Thrones, Dominions, Principalities, Powers

There are three levels on which one can respond to the claim that abortion has now been “sent back to the states.”

First, one can point out that many states have been so gerrymandered by Republican state legislators (aided by the same Republican justices who just sent abortion “back to the states”) that their governments are not remotely answerable to the people. Republicans at all levels have abandoned any effort to appeal to, or respond to the will of, the majority; as long as gerrymandering, the Senate, the Electoral College, and the Supreme Court supermajority allow them to hold power irrespective of whether they get the most votes, they will do what they like and piously intone that we are “a republic, not a democracy” (which, being translated, means “we get to run things no matter what, fuck you”).

Second, one can bring up the inconvenient truth that the next Republican trifecta will in fact take abortion away from the states again by passing or attempting to pass a federal abortion ban. Whether they’ll succeed I don’t know, but acting like they couldn’t or they won’t try is ridiculous. One of the concurrences today even pointed in that direction, because for the contemporary right, half the fun is in winking at the obvious falseness of your lies even as you call your opponent uncivil for not believing them.

Third, and most morally significant, to say that an issue should be sent back to the states is to frame it as an issue on which all possible opinions are equally valid. This is the same sort of nauseating faux broad-mindedness that inspires people to attack the deplatforming of empty-headed bigots. When you say that someone who mocks trans people “is entitled to their opinion,” you mean that you are basically ok with the belief that trans people are subhuman even if you wouldn’t go that far yourself. Likewise, when you say that abortion is now “in the hands of the states where it belongs,” you mean that you’re basically OK with women dying from lack of medical care even if you yourself would rather they didn’t have to.

When basic issues of public health are at stake, as they are when you allow sweeping abortion bans with no health exceptions, appeals to diversity of opinion are monstrous. The dishonest crux of the “back to the states” framing is its implication that Roe, a nuanced decision that gave states a good deal of authority to set their own restrictions, was some kind of federal jackboot. The denial of bodily autonomy to women in today’s decision is far more authoritarian than Roe could ever have been. The problem is that the actual extremism of the Republican position on abortion has been so normalized that the national discourse has warped around it, making “I won’t raise a finger to stop women dying, but I’ll furrow my brow about it when it happens” the sensible moderate position. For the moment, anyway; as Republicans gear up for attacks on contraception, we should all get ready for Susan Collins to primly declare that while she thinks a total ban on birth control pills is going too far, she can’t vote for the Democratic bill that protects contraception access because it’s just so darn liberal. I keep trying to find a less depressing thought on which to end this post, but I don’t think today’s the day for that.

Where We’re Going, Where We’ve Been

Much of what our society frames as tolerance in political discourse is infantilizing nonsense. It is not actually respectful to treat people like children, to sit silently as they deny or obfuscate the consequences of their actions, to allow ill-formed or selfish intentions to weigh heavier than results. Adults ought to own what they believe and what it leads to. The problem with the rhetoric of civic duty is not that it is wrong, but that it is used to encourage the mere act of voting, as if filling in a bubble on a ballot were inherently dignified and mature. Just as a juror has a greater obligation than showing up and writing yea or nay on a slip of paper, a person who can vote ought to be making a sober consideration of outcomes, and if he (I do not use a gender-specific pronoun thoughtlessly, though this is far from an exclusively male problem) does not do so, it is neither unfair nor cruel to point this out and to hold him accountable.

So: yes, if you voted for this to happen or failed to vote against it, I hold you responsible for it, irrespective of whether you wanted it to happen, thought it would happen, live in a “swing state,” etc. If you dismissed the importance of the Supreme Court or declared that you wouldn’t be “blackmailed” into voting for someone who didn’t share your ideology entirely or make you feel special, you are responsible for what happened today. This is adult life: things that you don’t mean to happen can still be held against you, even if someone else was the prime mover.

I don’t say this lightly or with any sense of moral purity. I didn’t vote in 2008, and I only voted on ballot questions in 2012, leaving all the offices blank. That was dumb, and I was wrong. I voted in 2016, but even then I don’t think I really accepted that this was a possible outcome. All I can do is own that, and try not to be wrong anymore. I’m lucky, if lucky is a word anyone who believes in personal freedoms can use today, that my failure to vote wasn’t more directly tied to today’s outcome, but that doesn’t absolve me of much. I was wrong.

The way not to be wrong right now is to admit and reject past error. If you thought this day would never come, own that. Instead of trying to explain why this isn’t as bad as it seems (or how it’s not your fault because reasons), listen to the people who were right, especially when they tell you what’s coming next. The logic of this decision is not, despite the majority’s posturing, limited. So many decades-old freedoms related to sex, gender, sexuality, and race that Americans take for granted are rooted in the interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment that the conservative supermajority has just rejected. Does that mean all those decisions are doomed? No, but it doesn’t make them safe either. Certainly it’s ridiculous to suggest that 21st century gay rights decisions that are more recent and less publicly popular than Roe won’t be challenged if the far right thinks they can win.

