• print • Feb/Mar 2011

    Wanderer Fantasy

    Bruce Chatwin (1940–1989) may have been the last important writer in English to model his prose after Hemingway’s. When he wrote, he chiseled away everything except what he wanted the reader to see. Employing lean, declarative sentences and short paragraphs, Chatwin’s prose relied almost wholly on exact word choice and careful sentence rhythms. There’s no clutter, no mush, no padding, nothing overemphatic. Even the Shakers could learn from Chatwin’s simplicity and clarity. Take, for instance, this brief Buenos Aires vignette from an early chapter of his travel classic In Patagonia: “By day the

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  • print • Feb/Mar 2011

    City of God

    James Carroll writes that his new book is “about the lethal feedback loop between the actual city of Jerusalem and the apocalyptic fantasy it inspires.” No one who reads the headlines or watches the evening news can possibly doubt that such a Zion-fixated end-time fantasy looms in the minds of many a pistol-packing Jewish settler, Rapture-ready Christian soldier, and aspiring Muslim martyr.

    But that may be just the problem with Jerusalem, Jerusalem. Carroll’s scrupulously ecumenical survey of the waves of violence the idea of the ancient city has churned up over the millennia is, in effect,

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  • print • Feb/Mar 2011

    The Global Edge

    Before I moved to Abu Dhabi in 2007, one of the few things I knew about the United Arab Emirates was that it was home to a vast army of slave labor, imported from the Indian subcontinent to build Pharaoh’s new glass-and-steel pyramids—not to mention staffing his grocery shops and gas stations, weeding his gardens, sweeping his floors, and paving his roads.

    This impression—of subaltern workers oppressed and exploited by oil-rich Gulf Arabs—was not necessarily inaccurate: The worst-off of these laborers are housed in cramped compounds, defrauded by agents in their home countries and saddled with

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  • print • Feb/Mar 2011

    Revolutionary Roads

    Deb Olin Unferth’s new memoir of travel and political unrest doesn’t make you wait long to discover how her sojourn works out. Revolution, which tells how in 1987 she and her boyfriend George left college and the United States to travel to Central America and “join the revolution” (actually, any revolution), begins with a brief chapter entitled “McDonald’s,” the restaurant for which Unferth makes a beeline upon returning to the US. “I was thinking about how I already knew what the food I ordered would look like,” she writes. “I knew what the French fries would look like, what the containers

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  • print • Feb/Mar 2011

    Political Awakening

    Those who wish to see politics in everything frequently get their wish. The selection of a Nobel laureate in literature is a case in point. In 2001, the choice of V. S. Naipaul looked to some like a post-9/11 gesture of sympathy with America—even an endorsement of America’s incipient military rebukes to Islamism. Four years later, awarding the anti-American Harold Pinter looked like a rebuke to the American rebuke. And last year’s selection, the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa, looks like the most overtly political winner in the past three decades.

    The attention garnered by other laureates

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  • print • Dec/Jan 2011

    Right from the Start

    It would surely trouble John Boehner to hear it, but Karl Marx’s old aphorism about history happening the first time as tragedy, the second as farce has rarely applied with as much force as it does to today’s conservative movement. The GOP wave that swept Boehner into the House speakership in November struck pundits as a historic departure, but it’s actually part of the broader half-century conservative revolt against the idea of government. Fifty years ago, when Ronald Reagan was jaunting around the country giving speeches for General Electric, he denounced progressive taxation as tantamount

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  • print • Dec/Jan 2011

    The Family Business

    The 2003 US invasion of Iraq began just as the persuasive exile Ahmad Chalabi desired. His vision, shared by neoconservative policymakers back in Washington, was that once US troops got “rid of Saddam for us,” as he put it, he himself would drive into Baghdad triumphantly, welcomed by throngs of adoring Iraqis. Chalabi, who hadn’t been to Iraq since 1958, when he was thirteen years old, patterned the idea on Charles de Gaulle’s return to Paris during World War II with the Free French.

    But things didn’t exactly come off as Chalabi had planned. The US Air Force did fly the millionaire from

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  • print • Dec/Jan 2011

    Typo Analysis

    For about five years, beginning in 1995, I worked on the copy desk at the Village Voice. Aiding me in the battle against error were Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, the fourteenth edition of the Chicago Manual of Style, published in 1993, and a samizdat-looking document containing the house style rules and bearing the enigmatic title “Small Craft Warnings.” At any given moment one or all of these vade mecums lay open on my desk; the answer for anything could be found therein.

    It was Chicago that I consulted the most. Myriad hyphenation issues could be resolved by consulting table 6.1,

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  • print • Dec/Jan 2011

    Messiah Complex

    Ambition is an attractive quality in a book, and Adam Levin’s first novel, The Instructions, is Napoleonically ambitious, a 1,030-page brick wrapped within a metafictional conceit. The book is, supposedly, a 2013 edition of a “scripture” by protagonist Gurion ben-Judah Maccabee. The first half has been translated from English into Hebrew and back into English, retaining, due to its “translingual” immutability, its original wording. This is only one of the miracles attributed to this text and to Gurion, who spends the better part of the book steadfastly insisting that he’s not the Jewish Messiah,

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  • print • Dec/Jan 2011

    The Victim

    Saul Bellow died in 2005 at the age of eighty-nine, and now we have, under the editorship of Benjamin Taylor (working closely with Bellow’s widow), a collection of 708 letters out of the thousands that he wrote. The letters are to publishers and editors; boyhood friends; wives, lovers, children; the crowd of writers Bellow knew, both famous and obscure. Many of these letters are rich in gossip, declarations of love and ambition, praise, criticism, and commiseration; the most touching among them are to the writers for whom he had tender feeling (John Berryman, Ralph Ellison, John Cheever) and

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2010

    Self-Inflicted

    Jonathan Franzen is, by his own account, a divided soul. “It turns out,” he once wrote, “that I subscribe to two wildly different models of how fiction relates to its audience.” One was the Status model: high art, genius, Flaubert; the other was the Contract model: accessibility, pleasure, the community of readers. Of the two things for which Franzen is most famous (other, of course, than The Corrections, his 2001 National Book Award–winning best seller), both were public controversies that erupted from this very self-division. The first was his 1996 Harper’s essay that renounced the novel of

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2010

    Body Surface

    The publication of two monographs devoted to the art of David Lynch—paintings, photographs, works on paper, installations, canvases smeared with animal corpses—suggests a new way to think about an artist too often taken for an architect of dreamscapes, a fabulist of the psychosexual bizarre. The opposite is just as true: Lynch as a supremely earthly, material artist, whose great subject is the human body in all its banality—and strangeness. The most “Lynchian” of Lynch’s films are intensely corporeal: Eraserhead (1977), with its reproductive phantasmagoria; the exposed and dismantled bodies of

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