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“The Emperor of All Maladies” and Louis Menand

Rarely does nonfiction approach in a single book the thematic consistency and storytelling verve of Siddhartha’s Mukherjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies.  The subtitle, A Biography of Cancer, is more than a publisher’s provocation.  Cancer is a living entity to Mukherjee, not least because it is his personal, professional, and mortal enemy–he is an oncologist, a researcher and clinician.  In Emperor he recounts, with great narrative economy, the life story of a cancer cell, and, concurrently, our encounters with the disease, from antiquity to the present.  He writes poignantly of the varying fates of his own patients from his years as a fellow in Massachusetts General Hospital’s oncology wards.  And he is at his best on the bitter divisions between cancer specialists (chemotherapy advocates vs. surgeons, clinicians vs. cellular biologists) in the race for short term treatments and a long term cure.

Two traits of Mukherjee’s roundly-admired and Pulitzer-winning book stand out for their unexpectedness.  The first is that Mukherjee views cancer, literally and figuratively, as the quintessential modern disease.  In the literal sense, it is only over the past two hundred years that people have begun to live long enough to succumb in large numbers to cancer in all its permutations.  Carcinogenic activities and habits, from chimney sweeping to cigarettes, are associated with modernity as well.  In the metaphoric sense, cancer, an uncontrollable, unstoppable growth, takes after the imperialist dreams of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as well as our modern desire for more of everything (more money, more power, taller buildings, faster computers).

Most modern of all in the story of cancer, though, is our faith in science and in its promise of a cure for everything that ails us; Mukherjee points to the moment in the early twentieth century when patients turned the tables on their doctors, expecting a cure instead of being grateful for what treatment there was.  Later, the so-called War on Cancer became the epitome of the modern response to the disease: inspired by the moon landing in 1969, cancer advocates came to believe that with enough political will and government money, a similar previously unimaginable achievement could be effected in eradicating cancer.  Mukherjee confides that there will never be an outright cure, because cancer has been and always will be a part of us.  Inherent in our cells is the evolutionary tendency to mutate.  These mutations can cause cells to sever their moorings to their own reproductive controls.  The final aspect of cancer’s link with modernity springs from Darwin, in that Mukherjee views cancer as a more evolved, more perfect version of ourselves: tirelessly productive, and so resistant to outside interference that it is often perfectly adapted to survival (if it did not, of course, kill its host).

The second salient trait of Emperor is an extension of the first.  Because Mukherjee thinks about cancer as product and emblem of modernity, his book belongs not just in the literature of accessible science writing, but in another very different and largely nonscientific literature: cultural history.  The book I kept thinking of while reading his was Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club, which is similar in scope, goals, and methods.  Menand’s book is, like Emperor, a diagnostic look at a modern phenomenon–in his case, the upheaval of the Northeastern intellectual tradition in the aftermath of Darwin and the Civil War.  Menand discerns connections among new ideas in philosophy, psychology, law, and education.  His thesis is that the modern condition–deracinated, agnostic or atheistic, aware of the savagery of war and the meaninglessness of a suddenly Godless life–brought about a great intellectual fecundity in this country, and a set of ideas that we are still living with and working through.

Where does philosophy meet cancer?  In the medium of biography.  Menand’s book is an intellectual biography of its eponymous club–consisting of, most notably, William James and Charles Sanders Peirce–the members of which did the most to change the way we think.  Mukherjee’s book, ostensibly a biography of cancer, is also a group biography (though one less interested in the particulars of its protagonists’ lives) of those who have campaigned (in the martial sense) against it.  Sidney Farber, the father of chemotherapy, and Mary Lasker, the philanthropist most responsible for politicizing cancer, initiated hostilities.  Many followed their example.  Throughout Emperor, Mukherjee emphasizes that individual researchers and doctors were responsible for most breakthroughs in cancer therapy and prevention.  And it was the visionary risk-takers who achieved the most: the doctors who, with less data than intuition, treated their patients to near-deadly chemotherapy regimens, extending these patients’ lives in many cases and advancing cancer science beyond the expectations and accepted wisdom of their more pessimistic or despairing colleagues.

