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.

Dying Every Day

Dying Every Day
James Romm

James Romm’s previous book, Ghost on the Throne, did an admirable job summarizing an almost impossibly complex and sprawling story: the breakdown of the Classical world after the passing of Alexander the Great. Dying Every Day may be seen as a contrasting, systolic movement, narrowly focused on the career of Seneca at the court of Nero. It is not a biography or general history of the period but an essay that tries to identify which of the “two Senecas” handed down to us in the literature is a closer approximation of the man. Was he a time-serving hypocrite and enabler of Nero’s despotism, or a philosopher aware of his own falling short of Stoic ideals who nevertheless did the best he could in a bad and ultimately fatal situation, a true hostage to fortune?

There’s no way of answering such a question now, but for what it’s worth Romm takes a sympathetic approach and tends toward the latter reading. It’s easy, perhaps inevitable, to become compromised living under an absolute dictator. Not coincidentally, this makes the historian’s job even harder, as the members of a dictator’s court have roles to play that require concealing , by various subterfuges, their real thoughts and feelings. It seems likely that Seneca had no idea how bad Nero was going to turn out, and when he did it was too late to do anything about it or even to save himself. In retrospect he probably realized that the only way to win was not to play the game.

Better Living Through Criticism

Better Living Through Criticism
A. O. Scott

In these essays on criticism (or “how to think about art, pleasure, beauty, and truth”) the film critic A. O. Scott quickly disposes of originality. “Imitation is not the erosion of originality; it is the condition of originality.” “Really, there is nothing new under the sun.” Well, I didn’t have to put that second one in quotation marks, but it’s what he says.

This is an essential first step in such a book, as Scott has nothing new to say. The usual, and very familiar, subjects and sources are canvassed. I didn’t find much to disagree with, which is both good and bad. Good in that Scott doesn’t say anything very stupid; bad in that his main point is that criticism is all about thinking, with the critic being, ideally, a kind of catfish (to borrow a contemporary trope or meme for a disruptive force). And yet despite this one feels inclined to skim the pond.

I think critics are important, but are they essential? One of the saddest things about Scott’s book is the interchapters that take the form of interviews or dialogues with himself. Or perhaps even sadder is the fact that the book’s impetus seems to have been a tweet made by the actor Samuel L. Jackson about one of Scott’s reviews. I doubt Jackson cared about Scott’s response, leaving the prominent critic to spend a good chunk of the book talking to himself. You have the sense of a man very much alone in a room, knowing that when he leaves he’ll be the one who has to finally turn out the lights.

Censored 2016

Censored 2016
Ed. by Mickey Huff, and Andy Lee Roth with Project Censored

This volume in the annual Project Censored series marks their fortieth anniversary, and I’ve been along with them for most of the ride (see my earlier comments on the 2003, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013 instalments). In terms of the editorial structure, it seems as though they’ve dropped the system of “news clusters” that was only introduced a couple of years ago. That’s no big loss, and I would recommend the Junk Food News section for further pruning in case anyone is listening. This section has turned into a bunch of unnecessary scolding. Introducing this section by saying that the past year was “jam-packed with more junk than Courtney Love’s veins” is a bad indicator of where things are headed.

As for the stories themselves, few of these are surprising. This is probably due to the way that the news, having migrated to the Internet and now constituting a “networked fourth estate,” is less monolithic now, making mainstream censorships more difficult. The top story, for example, that half of global wealth is now owned by the one percent, is only a milestone on what has been a long and well-reported trend. Among the other stories, what is most revealing, in a depressing way, is how much worse stories involving the environment and state surveillance are than we may have suspected.

Public Enemies

Public Enemies
Bryan Burrough

The story of “America’s first crime wave” is certainly an exciting and explosive one, packing a lot of action into a remarkably brief time frame. From 1933 to 1936 such now legendary figures as John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, Baby Face Nelson and Pretty Boy Floyd roamed the American South and Mid-West, robbing banks and kidnapping, and leading directly to the rise to power of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. Bryan Burrough has gone through the FBI archives and come up with a detailed account of the who, where, and whens. There is, however, no real attempt at explaining the psychologies of the different players, or much beyond their most basic cultural context. The project was originally envisaged as a television miniseries and was later made into a movie, and I can’t help but think that this played into the presentation here. But then it’s probably also true that none of the public enemies had a very interesting personality anyway. Robbing banks was difficult, dangerous work, often for very little in the way of a pay off. They did it because the banks were there, yes, but also because they weren’t capable of thinking of anything better to do.