Roving thoughts and provocations

Fear and Literature

Tim Parks

Christopher Anderson/Magnum Photos

I want to toss out a provocation: that in the world of literature there is a predominance of people whose approach to life is structured around issues of fear and courage and who find it difficult to find a stable position in relation to those values. Not that they are necessarily more fearful than others, but that a sense of themselves as fearful or courageous is crucial for them and will be decisive in the structuring of both the content and style of their work.

The Myth About Marriage

Garry Wills

Palazzo Massimo alle Terme

Why do some people who would recognize gay civil unions oppose gay marriage? Certain religious groups want to deny gays the sacredeness of what they take to be a sacrament. But marriage is no sacrament.

Bahrain: A New Sectarian Conflict?

Joost Hiltermann

Getty Images

Part of what makes the current situation in Bahrain so disturbing is that the regime has succeeded in replacing the narrative of a peaceful movement for reform with an altogether different one: that the country’s majority Shia are intent on driving the Sunnis off the island and handing the country over to Iran. Although last year’s protests were led by predominantly Shia opposition groups, Bahrain’s urban populations have long been mixed and the uprising also drew Sunnis dissatisfied with how the country was run. But as I witnessed during a recent five day visit, by mobilizing Sunnis against Shia protesters on the claim the latter are manipulated by a predatory Iran, the regime has made Shia-Sunni hostility the conflict’s overriding theme.

No Accountability for Torture

David Cole

AP Photo/Susan Walsh

Sometimes I think being American means never having to say you’re sorry. On Wednesday, May 2, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, a federal appeals court in San Francisco, unanimously dismissed a lawsuit against former Justice Department lawyer John Yoo by Jose Padilla, the US citizen picked up at O’Hare Airport and held in military custody as an “enemy combatant” for three and a half years, during which he says he was subject to physical and psychological abuse.

Talking Smack About Junk: Shirley Clarke’s ‘The Connection’

J. Hoberman

Milestone Films

Re-released in a lovingly restored print on the occasion of its fiftieth anniversary, Shirley Clarke’s debut film The Connection is an excavated relic of an earlier New York. The movie adapts an off-Broadway blockbuster—Jack Gelber’s “jazz play” of the same name—and concerns a filmmaker’s foredoomed attempt to document a gaggle of heroin addicts while they hang around a cold-water loft waiting for the salvation of their daily dose of the drug they call “junk,” “smack,” or most often “shit.”

Debacle in Beijing

Ian Johnson

Ng Han Guan/AP Photo

The story of a blind Chinese lawyer’s flight to the US Embassy in Beijing is likely to ignite accusations and recriminations until the US presidential election in November. But what few will acknowledge is a harsher truth: that for all our desire to effect change, outsiders have little leverage to shape China’s future. This isn’t to say that China is permanently stuck in an authoritarian quagmire and outsiders can only watch. On the contrary, people like Chen Guangcheng show how China is changing: from the grassroots up, by ordinary citizens willing to assert their rights and push change.

In the Zone of Alienation: Tarkovsky as Video Game

Gabriel Winslow-Yost

Jean Gaumy/Magnum Photos

Zona, Geoff Dyer’s recent book about Andrei Tarkovsky’s masterpiece Stalker, has been much discussed for its almost comically thorough dissection of the celebrated 1979 art film. And yet, after reading it, I was left feeling that something was missing. In both the book and the deluge of Stalker coverage its release has occasioned, perhaps the most crucial, and most popular, part of the film’s afterlife has gone entirely unremarked: the video game version. Between 2007 and 2010, a Ukrainian video game developer named GSC Game World to create a series of first-person shooter game adaptations of the film. And while they all have the elements of a standard action game—guns, monsters, missions, traps, loot—much of the player’s activity is oddly in keeping with Stalker’s spirit, sometimes even managing to expand upon it.

Beijing Dilemma: Is Chen Guangcheng the Next Fang Lizhi?

Perry Link

Getty Images

I do not know what US officials are saying to Chinese rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng, who escaped house arrest and is believed to be in US custody in Beijing. But I can report first hand what they said in a strikingly similar case twenty-three years ago, when the physicists and human rights advocates Fang Lizhi and Li Shuxian took refuge at the US embassy following the Tiananmen Square massacre.

How Books Will Survive Amazon

Jason Epstein

Jens Ulrich Koch/Getty Images

So far discussion of the Justice Department’s suit against Apple and several major book publishers for conspiring to fix retail prices of e-books has omitted the major issue: the impact of digitization on the book industry generally. The immediate symptoms are Amazon’s own pricing strategy—which, unlike Apple’s and the publishers’, is to sell e-books below cost to achieve market share and perhaps a monopoly—and the federal suit challenging Apple’s and the publishers’ counterattack. This is more than a conflict between Amazon and publishers. It is a vivid expression of how the logic of a radical new and more efficient technology impels institutional change. Though Amazon’s strategy might force publishers to shrink or even abandon their old infrastructure, demand for physical books, printed and bound, will not disappear.

Why Readers Disagree

Tim Parks

Max Beerbohm

 
“I love the new DeLillo.”
“And I hate it.”

It’s a familiar conversation: like against dislike with no possible resolution. Or alternatively: “I can’t see why Freedom upsets you so much. I didn’t like it either, but who cares?” Interest against disinterest; as when your wife/brother/friend/colleague raves about some Booker or Pulitzer winner and you feel vaguely guilty. “Sure,” you agree, “great writing, intriguing stuff.” But the truth is you just couldn’t find the energy to finish the book. Is there anything we can say about such different responses?

Or must we just accept De gustibus non disputandum est? The fact is that traditional critical analysis, however brilliant, however much it may help us to understand a novel, rarely alters the color of our initial response. Enthusiasm or disappointment may be confirmed or attenuated, but only exceptionally reversed. We say: James Wood/Colm Toibin/Michiko Kakutani admires the book and has given convincing reasons for doing so, but I still feel it is the worst kind of crowd-pleaser. Let me offer a possible explanation that has been developing in my mind over a decade and more.