Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on Richard Davenport-Hines, Mark Binelli and George Saunders.

The Tenth of December by George Saunders

Acclaimed short-story writer George Saunders darkly satirises modern life in his fourth anthology, The Tenth of December..Through the eyes and minds of ten characters, it envisages the gulf between dreams and reality in suburban America.

For Joel Lovell, of the New York Times, it is the “best book you’ll read this year”. Other critics’ praise is more reserved.

David Wolf, writing in The Observer, applauds the author’s skillful storytelling and “the exhilirating explosion of slang, neologisms and fake product names”. Saunders’ writing is at once comparable to Kurt Vonnegut’s “deadpan absurdism” and The Simpsons with his mix of “crude and sophisticated satire” and warm optimism. Nevertheless, Wolf criticises the inability of the MacArthur Genius Award winner to develop his writing style: “Saunders’ first collection for six years delivers all we expect but nothing new.” He added: “It seems like he’s stuck.”

In a review that charts Saunders’ backlash against his former idol and arch-rationalist Ayn Rand, Ludovic Hunter-Tilney welcomes the “sustained attack on the ideology of individualism.” For the Financial Times writer, it “overturns the belief that altruism is evil and instead suggests that helping others is the core component of our being”. The “blackly comic” book is only criticised for the tendency of the ten stories to seem formulaic because of Saunders’ distinctive style.

Alice Charles’ review for the Huffington Post UK, while commending The Tenth of December for its insight into characters’ minds, similarly criticises its repetitiveness. The habit of revisiting characters, themes and ideas “in a collection of just ten stories, feels like a bit of a cheat.”

 

The Last Days of Detroit by Mark Binelli

Mark Binelli’s Last days of Detroit, soon to be reviewed in the New Statesman, tells the story of the boom and bust of what was once America’s fourth largest city. A former Detroit-native himself, the critics are divided on the perspective this brings for Binelli’s telling book.

Andy Beckett writes for the Guardian, and points to the author’s “busy, knowing prose” as the cause for the frequently quick and flippant tone; highlighted on one occasion where Binelli heedlessly skims over three decades of history exclaiming that “nothing much interesting happened in Detroit for the next thirty or so years …". Beckett is more critical of the beginning of the book, where he claims it reads more like a book proposal than a book itself, “authoritative but self-conscious, switching restlessly between past and present”, however he praises Binelli on his subsequent coverage of Detroit’s decline.

Rose Jacobs of the Financial Times finds that Binelli provides a charming narrative, managing to associate with the reader through personal asides and footnotes that show him to be “playing the tongue-tied non-expert”. As amiable as this may be at times, asserts Jacobs, the “ingenue’s approach” was also occasionally irksome. She concludes that the success of the book waivers, completely relying upon the subjects interviewed in each chapter.

Mick Brown’s review for The Telegraph commends Mark Binelli, deeming him “an assiduous reporter” and credits him with avoiding making the book an epitaph of Detroit. He identifies Binelli’s optimism amongst the ‘devastation porn’ that was the decline, but does query the lack of photographs that would have been so fitting in what is “otherwise an excellent book”.

 

An English Affair by Richard Davenport Hines

Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Profumo affair, Richard Davenport-Hines bawdily retells how the war minister romanced the reputed mistress of a Soviet spy, Christine Keeler. In the throes of Cold War fever, politicians and the media convulsed at the idea of high-risk “pillow talk” that, followed by lying in the commons, forced resignation and framing, purportedly sowed the seeds of Macmillan’s demise.

The English Affair: Sex Class and Power in the Age of Profumo has divided critics who draw different lessons from the 1963 event.

Susan Elkin, writing in The Independent, praises Davenport-Hines as a “sparkling and compelling writer” and meticulous researcher. She draws parallels with the present: “it is hard to read his book without reflecting that we are still agonising over press freedom and the extent to which private lives are relevant to public office.”

By contrast, Vernon Bogdanor craves more context in the “racy read”. An English Affair re-runs a widely-told old story; “It is not entirely clear what purpose is served by further exhumation.” The New Statesman writer speculates that the affair thwarted chances of a Conservative election victory in 1964 that may have forced Labour to modernise 30 years before Blair. “The consequences are far more important than the cultural implications that Davenport-Hines analyses.”

The Guardian’s Blake Morrison nonetheless welcomes An English Affair as “an antidote to the current nostalgia for the period”. It exposes the “double standards of the early 60s” in which the welfare state, far from banishing spivs, encouraged a new generation of merchant adventurers who “transformed the capital with brutal phallic modernity”.

“For anyone who imagines things were better in the age of ‘never had it so good’,” writes Morrisson, “this book should be compulsory reading.”

Detroit River during a race, the Detroit skyline in the background. (Getty Images)
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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