Jonathan Raban’s books include Surveillance, My Holy War, Arabia, Old Glory, Hunting Mister Heartbreak, Bad Land, Passage to Juneau, and Waxwings. His most recent book is Driving Home: An American Journey, published in 2011. He is the recipient of the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Heinemann Award of the Royal Society of Literature, the PEN/West Creative Nonfiction Award, the Pacific Northwest Booksellers’ Award, and the Governor’s Award of the State of Washington. He is a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books, The Guardian, and The Independent. He lives in Seattle.

America’s Best Unknown Writer

William Gaddis at the time of the publication of his first novel, The Recognitions, 1955
After being suspended from college, William Gaddis worked in the fact-checking department at The New Yorker for a year before motoring south with a friend to Mexico City, hoping for an opening in journalism. What he found instead was his vocation as a novelist, and a self-prescribed curriculum for a literary education more intense and driven than his Harvard studies.

The Sly Survivor

John Hodiak, Walter Slezak, Hume Cronyn, Tallulah Bankhead, Heather Angel, Mary Anderson, Henry Hull, and Canada Lee in Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, 1944
Judges and prosecutors have long struggled to assert that the law of the land applies equally to the wilderness of the sea, even as they’ve acknowledged that in international waters the law is in conflict with traditional maritime custom—especially the custom of drawing lots to decide who should live and …

Divine Drudgery

David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King reads as a determined renunciation of the easy pleasures of Infinite Jest, reminding one at every turn of how frenziedly eventful the earlier book was, with its fights, chases, murders, overdoses, tennis matches, and the show-off jokey surrealism of its postmodern frame (O.N.A.N., the commercially sponsored new calendar, the Québécois guerrillas, the quest for the lethal movie that gives the novel its title). By contrast, The Pale King is a Lenten exercise in self-denial, as Wallace focuses on the utterly ordinary, in microscopic detail.

The Historic Election: Four Views

Ronald Dworkin The results of Tuesday’s election are savagely depressing, wholly expected, yet deeply puzzling. Why do so many Americans insist on voting against their own best interests? Why do they shout hatred for a health care plan that gives them better protection against calamity than they have ever had? …

Those Damned Seattle Liberals!

The Interstate 90 bridge across Lake Washington, 1993

Because Washington state now votes by mail, elections here tend to play out, at an agonizingly slow speed, over many days and, sometimes, weeks. So it was a relief when Dino Rossi, the Republican challenger, conceded to Senator Patty Murray less than 48 hours after the polls closed, with 1.8m ballots counted and around 600,000 still to come. Murray then led by 45,000 votes, just over 2 percent, which might on paper make Rossi’s concession look premature. But Rossi understands the odd demographics of this state as well as anyone, and his goose looked cooked even on election night, when Murray’s lead was barely 14,000. In the run-up to the election, I saw Washington described by commentators as a blue state—“very blue,” “reliably blue,” “stark blue.” But it’s only by a series of electoral flukes in closely fought races that it has a Democratic governor (Christine Gregoire) and two Democratic senators (Murray and Maria Cantwell). Six of its nine members of Congress are—or were before the election—Democrats. These numbers mask a deep, and very nearly equal, tribal division between the rural and urban parts of the state.

Flaubert, Imperfect

‘Gustave Flaubert dissecting Madame Bovary’; cartoon by Achille Lemot, 1869
In August this year, when The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis[^1] was published in the UK, London papers sent interviewers to the town of Hudson, New York, where Davis lives. In the two interviews I’ve read, the talk drifts between Davis’s stories and her translations of Proust’s Swann’s Way and, …

Britain: A False Dawn?

I arrived in England less than forty-eight hours before polling day, and it was the near-complete absence of signs of the election that first impressed me. Driving slowly north from Heathrow, jet-lagged and jittery after an overnight flight from the West Coast, I stuck to minor roads, hoping to catch the electoral mood in towns and villages along my route.

