Late to the party as ever, I am currently cultivating a minor obsession with Louis CK

The perfect film role for this daring funny man is out there somewhere - but he hasn't hit the mark just yet.

Late to the party as ever, I am currently cultivating a minor obsession with the comedian Louis CK. Even describing him as a comedian feels unfairly restricting. His stand-up specials—Chewed Up, Live at the Beacon Theatre, Oh My God—are meticulously crafted dramatic monologues that just happen to be raucously funny, not unlike the work of Stewart Lee (though in a very different register: CK plays with and subverts an Ordinary Joe persona that makes his most poisonous gags obscurely palatable).

He is the star, writer, director and editor of his own FX sitcom, Louie, which is three series old and getting ready for a fourth. His vision is absolute. And the tone of that series is also too amorphous and perplexing to fit under the catch-all heading of comedy. Two episodes I saw recently, one with Chloe Sevigny as a book-shop assistant who is creepily over-enthusiastic in her efforts to help Louie (Louis CK) track down an old flame, and a double-episode in which David Lynch plays a coach preparing Louie to be a possible replacement for talk-show host David Letterman, wandered so far into the comedy of silence, tension and general unpleasantness that it was possible at times to forget one was watching a comedy at all. There were enough skew-whiff line readings and quizzical top-notes to act as reminders of the genre to which the show nominally belonged, but only just.

Film being my primary area of interest, I am excited to see if he will make his mark cinematically. You can’t watch Louie and not feel that he has a great, dangerous movie in him. He’s dabbled: he co-wrote two screenplays with Chris Rock (Down to Earth and I Think I Love My Wife) and is credited as writer-director of another Rock comedy, Pootie Tang. He has had small roles in films, some good (Role Models), others less so (The Invention of Lying), and recently starred in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine as the man whom Jasmine’s sister (Sally Hawkins) picks up at a party.

My feeling is that no one who exerts such control over his own appearances (and works so hard at disguising the precise calibrations in his apparently off-the-cuff stand-up routines) is going to grab the first leading role that comes along. Sure enough, he was unreceptive to the idea of playing the male lead in the new (and rather wonderful) romantic comedy Enough Said, which opens today. “I wrote it with Louis CK in mind,” said the film’s writer-director, Nicole Holofcener. “CK wouldn’t give me the time of day, thank goodness.” (That “thank goodness” is to acknowledge rightly the brilliance of her second choice, the late James Gandolfini.)

Appearing in Enough Said might have been disastrous for CK. It is a rich and delicious part, but it is also entirely sympathetic. For him to play such a character would be the equivalent of Tom Hanks being cast as a cannibalistic child-killer who doesn’t believe in climate change. It would go so violently against the grain of the persona he has spent his career constructing as to amount to career suicide. Sure, we like Louis CK while we are watching him, even when he is in the flow of his most depraved and sexually taboo monologues. But if we were to cease scrutinising the disparity between his repugnant material and his prosaic persona, the comedy might lose one of its choicest elements. What I’m saying is that I love Louis CK and I like Enough Said very much, but they would not have been a happy fit. A part in David O Russell’s forthcoming crime drama American Hustle seems much more his bag. And a movie that CK crafts for himself is an even more tantalising prospect. I’ll happily kill time re-watching Louie or his stand-up routines while I wait for that.

Louis CK and fellow comedian-and-actor Will Arnett at an ice hockey game in New York. Photograph: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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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