But still, every bold clinician and scientist relied on the work of his predecessors and contemporaries.  Individuals made the breakthroughs; progress was made by doctors exchanging and fighting over ideas in lectures, during conventions, and in academic journals.  (Indeed, Emperor, like The Metaphysical Club, can be read as a tribute to American higher education.)  This lesson can likewise be extracted from Menand’s book: history in the micro may be made by individuals, but cultural history is made by groups of innovative people in close contact with each other.  And even though we are nearly a half century past the advent of the new social history and the supposed obsolescence of history based on individual lives, Mukherjee and Menand’s lesson seems like a very new one.


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There is only one problem with Bill Simmons’s new website, Grantland: it’s not clear why it exists.  Three of the site’s regular writers are required reading regardless of subject: Simmons, Klosterman, and Tom Bissell, Grantland’s video game reviewer (though his work elsewhere ranges widely) and the best pure talent of the three.  The rest, including such non-luminaries as Jane Leavy, Wright Thompson, Michael Weinreb, and Chris Jones, seem miscast in this format.  They may be suited to writing about more traditional subjects for established journalism venues, but they do not benefit from the kind of stylistic freedom and high word counts the site grants its contributors: freedom, for a writer, can be double-edged.

For whatever reason, and I’m guessing I’m not alone in feeling this way, online writing must hook the reader from first or second sentence; the threshold for boring writing is lower on the internet than, say, when reading a book or magazine.  This is why I haven’t sent this site out to all my friends and family.  I don’t fear criticism, only a lack of interest.  What makes the majority of Grantland copy so far unreadable past the first or second sentence?  One answer, paradoxically enough, may be rooted in Simmons’s popularity.  Reading his mailbag columns over the years, what comes through is that his readers write like him: they write conversationally, they employ pop culture references to make a point, and they strive for irony and humor.  (Simmons, it is now common to say, revolutionized sportswriting; even Deadspin, a space of sporadic Simmons criticism, would not exist, or at least not in its current form, without his precedent.)  This trend, of readers mimicking the style of a favorite writer, has always meant that Simmons’s mailbag columns display one way the internet changes how we read, think, and write.  The regularly invoked democratization of viewpoints and styles the web inaugurated may be, on the evidence of the mailbags, in need of some nuance: what is notable about Simmons’s readers is not their heterogeneity, or a plurality of styles and interests, but their homogeneity (though Simmons may of course select and respond to, subconsciously or not, reader emails that reflect his own sensibility).

This is not to deride Simmons’s correspondents or the effect of the internet on writing in general.  On the contrary–the mailbag columns show that people across the internet possess an incisive irony surpassing that of professional sportswriters (a fraternity uncomfortable with irony to begin with).  Simmons has created for his readers (this one included) a very funny and supple idiom for debating sports and pop culture.  It is one thing for readers to write like Simmons, though.  It is another when those irony-resistant professional sportswriters attempt to write like Simmons–because, unsurprisingly, they can’t.

A larger, less comprehensible flaw of Grantland’s is that a number of its contributors seem to possess no obvious writing talent to begin with.   Here is Chris Jones, on his revived interest in baseball after a period away from the game:

I lasted 1½ seasons on the beat, and despite Jose Canseco’s sage advice, the nerves never left me. What did leave me, though, was the last of my love. Covering baseball was like seeing how your favorite sneakers are made: The process took all of the pleasure out of it.

And later:

Now, 10 years later, I’m back in that seat, on behalf of another new journalism venture, Grantland. I’ve wanted to write about baseball again for a few years now, but the desire became especially strong one sunny weekend this spring, when I went with some friends to a few Grapefruit League games and realized that my love had, in fact, never left me. I had just somehow stopped it up like a potion after all.

What is trying to get said in the first passage?  How, exactly, is covering baseball like seeing how your favorite sneakers are made?  Does Jones intend the apparent gesture to Nike’s third-world sweatshops?  The second passage is equally mystifying, but more because it leads one to ask why Simmons signed an eighth grader named Chris Jones to write for Grantland, and less for its lack of clarity (though don’t overlook the potion metaphor–as a metaphor for love).

Other writers are not as dispiriting as Jones, and Simmons, it should be said, is not simply winging it as Grantland’s editor in chief: a strong influence on the content and atmosphere of the site, not to mention on Simmons himself, is the long defunct magazine The National, to which he often pays homage and about which I know absolutely nothing aside from that it folded well before the internet began to threaten the revenues of print journalism.  But the question remains: why create what is essentially a web magazine if you have not identified a cadre of excellent writers to fill the infinite internet pages at your disposal?  Yes, now largely though not entirely free of ESPN oversight, Simmons and his writers can curse and assign their tangential witticisms to footnotes.  But I’ll read Simmons and Klosterman and Bissell wherever they publish, and they are not–and not coincidentally–lacking for opportunities.

