In the London Review of Books of January 28, Perry Anderson described Ching Kwan Lee’s book Against the Law: Labor Protests in China’s Rustbelt and Sunbelt (2007) as an “analytic and ethnographic masterpiece.” In the same month’s New Left Review, Anderson called it a “sociological masterpiece.” Why not simply call it “a masterpiece,” damn it? Because that’s what it is, no qualifications necessary. Lee, a professor of masterpieces—excuse me, of sociology—at UCLA, spent years doing fieldwork among, and some time actually working in, Chinese factories. Her book essentially delivers two comparative reports: one from the old, crumbling state-owned industrial base in northeastern Liaoning (the “rust belt”) and the brave new world of multinationals and migrant workers in southern Guangdong (the “sun belt”). Lee shows how labor protests in the north tend to take up the identities of solidarity and ownership of the means of production fostered (if not exactly instituted) by Maoism, while protests in the south justify their actions in the language of labor law—a new feature of the new China. The analysis is more supple and humane than I can do justice to here, but the crowning achievement of the book lies in its dozens of interviews with workers. Lee’s transcripts make for an incomparably varied, wrenching portrait of the largest and most desperate working-class in the world.
The most purely enjoyable book I read this past year was a paperback I’d been saving up since 2002, David Hajdu’s Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña and Richard Fariña. I don’t usually read books about Dylan, and I wouldn’t usually recommend books about pop music to anyone unless they were prepared to relax their ordinary standards, but this book was great on every front, and unique. As a biography of young people who get fame early, it’s fascinating. As an explanation of why young white people cared about folk music in the 1960s (and jazz), but not rock and roll, and how it was that “rock” emerged post-1964, it’s clarifying. As a work of art, it’s just an overwhelming pleasure—Hajdu could write anything, fiction included, but has chosen this. And it includes the best Pynchon biographical cameo in print. Hajdu had to interview him by fax machine.
I picked up the first of Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet (1966–75)—four novels about the fall of British colonialism in India—for something to read on the plane, expecting a standard-issue historical novel, but instead was surprised to find retired missionary ladies going quietly insane from reading too much Emerson and an unsentimental description of the last days of an institution that nobody believed in anymore. It’s a good example of how not to end an occupation of a foreign country.
Between Camus, Sartre, and Genet, Americans rarely escape the educational system without some exposure to French postwar fiction. But when it comes to Germans, it tends to be Sebald or bust. An excellent place to dip your toe in the literature of the Bundesrepublik is Heinrich Böll’s The Clown. Written in the early ’70s about the early ’50s, The Clown evokes that surreal and largely forgotten moment when the German intellect, battered by defeat and riven by Stalin, gave over its Western pole to a resurgent Catholicism, one of the few sources of ethical authority left after 1945. German Catholics, unlike Italian, Spanish, or French ones, enjoyed an initial presumption of innocence when it came to fascist crimes; collective memory in the West managed to Prussify Hitler, falsely banishing the Nazi legacy to the Protestant North-East (which had conveniently fallen under Soviet control). The novel’s title refers to its narrator, an impoverished professional clown estranged from his coal mine-owning, NSDAP-cum-CDU-supporting parents. The Clown’s life is marked by regret, complaint, and sexual hopelessness. Böll’s novel lays bare the pathologies of the Adenauer era while exalting the principled abjection and lonely charisma of its sanctimonious narrator. Böll’s jester chafes against the deranged conformism of his ideologically fragile society, repaying his country’s and his family’s big lies with his own weary madness.
A friend of Freud’s described one early psychoanalytic portrait as “so elegant and perfect that [he knew] of nothing [he] could compare it with.” An equal match may be Janet Malcolm’s In The Freud Archives, and also her Two Lives, which can be enjoyed even by a reader like me, who has read almost nothing by Gertrude Stein and who had planned to pursue her only if life turned out to be very long.
Eric Pooley’s The Climate War was the most exciting book about global warming published this year. It’s a page-burning political thriller—a Washington-insider account of the long drive to get climate legislation through Congress. Politicans, coal execs, and the surprisingly influential folks at the NRDC are the principals, and as the book proceeds you can feel Pooley’s conservative sympathies sliding toward the coal-region eco-radicals he meets. Everything is building toward the effort to get the 2009 Waxman-Markey bill passed, and the tale is so gripping that at moments I forgot that I already knew the end of the story, and cheered myself with the thought that the bill, woefully inadequate as it was, might actually make it. Instead, of course, we are where we are, still careening toward disaster.
