After reading enough fiction—although how much constitutes “enough” probably varies by person—it seems natural to search for deeper meanings and connections in what you’ve read. Although I can’t pinpoint where I crossed that threshold, somewhere I did—hence Martin Amis’ The War Against Cliché, Stanislaw Lem’s Microworlds, most of James Wood’s books, including How Fiction Works, Milan Kundera’s criticism, and Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer. Add to that stack Daniel Mendelsohn’s How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken. Most pieces hail from “The New York Review of Books,” and they reflect the trade-offs inherent in that magazine’s style, including lengthy introductions so elliptical relative to the main point that one can sometimes start at the first paragraph break, which is often a couple pages in, and miss something, but perhaps not much. It’s a bit like a politician whose great ideas don’t get quite entirely heard because an overly long disquisition looses his audience. Willie Stark suffered from that malady, and Barack Obama was criticized for the same tendency. Readers of criticism should and probably do have considerably longer attention spans than a voter’s, but even that can be stretched only so far. It’s not that a particular essay of Mendelsohn’s suffers from excessively from it, but rather that the overall effect is one of such relentless prep that one becomes weary by the time dinner is actually to be served. This sense of weariness is what led me to allow my subscription to lapse. But keep going through those introductions: the digging brings intellectual gold, and that goal is worth the pursuit.
This is especially true because How Beautiful It Is is tied together better than the average “New York Review of Books,” and its consistent interest in classics and their continuing interpretation and impact give it a sense of building, of constructedness, that helps alleviate the occasional sense of tediousness. As Mendelsohn says of some of the first “9/11 movies,” “The problem with all this realness is that [United 93] itself—like reality—has no structure: and without structure, without shaping, the events can have no large meaning.” So too with criticism, and his larger structure rotates around Greek and Latin classics. When Mendelsohn is on, he’s fantastic, and his impressive knowledge of classics lets him bring seemingly disparate works together, like a metaphysical poet yoking two images that at first appear opposites. They obviously play into some of the sword and sandal epics he mentions, and less obviously into say, Jeffrey Eugenides’ excellent The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex. I wish he’d written more about novels and less about theater, novels being my great interest, but what he does include is richer than many longer works of criticism and helps direct my own reading; Mendelsohn’s argument against The Lovely Bones, one briefly hot book, inspires me to avoid it with more diligence than I do Mitch Albom, another sentimental, schlocky, and vastly overrated bestseller who appeals to the Hallmark card reader in all of us. The Hours, however, is now on the list; one danger of reading How Beautiful It Is and James Wood’s The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel is the perpetual extension of one’s reading list, practically giving you the tools to better perceive recent and ancient culture. And, perhaps more importantly, yourself.
Mendelsohn never abandons the critic’s ultimate purpose of judicious judgment, and one impressive thing is the way he manages to be unsparing but not mean, rooted in culture but not pedantic, and conveys his sense of joy, history, and sagacity. The three together are not easy. Some of his pieces seem like overkill, and so many words on the movies Troy, Alexander, 300, and Kill Bill seem wasted, as they’re not worth the skill Mendelsohn lavishes on them. A great critic can only reach his highest level when pitted against great works, and none of those reveal much about much of anything because they lack the depth necessary for the highest level of engagement. Still, Mendelsohn improves imperfect material, demonstrating the possibility better material gives us when he discusses writers, especially Virginia Woolf. The primary thing holding him back is the aforementioned habit of endless introduction and circling needlessly around the main point before he hits it: with James Wood’s criticism, you get the idea that every idea is essential to the argument. With Mendelsohn, you get the idea virtually every one is, but not quite every one: “Nailed!”, about the “Hatchet Jobs” of the writer Dale Peck, doesn’t nail the reader till three pages in. The habit isn’t fatal, and Mendelsohn is still worth reading, but he gets just a tad stuffy as he goes. Still, this is the worse thing I can repeat about Mendelsohn, and his essays convey so much insight that they’re worth reading even if you occasionally skim, because the wonderfully strong justify the others.