective, started issuing from publishers within another year or two.

With the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks looming near, the time may be right to assay what has been done so far, and to ask whether there are any 9/11 novels that might be read in commemoration. The Belgian scholar Kristiaan Versluys, who wrote a study of 9/11 fiction, assigns the collapse of the Twin Towers to the category of the “unsayable,” and English-language novelists have shown a marked reluctance to dramatize the events of that day directly. The usual approach has been to write about people who experienced 9/11 the same way the novelists did: in Julia Glass’s words, “touched by it, scared by it, but not having lost anyone directly.”

More than 30 novels have been published with the 9/11 attacks at their backs, where the characters always hear them. (H/t: Mark Athitakis and Erika Dreifus for additions to the original list.) The books fall into two main groupings — those in which men and women must live in the aftermath, and those in which the 9/11 attacks are mere episodes in a larger environment of terror, where politics are more telling than moral experience. Only two novels take place on the day in question:

• Claire Messud, The Emperor’s Children (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006). The best novel to emerge from September 11, and perhaps the only real 9/11 novel on the list. A New York intellectual is caught in a lie and stranded in his adulterous lover’s apartment by the attacks, which change nothing for him and everything for her.

• Hugh Nissenson, Days of Awe (Naperville, Ill.: Sourcebooks, 2005). The author of the minor masterpiece My Own Ground transgresses the limits of imagination, putting into words what it might have been like to jump from the 102nd floor of the north tower.

Living in the Aftermath
• Shirley Abbott, The Future of Love (Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2008). Five New Yorkers struggle with the problem of love, mostly extramarital, in the days after September 11.

• Don DeLillo. Falling Man (New York: Scribner, 2007). How does a lawyer who worked in the World Trade Center react to the terrorist attacks? Short answer: Not well.

• Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005). A nine year old searches all over New York for the key to his father, who died on September 11.

• William Gibson, Pattern Recognition (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2003). The first 9/11 novel and the first novel by the celebrated sci-fi writer to be set in the present. 9/11 yanks an opening into a future of frightening radical uncertainty.

• Julia Glass, The Whole World Over (New York: Pantheon, 2006). A pastry chef and her friends sort out their lives after 9/11, looking for safety in interpersonal closeness over the course of 500 pages (see Shirley Abbott, above).

• Allegra Goodman, The Cookbook Collector (New York: Dial Press, 2010). The American novelist, whose first published story appeared in COMMENTARY, rewrites Sense and Sensibility in the years between the dotcom bubble and 9/11.

• Ken Kalfus, A Disorder Peculiar to the Country (New York: Ecco, 2006). A wife assumes, not unhappily, that her husband has died in the Twin Towers. When she discovers that he has not, their marriage must resume — in bleakly comedic fashion.

• Jay McInerney, The Good Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006). Two Manhattanites, each married to someone else, volunteer at a soup kitchen near Ground Zero in the days immediately following the 9/11 attacks. Searching for a renewed meaning to their lives, they fall in love.

• Martha McPhee, L’America (Orlando: Harcourt, 2006). The international love story of a rich Italian and a New York girl who dies in the Twin Towers. The story unfolds in the shadow of how it is to end.

• Sue Miller, Lake Shore Limited (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010). A playwright decides to move out on her boyfriend. Before she can, though, his plane hits one of the towers. Later, her play opens.

• H. M. Naqvi, Home Boy (New York: Crown, 2009). The Muslims in New York, after the World Trade Center was attacked, had “become Japs, Jews, Niggers,” according to the first sentence of this first novel about their lives and the suspicion and discrimination against them in the aftermath.

• Joseph O’Neill, Netherland (New York: Pantheon, 2008). A family of three — Dutch-born market analyst, British wife, two-year-old son — are living in a Tribeca loft when the World Trade Center attacks oblige them to find living quarters uptown, where their marriage gradually pulls apart.

• Jacob Paul, Sarah/Sara (Ig Publishing, 2010). A young American woman who makes aliyah to Israel after 9/11 — her father survived the attack on the North Tower — is afflicted and disfigured by Palestinian terrorism. She relives the events on a journey to the Arctic. The author is himself a 9/11 survivor.

