Little Green Men — Christopher Buckley

Little Green Men not only holds up well, but might even improve with age and the stream of stories about lunatic politicians. The novel supposes that “alien” abductions are happening at the directive of a secret government agency named MJ-12. The rationale was originally to a) scare the Russians and b) inflate the defense budget, both of which seem so plausible that I wouldn’t be surprised if such a thing had or is taking place.

MJ-12 functions well enough that “Fifty years and more after the first UFO sightings, the vote was in: a full 80 percent of Americans believed that the government knew more about aliens than it was letting on.” Yet most serious thinkers dismiss aliens as a crackpot phenomenon. A computer program maintains this tension by abducting people unlikely to be believed; as a low-level bureaucrat named Scrubbs says, “the credibility algorithm seemed to have a bias toward overweight women. It would be nice if just every once in a while it picked, well, Claudia [Schiffer—who was then a desirable model] would be nice.” Once again, Buckley knows too much about government and the boredom so many government jobs entail, getting the details of tedium so right that I almost wonder if Little Green Men wouldn’t also be at home in a political science syllabus. Little details about Scrubbs, and the ridiculousness of the situation in general, provide the efficient comic combustion fueling the novel: it mocks both government, the media, and Washington D.C. at just the right levels.

Our friendly bureaucrat Scrubbs decides not to be as feckless as we suspected him to be, and he orders the abduction of a talk show host blowhard named John Banion not just once, but twice, causing Banion to make alien abduction his main topic, much to the ire of his sponsors, friends, and others, who respond with “Slammed doors, trenchant sarcasm, dripping scorn. He wondered if this was what the disciples went through.” Middle East peace and the Russia situation never seemed so simple.

Imagining himself as part of Jesus’ retinue is perfectly appropriate for a man whose ego has so long been inflated by punditry that he probably does imagine himself leading the sheep who are his audience. And yet at the same time, a series of byzantine turns causes him to get a much lower brow, higher rated show that, as one character observes, is more interesting anyway because his followers take action instead of pondering the universe over their morning coffee.

These followers might have some trouble with the intellect, however, as Banion’s messiah-like speech to them on the subject of government secrecy indicates:

People! [Banion says.] Do you know what we are?
Tell us! We want to know! What are we, anyway?
Mushrooms!
From the sea of perplexed looks, it was clear that Banion’s metaphor was not immediately apparent.
You know what you do with mushrooms, don’t you? Stick ’em in the dark! Feed ’em a lot of shit!
Ah! Yes, now we get it! It’s a metaphor!

A lower class but a larger volume: that’s Banion’s power. But his ability to change Washington itself is suspect; a presidential election following a NASA fiasco brings new faces to Washington who claim that they’ll crack down on influence peddling. One politico observes: “They all say that when they’re running. Then they get to town and see how it works and we all become best friends.” Banion steps outside the circle. What follows is hilarious because it’s both real and surreal, and things even stranger than fake UFO abductions happen in Washington when one departs the well-worn path. No wonder so few do.

Being Written — William Conescu

Being Written ought to be better than it is.

The idea is clever: someone is trying to go about his life aware that he’s being written as a character in a book. Some of the writing is clever, as when one character thinks “everyone at the table appears to Monty as if they’ve dressed for different occasions.” I’ve been to those parties. But other times the prosaic invades, as when we find, on the same page, that “pinstripes complement Natalie’s pale blue silk evening dress.” Is such an adjective train really necessary?

The novel bogs down. Quickly. The second person isn’t used as skillfully as it is in, say, Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City. Its self-consciousness becomes irritating, as when a chapter begins, “This doesn’t seem like the kind of book you’d want to read. There’s so much talk. You prefer books like the new Richard Corrone novel that you’ve set across the table from you as an incentive.” The truth is that Being Written does seem like the sort of book I’d want to read. But there’s too much blather about what it is to be a writer and tell story, with too little actual story.

Chapters alternate between different characters’ points of view and the second person “you” chapters, as if the writer is writing you. The former tend to be more successful but more boring and the latter more interesting but frustrating. He’s not the first writer with similar problems. About The Trick of It, Kate of Kate’s Book Blog wrote:

I found the premise of the novel irresistible: a young scholar meets and marries the novelist whose work is the primary focus of his academic career. This seemed to me a very clever way to explore the vexing interrelationship between fiction, biography, and literary criticism. And it was. But I’m not sure that the book ever transcended its premise to become something more than a clever idea.

That’s how I feel about Being Written, except I didn’t love the premise, which reminded me too much of 60s experimentation gone wrong, right down to the cover, which pictures a guy bent double with a pencil on his back. Yeah, I get the idea: we’re all in the process of being written by the stories of our lives even if we don’t necessarily hear the voice that the narrator does, but this doesn’t feel original even if I can’t immediately cite an obvious predecessor. Still, I did like it enough that I’ll keep an eye out for Conescu’s next novel, since this one shows promise, while many novels fail even that test.