I don’t pretend to have answers about what anyone should do next. Voting for Democrats in every race from local to national is a moral baseline, not a strategy. All I can say is, don’t underestimate the seriousness of the moment, and don’t reject bold choices that would have seemed absurd as little as seven years ago, when most of us were operating under different assumptions that turned out to be dangerously incorrect.

Part of being an adult is accepting that most life decisions require you to make the choice that is least bad rather than the choice that is best, and acknowledging that your instinctive emotional responses to a situation are rarely helpful indicators of what to do. Don’t vote like you’re making an aesthetic choice or identifying yourself with a style or brand. Vote like lives depend on it, because it turns out that they do. And if you don’t think women are going to die because of this decision, including some who don’t even support abortion themselves, then you’re just demonstrating that you don’t know enough about the subject to be putting forth an opinion. There’s no shame in ignorance- there are so many things in the world to know about that we all have to rely on generalities sometimes. Wisdom is acknowledging your ignorance when the world demonstrates it to you, and educating yourself before you speak out again. Maybe I’ve gotten something wrong here; if I have, I’m sure someone will point it out to me.

Myths Transformed

What is history? History is women following behind with the bucket.

Over the past 24 hours I’ve read Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad and Karthika Nair’s Until the Lions. Both are short, sharp reworkings of ancient literature that grapple with the violence of war and the subjugation of women. Both are also on sale in the U.S. Kindle store at the moment, and come highly recommended.

The Penelopiad is more obviously contemporary and ironic, somewhat in the same vein as Atwood’s very short story “Gertrude Talks Back.” It’s quite a lot of fun, especially the glamorous, catty Helen of Troy, and I appreciate the ways Atwood tweaks myth to give Penelope greater agency. At times the playfulness cuts against dramatic effect. Envisioning the slain maids as a collective that communicates principally through burlesques makes it harder to highlight the horror of their execution. Acknowledging that Penelope, though vulnerable as a woman in a patriarchal society, is in a position of privilege compared to her maids presents an opportunity to deepen the narrative, but I’m not sure the novella does all that it might with the resulting tension.

Until the Lions, a poem cycle set at the margins of the Mahabharata, uses modern forms but doesn’t shy away from the strangeness and ferocity of its setting. I’ll confess that I knew very little about the Mahabharata or ancient Hinduism before reading. There’s a dramatis personae at the front of the book, but I still spent a fair bit of time filling in some gaps. Working in a variety of different styles and voices, Nair focuses on the cyclic, self-sustaining nature of hate and the awful power of violence. Like Atwood, she grants women more centrality and agency than in the source material, but the emphasis on suffering is greater, almost unrelenting. Whether it’s highly-structured work, prose poetry, or free verse, there’s a rawness to the language that captures the constant pain of living with unimaginable loss. Until the Lions is, despite or because of its ancient milieu, one of the most powerful anti-war statements I’ve ever read. I’ll pay it one of the highest compliments I can give a book: right now, some six hours after finishing it, I already wish I could read it again for the first time.

General roundup, late February 2022

Part of the reason my blogging is, um, let’s be charitable and say “intermittent” is that I have such a backlog of things to watch and read and listen to and play that it’s hard to justify spending time writing about the things I’ve actually managed to watch and read and so on. Here, in the name of justifying what I pay for WordPress and the domain name, are some quick thoughts on my recent media consumption.

Star Trek: Picard: No Man’s Land: the first Star Trek audio drama in quite some time. It was a pleasant enough listen. Michelle Hurd is better than Jeri Ryan at consistently evoking her character through a voice-only performance, but they both do solid work, and the supporting characters are entertaining if fairly flat. The thematic ground it covers is well-worn and not something I especially like, but the character work for Raffi and Seven is engagingly delivered, if equally familiar. Some people have suggested the production feels amateurish compared to Big Finish’s Doctor Who audios, but I think it’s just a matter of a different approach. Big Finish tries (sometimes to a fault) to produce something that’s like a Doctor Who episode on audio, with a more immersive soundscape. No Man’s Land is more of an audio play, with limited sound design. I hope to see more Star Trek audios in the future; Patrick Stewart is probably too expensive, but other Picard characters, Discovery, Strange New Worlds… lots of possibilities there.

Star Trek: Discovery: Fear Itself: a solid Saru-centric novel that both captures his character and finds a way to use him effectively in a very Star Trek kind of story. It’s on the slight side, the original Starfleet characters don’t really pop, and for some reason the ending is three different versions in a row of the same basic sequence, but this book, like the first Discovery novel and all the Picard novels to date, takes the right approach to tying in to modern Trek.

Star Trek: Vanguard: Summon the Thunder: I skipped the Vanguard series when it was coming out; for whatever reason Harbinger didn’t do it for me back in the day. But I picked up all the ebooks on sale recently and decided to give the series another shot. So far it’s good fun. Ward and Dilmore are pretty awkward stylists even by the standards of mass-market adventure fiction, but there are a lot of moving parts to the Vanguard saga and some excellent use of dramatic irony as secrets start to be revealed and ancient history is pieced together. Despite its being a serialized, more morally ambiguous series set on a space station, series creator/editor Marco Palmieri didn’t like the idea of calling i “DS9 for the TOS era.” If I wanted to be cheeky I might suggest it’s closer to “Babylon 5 for the TOS era,” and I do not mean that in a negative way.