• Reynolds Price, The Good Priest’s Son (New York: Scribner, 2005). When a 53-year-old art conservator cannot return to Manhattan on 9/11, he goes home to North Carolina and reconciles with his father, an Episcopal priest.

• Francine Prose, Bullyville (New York: Harper Teen, 2007). In this well-written young adult novel, the son of a father killed in the Twin Towers is awarded a full scholarship to the Baileyville Academy, better known as Bullyville.

• Nicholas Rinaldi, Between Two Rivers (New York: Harper Collins, 2004). In the style of Aharon Appelfeld’s Badenheim 1939, a beautifully written novel set among the residents of a Manhattan apartment building who are unaware of the coming destruction.

• Helen Schulman, A Day at the Beach (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007). A marriage tries to recover from 9/11, without much success (see Ken Kalfus, above — without the humor).

• Lynne Sharon Schwartz, The Writing on the Wall (New York: Counterpoint, 2005). A librarian inherits a baby after her boyfriend’s assistant dies in the World Trade Center. She is a surviving twin, whose sister died when they were teenagers. Wall-to-wall survivor guilt.

• Art Spiegelman, In the Shadow of No Towers (New York: Pantheon, 2004). In no sense of the word a novel, Spiegelman’s graphic memoir describes the trauma of witnessing the Twin Towers’ destruction. Complete with a monograph on the Sunday comics and comparisons to the Holocaust in just 42 pages.

• Claire Tristram, After (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2004). One year after her husband has died at the hands of Muslim extremists, a young widow decides to take a Muslim lover to mark the anniversary.

• Amy Waldman, The Submission (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011). In the latest 9/11 novel, by a former New York Times reporter, an American Muslim wins the blind-judged contest to design the 9/11 memorial at Ground Zero, causing the predictable furor.

• Jess Walter, The Zero (New York: Regan, 2006). The main character, who accidentally shot himself in the head on 9/11, now gives tours of Ground Zero to VIP’s, and also suffers memory “gaps.” Absurdity ensues, along with plenty of political commentary of a monolingual kind.

The Global War on Terror
• Pearl Abraham, American Taliban (New York: Random House, 2010). The American novelist who began her career by turning the world of the Hasidim inside out tries to do the same for a young man suspiciously like John Walker Lindh.

• Andre Dubus III, The Garden of Last Days (New York: W. W. Norton, 2009). This “prequel” to 9/11 is about a young Arab Muslim who is living in Florida, learning to fly jetliners and haunting a strip club. A study of a terrorist’s mind (see John Updike, below).

• David Goodwillie, American Subversive (New York: Scribner, 2010). A good-looking girl with a figure “stolen from a teenage fantasy” becomes a domestic terrorist after her brother is killed in Iraq. Should a “relationships columnist” for the New York Times bed her or turn her in?

• Mohsin Hamid, The Reluctant Fundamentalist (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2007). A young Pakistani returns home to Lahore after 9/11 to find that the global war on terror may be transforming him, against his will, into an Islamic fundamentalist.

• Heidi Julavits, The Effect of Living Backwards (New York: Putnam, 2003). A passenger jet headed to Morocco is highjacked, or maybe one of two American sisters on board only thinks it has been hijacked. Hints about 9/11, “The Big Terrible,” suggest that she may be fantasizing. Or hallucinating.

• Ward Just, Forgetfulness (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006). After 9/11, an American expatriate painter must confront the global war on terror when his wife is murdered by Moroccan terrorists.

• Ian McEwan, Saturday (London: Jonathan Cape, 2005). A London neurosurgeon begins his day by watching a plane on fire — a bomb on board, he assumes — and navigates around an anti-Iraq War protest to encounter terrorism in his own home.

• Carolyn See, There Will Never Be Another You (New York: Random House, 2006). A prophetic look into the near future: beginning on 9/11, a group of characters in Los Angeles must learn to live with bioterrorism, while the U.S. fights an unnamed war.

• John Updike, Terrorist (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006). A half-Egyptian New Jersey high school boy is introduced to a jihadi terrorist cell by a Yemeni iman.