To be fair, Simmons did answer the question Why Grantland? in his introductory column for the site, which may be, for its concision, its clarity, and its evocation of the simultaneously invigorating and daunting uncertainty inherent in any new venture, among the best things he’s ever written (Simmons, past forty, is still improving as a writer):

We had four goals for this site. The first was to find writers we liked and let them do their thing. The second was to find sponsors we liked and integrate them within the site — so readers didn’t have to pay for content, and also, so we didn’t have to gravitate toward quantity over quality just to chase page views. The third was to take advantage of a little extra creative leeway for the right reasons and not the wrong ones.  And the fourth was to hire the right blend of people — mostly young, mostly up-and-comers, all good people with good ideas who aren’t afraid to share them.

Simmons believes in his writers.  Or he makes a show of believing in them.  Or Grantland is an experiment.  Simmons thinks the site has a good chance of succeeding (even if it’s not clear what, in the context of an web magazine backed by the bottomless coffers of ESPN/ABC/Disney, will constitute success).  But the note of hesitancy he strikes elsewhere in this piece is a sincere one.  Simmons does not lack, and never will lack, for readers.  He’s a singular talent–the most readable writer of the internet age.  It is admirable that he doesn’t see himself in this light, and he might not have pushed for Grantland otherwise.  But his humbleness may stem in part from an inability to accurately judge writing, his own or that of others.  That he is intent on giving younger writers–who may remind him of his mid-twenties, struggling-to-get-publishing-and-noticed self–a chance to impress his large readership is commendable.  (Rick Reilly, after all, won’t be put out to his long overdue pasture anytime soon.)  The worry is that Simmons may be placing his faith in the wrong people.  So far that has been the case.

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“The Looming Tower” and “Ghost Wars”

In an attempt to catch up on the vast and surely growing literature on Bin Laden, I recently read The Looming Tower and Ghost Wars, both Pulitzer winners by New Yorker staff writers.  They cover much of the same ground: the history of our attempts to thwart Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, Sudan, Yemen, and, finally, on our home soil in the summer of 2001.  The books diverge in their preoccupations: Lawrence Wright’s Looming Tower is an international spy saga, whereas Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars is more attuned to the politics of our encounters with radical Islamist terrorist organizations and nations (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia).  For Wright, the biographies and personalities of his story’s central figures are paramount.  His hero is John O’Neill, an intrepid FBI agent who senses the danger posed by Al Qaeda earlier than just about anyone else.  In 2001, O’Neill contended with the CIA for access to critical intelligence which, Wright claims, in no uncertain terms, could have prevented 9/11.  That is the conclusion of Coll’s book as well: had our intelligence agencies been integrated and had there been a culture of collegiality among them, the Al Qaeda members who perpetrated the attacks would have been discovered and detained.

Ghost Wars is the better book.  Written in a more authoritative, mature style, it’s an exhaustive account, and very different in this way from The Looming Tower, a slice of pop history that intermittently reads like a Ludlum novel.  Coll’s scope is impressive, his sources more so–the book’s revelations come primarily from interviews, with Americans, Afghans, Pakistanis, and Saudis.  There is no archive that holds this kind living history; Coll, who was a Washington Post correspondent in Afghanistan in the late 1980s and early 1990s, is the only person who could have written Ghost Wars.  Because he so assiduously documents every decision and action taken by CIA agents over two decades (there is a whiff of civic duty pervading Ghost War‘s six hundred pages), though, Coll often relegates the bigger picture to the periphery.

He addresses, for instance, private American companies’ commercial interests in Afghanistan, specifically a Texas company’s plan to snake a natural gas pipeline through the southern, Taliban-dominated region of the country.  The Taliban was secretly (though everyone knew) funded by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Agency, that nation’s CIA equivalent.  This alliance was one reason the U.S. was reluctant to challenge the Taliban on its extreme human rights abuses (for fear of damaging its already distrustful relationship with the ISI), and the pipeline, Coll suggests, was another.  Coll does not, however, follow through on the implications of private commercial interests driving government policy.  His story is so close to the ground that larger inferences are left to the reader.  Coll is, it doesn’t need to be said, an ideal foreign correspondent, maybe our best, but some sections of Ghost Wars would have benefited from a historian’s emphasis on the essential themes, as well as a historian’s inclination to tie together discrete events beyond the basic chronology.