Note: this novel was provided by its publisher.

Fifteen books in fifteen minutes

Via Terry Teachout and CAAF: “The rules: Don’t take too long to think about it. Fifteen books you’ve read that will always stick with you. First fifteen you can recall in no more than fifteen minutes.

My list:

Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men
Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings
Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon
Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd’s The Time Paradox
Elmore Leonard’s Get Shorty and Out of Sight (I count them as one book—so what?)
John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor
Rebecca Goldstein’s The Mind-Body Problem
Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities
Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy
Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose
Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum
Robertson Davies’ The Deptford Trilogy
Robertson Davies’ The Cornish Trilogy
Alain de Botton’s On Love
Richard Russo’s Straight Man

(I purposefully didn’t read either Terry’s list or CAAF’s before writing mine. If I had to add a 16th, I’d probably take How to Think Like a Computer Scientist, which definitely doesn’t fit with the list above.)

Thy Neighbor's Wife — Gay Talese

To read the new edition of Gay Talese’s Thy Neighbor’s Wife as someone who grew up in the era of American Pie and its considerably less tame Internet cousins is to step backwards into a time that, for many people, still exists. To judge from the nattering both on- and off-line, the debate goes, despite the sense of inevitability that Thy Neighbor’s Wife imparts; perhaps, as Jamais Cascio quotes William Gibson as saying in The Atlantic article “Get Smart,” “The future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed.”

But it’s not at all clear that the vision implied by Talese will ever arrive for most people, or even that Thy Neighbor’s Wife is the “Timeless Classic” promised by the cover. The book is more an essay collection than book and feels the same malady as Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem: age. To me, the mores of the 1950s seem quaint, Bill O’Reilly’s silliness and faux outrage notwithstanding, and erotic hypocrisy in the media and culture at large is both well-known and documented, as it long has been. That brings one to the obvious point: what purpose does Thy Neighbor’s Wife still serve in an age of Bonk and The Book of Vice?

One can see predecessors to Thy Neighbor’s Wife in books ranging ranging from Madame Bovary upwards; in John Barth’s The Floating Opera and The End of the Road, adulterous triangles form with consequences that are serious chiefly because of the seriousness of their participants. The “other man” in The Floating Opera says that “Being intelligent people, they were able to talk about the matter frankly, and they tried hard to articulate their sentiments, and decide how they really felt about it.” The issue had already burbled toward popular consciousness when Barth’s novel was published in 1956. Many of Bellow’s novels spoke with bracing linguistic and intellectual clarity to issues around sexuality. Given that, one should try to read Thy Neighbor’s Wife not just as a chronicle of a time that now seems ancient, but as a guide to what undergirds social relations beyond the particulars of what is forbidden and why.

Social change and perspective

The most arresting sections of Thy Neighbor’s Wife deal with larger social changes rather than the strictly sexual—for example, the sense of anomie and rootlessness that seem reflected by sexuality rather than the cause of it. For example, Talese says that “The emphasis on youth made many Americans in their thirties feel older, particularly those junior executives who, having identified with corporations and having associated wisdom with seniority, now felt suddenly uncertain and outmoded in this age of new personalities and vacillating values.” That could have emerged from a Paul Graham essay on startups or a thousand banal pop sociology books of the last several decades. Still, it is effective in reminding one of pattern of change being played out across lives.

Likewise, Talese says that “Southern California’s characteristic disregard of traditional values, its relatively rootless society, its mobility and lack of continuity […] were accepted easily by [Diane Webber’s family].” Replace “Southern California” with “Silicon Valley,” and the comparison still holds, as does the idea that the larger problem might have been the continuing undermining of seniority and “traditional values,” which seems to have begun in the Enlightenment continues at this moment, as argued by Louis Dupre in The Enlightenment and the Intellectual Foundations of Modern Culture. From Dupre’s vantage, the larger social changes that emphasize youth, sexuality, fluid movement, and independence have been ongoing for centuries, making Talese’s wave a small part of a larger social tide.

Diane played a still smaller role, with her place in Thy Neighbor’s Wife springs from her role as a nude model in the 1950s—a role that, later, she would come to downplay, as if the earlier Webber was completely distinct from the later Webber. Her larger symbolic function in Thy Neighbor’s Wife wasn’t obvious—Talese seems to view her as someone who didn’t go all the way, or as someone who isn’t as much a seeker as others. Books often play a prominent role in this process; in eventual free-love guru John Williamson’s apartment, “the many books he owned dealing with psychology, anthropology, and sexuality represented not only intellectual curiosity on his part but also a growing professional interest. Twenty pages later, another John, this time surnamed Bullaro, “petulantly reminded himself that he must revive and broaden his education, must read more books…” Another man who becomes a pornographer “had matured in the Army, had done considerable reading during many lonely nights in the barracks…”

Williamson gets a starring role in many mini-essays. He sought to create an island of open sexuality that now seems more mocked than practiced. This took the form of a retreat named Sandstone, where the “living room at times resembled a literary salon, [while] the floor below remained a parlor for pleasure-seekers, providing sights and sounds that many visitors, however well versed they may have been in erotic arts and letters, had never imagined they would encounter under one roof during a single evening.” That’s all very nice, but the detached and yet voyeuristic prose feels silly and stilted, even if the idea is an important one, especially since the major qualities that required to participate in the events of places like Standstone—and there I go with my euphemistic phrases—are ones that probably help with success across broader avenues of life than just sexuality, like confidence, tenacity, fortitude, and, as Talese writes approvingly of Barbara Cramer, “not [being] intimidated by the possibility of rejection.”