So Which Are Any Good?
Very few. And every recommendation leads to a “but. . . .” The Emperor’s Children is probably the best novel to come out of September 11, but Claire Messud gives up on the narrative dilemma that she creates for her characters. She is more interested in the drama of a romantic breakup, which she dramatizes very well, than in the trauma of 9/11. Similarly, Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland is more absorbed with cricket than terrorism, but because the novel does not try to do too much, it is a pleasant little thing.

Nicholas Rinaldi’s Between Two Rivers deserves a larger audience, but too much of it is padding. Ian McEwan’s Saturday suggests provocative connections between political terrorism and violent crime, but its implausible ending ties them up unconvincingly. John Updike’s Terrorist is the only 9/11 novel I’ve read that seeks to penetrate the mind of a terrorist, but it suffers from the same defects as Updike’s weakest books — a sighing preciousness that trivializes its serious subject.

The sad hard truth is that the best novels about terrorism remain Joseph Conrad’s Secret Agent and Philip Roth’s American Pastoral. The 9/11 books add little that cannot be learned, and more memorably, from them.

It took 14 years after the death camp’s liberation for Auschwitz to appear in American fiction (in Meyer Levin’s 1959 novel Eva), but 9/11 began to influence literature straight away. Roland Merullo was probably the first American writer to allude to the terrorist attacks. In a 2002 novel-as-memoir of growing up in the Sixties, Merullo observed in passing that “people did not bomb airplanes in those days, or fly them into buildings.” The first 9/11 novels, neither so unassuming nor so objective, started issuing from publishers within another year or two.

With the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks looming near, the time may be right to assay what has been done so far, and to ask whether there are any 9/11 novels that might be read in commemoration. The Belgian scholar Kristiaan Versluys, who wrote a study of 9/11 fiction, assigns the collapse of the Twin Towers to the category of the “unsayable,” and English-language novelists have shown a marked reluctance to dramatize the events of that day directly. The usual approach has been to write about people who experienced 9/11 the same way the novelists did: in Julia Glass’s words, “touched by it, scared by it, but not having lost anyone directly.”

More than 30 novels have been published with the 9/11 attacks at their backs, where the characters always hear them. (H/t: Mark Athitakis and Erika Dreifus for additions to the original list.) The books fall into two main groupings — those in which men and women must live in the aftermath, and those in which the 9/11 attacks are mere episodes in a larger environment of terror, where politics are more telling than moral experience. Only two novels take place on the day in question:

• Claire Messud, The Emperor’s Children (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006). The best novel to emerge from September 11, and perhaps the only real 9/11 novel on the list. A New York intellectual is caught in a lie and stranded in his adulterous lover’s apartment by the attacks, which change nothing for him and everything for her.

• Hugh Nissenson, Days of Awe (Naperville, Ill.: Sourcebooks, 2005). The author of the minor masterpiece My Own Ground transgresses the limits of imagination, putting into words what it might have been like to jump from the 102nd floor of the north tower.

Living in the Aftermath
• Shirley Abbott, The Future of Love (Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2008). Five New Yorkers struggle with the problem of love, mostly extramarital, in the days after September 11.

• Don DeLillo. Falling Man (New York: Scribner, 2007). How does a lawyer who worked in the World Trade Center react to the terrorist attacks? Short answer: Not well.

• Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005). A nine year old searches all over New York for the key to his father, who died on September 11.

• William Gibson, Pattern Recognition (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2003). The first 9/11 novel and the first novel by the celebrated sci-fi writer to be set in the present. 9/11 yanks an opening into a future of frightening radical uncertainty.

• Julia Glass, The Whole World Over (New York: Pantheon, 2006). A pastry chef and her friends sort out their lives after 9/11, looking for safety in interpersonal closeness over the course of 500 pages (see Shirley Abbott, above).

• Allegra Goodman, The Cookbook Collector (New York: Dial Press, 2010). The American novelist, whose first published story appeared in COMMENTARY, rewrites Sense and Sensibility in the years between the dotcom bubble and 9/11.

• Ken Kalfus, A Disorder Peculiar to the Country (New York: Ecco, 2006). A wife assumes, not unhappily, that her husband has died in the Twin Towers. When she discovers that he has not, their marriage must resume — in bleakly comedic fashion.