Elden Ring: clearly the key to getting “10/10 game of the millennium” level reviews from the games press is to add an open world to an already beloved action RPG franchise; the hype here is Breath of the Wild-level. I’m not sure this game quite lives up to it for me, but then it very much is “open world Dark Souls,” and I’ve never been as sold on Dark Souls as many gamers. I loved Bloodborne, but what I most loved about it were all the ways it was different from a Souls game: the rally mechanic and resulting faster combat, the simpler upgrade and item mechanics, the horror rather than dark fantasy aesthetics. To be clear, I’m enjoying Elden Ring quite a lot, and I’m only nine hours in; I’ve beaten one main boss, one side boss, and a few optional areas. Just wandering the map and finding little unexpected things is rewarding, as it always is in open world games. I’m just not sure the level of execution is as high as review scores are suggesting. Adding an open world to anything is like adding chocolate to peanut butter, but that doesn’t make either the chocolate or the peanut butter high quality in and of itself.

It’s a Sin: I put watching this off for a year because I expected it to be emotionally devastating. And in places it is, but it’s also life-affirming and cheeky and clever in the way everything Russell T Davies writes is. As ever in his work, there are depictions of honest little moments in gay life that you just wouldn’t get anywhere else. The original concept for this was eight episodes rather than five, and you can feel the absence in places; some of the characters feel underserved, and the rhythms of the story progression are occasionally off. But it’s a first-rate drama all the same.

Other things I’m consuming and may or may not blog about down the line are : The Gilded Age, The Afterparty, Only Murders in the Building, Marianne Williamson’s novel Home, the audiobook of Nancy Kress’s Tomorrow’s Kin, the short stories of Elizabeth Bowen, the Discovery novel The Way to the Stars… you see what I mean about a backlog.

Reading list, 2021

I read 91 books in 2021. An asterisk means I was rereading something.

January

1. Garth Greenwell, Cleanness

2. Thomas Rid, Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare

3. James Swallow, Star Trek: Picard: The Dark Veil

4. Bernardine Evaristo, Girl, Woman, Other

5. Jonathan Metzl, Dying of Whiteness

6. John Gaskin, The New Inn Hall Deception

7. Joan Didion, Let Me Tell You What I Mean

8. Ayad Akhtar, Homeland Elegies

February

1. Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire, Left Out: The Inside Story of Labour Under Corbyn

