Wednesday, December 1, 2004

Heir to the Glimmering World, by Cynthia Ozick

A Review of Cynthia Ozick’s

Heir to the Glimmering World

Originally published in the Rain Taxi Review of Books, Winter 2004/2005

By Cynthia Ozick
Houghton Mifflin ($20)

When writing a novel in the first person, an author with such fierce intelligence and power as Cynthia Ozick is forced to funnel her enormous lexicon into the limited tones of some necessarily smaller voice. Ozick has always been fascinated with impersonation and imposture, though, and in her latest novel, Heir to the Glimmering World, her ventriloquism act finds itself bound within a tiny doll-house theater that the author’s near-omniscience constructs from far-ranging material but that, from within he narrator’s small glimmer of life and reading, makes for tricky circumscription.

On its surface, this novel of the American 1930s is a tribute to the great English authors of the 19th century, but as Ozick speaks through the voice of her Brontëan orphan-protagonist Rose Meadows, it soon seems to be more like a reflection of the 20th century’s own reflections of 19th century style—particularly of John Updike’s and Saul Bellow’s conservative return to the big-old-fashioned-novel aesthetic. There are rule-breaking twists, however, as Rose’s narrative of her life-education with the German refugee clan the Mitwissers drifts out of the box of her own mental arena (the same way that Jane Austen sometimes breaks the strict logic of who’s saying or thinking what) and then diverges into the separate chapters that follow the perversely parallel non-education of the Mitwissers’ dissolute benefactor James A’Bair. These forays are the novel’s most inspired moments, but at the same time, I can’t help but think of Thomas Pynchon’s similar and more successful detours in his parodic Mason & Dixon.

Perhaps there are too many novels at play in this novel to allow it to cohere on its own, or perhaps Ozick’s muted voice is unable to rise in a way that lifts her vast learning into one living and all-encompassing entity. In the end, Heir to the Glimmering World is like a brilliant Frankenstein’s monster that can’t help but be an impersonation.

—David Wiley

Wednesday, September 1, 2004

The 9/11 Commission Report

Originally published in the Rain Taxi Review of Books, Fall 2004

By Thomas A. Kean, et al.
W.W. Norton & Company ($10)

Formed against the wishes of the current president, who stalled for more than a year before allowing any kind of formal investigation into the atrocities that on September 11, 2001, ended approximately 3,000 lives on American soil, the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States is a bipartisan group of ten Congresspersons who, after more than a year of public and private hearings (including an informal meeting with the President and Vice-President, who stipulated that they wouldn’t have to testify in public or under oath), has now published its findings—or at least an “Authorized Edition” of its findings.

As a self-contained text, this Report is an almost endlessly fascinating document. Broken down into several sections and subsections, it reads in some parts like a spy novel, in some like a dry government manual, and in others like a disaster movie, its severally fragmenting facets adding up to something like a broken cross between Citizen Kane and Infinite Jest. With its copious notes and its prismatic search through so many shifting narrative frames, it keeps the reader constantly uneasy and on edge and in relentless struggle to unravel and interpret its deliberately sophisticated manipulations and obfuscations. And as with those two prodigious works, perhaps its puzzle parts don’t add up at the end, either.

The Report begins with a detailed account of what happened on that terrible morning, as seen through the perspectives of the air traffic controllers, the government, the military, and several passenger-callers aboard the planes. As many commentators have already pointed out, the Report is soft on assigning responsibility, and in no place is this as apparent as in the minute-by-minute description of what the President was doing in Florida while the rest of the government and military was running amok: absolutely nothing. In an astounding gift of slack, the Commission doesn’t press our Commander-in-Chief on his nearly ten minutes of inactivity after learning of the second World Trade Center hit, and when reconstructing the Vice President’s decision an hour later to shoot down any further planes, the President fabricates an earlier phone call in which he okays the decision—a phone call that doesn’t exist in the White House switchboard log, isn’t corroborated by staff notes on either end of the call, and which was clearly invented and agreed upon to make it seem as if he’d made any of the decisions that his staff made for him that day.

It’s patently unfair to assign blame for such a monumental system breakdown on one man’s inability to act when faced with an on-the-ground crisis, though, and it’s this viewpoint that then leads the text of the Report into a retrospective examination of the rising threat of Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network and of the failures of the intelligence community to address that threat. But in this approach, too, the Commission once again employs soft-focus—or perhaps simply diverts us by focusing our attention on a barrage of surface issues rather than on what lies beneath. As seen from the Commission’s point of view, the root of the problem is simply that our country’s reactive powers are too weak and disorganized to respond to the relentless and irrational threats of fundamentalist terror. In several sections they lament the nonexistence of an agency in charge of both external and internal counterespionage, a division of power that was made in 1947 in response to the just fear of creating a “U.S. Gestapo,” and they never once address the problem of the U.S.’s own campaigns of terror and assassination, which they routinely treat as a legitimate response and privilege of power. There’s no sincere inquiry into “why they hate us,” and when the Commission addresses the question of “what can we do to stop [al Qaeda’s] attacks,” all they offer is a cynically derisive non-answer: “Abandon the Middle East, convert to Islam, and end the immorality and godlessness of [our] society and culture.” Apparently they never thought to look into our policy of propping up and encouraging terrorist states such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt, or of supporting Israel’s brutal occupation of Palestine—issues that are cited almost unanimously in the Islamic world as the reason why bin Laden has so much sympathy and support, not some nonsense about “hating freedom.”

