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Somebody enquires: Are you still a Marxist? Never before has the devastation caused by the pusuit of profit, as defined by capitalism, been more extensive than it is today. Almost everybody knows this. How then is it possible not to heed Marx who prophesied and analyzed the devastation? The answer might be that people, many people, have lost all their political bearings. Mapless, they do not know where they are heading.

A few months before Stephanie and I were married we travelled to Foggy London Town to choose a wedding dress for the big day. While there, we looked up an old friend for lunch. I remember at one point we were discussing our reasons for wanting to move to Australia. We had lived together in Sydney already for a year and so thought it only fair to do the same in Dublin. In addition, we felt it was important for my family to get to know the woman I had chosen to marry. Given the distances between our respective families, the normal routine would not be possible. As it was my parents only met Stephanie’s on the day of the wedding itself.

The course of international romance never runs smoothly.

At any rate, we were chatting away about our future prospects when I mentioned that one of the reasons we were leaving Ireland was because in Australia we could actually see ourselves having a future. My home was swept up in economic turmoil, wasteful political in-fighting and a general apathy on the part of the public in what was happening to the country, despite the growing mountain of debt. Our friend was greatly surprised at this. Aren’t the Irish rebels, she said, coming from a culture defined by its fight for independence and resistance against the British occupation? Weren’t we taught as children to admire men like Daniel O’Connell, Charles Parnell and Michael Collins?

Well yes and no, came the reply. We talk a good game, but when it comes to politics the Irish turn a blind eye to the decisions that have the biggest impact on public life. There would be a lot of complaining, certainly, but little in the way of grass-roots political action. Those protesters that did persist in Ireland, such as the anti-Shell protests in Corrib, tended to be dismissed as crusty hippies.

So here I am watching the news from home, hearing about how the IMF have begun to assess the economic mismanagement of my country, the refusal of our leaders to accept any responsibility and the rising calls for a change of government. Too late, too late, the writing was on the wall years ago.

This collection of essays by John Berger focuses on the global political inarticulacy of responses to the illegal invasion of Iraq by Western nations and their allies; the disastrous aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and what it revealed about the poverty ordinary Americans suffered; the encroachment of Israeli forces on Palestinian settlements; and the hypocrisy of Tony Blair’s reaction to the tragic London bombings.

Statesmen pitch the rhetoric while ordinary people across the world separated from us by geography, class and war suffer. What is worse, we all know their stories. There is this sense of impotence or apathy that pervades the coverage of these events, as if nothing is to be done and so we simply change the channel.

Berger’s intermingles poetry and politics, to highlight just how isolated from common feeling the political process has become. The show of sincerity has replaced the need for any statesman to tell the truth. Propaganda has replaced the need for argument. The Twentieth Century has been a time of great opportunity, as well as loss: Our century was one of unprecedented massacres, yet the future it imagined (and sometimes fought for) proposed fraternity. Very few earlier centuries made such a proposal.

Discussions of Paulo Passolini, Emily Dickinson, Francis Bacon and Lars Von Trier are used by Berger to regain that sense of emotion and creativity abandoned by modern politics. Government has become the plaything of corporate interests and as such, has lost any claim on ideals of how we should live.

To take in what is happening, an inter-disciplinary vision is necessary in order to connect the ‘fields’, which are institutionally kept separate. And any such vision is bound to be (in the original sense of the word) political.

This is a powerful collection of essays, strongly recommended.

 

 

“Are those explosives?” Surprised.

“Claymore mines. All wired and ready to go.”

“You have them at your house?”

“not officially,” David said. “This one boy, Willard, keeps some in his closet. I think he’s a little crazy.” They were silent and he didn’t add until some moments later, “But I’m glad he’s on our side.”

Hollywood loves Elmore Leonard. After Get Shorty, Jackie Brown and Out of Sight, how could they not (let’s not speak of Be Cool). He writes in a punchy, breezy manner about criminals and culture clashes, all the while spurring on the plot to a racing pace. I was worried he was another James Ellroy, someone whose writing lends itself to adaptation as opposed to the cruel wide open plains of the printed page. Thankfully I was wrong on that score.

Al Rosen is a man who enjoys the finer things in life. He measures his pleasures in hotel suites, Israeli wine and of course women. Especially American tourists on package tours. Them he sizes up by the hotel they are staying in, whether they are divorced, or widowed (he prefers a middle-aged lady over a preening teen). He can be charming, even a little mysterious when he wants to be and lies easily about his age. His life in Israel is going swimmingly, until he spends the night with Edie Broder in her hotel room. Smelling smoke, he peers out the door of the room and discovers the building is on fire. Managing to rouse the other guests, this heroic act is mentioned in the press that follows, but Rosen does not come forward to take the credit. In fact the photo that accompanies the story all the way back to the States shows a shocked Rosen starring at the camera in dismay at his photo being taken. He knows what’s coming next. There are people back in Detroit who want a word with Al Rosen, formerly known as Jim Ross. What’s worse, Rosen takes off forgetting that he shoved his passport and jacket into Edie’s suitcase before they fled the bedroom. So now he’s stuck in Israel with the mob on their way.