UK Elections: Boredom at the Ballot Box

After the short-lived tornado of “Bigotgate” on April 28, and the final televised prime ministerial debate the next evening the British opinion polls have been all over the place. They agree that David Cameron’s Conservatives will win and Gordon Brown’s Labour party will lose, but everything else is shrouded in fog. Either the surge of support for the Liberal Democrats under Nick Clegg is holding steady, or it’s fading to the point where the Lib Dems will come in third in votes after Labour (whatever happens, they will certainly come a poor third in seats). Either the Conservatives will have an overall majority, as most of the people I’ve been talking to are now anticipating without relish, or there’ll be a hung parliament, in which case Cameron will have to strike some kind of deal with Clegg. Each poll confidently suggests a different outcome on the long night of May 6.

After the Second Debate: The Clegg Catharsis?

After the second televised prime ministerial debate, Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats continue to run neck-and-neck in opinion polls with David Cameron’s Conservatives, with Gordon Brown and Labour in third place. This interesting, but not entirely unexpected, turn of events has little to do with Clegg’s personal charisma or a sudden rush of popular enthusiasm for Lib Dem policies, like their strong support for Britain’s membership of the EU, their redistributionist tax schemes (among other measures, they’d raise the basic tax threshold to £10,000 per annum and slap a “mansion tax” on houses worth more than £2m), and their championing of civil liberties against New Labour’s increased use of extended detention without trial and mass surveillance. Polling suggests that most Britons are either lukewarm about the Lib Dem proposals or don’t know what they are. Their enthusiasm for Clegg, and their seeming readiness to vote Lib Dem on May 6, has another likely explanation.

The Third Party Surprise

Britain’s Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg (Comment Central)
Britain’s first ever televised prime ministerial debate, which took place on April 15 in Manchester, can be seen on C-Span here (though when I watched it the sound and pictures were distractingly out of sync), or heard on BBC Radio 4 here. There was another first, perhaps more consequentially important than the debate itself: for the first time, the broadcast media gave a Liberal Democrat leader equal time and prominence with his Labour and Conservative counterparts. Since the debates (two more will follow, on April 22 and 29) were announced in March, it’s been said that the outsider, Nick Clegg, would “win,” provided he could hold his ground against David Cameron and Gordon Brown. He not only held his ground, he exacted every possible advantage from the claim that his opponents represented the “old politics” while he stood for the new. </p

Did the Gravediggers Arrive Too Soon?

Gordon Brown; drawing by John Springs
Trying to follow the impending British general election from afar, I’ve been reading The End of the Party: The Rise and Fall of New Labour by Andrew Rawnsley, chief political commentator for the Observer. Eight hundred pages long, and crammed with “inside” political gossip (or credible intelligence, if you prefer), it’s a book as hard to admire as it is to put down. Though the text is bespattered with authenticating footnotes (many say no more than “Conversation, Cabinet minister”), it reads like airport fiction. Its flawed (and credible) hero is Tony Blair, its cardboard villain Gordon Brown.

At the Tea Party

Tania Ashe, a member of Team Sarah from Orlando, Florida, carrying a poster of Sarah Palin at the National Tea Party Convention in Nashville, Tennessee, February 4, 2010
I went to Nashville not as an accredited reporter but as a recently joined member of Tea Party Nation. (I had my own quarrels with big government, especially on the matter of mass surveillance, warrantless wiretapping, and the rest, and I counted on my libertarian streak to give me sufficient common ground with my fellow tea partiers.) When I presented my Washington State driver’s license at the registration desk, the volunteer said, “Thank you for coming all this way to help save our country,” then, looking at the license more closely, “Seattle—you got a lot of liberals there.” I accepted his condolences. As we milled around in the convention center lobby, we might easily have been mistaken for passengers on a cruise ship. We belonged to a similar demographic: most—though by no means all—of us had qualified for membership of AARP a good while ago; 99.5 percent of us were white; in general, smart leisurewear was our preferred style of dress.