Rather than simply strengthening our defenses and offenses, perhaps we should more deeply reflect on how we see our place in the world. The failure of our current aggressiveness finds a potent illustration in our own 1998 terrorist missile strike on the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical facility in the Sudan (a strike that the Commission actually defends, and which Noam Chomsky discusses in great detail in his book 9-11). Just before the strike, the Sudan had detained two al Qaeda members in connection with the embassy bombings in east Africa and had contritely offered them to the U.S., along with a vast database of al Qaeda information, only to be rebuffed by our State Department with contempt. Then after we bombed the Al-Shifa plant, which had supplied virtually all of the impoverished nation’s medicine, the Sudanese simply let the men go, effectively cutting off our best inroad into the world of al Qaeda. In the eyes of the Commission (which never once mentions the existence of the two al Qaeda suspects in its Report), the bombing is seen as a justified preemption, but to bin Laden and his network of accomplices and sympathizers (as well as to many ordinary Muslims throughout the world, whose donations to al Qaeda incrementally trickled into a sizeable stream), it was a call to action.

Rather than address any kind of sincere policy shift, the Commission (which is only bipartisan within the right-wing sphere of Washington politics) largely focuses its recommendations on a systematic reshuffling and consolidation of forces—a response that anyone who understands the situation at all can only liken to holding back the ocean with a precision rifle. As we all know, decapitations—even of bin Laden himself—can only lead to more Hydra heads. What the 9/11 Commission has done with this “Authorized Edition” is merely divert our attention from the true face of terrorism, which is in fact our own face (perhaps we should call it the 9/11 Omission), and produced a bona fide infinite jest.

—David Wiley

Tuesday, June 1, 2004

Dante in Love, by Harriet Rubin

A Review of Harriet Rubin’s

Dante in Love

Originally published in the Rain Taxi Review of Books, Summer 2004

Dante in Love:
The World’s Greatest Poem and How it Made History
By Harriet Rubin
Simon & Schuster ($25)

In Dante in Love, the latest addition to the growing genre of popular works that hold up one artistic masterpiece as the culminating mirror of an entire era, Harriet Rubin argues that the central theme of the Divine Comedy is love and that the poem’s three stratifications—Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso—are each reflections of how well or how poorly any one individual’s love is directed.

Rubin clearly loves the Divine Comedy, but as her book’s hyperbolic title suggests, the overwhelming nature of her subject matter often leads her astray. In dealing with such an encyclopedic work, a writer must be able to encompass a multifaceted sphere of sometimes obscure information, and indeed Rubin often succeeds in reining in large amounts of material. She rounds up all the usual medieval subjects well: Her mini-biographies of Abelard, St. Bernard, Abbot Suger, St. Francis, St. Thomas, Guido Cavalcanti, and Brunetto Latini are both engaging and well balanced, two qualities necessary for any Dantista wishing to mirror her master’s technique. Yet she often falls prey to the sins of rearrangement, exaggeration, and oversimplification—all of which also mirror Dante’s technique but considerably distort the picture that she’s trying to paint.

In an attempt to make her book accessible to contemporary tastes, Rubin greatly plays up the aspects of conspiracy and intrigue, with which Dante’s life and times were rife and which are absolutely essential to any understanding of his artistic pilgrimage, but by using such bold and riveting strokes to draw her readers in, Rubin often wildly misrepresents both the nature of Dante’s reality and the complex mysteries of that reality’s scattered evidence. In her discussion of the split in Florentine politics between the Guelfs and the Ghibelline parties, for example, she makes the astonishing distinction that the Guelfs were brute lackeys and the Ghibellines reflective intellectuals. She also waxes overly poetic about how the Gothic cathedral-schools that Dante encountered on his trip to Paris influenced the theology and structure of the Comedy, even going so far as to map out a nearly Homerically implausible itinerary for her pilgrim-poet—never once mentioning that the only records of this trip are in Villani’s and Boccaccio’s later accounts and that almost all modern scholars have disregarded the trip as a wishful fiction.

Rubin seems to have a fair grasp of Dante’s written works—especially gratifying is her appreciation of his little-read treatise on church and state, De Monarchia—but when she dismisses La Vita Nuova as little more than a sentimental allegory and claims that until writing the Comedy he was a second-rate poet who lived in the shadow of his friend and mentor Guido Cavalcanti, the Dantean balance of her judgments come profoundly into question. Her over-emphasis on certain sections of the Comedy (especially the justifiably absorbing Ulysses section of the Inferno) to the detriment of others is also suspect; she glosses over much of the Paradiso, which she deals with in little more than a string of quotations from Dante lecturer John Freccero; and she often rearranges the order of the text to fit the shape of her discussion. Perhaps the most deeply telling imbalance, however, is her insistence upon Dante’s primacy over Shakespeare, an over-simplification made by only the most fantastical shapers of perfect order.

Still, Rubin’s love for Dante and his work comes shining through even the most distorted passages. She clearly hopes for her book to be an embarkation-point rather than an end-point in the Dantean journey, and if the worst she’s done is to get people to misread the Divine Comedy, that’s a whole lot better than nothing at all. Dante in Love may not have the clear vision of some other recent works dealing with artistic history (see Ross King’s excellent Brunelleschi’s Dome, Anton Gill’s intriguing Il Gigante, and R.W.B Lewis’ succinct Dante, all of which telescope large portraits into simplified but well-wrought frames), but if all Rubin is guilty of is misdirected love, perhaps the worst that Dante would do would be to assign her to Purgatory for a while, where all souls are destined one day to ascend to Paradise, to become one with “the love that moves the sun and the other stars.”

—David Wiley