• Jay McInerney, The Good Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006). Two Manhattanites, each married to someone else, volunteer at a soup kitchen near Ground Zero in the days immediately following the 9/11 attacks. Searching for a renewed meaning to their lives, they fall in love.

• Martha McPhee, L’America (Orlando: Harcourt, 2006). The international love story of a rich Italian and a New York girl who dies in the Twin Towers. The story unfolds in the shadow of how it is to end.

• Sue Miller, Lake Shore Limited (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010). A playwright decides to move out on her boyfriend. Before she can, though, his plane hits one of the towers. Later, her play opens.

• H. M. Naqvi, Home Boy (New York: Crown, 2009). The Muslims in New York, after the World Trade Center was attacked, had “become Japs, Jews, Niggers,” according to the first sentence of this first novel about their lives and the suspicion and discrimination against them in the aftermath.

• Joseph O’Neill, Netherland (New York: Pantheon, 2008). A family of three — Dutch-born market analyst, British wife, two-year-old son — are living in a Tribeca loft when the World Trade Center attacks oblige them to find living quarters uptown, where their marriage gradually pulls apart.

• Jacob Paul, Sarah/Sara (Ig Publishing, 2010). A young American woman who makes aliyah to Israel after 9/11 — her father survived the attack on the North Tower — is afflicted and disfigured by Palestinian terrorism. She relives the events on a journey to the Arctic. The author is himself a 9/11 survivor.

• Reynolds Price, The Good Priest’s Son (New York: Scribner, 2005). When a 53-year-old art conservator cannot return to Manhattan on 9/11, he goes home to North Carolina and reconciles with his father, an Episcopal priest.

• Francine Prose, Bullyville (New York: Harper Teen, 2007). In this well-written young adult novel, the son of a father killed in the Twin Towers is awarded a full scholarship to the Baileyville Academy, better known as Bullyville.

• Nicholas Rinaldi, Between Two Rivers (New York: Harper Collins, 2004). In the style of Aharon Appelfeld’s Badenheim 1939, a beautifully written novel set among the residents of a Manhattan apartment building who are unaware of the coming destruction.

• Helen Schulman, A Day at the Beach (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007). A marriage tries to recover from 9/11, without much success (see Ken Kalfus, above — without the humor).

• Lynne Sharon Schwartz, The Writing on the Wall (New York: Counterpoint, 2005). A librarian inherits a baby after her boyfriend’s assistant dies in the World Trade Center. She is a surviving twin, whose sister died when they were teenagers. Wall-to-wall survivor guilt.

• Art Spiegelman, In the Shadow of No Towers (New York: Pantheon, 2004). In no sense of the word a novel, Spiegelman’s graphic memoir describes the trauma of witnessing the Twin Towers’ destruction. Complete with a monograph on the Sunday comics and comparisons to the Holocaust in just 42 pages.

• Claire Tristram, After (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2004). One year after her husband has died at the hands of Muslim extremists, a young widow decides to take a Muslim lover to mark the anniversary.

• Amy Waldman, The Submission (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011). In the latest 9/11 novel, by a former New York Times reporter, an American Muslim wins the blind-judged contest to design the 9/11 memorial at Ground Zero, causing the predictable furor.

• Jess Walter, The Zero (New York: Regan, 2006). The main character, who accidentally shot himself in the head on 9/11, now gives tours of Ground Zero to VIP’s, and also suffers memory “gaps.” Absurdity ensues, along with plenty of political commentary of a monolingual kind.

The Global War on Terror
• Pearl Abraham, American Taliban (New York: Random House, 2010). The American novelist who began her career by turning the world of the Hasidim inside out tries to do the same for a young man suspiciously like John Walker Lindh.

• Andre Dubus III, The Garden of Last Days (New York: W. W. Norton, 2009). This “prequel” to 9/11 is about a young Arab Muslim who is living in Florida, learning to fly jetliners and haunting a strip club. A study of a terrorist’s mind (see John Updike, below).

• David Goodwillie, American Subversive (New York: Scribner, 2010). A good-looking girl with a figure “stolen from a teenage fantasy” becomes a domestic terrorist after her brother is killed in Iraq. Should a “relationships columnist” for the New York Times bed her or turn her in?

