James Dickey

The survivors will be safe because the CSI state (“stupendous filing systems, IBM machines tirelessly sorting punch cards, one thing being checked against another”) isn’t yet fully developed and because nobody talks about fight club (i.e., what happened on the river). Though Ed is telling us the story, which may make us wonder.

In any event, the inspiration for Palahniuk’s novel is hard to miss. Lewis is Tyler Durden, so muscular he has veins even in his gut and obviously a focus of homoerotic attention for the narrator. He offers a kind of violent salvation. The city men are stuck in “the long, declining routine” of their lives. Ed, stricken with apathy and looking for a way out of his professional rut (sliding, or “living by antifriction”), is also an American type, like Thoreau looking to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life. The canoe trip will be his release, his deliverance from a fake reality.

Does it still resonate nearly fifty years later? I would have thought the men’s movement’s return to the woods (Iron John, etc.) would have dated it more, but I guess given the success of Fight Club we’d have to say part of it very much still works. The river is gone, but it’s like a primitive, submerged stream of unconsciousness even in our digital minds.


Dark Ambition

Dark Ambition: The Shocking Crime of Dellen Millard and Mark Smich
Ann Brocklehurst

What makes a crime of special interest to the wider public? A combination of the unique and the universal. The murder of Tim Bosma by Dellen Millard and Mark Smich struck a chord because of its randomness and the sense that it could have happened to anybody.

Bosma was a target literally pulled off of the online classified ad site Kijiji, where he had posted a truck for sale. Anyone could relate. At the same time, homicides committed by total strangers are very rare. Also very rare are homicides in the commission of a robbery where the killer has no need to steal anything in the first place.

Ann Brocklehurst’s account of the case and subsequent trial is well-paced and informative, though she’s limited both by the need to be first to press (Millard has two trials yet to come, which should fill out the back story considerably), and the still mysterious matter of motivation. No psychological profile is attempted. Presumably Millard — who was clearly the mastermind and instigator, whatever Smich’s culpability — was a wealthy thrill killer, on the Leopold and Loeb model though with less intelligence. We may think of such evil people as falling into two categories: the abused and the enabled. We make a big mistake if we don’t pay equal attention to the bad seeds of privilege.

Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon Bonaparte
Alan Schom

Alan Schom’s biography of Napoleon is infamous for being a biographical takedown of epic scope. This part I don’t mind, and if Schom wants to consider Napoleon as a war criminal, a psychopath, “the most destructive man in European history since Atilla the Hun,” someone to whom “the memory of Genghis Khan paled in comparison,” that is his prerogative. Where I have problems is with his lack of engagement with the sources (primary and secondary) and his slighting of the beginning and end of his subject’s life, the two areas that I find of greatest interest. Then there are the maps, which are entirely inadequate as aids for understanding the complexity of the canonical battles. In many cases troop locations and movements aren’t even included. As a result, I can hardly recommend this as the first book to read on the subject, or give it a place in the top ten. It is, however, of some interest as a document in the ongoing interpretation of Napoleon and his mythography.

The Hellmouths of Bewdley

The Hellmouths of Bewdley
Tony Burgess

I wonder if at one point Tony Burgess thought he might become a writer of tough-guy, dirty realism: adopting an approach that is popular among the (male) bards of Ontario’s backwoods. In The Hellmouths of Bewdley, his first book, you can definitely see leanings in that direction, especially in the stories dealing with the pretty town of Bewdley’s down and out. A more powerful pull, however, is felt toward the transformation of the rawest physical experiences into poetry, and in particular the transformation (metamorphosis? apotheosis?) of dead bodies into hallucinogenic, lyric visions. The end of the story “Winter” is a good example of this, and shows where Burgess would soon be heading, leaving Bewdley behind and jumping down the hellmouth into an anti-Bewdley where there is no law but the law of the jungle and everyone is either executioner, victim, or witness.


Stephen King

It seems to me that Stephen King’s best novels are the ones (a) that he wrote in the 1980s; and (b) that are centripetal or focused inward, sculling streams of consciousness to a rhythm set by the subjective awareness of time.

With those two criteria set, I think Misery is one of his two or three best books. It’s a much darker story than the Rob Reiner film version, as King’s Annie Wilkes is a cruel ogre out of the world of fairy-tales as much as she’s a psychological case. She would eat Kathy Bates for breakfast.

Then there is the subtext, with Paul Sheldon as King’s alter ego: a successful genre writer whose dreams of literary cred go up in smoke on a portable barbecue. A little lower layer, however, is darker still, with Paul recognizing that he is playing Scheherazade to himself, that junk fiction is his junk, the opium not only to the masses but for his own bitter soul. He’s weeping as he writes, though at least the pay is good for misery.

Shutting Out the Sun

Shutting Out the Sun
Michael Zielenziger

Before their fall from the commanding heights of the world economy you could read for days about the secrets to Japan’s success. Since then there have been nearly as many books trying to explain what went wrong. I remember reviewing one of these, Alex Kerr’s Dogs and Demons, fifteen years ago. Shutting Out the Sun is a later work in the same genre, taking as its dominant theme an analogy between Japan’s hikikomori (young male shut-ins) and Japan’s economic withdrawal and isolation, with the United States serving as enabling, co-dependent mother. It makes for an interesting mix of pop psychology, cultural studies, and political science, though it’s undone just a bit, I felt, by the amount of sympathy Zielenziger has for the hikikomori.

There is no consensus opinion on hikikomori syndrome. Some see it as a case of advanced codependency. In the West the diagnosis would likely be some form of autism. Zielenziger thinks it might be related to post-traumatic stress disorder, which I think is a huge stretch. Essentially, they appear mainly to be bitter losers who have decided, in the best adult-baby fashion, to sulk their lives away while being cared for by their mothers. I’m no proponent for tough love in general, but sympathy is the blood these vampires feed on and serves only to encourage and enable them. As does a judgement like Zielenzeger’s that the hikikomori are “far more sensitive and intelligent than their average classmates.” On what evidence? And does he really believe that these cases possess “the very qualities their nation need[s] to shake off its own inwardness”? It seems to me they are more symptoms of the disease than they are its cure.

The Twelve Caesars

The Twelve Caesars
Matthew Dennison

Matthew Dennison’s revisiting of Suetonius is probably unnecessary even for the general reader, adding little to the familiar story of the first dozen Roman emperors either in terms of new scholarship or fresh interpretation. Still it’s hard to go wrong with these colourful illustrations of how the power of an office corrupts. It may be that some of the worst of the bunch in fact wanted to do a better, more responsible job, but that was never in the cards. Following Augustus, though with less restraint, they resigned themselves to playing their part in the comedy.