The main achievement of Ghost Wars is Coll’s unearthing of the convoluted and suspicious relations among the U.S., the ISI, and the Saudis.  The ISI, supported by a strategic-minded Saudi government hoping to build a mirror of Saudi Arabia in Afghanistan, was infested with radical Islamists.  Even its more pragmatic members saw a use for the Afghan mujaheddin (the holy warriors who fought the war against the Soviet Union) and later in the Taliban as bulwarks against Indian influence.  So mujaheddin were transported from the civil war in Afghanistan to Kashmir, the contested region between Pakistan and India, to wage a proxy guerrilla war for Pakistan against its Hindu neighbors.  In return, favored Afghan warlords received Pakistani material and intelligence support.  In a more general sense, a radical Sunni Afghanistan was a natural ally for Pakistan, with an official war with India perpetually on the not so distant horizon.

Our interests in the region were determined, in the 1980s, by the consensus among diplomats, bureaucrats, elected officials, and CIA analysts and operators, that Pakistan was a necessary partner against Soviet territorial ambition.  Exigencies, though not allegiances, shifted after the Cold War: In the 1990s U.S. policy was driven by the fear that an unstable, Islamist-dominated Pakistan would allow one of its newly developed nuclear weapons to slip through back channels into the hands of terrorists.  U.S. foreign and covert policy was therefore inextricably bound to the Taliban from its advent in the early 1990s, through the Taliban’s enmeshment with the ISI, the most powerful institution in Pakistan.

Indeed, the U.S.’s intractable relationship with Pakistan and the ISI defined most of its actions in Afghanistan.  So messy was this relationship that not only were different U.S. agencies and departments–CIA, State Department, and various offshoots of each–often at cross-purposes, but the infighting within each was vicious, exemplified by one of Ghost Wars‘ central figures, Richard Clarke, the “counterterrorism czar” during the Clinton administration.  Clarke, though he was one of the few top officials to perceive in Bin Laden an existential threat to the United States, and though he devoted his waking hours to capturing or killing him, was a hardheaded, combative personality, and lacked the political acumen necessary to win converts to his cause.  It is ironic that the fanaticism of Al Qaeda was matched only by the fanatical devotion of O’Neill and Clarke, among others, to kill or capture Bin Laden, and to thwart his next attack.  Both men intuited that to beat Bin Laden, they would have to, to an extent, think, act, and live like him.

One area in which The Looming Tower is more effective than Ghost Wars is on the subject of Islamic fanaticism and terrorism.  Wright thinks more broadly than Coll about the phenomenon, starting with its genesis–in its modern form–in the experiences and theorizing of the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb and his followers, including al-Zawahiri.  Still, Wright can be too glib, as when he unhesitatingly compares Al Qaeda to the Nazis–a throwaway comment that follows from Christopher Hitchens’s hortatory but similarly dim notion of “Islamofacism.”  Both Wright and Coll are strong on a crucial point: that it is wealthier Muslims, not the poorest, who are more often drawn to religious insanity, and that sojourns in the West–in the case of Qutb, Ramzi Yousef, and “Hamburg Cell” leader Mohammed Atta, among others–push them over the brink.  Modernity itself, and not the widespread socioeconomic malaise that for many is its result, is the incubator of terrorism.  There is some essential truth to the Bush platitudes about terrorists hating such a nebulous concept as “freedom.”  The clash of civilizations thesis cuts too wide a swath, but in the mountains of Northeast Afghanistan, and in the higher levels of U.S. intelligence services, it was and probably remains axiomatic.  Thinking on world-historical scale, in contrast, these two books may be useful correctives to the fear that democracy in the Middle East made possible by the Arab Spring–an uprising of the young and un- or underemployed–will naturally lead to the installation of antimodern, anti-Western Caliphates; the Arab Spring is if anything evidence against the clash of civilizations.

A final thought: the last seventy-five pages or so of Wright’s book, which detail the accelerating succession of intelligence failures across every agency leading up to 9/11, should be required reading for every American citizen.  The story’s climax–O’Neill’s death in one of the towers (too much of an agitator for the FBI, his exit was smoothed by Bureau higher-ups; he was immediately hired as the World Trade Center’s head of security)–is a poignant and forceful example of our institutions’ ability to find, foster, and promote the most able people, but also of the tragedy that the iconoclasts, whether they are in the right or the wrong, are inevitably forced out.

