A review of “A Gate At The Stairs” by Lorrie Moore

Reader, I think we can agree that 9/11 was ‘not a good thing’. But it was ‘not a good thing’ in some less-than-obvious ways, and here we might come to blows. I, for example, believe 9/11 did horrible things to American literature. Some people will point to books like “Falling Man” by Don DeLillo, “The Emperor’s Children” by Claire Messud and “Netherland” by Joseph O’Neill as examples of how the attacks reinvigorated American fiction. But I found those works eye-rollingly earnest and weighed down with a leaden, worthier-than-thou, liberal morality. In other words kind of, you know, European.

So 9/11 has led to a kind of homogenization of English literature. Which is definitely ‘not a good thing’.

All of which has very little to do with Lorrie Moore’s new novel, “A Gate At The Stairs”, but I never let facts get in the way of a good grandstand. The book does claim to deal with “the anxiety and disconnection of post 9/11 America”, but while I confess that I didn’t find it particularly earnest, worthy or European, I didn’t find it particularly anything else either. Kind of funny, sort of sad, nearly engaging, almost believable, I kind of sort of nearly almost hated it. Ms Moore should stick to writing short fiction where she can channel her tragic and comic energies into separate stories, rather than glue them together them into messy Frankenarratives.

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A review of “Chronic City” by Jonathan Lethem

Paranoia. Check. Possibly drug-fuelled. Check. Strange happenings, unreliable rumours and untrustworthy media. Check, check and check. Blurring of real life and performance. Check. Obsession with both real and fictional celebrities. Check. Affluence porn. Check. Egomaniacal asshole narrator. Check.

Congratulations, Jonathan Lethem! You’ve  written a Bret Easton Ellis! Only sans the sense of humour and avec a whole lot of weather. Which turns out, unsurprisingly, to be not hugely riveting.

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A review of “The Stranger’s Child” by Alan Hollinghurst

 

The problem with creating a book about the challenges faced by someone writing a biography (or the impermeability of the past, or the ultimate unknowability of past truths, or whatever this book is really, you know, like, about) is that we readers are privy to all the facts the biographer is trying to discover; we are told them in the novel’s (actually pretty great) first section.  So it’s not exactly riveting spending the next few sections following the efforts various researchers as they try to uncover them. The Stranger’s Child is a weknowwhodunit, because youtolduswhodidit. Which also, in my opinion, makes it a whybloodybotherwithitinthefirstplace.

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A review of “The Slap” by Christos Tsiolkas

Misanthropy is terribly fashionable in literature at the mo. In fact, to be taken seriously as a writer these days it seems one must substitute bile for ink. Misanthropy has been elevated to the status of higher truth, and unless every character is total asshole, the author clearly hasn’t had the honesty / courage to depict humans as the slimebags as they really are. As a reader who finds all this mean-spiritedness a bit one-noted (and, frankly, untruthful, seeing as if the world really was entirely populated with such two-faced, money-obsessed, swindling, kiddy-bashers, I’d never leave the house) I should have hated this book.

I didn’t.

In The Slap, no one ever just “says” anything. They “sneer” and “growl” and “scoff”. No one believes in anything, stands for anything or feels anything (unless it’s resentment, guilt, disappointment or anger).  But it’s the most unputdownable book I’ve read in years. I loved it, and (even though you’re undoubtedly a black-hearted monster who’d sooner run over me with a steamroller than express gratitude) I hope you do too.

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A letter to Obama on the eve of the elections

Dear Mr Obama.

I hope you win today – if only because the other guy’s such an idiot. I hope you get a second term, and what many people say is true: that you plan to use it to make some bold, progressive and ambitious changes (you know, like the ones you said you’d make when you got voted in the first time). Because I’ll admit: you’ve been something of a disappointment to me. I know, I know. You have a lot on your mind today, and this isn’t what you want to hear. But I need to get some things off my chest. I’d like you to do better going forward, and to that end I’ve made a list of suggestions.

Here’s my main problem with you: the income gap has actually widened in the last 4 years. Under Bush, 65 cents of every dollar of income growth went to the top 1%. Under you, it’s risen to 93 cents. 93 freaking cents out of every 100 goes to 1% of the population! You didn’t just let this shameful situation happen, you helped create it. This is how….

It seems to me you have one set of rules for the wealthy, and another one for everyone else. You bailed out the financial system, failed to prosecute bankers, and did little to regulate Wall Street. The wealthy are even wealthier than they were before the recession. But you did nothing to stem the foreclosure crisis. This is important because the middle-class store their wealth in their homes, and home equity has dropped between 5 and 7 trillion since 2009 (average household income has dropped 5%). When you came to power, you promised to fight for the reform to allow bankruptcy judges to modify the terms of home loans (to, for example, reduce the principal amount or change the rate of interest). You should have included this reform as part of TARP. (In exchange for  buying all those toxic assets from the banks, you should have made it a condition that they had to be willing to renegotiate the terms of home loans with their debtors.) But you didn’t. In fact, you deliberately took it out of TARP. So, banks got rid of their crappy assets, but homeowners are still stuck with their crappy homes (homes that aren’t worth the money they’re paying the banks for them). So I suggest you reintroduce the so-called “cram down” – a bill which will give bankruptcy judges power over banks (it’d be nice if justice trumped commerce in America just once) and allow them to write down mortgage debt. And this time find a way to make it pass.

Some will say that your powers were limited by Congress. But most of this happened in 2009-2010, when Democrats controlled Congress. Not an excuse.

One more quick rant about the banks: it seems a little unfair that banks can borrow at 0%  from the Federal Reserve while most of us face credit card rates of 15-30%. Once again, they don’t seem to be passing the benefits to the rest of us. Just sayin’.

I have some other concerns. You haven’t exactly been a friend to the American worker. You made some very specific promises in the last election: a higher minimum wage, a ban on the replacement of striking workers, and seven days of paid sick leave. You followed through with none of them. Time to change that.

When it comes to civil liberties, you have a track record that may be worse than Bush’s. You said you’d place a ban on illegal wiretaps, end national security letters and stop the war on whistle-blowers. How many did you follow through with? Yup, none. And your 2012 National Defense Authorization Act, which authorizes the military to participate in domestic law enforcement and bypass the judicial process, is about the scariest thing I’ve ever read. I grew up in Apartheid-era South Africa, and that’s the kind of shit they pulled.

Stop talking about the environment, and start doing something about it. Romney believes climate change is a hoax. You say you believe in it, but don’t do anything about it. Guess what: nature can’t tell the difference between idiocy and inactivity. Your energy policy invests way too much in fracking, tar sands and dirty oil and coal. Sort that out.

On a personal level, I really hate it when you try to buy back liberal credibility by jumping on the gay marriage bandwagon. I stand to gain more than most if gay marriage is legalized (my spouse – we were married in Canada – cannot join me in the US because he is not currently in possession of a vagina). But I honestly think America has more pressing issues to deal with. I’ll believe you care about progressive issues when you start diverting funds from the military to education, not when you allow me to walk down the aisle. 

Credit where it’s due: thanks for Obamacare. It’s still a half-assed, compromised, overpriced travesty compared to any other health system in the civilized world, but it’s a start.

Good luck today,

Gary.

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