2. Rachel Kushner, The Mars Room

3. Erin Monroe et al, Gorey’s Worlds

4. Matthew Lane, Power-up: Unlocking the Hidden Mathematics in Video Games

5. Julia Quinn, Romancing Mister Bridgerton

6. Leslie S. Klinger (editor), The New Annotated H. P. Lovecraft

7. James O’Brien, How to Be Right

8. Ayad Akhtar, American Dervish

9. Ayad Akhtar, The Invisible Hand

10. Ayad Akhtar, Disgraced

11. Ayad Akhtar, The Who and the What

12. Ayad Akhtar, Junk

13. S. A. Chakraborty, The City of Brass

14. Neil Price, Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings

15. Valeria Luiselli, Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions

March

1. Jonathan Aycliffe, A Shadow on the Wall

2. Una McCormack, Enigma Tales

3. Justin Torres, We the Animals

4. Jenny Offill, Weather

5. Jenny Offill, Dept. of Speculation

6. Sue Black, All That Remains: A Renowned Forensic Scientist on Death, Mortality, and Solving Crimes

7 Ernest Cline, Ready Player One

8. Angela Slatter, Sourdough and Other Stories

9. Melissa Albert, The Hazel Wood

10. Anne Boyer, The Undying

11. Jorge Luis Borges, Ficciones

12. Andrew Caldecott, Not Exactly Ghosts

13. Kage Baker, The Hotel Under the Sand

14. Andrew Caldecott, Fires Burn Blue

April

1. Danez Smith, Homie

2. Jericho Brown, The Tradition

3. TaraShea Nesbit, Beheld

4. Lou Cannon, Governor Reagan: His Rise to Power

5. Michael Cooperson, Impostures by al-Hariri

6. Miriam Toews, Women Talking

7. Kevin Barry, That Old Country Music

8. Zadie Smith, Intimations

9. Mohsin Hamid, Exit West

10. J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone*

May

1. Anne Carson, Norma Jeane Baker of Troy

2. Anne Carson, Antigonick

3. Oksana Zabuzhko, Your Ad Could Go Here

4. J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets*

5. Rebecca Solnit, Whose Story is This?

6. Fran Lebowitz, Metropolitan Life

7. Fran Lebowitz, Social Studies

8. Barbara Pym, Excellent Women

9. Nicole Chung, All You Can Ever Know

10. Becky Cooper, We Keep the Dead Close

11. J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban*

June

1. Anna Wiener, Uncanny Valley

2. Margaret Rhodes, The Final Curtsey

3. Donna Zuckerberg, Not All Dead White Men

4. Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

5. Leah Remini, Troublemaker

July

1. Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

2. Anne Glenconner, Lady in Waiting

3. Rainbow Rowell, Carry On

4. Jason Schreier, Press Reset: Ruin and Recovery in the Video Game Industry

August

1. Katherine Angel, Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again

2. David Baddiel, Jews Don’t Count

3. Anna Fields, The Girl in the Show

September

1. Noah Hawley, Before the Fall

2. Carrie Fisher, Shockaholic

3. Taylor Jenkins Reid, Daisy Jones & The Six

4. The Secret Barrister, Fake Law: The Truth About Justice in an Age of Lies

5. Edouard Louis, History of Violence

6. Una McCormack, The Baba Yaga

October

1. Dayton Ward, Star Trek: Coda: Moments Asunder

2. Gregory Maguire, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West*

3. Lacy Crawford, Notes on a Silencing

November

1. John Boyne, A Ladder to the Sky

2. James Swallow, Star Trek: Coda: The Ashes of Tomorrow

3. Una McCormack, Star of the Sea

4. E. L. Doctorow, Ragtime

5. Loretta Lynn, Coal Miner’s Daughter (expanded edition)

6. Philip Purser-Hallard, Sherlock Holmes: The Vanishing Man

December

1. David Mack, Star Trek: Coda: Oblivion’s Gate

2. Reggie Oliver, A Maze for the Minotaur and Other Strange Stories

3. John Jackson Miller, Star Trek: Picard: Rogue Elements

4. Tommy Orange, There There

5. Laurie R. King, The Murder of Mary Russell

6. Deborah Eisenberg, Transactions in a Foreign Currency

Book Notes: A Ladder to the Sky

I’m a compulsive buyer of bargain-priced e-books; if I did nothing else with my free time I might possibly be able to keep up with my purchases, but since I also watch TV and play video games I’ve more or less had to accept that collecting books and reading them are fundamentally unrelated habits. Part of the problem is that once I’ve bought one book by an author I feel more comfortable buying another, even if I’ve never read the first one. So it was that when John Boyne’s A Ladder to the Sky was a Kindle deal last month I felt authorized to buy it because I already had his Victorian ghost story This House is Haunted, which I bought in August 2020 and haven’t even tried to read. (The only thing about that that surprises me is that I would have guessed I bought it earlier. Probably I had considered but skipped it in a previous sale.)

It wasn’t just having another book by the same author that drew me to A Ladder to the Sky, though. It’s a literary thriller with dark satirical elements, a “What if Tom Ripley was an aspiring writer?” deal. Maurice Swift wants to be a writer, and he can put sentences together well enough, but he can’t come up with an idea to save his life. So he steals them from others, even if he has to ruin their lives in the process. The novel is divided into three parts with two interludes. The first four sections show Maurice honing his sociopathic version of the craft and rising to great heights, while in the fifth his charade is inevitably crumbling.

I say inevitably, and the biggest drawback of A Ladder to the Sky is that the course of each section is pretty predictable; not only the fact but also the manner of the various betrayals is thoroughly telegraphed, though I’ll admit one aspect of the ending took me by surprise. Straightforwardness of plot wouldn’t be a problem if the book were dramatically richer, but most of the characters are two-dimensional satires of the parochial ruthlessness of writers. Maurice himself is a little more interesting; monstrous, to be sure, but there’s something fascinating in his detached intellectual curiosity about his own lack of emotional response. This might, I suspect have been a stronger book if Maurice had been put at the center from the start. Instead the first two thirds or so are narrated by other, generally less interesting characters, though an interlude from the perspective of Gore Vidal is delightful, irrespective of how much its Vidal is like the real one.

A Ladder to the Sky is never less than elegantly written– the writers’ witty attacks on each other’s achievements may not be profound, but they’re certainly entertaining– and the plot flows along well enough that its predictability never becomes a crippling flaw. Overall it’s a book I’m very glad to have read, and I suspect I’ll pick up others by Boyne if I see them on sale. I may even read them.

Lisey’s Slog

On first reading Lisey’s Story was one of my favorite Stephen King novels, as it’s one of the author’s own favorites, and though an attempt to reread it a few years back didn’t go well I’m still fond of the book in theory. So I was looking forward to the Apple TV+ adaptation. That King was scripting it himself was a double-edged sword; it guaranteed a comprehension of and fidelity to the source material that you don’t always get with King adaptations, but King is not a distinguished screenwriter, and eight episodes for a 500-page novel is more than enough rope for a writer who loves a digression. The surprise, then, is not that the first two episodes of Lisey’s Story are an elegant-looking exercise in tedium, but that King feels less to blame than director Pablo Lorrain.

