• 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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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2010

    Arms and the Man

    In the final days of the Soviet Union, when the old icons were fast decaying and any future ones were frantically packing off to escape the ruins, the guardians of Russia’s past had few relics to showcase. One of the last heroes standing, a Stalin Prize winner and two-time Hero of Socialist Labor, was Mikhail Kalashnikov, designer of the world’s most famous automatic rifle, the AK-47. Even after the USSR fell, Kalashnikov—now ninety—has enjoyed an afterlife as a living monument to the days when the Kremlin’s fiat reached from Eastern Europe to Southeast Asia and well into Africa. With characteristic

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2010

    Turning to Nostalgia

    In her magisterial history of classical dance, Jennifer Homans tells the story of ballet’s life over four centuries: dance conventions and dance-obsessed people, ideas and political movements, sacred and profane gestures. Apollo’s Angels is a cultural history of the highest order—like Anne Hollander’s Seeing Through Clothes or Frances Yates’s The Art of Memory. The book, with its quiet, encyclopedic knowledge, relates more than a decade spent in archives around the world, reading generations of scholars. The result is neither a digital-age mash-up nor an overlong compilation of “the greatest

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2010

    Sore Winner

    I can’t remember whether it’s the author (played by Charlotte Rampling) or her publisher (Charles Dance), but in François Ozon’s film The Swimming Pool one of them remarks that literary prizes are like hemorrhoids: Sooner or later, every asshole gets one. This sentiment might have been used as an epigraph to the Austrian author Thomas Bernhard’s My Prizes, an “accounting” of the many literary awards that began coming his way in the mid- 1960s. Being Thomas Bernhard, of course, it’s not just the recipients of these prizes who are “All Assholes”—“a whole row of assholes,” to be precise—it’s also

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  • print • June/July/Aug 2010

    Pride and Prejudice

    Reading America’s destiny in the entrails of its foreign-policy doctrines and wars is no job for amateurs. But in The Icarus Syndrome, Peter Beinart—a Yale-to-Oxford-to-Beltway wunderkind who flew too close to the sun of liberal-hawk glory while he edited the New Republic during the Iraq war—pirouettes to keep his wings from melting and lands safely, bringing us an essay in history that’s insightful, if also a little self-serving.

    When he tells you that Colin Powell judged Paul Wolfowitz’s grand plan for Iraq “the kind of militarily ludicrous suggestion you got from people who had spent their

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  • print • June/July/Aug 2010

    Liberation Impasse

    In his new book, Paco Underhill, a longtime student of consumer behavior, evinces a particular aversion to the word woman. He prefers instead “the female of the species” or “the female of the household” or “the female of the house.” The female of the species, we learn, behaves in a specific, predictable way in hotel lobbies. The female of the species feels about her kitchen the way the male feels about his car. The female of the species prefers certain species of things; for instance, she does not like cookie-cutter mansions, which, “as a species,” convey “aesthetic bankruptcy.”

    These repeated

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