Ryan Lizza’s “As the World Burns,” from the October 11 New Yorker, serves as an excellent postscript to Pooley’s book, updating the story through the failure of 2010’s Kerry-Lieberman bill, which never even made it to a vote. Throughout these stories, Obama appears as a wise but hamstrung fool, aware of the magnitude of the threat but acquiescent to advisors (Rahm Emmanuel comes off as especially diabolical) who value political capital above all else. Despite all their differences, the legacy of the current President may prove identical to that of the last one: a total failure to do the one thing that needed doing.
I first stumbled across the poetry of James Galvin in an odd morass of a book, The Wide Open: Prose, Poetry, and Photographs of the Prairie (2008). I used to love poetry; for the past five years or so I’ve hardly read any. But after going through half of Galvin’s own collection, Resurrection Update, I found myself telling everyone who’d listen about him. “He’s the first poet I’ve loved since Keats!” I’d say, trying to keep a straight face. But it’s true. Living in New York one finds it easy to take it for granted that everything you see has already been described by someone. If there’s still one frontier in the American West, it is that of literature, and Galvin, who was born and raised on a ranch in Wyoming, lays as strong a claim to the landscape as anyone:
It’s not as if we had no angels:
A handful remained when the rest moved on.
Now they work for a living,
As windmills on the open range.
They spin and stare like catatonics,
Nod toward the bedridden peaks.
They’ve learned their own angelic disbelief.
The mountains still breathe, I suppose,
The prairie still swells under a few small churches.
They are like rowboats after the ship’s gone down.
Everyone knows whom the saved envy.
I would strongly recommend Joan Acocella’s Mark Morris (1995), which as a biography embodies the new classicism she elegantly attributes to her subject. It made me even more admiring of Acocella’s style and gravitas than I was after reading her collected profiles, Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints (2008).
I was also really struck by Eileen Myles’s memoir Inferno (published by innovative print-on-demand publisher OR Books this year). The writing is brilliant, erratic, and gripping; several scenes from her often terrifying downtown-in-the-‘70s are permanently stuck in my brain.
Frank O’Hara has said, “I am mainly preoccupied with the world as I experience it.” This aesthetic of solipsism turns out surprisingly to produce a serio-comic fragmentary memoir that we nonetheless come to feel as our own. O’Hara’s poems put down on paper the movements of a flâneur/poet who masquerades as a MoMA employee, a promiscuous homosexual, and an art critic in the postwar industrial bustle of the ’50s into the ’60s. He documents the familiar moments in this city—which is often as ugly as an oyster—where something breaks through (like a vision of the moon, as in ‘Avenue A’) into the strange permanence of a poem, “revealing itself like a pearl.”
I’ve been going through Eudora Welty’s Collected Stories (1982). I read her first novel, Delta Wedding (1946), over the summer. I think what strikes me most about Welty’s writing is her pace. It’s fixed and unrelenting, guided by her gentle perspicacity. Delta Wedding’s complexly interwoven familial networks, steadily revealed and progressed, remind me of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. I think Welty and Woolf share a common heartbeat. And I’m happy to think of the genealogy of writers that connect Welty to that main arterial flow, reaching back from Welty to Woolf, and from Woolf to Jane Austen, and forward from Welty to Marilynne Robinson.
Marilynne Robinson’s own Pulitzer-prize winning work, Gilead (2004), holds striking similarities to George Bernanos’s Diary of a Country Priest (1936), another book I read last year. There are obvious structural parallels between these two works—the epistolic reflections of a country servant of God—as well as stylistic affinities—their slow pace, their perfect, fluid prose. I smile sadly through them both. But Bernanos’s sensitivity and subtle intimacy more acutely provokes my sympathy, leaves me gasping and wincing as though pricked by needles.
Cutter and Bone (1976), by Newton Thornburg, is a California novel, and like most California novels, it suggests the promise of American life has turned sour. A poor girl is murdered. Her body is wrapped in a carpet and thrown into a dumpster. On the case are Alex Cutter, crippled, deranged Vietnam veteran, and Richard Bone, gigolo. Together they make an odd crime-solving pair—less Watson and Holmes than Ishmael and Ahab. Two men cheated by America, they decide that, rather than settling down, they will exact revenge on the system. Their quest is to take down JJ Wolfe, millionare, industrialist, possible murderer. But this is misleading, because it’s hard to tell whether Wolfe is a murderer or a product of Cutter’s mind. Anyway, don’t get me wrong, it’s not all Didionesque apocalypticism—Cutter and Bone is a funny book. But more than anything else it’s ugly. Sometimes we forget: California is horrible.
—Edward Morgan Day Frank