King can be faulted for the lack of narrative focus and the failure to structure the story into coherent episodes, but it’s Lorrain chilly cinematography, bland direction, and indifference to soundtrack that leave the series feeling like a long low-key dream sequence. The abrupt time jumps are surely in King’s script, but it’s Lorrain who fails to offer any visual or directorial cues as to when we’re flashing back or moving forward. And it can only be Lorrain who apparently told Julianne Moore and Clive Owen to emote as little as possible, though I can’t imagine what his reasoning was. Joan Allen and Jennifer Jason Leigh are given a little more leeway as Lisey’s sisters, but the only person actually allowed to act is Dane DeHaan, who makes full use of the opportunity to embody the psychotic folksiness of Jim Dooley.

The one upside of the blanket of indifference that Lorrain has thrown over the production is that the excessive quirkiness of most King characters is thoroughly smothered. (I also appreciate that only one performer so far has attempted a Maine accent; the one who does is predictably terrible.) But as the scenes rolled over me like waves of nothing, I started thinking that a few of those overwrought verbal tics might almost be preferable. I don’t know why anyone who hasn’t read the book would stick with this; I don’t even know how they’d follow the plot, though I thought the same thing about people understanding Game of Thrones without reading A Song of Ice and Fire, and they obviously did. I couldn’t swear that I’ll watch more, though it might make appropriate background noise while I’m playing a video game or doing housework. I’ve started rereading the book, and this time I’m enjoying it more than on my aborted reread of a few years ago. Certainly it deserved better than becoming the TV equivalent of elevator music.

Book Notes: Pre-Posthumous Joan Didion

I’m never quite sure whether to regret that Joan Didion stopped producing new work before the rise of Donald Trump. It would be easy to say that in times like these the need for her incisive insight is greater than ever, but I don’t know that that’s true. When things get terrible, it’s obvious that they’re terrible; when an intellectual culture degrades, it needs no Didion come from the pages of the NYRB to tell us this. “Fixed Opinions,” her essay on the determinedly infantile political discourse of the post-9/11 United States, is an effective piece of writing, but it doesn’t read with the urgency of something only Didion could say.

Regrettable or not, Didion’s retirement seems to be, as she might put it, the new fact on the ground. After Blue Nights in 2011, which felt like a valediction (and, dare I suggest it, seemed a work of less supreme control than the rest of Didion’s mature output), there have been 2017’s South and West: From a Notebook, trunk material drawn mostly from a June 1970 road trip through the southern United States for a piece that didn’t ultimately come together, and now Let Me Tell You What I Mean, a haphazard assemblage of twelve previously-published but uncollected pieces dated between 1968 and 2000, supplemented (a less charitable person might say “padded out”) by a Hilton Als introduction that is appreciative, basically insightful but not especially dazzling, and does little to clarify why these twelve pieces in particular appear between this set of covers.

The first six, all from 1968, appeared in Didion and her husband John Gregory Dunne’s Saturday Evening Post column “Points West.” Didion is not at her best in the short form of a magazine column, and 1968 was before the deeper sense of disorder chronicled in “The White Album” had fully permeated her style and leavened the wittily chilly but superficial conservative skepticism of her early style, but these are fine work nonetheless, and have much in common with the pieces collected in Slouching Towards Bethlehem. I particularly enjoyed “On Being Unchosen by the College of One’s Choice,” in which Didion turns on her own extreme reaction to being rejected by Stanford the same vicious irony she aims everywhere else:

I went upstairs to my room and locked the door and for a couple of hours I cried. For a while I sat on the floor of my closet and buried my face in an old quilted robe and later, after the situation’s real humiliations (all my friends who applied to Stanford had been admitted) had faded into safe theatrics, I sat on the edge of the bathtub and thought about swallowing the contents of an old bottle of codeine-and-Empirin. I saw myself in an oxygen tent, with Rixford K. Snyder [Stanford’s Director of Admissions] hovering outside, although how the news was to reach Rixford K. Snyder was a plot point that troubled me even as I counted out the tablets.

The rest of the book consists of three introductions (to a collection of Mapplethorpe photos, a memoir by Tony Richardson, and a keepsake edition of three short stories by Didion herself), a lecture titled “Why I Write,” and two essays from The New Yorker. The introductions are unexceptionable, though even with a writer as gifted as Didion one is reminded of Stephen King’s observation that “you have never seen a book entitled One Hundred Great Introductions of Western Civilization or Best-Loved Forewords of the American People.” Didion’s comments on her own writing are rewarding for devotees as insight into her development and for the strange intoxication of her sharp-edged prose, but one can certainly sense why none of this material has been collected before.

The essays from The New Yorker are sharper, more substantial work. “Everywoman.com,” the only piece in this volume I’d previously read, is the closest thing in it to Didion’s mature journalism, a consideration of the Martha Stewart phenomenon written before the insider trading scandal. The other New Yorker essay is “Last Words,” a consideration of the posthumous publications of Ernest Hemingway and the larger problem of what to do with the material a great writer leaves behind after death. It’s a passionate essay, and yet one can’t help but feel, to build on a point that Als makes in his introduction, that Didion’s own writerly identity, and her similarities with Hemingway, are leading her toward a position that would leave the larger culture poorer for the theoretical benefit of those who are forever beyond actual benefit.