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“Darkness at Noon” and “The Captive Mind”

Darkness at Noon (1940) is not a polemic, as I had anticipated.  I read somewhere else–Christopher Hitchens may have said it in his memoir, Hitch-22–that Koestler gave many of the best lines to Gletkin, Rubashov’s brutal interrogator and avatar of Stalinism.  Gletkin, though he stretches reason to its limits, nevertheless gets Rubashov broadly right–the latter does have objections to the direction in which Number One (the Stalin stand-in) is taking the revolutionary ideology, and therefore Rubashov is a criminal in the eyes of the state.  Yet for some reason–Gletkin says self-importance, an intellectual’s exceptionalism and vanity, and the reader is led to agree–Rubashov, an inventor of the ideology to which he will soon fall victim, is blind to this logic.  Gletkin is the source of the book’s power: by its end, he convinces Rubashov, and more important, convinces the non-communist or even anticommunist reader, that Rubashov has no other choice but to participate in his own demise.  Koestler, a onetime Party member, conveys the intractability of Stalinism through Gletkin, not his “hero” Rubashov.  For all those, myself included, who find it difficult to understand why so many otherwise intelligent and free-thinking minds were corrupted and co-opted by the Stalinist state and the Stalinist mindset, Darkness at Noon may be the best answer.

The other early (1953) masterpiece of Stalinist psychology is Czeslaw Milosz’s The Captive Mind, about Communist Poland.  Milosz’s book is nonfiction, and is subtler than Koestler’s–a closer and more comprehensive look at what Stalinism does to intellectuals caught in its orbit.  It is an elegant argument: Milosz’s invocation of the Islamic notion of “Ketman,” a term for living an orthodox public life as a means to divert attention from one’s heretical beliefs, explains both how Eastern European intellectuals survived in an atmosphere of suspicion and betrayal, and, at the same time, the competition this atmosphere created.  By keeping their “true selves” hidden from view, intellectuals participated in an elaborate show in which they tried to outdo one another in acting like sincere, and fervent, members of the Party.  Such was the attraction of this deadly game that it became an end in itself–the game was a test of intelligence and cleverness, which to certain intellectuals were the qualities that mattered most.

Like Koestler, then, Milosz captured a fundamental aspect of the Stalinist intellectual: the pride the intellectual took in thinking of himself as an important catalyst in the fulfillment of Marx’s historical vision, and, at the same time, the pride he took in styling himself a subversive, one who secretly clung to the traditional literature and culture obliterated by Stalin’s decrees.  This was an impossible situation, and, as both Koestler and Milosz saw, one that originated in the vanity of the intellectual.  Eastern European intellectuals living under Stalinism looked down on their counterparts in the West, who possessed the freedom to live one coherent life, had no need for the game of Ketman, and therefore lived simpler, less treacherous, less ironic lives.  Like Rubashov, Milosz’s subjects thought they could beat Stalinism at its own game–they thought they could say one thing but think another.  But Koestler and Milosz shows just the opposite: prominent Polish intellectuals were, like Rubashov, entirely in thrall to their murderous overseers, domestic and in Moscow.  They became the latest versions of Lenin’s “useful idiots”–Stalinism played on their self-importance and turned them, with their ostensible approval, into servants of the cause.

In these two books one can discern the basis of much of Tony Judt’s work, most obviously Past Imperfect, his screed against postwar fellow-traveling French intellectuals.  As in Eastern Europe, so it was in France, though with less on the line.  Again, it was paradoxically the self-importance of the intellectual–in Judt’s book, the Western European intellectual–that made him a target for Stalinist pressure and co-optation.  Sartre and likeminded intellectuals, fulminating in the pages of Les Temps Modernes, saw in the Bolsheviks the apotheosis of the relevant, world-changing intellectual, and partly as a result threw their support behind Stalin.  By allying themselves with a greater power, they thought could demonstrate their own self-worth.  They felt, though, somewhat like Milosz’s Polish intellectuals, that they could maintain some distance–though, notably, not a critical distance–from the Communist Party; they thought that they could, Ketman-like, hold fast to their intellectual independence.  The point of Darkness at Noon and The Captive Mind is that the idea of the independent intellectual is itself useful to Stalinism.  In Koestler, the intellectual becomes fodder for the show trials, evidence to the proletariat of the pointy-headed enemy perpetually lurking within the state.  In Milosz, the intellectual thinks he is independent in his private life, and therefore joins the public life of Communism with greater enthusiasm than could otherwise be expected.  Thus life becomes a game for the intellectual, but he does not understand that it is a game inevitably won by Moscow.  (Even when Communism fails, the intellectual has already been destroyed.)