• Mohsin Hamid, The Reluctant Fundamentalist (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2007). A young Pakistani returns home to Lahore after 9/11 to find that the global war on terror may be transforming him, against his will, into an Islamic fundamentalist.

• Heidi Julavits, The Effect of Living Backwards (New York: Putnam, 2003). A passenger jet headed to Morocco is highjacked, or maybe one of two American sisters on board only thinks it has been hijacked. Hints about 9/11, “The Big Terrible,” suggest that she may be fantasizing. Or hallucinating.

• Ward Just, Forgetfulness (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006). After 9/11, an American expatriate painter must confront the global war on terror when his wife is murdered by Moroccan terrorists.

• Ian McEwan, Saturday (London: Jonathan Cape, 2005). A London neurosurgeon begins his day by watching a plane on fire — a bomb on board, he assumes — and navigates around an anti-Iraq War protest to encounter terrorism in his own home.

• Carolyn See, There Will Never Be Another You (New York: Random House, 2006). A prophetic look into the near future: beginning on 9/11, a group of characters in Los Angeles must learn to live with bioterrorism, while the U.S. fights an unnamed war.

• John Updike, Terrorist (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006). A half-Egyptian New Jersey high school boy is introduced to a jihadi terrorist cell by a Yemeni iman.

So Which Are Any Good?
Very few. And every recommendation leads to a “but. . . .” The Emperor’s Children is probably the best novel to come out of September 11, but Claire Messud gives up on the narrative dilemma that she creates for her characters. She is more interested in the drama of a romantic breakup, which she dramatizes very well, than in the trauma of 9/11. Similarly, Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland is more absorbed with cricket than terrorism, but because the novel does not try to do too much, it is a pleasant little thing.

Nicholas Rinaldi’s Between Two Rivers deserves a larger audience, but too much of it is padding. Ian McEwan’s Saturday suggests provocative connections between political terrorism and violent crime, but its implausible ending ties them up unconvincingly. John Updike’s Terrorist is the only 9/11 novel I’ve read that seeks to penetrate the mind of a terrorist, but it suffers from the same defects as Updike’s weakest books — a sighing preciousness that trivializes its serious subject.

The sad hard truth is that the best novels about terrorism remain Joseph Conrad’s Secret Agent and Philip Roth’s American Pastoral. The 9/11 books add little that cannot be learned, and more memorably, from them.

Read Less

What’s The Difference Between Obama and McCain?

John McCain’s interview with Jeffrey Goldberg is an interesting counterpoint to Barack Obama’s. In McCain’s interview, you will find not a trace of moral equivalence, no infatuation with Philip Roth (whom Obama apparently imagines as the paragon of American Judaism–perhaps needing a more up to date understanding of Roth’s legacy among many American Jews), and no hesitancy to denounce Islamic jihadism.

Reading the two interviews side-by-side provides a telling contrast between two world views and two approaches to foreign affairs. McCain goes out of his way to stress the role of diplomacy at the right level and the right time, but the main differences between the two candidates are stark. These three questions and answers sum it up:

JG: What do you think motivates Iran?

JM: Hatred. I don’t try to divine people’s motives. I look at their actions and what they say. I don’t pretend to be an expert on the state of their emotions. I do know what their nation’s stated purpose is, I do know they continue in the development of nuclear weapons, and I know that they continue to support terrorists who are bent on the destruction of the state of Israel. You’ll have to ask someone who engages in this psycho stuff to talk about their emotions.

. . .

JG: Senator Obama has calibrated his views on unconditional negotiations. Do you see any circumstance in which you could negotiate with Iran, or do you believe that it’s leadership is impervious to rational dialogue?

JM: I’m amused by Senator Obama’s dramatic change since he’s gone from a candidate in the primary to a candidate in the general election. I’ve seen him do that on a number of issues that show his naivete and inexperience on national security issues. I believe that the history of the successful conduct of national security policy is that, one, you don’t sit down face-to-face with people who are behave the way they do, who are state sponsors of terrorism.