The irony of reading “Last Words” in its present context is that, while Didion is alive and (presumably) approved which pieces appeared in this collection and which did not, Let Me Tell You What I Mean has a similar air of the posthumous rag-bag, and its inclusions and exclusions are baffling. Gathering the Saturday Evening Post columns, which would otherwise be inaccessible outside of well-stocked libraries, is noble enough, but why none of the uncollected essays from The New York Review of Books? There’s only so much room in the collection, which is formatted, like South and West, Blue Nights, and The Year of Magical Thinking, as a tiny hardcover with wide margins, but surely an audience for whom these four late publications are Didion deserves a better ratio of substance to style? Anyone who admires Didion will buy this book and be glad to have done so, but those who know her ouevre well enough to know what it omits may be frustrated by those omissions.

Book Notes: The Angel of the Crows

This morning I finished Sarah Monette’s latest novel, the second published under the pseudonym Katherine Addison. I still haven’t read the first, The Goblin Emperor, but I’m a great admirer of the The Doctrine of Labyrinths, an epic fantasy series published under her own name that’s as much about the mental traumas of its half-brother protagonists as it is about the fates of nations. I also quite enjoy her Kyle Murchison Booth stories, period horror tales in the mold of Lovecraft and M. R. James but with a modern psychological touch. At its best, Monette’s work breathes new life into familiar tropes of popular genre fiction, which more than compensates for recurrent issues with narrative momentum and structure. Alas, The Angel of the Crows has an abundance of the latter and not much of the former.

The premise is doubly high concept: ” ‘Fantasy Sherlock Holmes’ meets ‘Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper.’ ” Dr. J. H. Doyle returns from an encounter with a fallen angel in Afghanistan bearing a limp, a deeper spiritual wound, and at least one terrible secret. Doyle soon finds lodgings with Crow, an unconventional angel who assists the police and the public in solving bizarre crimes. The dynamic between Doyle, wounded, private, world-weary, and honorable, and Crow, unearthly, curious, naive, and blunt, is the novel’s strongest feature; this would, frankly, be a better book if it had more irrelevant dialogue and less plot. The Ripper murders are used to provide a connective tissue, but the bulk of the text is given over to retellings of three of the Holmes novels (no love for The Valley of Fear) and a couple short stories. Fantasy elements are sprinkled in, and some outdated attitudes toward race and ethnicity are adjusted, but there’s nothing especially clever about how Monette reworks the canon. There’s also remarkably little ratiocination, and what there is is rudimentary.

Even the fantasy elements feel perfunctory, with an emphasis on breadth rather than depth, as if Monette has invented just as much as she needs to push the story along and doesn’t want us to linger or look below the surface. In addition to three varieties of angels there are vampires, hemophages, werewolves, hell-hounds, and more, but only the angels and to a much lesser extent the vampires are developed in ways that make them more than stock fantasy creatures. I can’t help feeling that less would have been more in this case: the angels are really all the novel needs from a perspective of world-building, and what’s done with them is intriguing but underdeveloped.

The deepest problem is that, for all that there are six distinct major plotlines here, there’s no single story that needs telling. The recastings of the Holmes canon feel dutiful rather than inspired, and the Jack the Ripper thread, after several passages in which the characters awkwardly attempt to fit the senseless, deranged brutality of the Whitechapel murders into the world of the period detective story, is resolved in an astonishingly abrupt and perfunctory manner. Some important character developments grow out of that resolution, and those sequences are effective on a sentimental level, but as the climax to a novel that has put more emphasis on plot developments than on character, it’s lackluster.

That’s the paradox of The Angel of the Crows: it’s rich in incident and each section is briskly paced and eminently readable, yet it somehow adds up to less than the sum of its parts. This material might have been better served by being split into short stories and novellas, though I suppose that would only serve to highlight how uninspired the individual pastiches are. In the Kyle Murchison Booth stories, Monette reworks the tropes of the antiquarian ghost story to get at different types of human frailty, but all she does here is rearrange century-old plots and sprinkle some magic on top. I can only hope that if she writes more in this universe, which there’s certainly room to do, she’ll focus on developing story concepts that play to her strengths rather than her weaknesses.

Unliving History

If science fiction is as much about the present as the future, then alternate history is as much about the actual past as the imagined one. That Curtis Sittenfeld’s latest novel, Rodham, is alternate history as wish fulfillment (or, to echo Laura Miller, as fan fiction) is both more obvious and less interesting than just what kind of wish fulfillment it is. Although this version of Hillary wins the 2016 election, that development occurs only in the last ten pages of the novel and is almost an afterthought. The emotional engine of this peculiar, stilted book is not so much a desire for Hillary’s victory as a desire for her to be morally deserving of that victory, to be worthy in all senses of the historic role of first female president. The intellectual and historical contortions involved in producing that outcome are a reminder of how limited and fragile the role of women in American political life still is.

