For many years now the more refined literary fictions have relied on the techniques of omission. The authors tastefully leave out of their narratives all the emotion and most of the drama. In the manner of Samuel Beckett or Ann Beattie, they supply 10, 000 lines of oblique irony with which the reader is expected to construct his or her own story on a blank page.
After the damp squib of DeLillo, I decided I needed some satire and bite. Which is why I turned to Lewis Lapham. 30 Satires is a collection of essays published between 1986 and 2002. Like all good satirists while some of the material is dated (the Reagan presidency, Steven Seagal comes in for a bit of a drubbing) the incisive wit is still fresh and vibrant. True satire does not fade away. Read H. L. Mencken’s coverage of the Scopes Monkey trial for example. The anger and passion on display is still very much alive.
Lapham’s collection features essays on American politics and culture for the most part. He adopts either the discursive style, or in the form of a letter that represents an imaginary dialogue with a personage representing the target of choice. Jefferson on Toast has Lapham posing as a screen writer brainstorming ideas for a right-wing Hollywood producer on a historical film that rehabilitates the rule of Britain over the colonies. After all, their values were indistinguishable from the values of the Republican right who support Big Business. Then there’s the chilling missive from a talent agent to a mother looking to launch her six-year old daughter into an acting career. Natural Selection has Lapham suggest to the mother that she have her child take lessons in live fire-arms, in the event of her school being besieged Columbine-style. She can take out the violent teens and then give tearful witness to Barbara Walters, capturing the news cycle. Fame must come at all cost.
There are also attacks on the media for their coverage of the deaths of Princess Diana and John F. Kennedy Junior. The very same media outlets that bought paparazzo photos of a hounded Princess of Wales, were all of a sudden calling for the blood of the same photographers they employed. Barbara Walters appears again whispering to her co-hosts during coverage of the media frenzy ‘They take money’. John F. Kennedy Junior’s heritage as a member of American ‘royalty’, seemingly was not made of equally sturdy stuff. Lapham reports that days after the initial wave of condolences, the coverage focusing on intimate encounters with the dead son of a dead President, a backlash suddenly flourished. The reason being a form of inverted ‘tall poppy syndrome’. The Kennedys as a political clan were seen to be less deserving of the character of royals, than the millionaire bankers and corporate leaders who rule America in all but name. The public’s capacity for belief in fairy tales could only stretch so far.
Philosopher Kings has Lapham addressing the frustrating search for ‘public intellectuals’. Look to the celebrities, he suggests. They command the attention of the people. Plato’s ideal is long out of fashion. If you want to find today’s thinkers, do not search the study halls of Harvard, or Yale (I am reminded of the Wachowski Brothers casting Cornel West in their Matrix sequels), send Madonna’s manager an email, asking who she thinks should run the country. Sky Writing is a similarly disillusioning take on the publishing industry, were a writer’s media profile far outstrips their literary talent in terms of importance. The goal for writers is to be successful, not to be writers and so they should really investigate more productive means of becoming famous. Committing a crime for example.
Lapham’s political essays address the rise of Pat Buchanan, the 1999 primaries featuring George W. Bush’s folksy stump speeches and the ill-fated campaign of Elizabeth Dole, but he reserves especial ire for President Bill Clinton. A liar and a hypocrite, Lapham expresses open disgust with Clinton for not stepping down, but also aims at the Starr investigation for its self-serving publicity. Mayor Giuliani’s campaign against the Saatchi exhibition also features, with broadsides launched against both sides of the dispute.
Satirists and cynics are often dismissed for cutting off their nose to spite their face, but in truth they often serve a moral agenda that holds society accountable to a higher standard. Lapham is undoubtedly a moralist, though one with a grim sense of humour. Recommended reading.