Senator Obama likes to refer to President Kennedy going to Vienna. Most historians see that as a serious mistake, which encouraged Khrushchev to build the Berlin Wall and to send missiles to Cuba. Another example is Richard Nixon going to China. I’ve forgotten how many visits Henry Kissinger made to China, and how every single word was dictated beforehand. More importantly, he went to China because China was then a counterweight to a greater threat, the Soviet Union. What is a greater threat in the Middle East than Iran today?

Senator Obama is totally lacking in experience, so therefore he makes judgments such as saying he would sit down with someone like Ahmadinejad without comprehending the impact of such a meeting. I know that his naivete and lack of experience is on display when he talks about sitting down opposite Hugo Chavez or Raul Castro or Ahmadinejad.

. . .

JG: Let’s go back to Iran. Some critics say that America conflates its problem with Iran with Israel’s problem with Iran. Iran is not threatening the extinction of America, it’s threatening the extinction of Israel. Why should America have a military option for dealing with Iran when the threat is mainly directed against Israel?

JM: The United States of America has committed itself to never allowing another Holocaust. That’s a commitment that the United States has made ever since we discovered the horrendous aspects of the Holocaust. In addition to that, I would respond by saying that I think these terrorist organizations that they sponsor, Hamas and the others, are also bent, at least long-term, on the destruction of the United States of America. That’s why I agree with General Petraeus that Iraq is a central battleground. Because these Shiite militias are sending in these special groups, as they call them, sending weapons in, to remove United States influence and to drive us out of Iraq and thereby achieve their ultimate goals. We’ve heard the rhetoric — the Great Satan, etc. It’s a nuance, their being committed to the destruction of the State of Israel, and their long-term intentions toward us.

A better explanation of the differences between the candidates will be hard to come by.

John McCain’s interview with Jeffrey Goldberg is an interesting counterpoint to Barack Obama’s. In McCain’s interview, you will find not a trace of moral equivalence, no infatuation with Philip Roth (whom Obama apparently imagines as the paragon of American Judaism–perhaps needing a more up to date understanding of Roth’s legacy among many American Jews), and no hesitancy to denounce Islamic jihadism.

Reading the two interviews side-by-side provides a telling contrast between two world views and two approaches to foreign affairs. McCain goes out of his way to stress the role of diplomacy at the right level and the right time, but the main differences between the two candidates are stark. These three questions and answers sum it up:

JG: What do you think motivates Iran?

JM: Hatred. I don’t try to divine people’s motives. I look at their actions and what they say. I don’t pretend to be an expert on the state of their emotions. I do know what their nation’s stated purpose is, I do know they continue in the development of nuclear weapons, and I know that they continue to support terrorists who are bent on the destruction of the state of Israel. You’ll have to ask someone who engages in this psycho stuff to talk about their emotions.

. . .

JG: Senator Obama has calibrated his views on unconditional negotiations. Do you see any circumstance in which you could negotiate with Iran, or do you believe that it’s leadership is impervious to rational dialogue?

JM: I’m amused by Senator Obama’s dramatic change since he’s gone from a candidate in the primary to a candidate in the general election. I’ve seen him do that on a number of issues that show his naivete and inexperience on national security issues. I believe that the history of the successful conduct of national security policy is that, one, you don’t sit down face-to-face with people who are behave the way they do, who are state sponsors of terrorism.

Senator Obama likes to refer to President Kennedy going to Vienna. Most historians see that as a serious mistake, which encouraged Khrushchev to build the Berlin Wall and to send missiles to Cuba. Another example is Richard Nixon going to China. I’ve forgotten how many visits Henry Kissinger made to China, and how every single word was dictated beforehand. More importantly, he went to China because China was then a counterweight to a greater threat, the Soviet Union. What is a greater threat in the Middle East than Iran today?

Senator Obama is totally lacking in experience, so therefore he makes judgments such as saying he would sit down with someone like Ahmadinejad without comprehending the impact of such a meeting. I know that his naivete and lack of experience is on display when he talks about sitting down opposite Hugo Chavez or Raul Castro or Ahmadinejad.

. . .

JG: Let’s go back to Iran. Some critics say that America conflates its problem with Iran with Israel’s problem with Iran. Iran is not threatening the extinction of America, it’s threatening the extinction of Israel. Why should America have a military option for dealing with Iran when the threat is mainly directed against Israel?