Rodham‘s conceit, that Hillary declines Bill Clinton’s proposal of marriage and becomes a politician in her own right, doesn’t emerge until more than a third of the way through its 421 pages. First comes a long, dreary summary of their relationship: a passion simultaneously physical and intellectual, but riven by his infidelities and by hints of corruption and worse. Given the novel’s thesis that Bill Clinton is nothing but a political and moral liability for Hillary, the question of why their marriage has endured is obviously an important one, but this material, which is most at odds with the novel’s faux-political-memoir tone, is awkward and deeply unconvincing. Several reviewers have expressed discomfort with the sex scenes, but as Andrea Long Chu astutely observes in an otherwise dogmatic review, the problem is not that the reviewers are prudish but the novel is; a description of sex in which the most explicit word is “erection” doesn’t capture anything about passion. The attempts to convey intellectual ferment through snatches of dialogue are likewise artificial; they suggest only the author’s diligent research into period-appropriate one-line topics.

What actually distinguishes Bill and Hillary’s relationship in Rodham is that it’s the only one in which a man demonstrates intense physical desire for her. There are other boyfriends before and after him, but their attraction to her seems more dutiful, more subordinated to idealized romance. Given where this portrait of Bill Clinton ultimately goes, that’s probably meant to reflect well on the other men, but readers less eager to envision a Hillary surgically excised from the man with whom she has spent two-thirds of her life may note an unintended consequence. This is a view of the Clintons’ relationship that could have come from the crudest Hillary-hater: that they stayed together because he wanted her when no one else did, and that that was only because he wanted every woman he saw, whether she wanted him or not.

That “whether she wanted him or not” is key, because the most important thing about the Bill Clinton of Rodham is not that he’s a serial philanderer and a pig, which the real Bill Clinton unquestionably is, but that he’s also plainly guilty of sexual assault. (The novel’s preferred framing is “credibly accused of sexual assault,” but it exists in that heady intellectual space where a credible accusation is any accusation that’s not obviously false, and where credibly accused means presumptively guilty. One wonders what Sittenfeld makes of Tara Reade.) One of the things that pushes the novel’s Hillary to break up with Bill in 1974 is an encounter with a woman who accuses him of forcing himself on her. Given the novel’s quirk of renaming every character who isn’t an elected politician, she isn’t called Juanita Broaddrick, and the timing is off, but that’s the obvious point of comparison. The novel Hillary of 1974 doesn’t know what to make of that claim; by 2015, she’ll be more confident.

Before 2015, though, the novel makes a stop in 1991, when the Anita Hill hearings and Illinois Democrat Alan Dixon’s vote to confirm Clarence Thomas provide a launching pad for law professor Hillary Rodham’s political career, as they did in the real world for Carol Moseley Braun. Braun also seeks the seat in the novel, and the decision to run against her is one of the few flaws the fictional Hillary is permitted to have, and one of the few moments where daylight seems to exist, however fleetingly, between the narrator and the author. That this moment feels pro forma is a sign of Sittenfeld’s ill ease at giving this Hillary any complexity, but more than that it’s a sign of how unable she is to write about political compromise on a level of issue rather than image. She understands the superficial bad optics of a white woman appropriating a black woman’s challenge to a white man’s dismissal of another black woman, and can capture the white woman’s naive ignorance of those optics, but that’s about as far as she can go. Literally the only thing the novel mentions about Moseley Braun other than her race is that she shows up late to a fundraiser but is an impressive campaigner when she does get there. If Sittenfeld had made any effort to imagine the Clinton vs. Moseley Braun campaign on a substantive level, this reliance on stereotypes about black people being late would be at least a little less offensive than it is.

The other strand of Hillary Rodham’s 1991 life is her quasi-romance with a married colleague. All they ever do is hold hands– you can see why I call the novel prudish– but nonetheless Hillary holds herself morally culpable as if they were having a real affair– you can see what I mean about ill ease with complexity. She ends the relationship when she decides to run for office. That this colleague eventually commits suicide for reasons unrelated to Hillary is, I can only guess, meant to create a sort of parallel to the suicide of Vince Foster, but his character is so thinly drawn that the effect is one of mawkish sentimentality: this is just another tragedy for poor unlucky-in-love Hillary.

By 2015 Hillary Rodham is, like Hillary Clinton, the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination. Her main opponent, however, is not Bernie Sanders, who goes unmentioned in this novel, but Bill Clinton. In the novel’s universe, Bill’s political career went just as it did in ours until the 1992 campaign, when his 60 Minutes interview about Gennifer Flowers fell apart because his wife, lacking Hillary’s composure, broke down crying, dooming his campaign. Disgusted at his loss, Bill left politics, moving to California and becoming a billionaire venture capitalist. Then, in 2015, he re-enters politics and, despite salacious rumors about drug-fueled Silicon Valley sex parties and darker ones about a history of sexual assault, he becomes a strong contender for the Democratic nomination, one whose supporters express their opposition to Hillary by chanting “Shut her up!”