A final thought on The Captive Mind, and again about the trouble later generations have in trying to put themselves in the place of those living under Soviet Communism: Milosz captures, like only a poet can (though Marshall Berman does the same in Everything Solid Melts Into Air), the aesthetic experience of cities, and more specifically what he calls the “feeling of potentiality” that descends upon you as you walk though a city, surrounded by a diversity and immensity of people, activity, and architecture–and the emotional and even erotic tinge of this experience.  This is commonplace in the urban West, but was nonexistent in the gray, brutal cities of Eastern Europe under Communism.  And as a feeling that one can still comprehend, it may represent a starting point for understanding what Communism meant for the daily life of those living in its shadow.

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More on “The Pacific”

Thomas Doherty’s accomplished piece of cultural history, “Projections of War: Hollywood, American Culture, and World War II,” has got me thinking again about the miniseries “The Pacific,” which I wrote about, in response to Clive James, in August.  Doherty’s book is focused on the movies, and particularly the war movies, of 1941-1945, but he also writes knowledgeably about war movies post-1945.  The book ends (in the revised edition) with a long look at “Saving Private Ryan.”  Doherty calls that movie “a kind of sacramental rite, the baby boomer sons kneeling before their World War II fathers in a final act of generational genuflection.”  I wrote as much in my original post, and argued that “Band of Brothers” and “The Pacific” should be viewed likewise.  Steven Spielberg’s three depictions of American soldiers in combat are civic-minded creations, designed to honor veterans and to educate younger generations in the sacrifice of their elders and the true horrors of every war–even the “good war.”  Commercial considerations are part of the story, and all three productions have been profitable (or will be, in the case of “The Pacific”; DVD sales are the prime source of revenue for miniseries), but these considerations are not central.

Doherty’s book is comprehensive when it comes to World War II movies, and it has prompted me to cut Clive James a little slack for wondering why “The Pacific” is not better entertainment; as he writes, the miniseries “fails even to fulfill the elementary requirements of a good adventure story.”  To Doherty (and I wouldn’t disagree), “Ryan” is an exemplary action-adventure.  It conforms to the standard tropes and themes and narrative turns of every good war movie, though it does everything better than its predecessors.  The result is that in some very specific ways, “Ryan” does not fulfill its promise of absolute realism.  The example Doherty employs is Tom Hanks’s Captain Miller.  He writes, “the certainty that Hanks will die not in the first but in the last reel works against the chaos theory of war.”  Miller is a throwback: he’s a “Frank Capra version of the American solder, the antithesis of the Wehrmacht automaton, a schoolteacher who becomes a warrior of necessity not bloodlust, who wants only to finish the job and get back to his wife in smalltown Pennsylvania.”  This is a perceptive reading of the movie; it’s Clive James-like.

James can be forgiven for desiring an adventure story in “The Pacific,” because, as I failed to note (or to fully come to terms with), war movies are a genre, or, more precisely, a sub-genre under action-adventure.  Realism–fidelity to the logic of war–is often promised by the creators of war movies but is rarely delivered.  “The Pacific” comes close though, closer than “Ryan,” because it bucks the narrative conventions of its genre.  Yet at the same time it is inevitably an addition to its genre, as well as a response to the hundreds of World War II movies that preceded it, and James cannot be wrong for comparing it to its ancestors and brethren.  “Ryan,” after all, is great entertainment.  Nevertheless, “The Pacific” remains unique–whether it can be called postmodern is debatable, but in its fragmented action and wave-like emotional crests and troughs, it breaks the traditional molds of genre.  Hanks’s captain, shipped off to “The Pacific,” dies in the first reel.

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Oliver Stone’s Shakespearean Ambitions

In his review of “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps,” A.O. Scott writes this perceptive paragraph about Oliver Stone:

If the film were a college course it would be Economics for Poets.  Money is not really Mr. Stone’s theme. In itself it is too abstract, too cold and impersonal for his romantic, Hollywood-Shakespearean sensibility.  His best movies, the first “Wall Street” among them, are preoccupied with the more primal matter of power and its corollaries — honor, loyalty, hubris and disgrace.