JM: The United States of America has committed itself to never allowing another Holocaust. That’s a commitment that the United States has made ever since we discovered the horrendous aspects of the Holocaust. In addition to that, I would respond by saying that I think these terrorist organizations that they sponsor, Hamas and the others, are also bent, at least long-term, on the destruction of the United States of America. That’s why I agree with General Petraeus that Iraq is a central battleground. Because these Shiite militias are sending in these special groups, as they call them, sending weapons in, to remove United States influence and to drive us out of Iraq and thereby achieve their ultimate goals. We’ve heard the rhetoric — the Great Satan, etc. It’s a nuance, their being committed to the destruction of the State of Israel, and their long-term intentions toward us.

A better explanation of the differences between the candidates will be hard to come by.

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Remembering Kitaj

The Cleveland-born artist Ronald Brooks (R.B.) Kitaj (1932-2007), who died on October 21, has a new book out from Yale University Press, The Second Diasporist Manifesto. Kitaj’s 1989 First Diasporist Manifesto preceded it as a collection of scattered fragmentary musings about being a Jewish man and artist. Both books declare the author’s principles, as any manifesto should, but neither is a poem, as Kitaj alleges.

The Second Diasporist Manifesto contains 615 numbered observations, which Yale University Press describes as “deliberately echo[ing] the Commandments of Jewish Law.” Of course, 613 and not 615 is the traditional number of commandments in the Torah. Like the Torah’s commandments, Kitaj’s book may be divided into “positive commandments,” about reading authors like Kafka, Gershom Scholem, Benjamin Fondane, and Lev Shestov, and “negative commandments” about those he loathes, like the anti-Semitic T. S. Eliot. There is also the occasional unexpected juxtaposition, such as when it is pointed out that the Baal Shem Tov, Rabbi Yisroel ben Eliezer (who founded the Hasidic movement), was a contemporary of Sir Joshua Reynolds, the fashionable British portrait painter.

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The Cleveland-born artist Ronald Brooks (R.B.) Kitaj (1932-2007), who died on October 21, has a new book out from Yale University Press, The Second Diasporist Manifesto. Kitaj’s 1989 First Diasporist Manifesto preceded it as a collection of scattered fragmentary musings about being a Jewish man and artist. Both books declare the author’s principles, as any manifesto should, but neither is a poem, as Kitaj alleges.

The Second Diasporist Manifesto contains 615 numbered observations, which Yale University Press describes as “deliberately echo[ing] the Commandments of Jewish Law.” Of course, 613 and not 615 is the traditional number of commandments in the Torah. Like the Torah’s commandments, Kitaj’s book may be divided into “positive commandments,” about reading authors like Kafka, Gershom Scholem, Benjamin Fondane, and Lev Shestov, and “negative commandments” about those he loathes, like the anti-Semitic T. S. Eliot. There is also the occasional unexpected juxtaposition, such as when it is pointed out that the Baal Shem Tov, Rabbi Yisroel ben Eliezer (who founded the Hasidic movement), was a contemporary of Sir Joshua Reynolds, the fashionable British portrait painter.

Kitaj himself, as a figurative artist whose images are chock-full of historical and literary content, depicting celebrities from Einstein to Philip Roth, was defiantly unfashionable. Although he was honored with major retrospectives in London and New York, these sparked controversy when critics reacted vituperatively. A 1994 Tate Gallery show enraged the London press, which the artist himself attributed to English “low-octane anti-Semitism.”

Yet Kitaj could appreciate some art critics, like Clement Greenberg and Meyer Schapiro. When the show traveled to the Metropolitan Museum a year later, the New York Times was equally condescending, calling Kitaj a “painter whose ambitions outstrip his art . . . his paintings can sometimes be abstruse and pretentious, and there are too many weak recent pictures on view to come out of the Metropolitan with more than mixed feelings.” As recently as 2005, the Times arts section was still scolding Kitaj, telling him to “calm down and do nothing but paint still-lifes for a while.”