Weakness and Strength

In one section we learn of a rebellious girl named Sally Binford, who “…lured young men with an ease that was the envy of her female contemporaries, who regarded her as bold and shameless.” They sound unable to complete, and another reading of Thy Neighbor’s Wife might more closely examine the evolutionary, social, and economic competitive forces swirling around it. But if Binford was envied, why didn’t the other girl emulate her? When one business finds success with a particular product, one can often can on a swarm of imitators. But when one person finds social success using a particular method, others tend to downplay that person’s success. Why? It seems that there are a variety of explanations, but perhaps the most interesting is to conceive that refusal to reject convention as a weakness.

Books like Leora Tanenbaum’s Slut! Growing Up Female with a Bad Reputation echo how the dominant social structures—the “Davids” if you will—use scorn against those who outcompete them. I’m reminded of Malcolm Gladwell’s recent New Yorker article, “How David Beats Goliath: When underdogs break the rules,” which says:

Insurgents work harder than Goliath. But their other advantage is that they will do what is “socially horrifying”—they will challenge the conventions about how battles are supposed to be fought… The price that the outsider pays for being so heedless of custom is, of course, the disapproval of the insider… Goliath does not simply dwarf David. He brings the full force of social convention against him; he has contempt for David.

That’s what Binford feels from her female contemporaries, and many women continue to feel that heat from their contemporaries today, as Tanenbaum shows.

One other fascinating aspect in Gladwell’s study could apply to Talese’s description:

When an underdog fought like David, he usually won. But most of the time underdogs didn’t fight like David. Of the two hundred and two lopsided conflicts in Arreguín-Toft’s database, the underdog chose to go toe to toe with Goliath the conventional way a hundred and fifty-two times—and lost a hundred and nineteen times.

Gladwell refers to military conflicts. The analogy to sex and dating is not hard to grasp: most people feel like romantic underdogs, at least to judge from cultural production, but they play like Goliaths and lose. In Talese’s descriptions, many constricting social forces are abrogated or elided by discarding conventional rules as a path toward romantic success and satisfaction. Sally Binford’s story expressed that. Yet most of us don’t play like Davids, preferring to simmer in dissatisfaction rather than face the disapproval of insiders. When put that way, or in the sexual way Talese presents it, this habit of acquiescence to social forces sounds like a weakness. Put other ways, like as respect for other people, it might sound like the strength, and the temptation is to announce that a middle road exists. Grasping that middle road, however, requires understanding both extremes, as well as one’s place in larger historical and social forces.

Larger Meaning and The Atlantic

The reissue of Thy Neighbor’s Wife caught my eye after “A Nonfiction Marriage” appeared in New York Magazine, which chronicles the Talese hidden behind the story of Talese. It seems that he and his wife, Nan, had as much tension, uncertainty, and ambivalence in their marriage as the subjects about whom Gay wrote. It has no resolution.

Maybe this obsessive study of sexuality and change means something, and maybe it means maybe. Perhaps it means nothing, or that we have all the options open to us and still don’t know what we want or how to resolve the mutually incompatible desires within us. The Thy Neighbor’s Wife solution of radical openness doesn’t appear to have gained ground; as Sandra Tsing Loh writes in “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off: The Author is Ending her Marriage. Isn’t It Time You Did the Same?” for the July/August 2009 issue of The Atlantic (not yet online as of this writing): “But as we all know, the Sexually Open Marriage fizzled with the lava lamp, because it is just downright icky for most people” (it is for this kind of scintillating insight and incisive analysis that I subscribe to The Atlantic).

Nonetheless, Tsing Loh’s comment does illustrate that, for all the swapping and coupling Talese describes, social norms haven’t moved as Williamson and Hugh Hefner might have once imagined they would. We’re now free to negotiate the kinds of arrangements we want, but they don’t tend to be of the free-love style that Talese implies might have been plausible as the dominant social position. Consider as evidence both Tsing Loh’s article as well as Lori Gottlieb’s “Marry Him!” and “The XY Files.” Now, as in our jobs, we are all moving toward free agency. Judging by the timescales present in The Enlightenment and the Intellectual Foundations of Modern Culture, the consequences won’t be apparent for a long time yet. With that perspective, maybe the waves made by Thy Neighbor’s Wife are even smaller than they appear.

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