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

The Letters of William Gaddis

edited by Steven Moore, with an afterword by Sarah Gaddis
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

The Lifeboat

by Charlotte Rogan
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

The Pale King: An Unfinished Novel

by David Foster Wallace

The Broom of the System

by David Foster Wallace
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.

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