Fortunately for Rosen he crosses paths with a Kentucky-born Vietnam vet named Davis. Employed by Rosen’s lawyer to be a bagman, the marine takes an interest in the harried American expatriate and offers to help him escape. The guys from Detroit include the man he tried to indict, a explosives expert and Rashad an ‘Alabama Arabian’. It is the latter, hired as a hitman by Rosen’s old enemy Valenzuela, whose botched attempt on the American’s life lets him know the mob has arrived in Israel. Davis takes him on the road trying to evade capture and failing that, show these contract killers how a military man takes a life.

Leonard sets the story up as a conventional thriller. We have a man on the run, we have criminals and crooked lawyers circling like vultures and we have a noble soldier with a heart of gold. What makes this story stand out is the quick banter and the fascinating use of location. By setting the story in Israel, we have a contrast between the American mobsters, with their punching the clock attitude to murder and those who have come to see the Middle East as a constant battlefield, somehow normalised through the continuous conflict.

There’s also lots of trademark Elmore Leonard banter and humour on hand to lighten the mood. My favourite scene is a great inversion of the Stockholm syndrome cliché, with a young Yemenite kidnapped by Rashad quickly bonding with him over their shared hatred of ‘the Man’. Also I love the phrase Alabama Arabian. It reminds me of that great Blues Brothers quote – ‘Illinois Nazis’. Rashad is perplexed by his treatment at the hands of Israeli police and customs agents. He cannot understand why having a Muslim name is a problem in this country. There something absurd about his claiming to be a Muslim, making a living as a contract killer and being completed bemused about the religious conflict in the Middle East.

Fast, snappy and thrilling. This is a great little read.

And so as with our idea of entertainment, our idea of genre  one of those French words, like crêpe, that no one can pronounce both correctly and without sounding pretentious – is of a thing fundamentally, perhaps inherently debased, infantile, commercialized, unworthy of the serious person’s attention. The undoubted satisfactions that come from reading science fiction or mystery stories are to be enjoyed only in childhood or youth, or by the adult readers only as “guilty pleasure” (a phrase I loathe).

My mother-in-law and Michael Chabon have something in common. They both dislike the word genre. It has become an arbiter of taste – genre-fiction obviously is of less value than ‘literature’, or serious writing. Not only that, but a book written according to the rules and precepts of a specific genre is somehow less meaningful than a tale about individuals struggling with day-to-day problems and perhaps if the reader is lucky, arriving at an epiphany before the plot runs out.

Chabon here defends the stalwarts of genre fiction, from Arthur Conan Doyle to M.R. James; from ghost stories to comic books, Will Eisner‘s The Spirit to Howard Chaykin‘s American Flagg; running the gamut between Philip Pullman‘s Miltonian Young Adult fiction, to literary darling Cormac McCarthy’s sf-not-by-name The Road. This is also, as the book’s subtitle states ‘Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands’ a collection of essays about writing, as much as it is about reading. The first half of the book is concerned with writers who represent the influences Chabon wishes to credit for his own development as a writer. The second half describes his beginnings as a novelist, as well as the aspects of his own life that inspired his fiction.

The central theme can be reduced to the power of lies to tell the truth. Chabon’s love of Loki found expression in his own children’s novel Summerland, where the villain was identified as the archetypal Trickster. He credits Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World for identifying the role played Loki/Satan/Coyote/Prometheus in symbolising that freewheeling creative spirit of the imagination. The conflict between genre fiction, wild and magical, dark and mysterious, and literature, enshrined (perhaps entombed) by consensus as ‘valuable’, in a coldly calculated manner, that lies at the heart of this collection.

When we read about our favourite writers, the temptation is there to find some aspect of their true selves in their fiction. Chabon describes how he himself felt terrified the first time he submitted material that featured a gay love scene. Similarly Wonder Boys convinced certain readers that Chabon himself was a pot-smoking ladies’ man. It is with these caveats that he sets about describing the life of Arthur Conan Doyle, presenting what he has learned (I loved  that The Sign of Four and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray were commissioned at the same time over lunch by magazine editor J.M. Stoddart), while also making tentative guesses at some insight into the author’s life. M.R. James’ ghost stories possess none of the overt Freudian undertones of modern horror writers, but beneath the precise phrases and clipped prose, Chabon detects an unconscious sexual undercurrent to the paranormal horrors the writer visited upon his protagonists.

He criticises Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials for losing sight of the first book’s sense of wonder, as well as its heroine Lyra’s whimsical character. However, he also lauds the series for not condescending to its readership, reinvigorating the tropes of the adventure serial and seriously exploring its allusive relationship to Milton’s Paradise Lost. The series, in Chabon’s view, acts as a celebration of the adventure that can be found in childhood, one that is slowly being extinguished in mainstream culture, even in comic books! In a general essay about the medium, he notes that few comics today actually feature child protagonists. Compare that to the blockbuster Harry Potter series, or Lyra and Will leaping across dimensions in Pullman’s books.

This being Chabon of course, the auto-biographical segments of this collection need to be taken with a grain of salt. From his remove as a forty-something author his childhood becomes a tableau of unguessed at future potential; his first novel credited to the efforts of Fitzgerald and Roth. He discusses his life as an American Jew, the break-up of his first marriage, the ‘exile’ of an author and how it relates to his culture. How a conflict on a Yiddish message board led to The Yiddish Policemen’s Ball!

Inspiring, truthful and humorous.

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