I’m not sure I’ve seen a better encapsulation of Stone’s strengths as a moviemaker.  Stone is too often dismissed as a lefty wingnut, or, more damningly, as a second-rate mind—for the Manichean strains in some of his movies.  His Best Picture-winning “Platoon” has given rise to the notion that Stone can only write and direct good and evil, and that the in-between stuff—the grayness, uncertainty, and contingency that are the marks of true artistry—is for whatever reason beyond him.  I haven’t seen all of Stone’s movies—JFK and Nixon, for instance—but I’ve seen enough of them to know that this gloss of Stone is unfair.  “Platoon” does have a good sergeant and an evil one, and suffers for it; the deification of Willem Defoe and his Christ-like death were parodied to great effect in “Tropic Thunder.” But “Wall Street,” “Any Given Sunday,” and the misunderstood “W.” are all deep, fascinating movies in their own ways.  And the former two along with Brian De Palma’s “Scarface”—which Stone wrote—exemplify a modern Shakespearean vision transcribed to the movie screen.  Scott is right on when he says that Stone’s preoccupations are the big, eternal ones: “power,” as well as “honor, loyalty, hubris and disgrace.”  These movies are also defined by other characteristics reminiscent of Shakespeare—the scope of the drama, the range of feeling, and, most interestingly, to borrow an interpretative notion from the critic Harold Bloom, an enduring and creative way with character.

Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human is the reference point here.  I haven’t read it, but I’ve read enough about it—in James Wood’s criticism, for instance—to use it, with reservations.  The controversial idea driving Bloom’s book is that Shakespeare created our conception of personality; that, in Hamlet and Falstaff, we can locate the modern view of the complexity and perhaps essential mystery of individual personality.  It’s an idea worth pondering in summary form, and it’s a fun point of departure for thinking about Stone’s writing, because, insofar as it’s possible to separate the two, Oliver Stone the writer is more talented and intriguing than Oliver Stone the director.

It goes without saying that “Wall Street” was and remains a touchstone for an entire generation of young people who went into finance; its impact is not dissimilar from and probably far more pervasive than the way “Entourage” made becoming an agent the thing to do.  Investment bankers and traders and private equity types until recently could reprise Gordon Gekko’s “greed is good” speech without a hint of irony.  Many probably still buy into that idea, and not because they aren’t alert to the irony—they’re smart, and they are—but because it reinforced their worldview (the Friedman/Greenspan worldview, espoused by just about everyone connected to finance), which is reducible to the idea that “greed works.”  Not only is “Wall Street” an example of Shakespearean themes and character—Gekko comes from a humble background, which is perhaps a primary cause of his hard-boiled worldview; Charlie Sheen’s Bud Fox is good-hearted, naïve, negligent, ambitious, and criminal, sometimes all at once; Daryl Hannah’s untrustworthy, calculating Darien Taylor is nevertheless sincerely torn between Gekko and Fox; and Fox’s father is, for all his small-town goodness, a hidebound and at times sanctimonious man–but it bequeathed to us a lasting personality: Gordon Gekko, titan of finance.  Is it going too far to say that much of the explosive hatred of the financial world in 2010 is a result of the idea of the trader or investment banker as a fundamentally predatory character, and that this personality in its modern form (there is a long history of distrust of Wall Street) was created, in part, by Oliver Stone’s movie?

Just think of how frequently Gekko and “greed is good” are invoked in serious discussions of the economy.  New York Times business writer Joe Nocera even lamented “Wall Street 2’s” failure to fully represent the financial crisis of the last few years.  Stone gets quoted in the article, saying in effect that he’s making a film, not history.  He’s right, of course, but it is revealing that a business writer expects a faithful representation out of Stone; after all, that’s what Nocera feels he got in “Wall Street.”  Nocera attributes the veracity of the first movie to the fact that Stone based so much of the plot on real life events.  Well, “Hamlet” was based on real events, too.  What makes “Wall Street” the force it still is today is Stone’s creation of the enduring, original, and at times unfathomable Gordon Gekko.