Sarah and Her Tribe

When she was good, She was very good indeed, But when she was bad she was horrid. There’s a moment of near rapture in the video of Sarah Palin’s acceptance speech at the Republican convention in St. Paul on September 3, 2008. It begins in the eleventh …

American Pastoral

‘Migrant Mother,’ Nipomo, California, 1936; photographs by Dorothea Lange. Her original caption for this photograph was ‘Destitute peapickers in California; a 32 year old mother of seven children. February 1936.’
Published in 1935 in the middle of the Depression, William Empson’s Some Versions of Pastoral casts a hard modern light on sixteenth- and seventeenth-century poems about shepherds and shepherdesses with classical names like Corydon and Phyllida. Pastoral, Empson wrote, was a “puzzling form” and a “queer business” in which highly …

In Bovary Country

Yonville l’Abbaye, literature’s capital of provincial conformity, clichés, and idées reçues, was said by Flaubert to be “a place that does not exist.” But ever since Maxime du Camp, Flaubert’s friend and traveling companion, told the world that the germ of Madame Bovary was the scandalous death by suicide of Delphine Delamare, wife of the officer of health in the small market town of Ry, fiction and fact, Yonville and Ry, have become inseparably entwined.

Metronatural America

Michelle Williams as Wendy in Wendy and Lucy, 2008
In the imaginary America of books and movies, where every state and region has acquired a rich cluster of meanings and associations over time, the Pacific Northwest is a fairly recent arrival. Nineteenth-century painters like Albert Bierstadt visited Oregon and Washington in search of fresh landscapes to add to their …

The Prodigious Pessimist

In his essay about the top ten best-sellers on the New York Times fiction list of January 7, 1973, Gore Vidal gave a characteristically withering notice (“Tolstoi hangs over the work like a mushroom cloud”) to Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914. He finished with the remark, “I fear that the best one …

Crashing the Party

In 1994, Sarah Lyall, who used to cover the literary beat forThe New York Times, moved to London, “for love,” as she writes in her tartly provocative book about the British. She moved in with, and later married, Robert McCrum, then editorial director of Faber and Faber, and resumed her …

Cracks in the House of Rove

Like so many parties that go on past their proper bedtime, Karl Rove’s Republican Party has lately begun to break out in fights, as neocon theorists, Goldwater-style libertarians, the corporations, and grassroots Christian fundamentalists come to the aggravating discovery that they’re more defined by their differences than by what they …

The Prisoners Speak

Most moviegoers whom I’ve watched leaving the cinema after seeing The Road to Guantánamo have been wordless and whey-faced, numbed, as I was, by the film’s distressingly vivid recreation of brutal interrogations in the American detention camp on Cuba’s south coast (sequences that were filmed on location in—of all places—Iran).

The Good Soldier

First met in the novel when he is eighteen, on the verge of his high school graduation, Ahmad is a very Updikean adolescent: painfully polite, self-conscious, intelligent, and a world-class noticer, someone who’s barely capable of crossing the street or setting eyes on another human being without inventorizing his perceptions …

September 11: The View from the West

On September 11, 2001, the United States reflexively contracted around the wound inflicted on its eastern seaboard, and for a short spell the country felt as small as Switzerland. Two thousand eight hundred miles west of the World Trade Center, roused by the phone ringing at 5:55 AM, I switched …

A Tragic Grandeur

Robert Lowell’s star has waned very considerably since his death in 1977, when his obituarists treated him, along with Yeats, Eliot, Auden, and Wallace Stevens, as one of the handful of unquestionably great twentieth-century poets. The publication two years ago of Frank Bidart and David Gewanter’s massive edition of the …

The Truth About Terrorism

In his November 3 victory speech, President Bush, sounding the keynote of his second administration, pledged to “fight this war on terror with every resource of our national power.” By saying “this” rather than “the” Bush stressed the palpable, near-at-hand quality of the war whose symbols have grown to surround …

The Threat from the Sea

“Roll on, thou deep and dark blue ocean—roll!” wrote Byron in a comradely salute to the last great romantic wilderness on the planet. “…Man marks the earth with ruin—his control/ Stops with the shore….” In 1818, he could hardly have foreseen that it would not be very long before man would mark the ocean, too, with ruin, poisoning whole seas with his industrial effluent, or fishing them out with vast synthetic nets deployed by immensely powerful hydraulic winches. Yet the sea is still wild…

The Last Harpoon

On May 17 last year, just before 7:00 AM, a crew of Makah Indians from Neah Bay, an impoverished reservation village on the extreme northwestern tip of Washington State, harpooned by hand, then shot dead, a gray whale. The sea was calm, with a gentle westerly swell. Drizzle was falling …