In Kitaj’s art and manifestos, content is hugely important, especially when compared to the work of his friend and colleague David Hockney. Kitaj admired still lifes by his idol Cézanne or the modern Italian painter Giorgio Morandi, but his mission was to express Jewish culture and history in images. As he told one interviewer, “I’d like to do for Jews what Morandi did for jars.” Critics who bash Kitaj because of his content are forgetting E. H. Gombrich’s dictum, “There is no wrong reason for liking a work of art, only for disliking it.” The death of Kitaj’s wife Sandra Fisher (1947-1994), whom he had married at London’s venerable Bevis Marks Synagogue, a Sephardic landmark, was a permanent loss. Also a gifted painter, Fisher was honored last year with an exhibition at the New York Studio School. Whatever critical bile has flowed in the past, the art of Kitaj and Fisher surely will be admired by posterity.

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Bookshelf

• David Mamet is a playwright (Glengarry Glen Ross) who also makes movies of his own (House of Games) and, from time to time, writes them for other people (The Verdict, The Untouchables). This unusual combination of inside knowledge and not-quite-amused detachment makes him the ideal person to write a how-it-really-works book about Hollywood, and Bambi vs. Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose, and Practice of the Movie Business (Pantheon, 250 pp., $22) proves, not surprisingly, to be an irresistibly good read.

Mamet’s point of view is at once disillusioned and idealistic, for he is a passionate believer in the artistic potential of film who has nonetheless come to the unhappy conclusion that “films, which began as carnival entertainments merchandising novelty, seem to have come full circle. The day of the dramatic script is ending. In its place we find a premise, upon which the various gags may be hung.” In support of this grim thesis, he casts a chilly eye on the American film industry, salting his jeremiad with outrageous stories about the backstage behavior of the men and women who make the movies: “I have seen a man take a tape measure to his trailer, as he suspected that it was not quite perfectly equal (as per his contract) in length to that of his fellow player.”

Read More

• David Mamet is a playwright (Glengarry Glen Ross) who also makes movies of his own (House of Games) and, from time to time, writes them for other people (The Verdict, The Untouchables). This unusual combination of inside knowledge and not-quite-amused detachment makes him the ideal person to write a how-it-really-works book about Hollywood, and Bambi vs. Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose, and Practice of the Movie Business (Pantheon, 250 pp., $22) proves, not surprisingly, to be an irresistibly good read.

Mamet’s point of view is at once disillusioned and idealistic, for he is a passionate believer in the artistic potential of film who has nonetheless come to the unhappy conclusion that “films, which began as carnival entertainments merchandising novelty, seem to have come full circle. The day of the dramatic script is ending. In its place we find a premise, upon which the various gags may be hung.” In support of this grim thesis, he casts a chilly eye on the American film industry, salting his jeremiad with outrageous stories about the backstage behavior of the men and women who make the movies: “I have seen a man take a tape measure to his trailer, as he suspected that it was not quite perfectly equal (as per his contract) in length to that of his fellow player.”

When not writing dialogue, Mamet’s prose style proves to be unexpectedly and unpleasingly coy, but once you get used to it, you’ll find Bambi vs. Godzilla to be as good a book as has ever been written about Hollywood, by which I mean that I rank it with William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade and David Thomson’s The Whole Equation. The chapter on film noir is worth the price of admission all by itself.

• Joan Acocella, who replaced Arlene Croce as the dance critic of The New Yorker, actually spends a fair amount of time writing on other subjects. Her last book, for instance, was about Willa Cather, and Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints (Pantheon, 524 pp., $30), her first collection of New Yorker essays, is so wide-ranging that it barely makes space for dance at all. I can’t claim to regard it with perfect objectivity, since one of the pieces is a lengthy essay on H.L. Mencken occasioned by the publication of The Skeptic, my Mencken biography, so I’ll simply tell you that the other subjects of Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints include Mikhail Baryshnikov, Louise Bourgeois, M.F.K. Fisher, Bob Fosse, Primo Levi, Dorothy Parker, Philip Roth, Italo Svevo, Marguerite Yourcenar, and Stefan Zweig, and that Acocella has pithy and mostly unpredictable things to say about all of them. If you read these pieces when they first appeared in the New Yorker, you’ll find they hold up very well the second time around.

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