The same can be said about “Scarface” and “Any Given Sunday.”  The former has an obsessive following among rappers, for whom Tony Montana is a hero—a poor man of color, who will do anything, legal or not, to get rich.  “Scarface” is a gangster film, and while it’s true that “The Godfather” is also in the hip-hop pantheon, “Scarface” is far and away more important.  Why?  I doubt 50 Cent would cite the complexity of its characters, or the Shakespearean emotions they display (on an unrelated note, I’m reminded here of a funny Tony Stewart commercial, in which he avers during a polygraph test that he likes a hamburger more than Shakespeare).  What he would say is that Tony Montana represents the hip-hop mindset, one 50 himself has put his own spin on: Get Rich or Die Tryin’.  He would say that it was Tony Montana against the world, and that his goals were money, women, and opulence.  He wanted to take over the world; “The World is Yours” is Montana’s motto.  But Montana is so over-the-top he verges on caricature.  So how can he be taken seriously by rappers, in the same way Wall Streets see Gekko as a originator of sorts.  It’s not clear; both characters are unique, and ultimately unknowable.  “Scarface” appeared in 1983 and antedates hip-hop in it’s current form.  It is not about hip-hop.  Yet Oliver Stone, through the martyred Tony Montana, is a primal figure in the history of hip-hop.

“Any Given Sunday” represents Stone’s most obvious attempt at making a movie out of Shakespeare in a modern setting: it’s panoramic yet intimate, garrulous yet brooding, and over-the-top yet true to the emotions of football.  It somehow dramatizes the entire world of professional sports.  It’s entirely in gray—no one is a simple villain, no one is a hero.  But the grayness runs deeper than that: the characters never seem like–they never feel like–they are on solid ground.  They are all Hamlet.  And as in “Wall Street,” a grand speech is the centerpiece: Al Pacino’s (playing himself, not his character Tony D’Amato) halftime exhortations explicitly recall the “band of brothers” speech in “Henry V.” (The clip is from “Henry V” (1989).)  Though “Any Given Sunday” has not had the creative cultural reach of “Wall Street” or “Scarface,” there is one moment, in light of the sad recent events in Lawrence Taylor’s life, that resonates, and shows once more the power of Stone’s writing.  Willie Beamon, the recalcitrant, sulky star quarterback, encounters Taylor’s character—a thinly veiled version of the LT himself—in a sauna.  Taylor tries to inculcate a veteran’s wisdom in Beamon, and what he says, when considered alongside the allegations of statutory rape that now hang over his head, is profoundly moving.  Taylor was a troubled man long before “Any Given Sunday,” and he is, as the individual who posted the clip on Youtube keenly remarks, really talking to himself, or, more precisely, to a younger version of himself.  But that is Stone’s talent as a writer: aside from his many obvious (and relatively successful) Shakespearean ambitions, he is attuned to the mystery of a man who can understand and speak about the failures of his own life yet continue to make terrible mistakes, time and time again.

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“Diary of a Very Bad Year”

Diary of a Very Bad Year: Confessions of an Anonymous Hedge Fund Manager is a series of interviews conducted by n+1’s Keith Gessen between September 2007 and late August 2009.  (The interviews first appeared on n+1’s website.)  The interviewee, as the title suggests, remains anonymous, going by the moniker HFM (Hedge Fund Manager).  n+1 is a highbrow literary journal, and what at first may appear to be a questionable exercise—a literary type interviewing a mandarin of the finance world—turns out to be a shrewd one.  Gessen admits up front his ignorance about finance and about the particulars of the subprime crisis, and asks broad questions.  His interviewee runs with them.  HFM is articulate, expansive, and surprisingly erudite.  His answers to Gessen’s questions are like prepared lectures, in that he speaks in paragraphs but never rambles.  (Gessen, in a state of sincere wonder, tells him that he has “a beautiful mind.”)  Though much of what HFM discusses remains recondite, you get the sense that he is spelling things out about as simply as possible.

The book’s main virtue is that it’s not a piece of reporting; in a sense it’s a slice of oral history.  The relative clarity of HFM’s explanations, as well as his bluffness (that he remains anonymous is paramount), together suggest that Diary may represent the ideal form for comprehending the financial chaos of the past few years.  It’s most likely a one-off event, but I don’t doubt that interviews of a similar scope with employees from banks mired in the subprime mess, with economists and government regulators, with subprime mortgage brokers and building contractors, and, of course, with the people at the bottom, the people who lost everything due to varying mixtures of greed, gullibility, and great expectations, would constitute a telling contribution to the literature on the crisis.

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