Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Geoff Dyer, Jodi Kantor and Roberto Bolaño

Zona by Geoff Dyer

In the Financial Times, Peter Aspden is initially sparing in his praise, noting that, although Dyer's celebration of Andrei Tarkovsky's fim Stalker is patient and straightforward, "it surely deserves more". Yet that expectation, too, is ultimately fulfilled, says Aspden: "[T]here is deft method in Dyer's fluent playfulness," he concedes, with "each scene in the film . . . scrupulously examined". Aspden is likewise taken with Dyer's intellectual integrity - he's an analyst who knows the limits of exegesis: "Describing a magical sequence . . . there is no interpretation offered, no larky digression". Dyer knows the difference between evaluative depth and metaphysical pretension, Aspden admiring him all the more for that intuition.

For Igor Toronyi-Lalic in the Telegraph Dyer's musings are so enchanting that they excite in him unrestrained nostalgia: "Dyer retraces the cinematography faithfully and beautifully. So beautifully, in fact, that I found it difficult not to start falling again for Tarkovsky." Toronyi-Lalic is as charmed by Dyer the Polymath as by Dyer the Interpreter: "no other writer can flex and stretch in digressive prose more congenially than Dyer," he says, adding: "The frame-by-frame minute-taking, then, becomes a springboard for an investigation into everything from faith to knapsacks. An investigation that is honest, irreverent, cranky and frequently hysterical." Even Toronyi-Lalic's criticisms of Dyer are tacit, saluting his brilliant rambling rather than aimless pontification: "For he is just as good gibbering on about nothing as he is in full analytical mode". Whatever the aesthetic density of Dyer's subject, Toronyi-Lalic sees in his work an analysis accessible to the layman as well as the informed reader: "Watch the film before you read the book if you like. But it's not compulsory, which says something of Dyer's style."

The Obamas: A Mission, a Marriage by Jodi Kantor

Kate Figes in theTelegraph sees Jodi Kantor's The Obamas: A Mission, a Marriage, not as some charmed account of a Chicago couple's fulfilment of political ambition, but as a portrait of a husband-wife unit as challenged and tense as any other. "It was Michelle," writes Figes, "who worried most about him standing for the top job because of her cynicism about the true power of politics; and it was Michelle who considered not moving into the White House at all to protect their children." Moreover, popular idealising of the Obamas is likewise given short shrift in Kantor's portrayal, Figes notes: "As the recession hit, the First Couple made classic media mistakes, seemingly living the good life - think of the now infamous Alice in Wonderland-themed party at the White House - or using costly security to go home to Chicago or out on a date." Nor, though, says Figes, is Kantor sparing in the superlatives, especially about Mrs Obama: "Her idealism, exactitude, unwillingness to settle for less than what they wanted," she writes, "were qualities on which her husband depended, especially when things were going badly." In charting the lives of two figures about whom so much is hopefully presumed rather than reliably asserted, Figes is impressed with Kantor's research: " [She] talked to some two hundred aides . . . and gives us the fullest picture of this presidency yet."

For Alec MacGillis in New Statesman, it is precisely the shortcomings of Kantor's diagnosis that illuminate the oddities of power: "Her account is imperfect but valuable, for it captures how disorientating has been the transition of this remarkably normal and well-grounded Chicago family into the surreal realm of official Washington". MacGillis locates in Kantor's analysis the political nuances of the President's role and the sometimes rumbustious quality of the First Lady's life behind the North Portico: "[There are] accounts of strife between Michelle and long-time Obama confidante Valerie Jarrett, and, on the other hand, aides such as the former spokesman Robert Gibbs and the former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel." Nonetheless, MacGillis detects a certain contrivance in Kantor's emphasis on Michelle: "[Her] co-starring role, is occasionally strained."

In the Guardian, Sarah Churchwell notes that Kantor's gratitude to her editor at the New York Times for "a four-year conversation about ambition, power, gender and public life" itself constitutes the broader theme and agenda of her book: "The Obamas is not quite a domestic biography, and not quite a political one. It's what might be called a biography of domestic politics: it's about the balance of power in a marriage between two exceptional people; the politics of living in the White House; and the Obamas' efforts to shape US domestic policies." Churchwell finds irony in the White House's keenness to downplay the alleged "contentiousness" of Kantor's account, noting that it is "neither particularly controversial, nor particularly dramatic". Cue further praise for Kantor's "judicious and perceptive book," the conclusion of which, she says, far from leaving important business unfinished, is legitimately breathless: "like this presidency . . . unfinished. That's because it is: we are all awaiting the ending, and the suspense is killing.

The Third Reich by Roberto Bolaño

For Giles Harvey in theGuardian the fact of Bolaño's mortality is an ideal criterion for our appreciation of his work: "That the anglophone world should experience Bolaño's oeuvre as a posthumous phenomenon is entirely appropriate, for his books are all about the obscure spell cast by the dead over the living." Adulation aside, Harvey notes that "the bottom of a drawer ... would seem to be the ideal place" for this novel. It represents one of the author's first attempts at fiction and "clunks and sputters with all the awkwardness you would expect from an apprentice work." Ultimately, says Harvey, paucity of circumstance and wealth of rhetoric pays off: "From here on in - and we are still not yet halfway through - the book rations incident almost to the point of starvation. As in a film by Antonioni, what we are left with - what we are forced to get by on - is atmosphere, pages and pages of the stuff". Nevertheless, "in its second half that the book starts to repay our attention. With passages that anticipate the dark, chaotic splendour of By Night in Chile, Udo's diary becomes a record of moral and psychological disintegration, swarming with toxic hallucinations and poignant non sequiturs."

Ángel Gurría-Quintana writes in the Financial Times that the curiosities of Bolaño's prose are matched by the odd timing of the novel's publication: "It is worth asking why Bolaño, who finished writing The Third Reich in 1989, did not make any efforts to publish it in his lifetime." That aside, Gurría-Quintana revels in Bolano's love of language: "[The book] is rich in startling images and [is] unapologetically literary."

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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era