I think it’s important, especially given how few reviews have done so, to stop a moment and underline what ludicrous bullshit every bit of that is. Unnecessary parallels with real events are a fixture of cheesy, plot-driven alternate history, but the extent to which this novel remixes 2015 with Bill Clinton in the role of Donald Trump is breathtakingly bizarre, especially since Trump himself appears in the novel, in the unlikely (by which I mean “impossible”) role of a Hillary surrogate. A sequence where Hillary accepts an endorsement from Trump that is drawn verbatim from Trump’s own anti-immigrant announcement speech is the capstone of a self-indulgent reworking so complete that “through the looking glass” doesn’t begin to cover it.

I hold no brief for Bill Clinton. The nicest thing I can say about him is that given the state of the country in the 1990s he was probably the best the Democrats could have hoped for, and I’m not even sure I believe that. But to portray him as a man whose entire political career could hinge on his wife’s demeanor in one interview, a man who would turn his back on public service after one failed primary campaign, a man who would indulge gross misogyny at his own political rallies? To take at face value every sexual allegation that emerged from the fever swamp of Arkansas politics? I don’t have to think highly of Bill Clinton to recognize that this is pure scapegoating, an almost ritualistic separation of everything that’s undesirable about “the Clintons” as historical figures into a saintly fictional Hillary and a devilish fictional Bill. That the real Hillary has a complicated political history of her own is, in a context where you can simply wish any unpleasant events away, no problem at all.

In the novel’s 1992, George Bush and Dan Quayle were reelected. The Democrats took back the White House in 1996, but Jerry Brown’s one-term presidency was followed by two terms of John McCain. The 9/11 attacks still happened, and the Iraq War apparently did as well, because the snippet from Trump’s repurposed announcement speech still talks about how we should have taken the oil when we left. But even though this Hillary was a senator in 2002, there’s no mention of how she voted on the AUMF, or of any effect that vote might have had on her political future. That Trump quote is the only appearance of the word “Iraq” in the novel, and Hillary Rodham’s great political error in the 2000s is not a vote but a quote: Sittenfeld hamhandedly relocates Hillary Clinton’s 1992 remark about baking cookies and having teas into Hillary Rodham’s abortive 2004 run for the presidency. She runs for president again in 2008, seeing herself (in one of the novel’s rare nods toward anything like political realism) as a potential VP candidate at best, but somehow, as in real history, she and Barack Obama become the front-runners and have more or less the same race they did in our 2008. Hillary Rodham does not, however, became Secretary of State, thus neatly erasing the invasion of Libya, the Benghazi attacks, and the private email server from her history.

Let me be clear: I think that all of these “scandals”– the Iraq vote, Libya, Benghazi, EMAILS!!– range from overblown to complete garbage. But they did happen, and they’re as much a part of why people reacted to Hillary 2016 they way they did as Clinton baggage and rank sexism. A Hillary who, despite 24 years in the Senate, is essentially tabula rasa is an utter fantasy. There’s a scene where a Rodham aide responds to Obama’s 2008 landslide by saying, “And all these years I believed Americans were more racist than sexist.” Rodham replies, “Did you really? … Given when the Fifteenth Amendment passed and when the Nineteenth did?” Leaving the historical illiteracy to one side (the real Hillary, I hope, also knows why the Reconstruction Amendments were possible and when the Voting Rights Act passed), what that exchange misses about 2008 is the contrast between Obama’s theoretically-transformative novelty and Clinton’s potentially-stagnating experience. That was a myth– Obama was always going to be the same kind of Democrat as Clinton– but it was a convincing myth because Obama had been on the national stage for all of two years before he began running for president. What Rodham attempts to do is to make Hillary 2016 into the same kind of empty vessel, empty not just of past actions she might have to explain away, but also of nuanced positions on any current issue.

This is where the absence of Bernie Sanders from the novel’s 2015 becomes significant; in the absence of a candidate who creates a meaningful ideological contrast with Hillary, the campaign can rest on the image-driven level where Sittenfeld is most comfortable. In an interview, she responded to a straw-man version of this criticism by acting as though she was being asked to turn the novel into a white paper, but there’s a large excluded middle between “really nitty-gritty with various Supreme Court decisions” and the ideological wasteland of Rodham. What made Hillary Clinton different from other first ladies (like Laura Bush, the subject of Sittenfeld’s roman a clef American Wife) was that she got into the political rather than limiting herself to the ceremonial and the uncontroversial, that she cared about the “nitty-gritty.” To create a Hillary free to think purely for herself and then not allow her to think anything beyond a few liberal bromides is as great an insult to the actual woman as the implication that she’d be better off without her husband of forty-five years.

The author doesn’t, I should make clear, have any obligations to Hillary Clinton, who has chosen to be a public figure, and is thus fair game for almost anything, even as an absurd a love letter as this. But there’s a bitter irony in the fact that Sittenfeld, who obviously cares about how unfairly our discourse treats female politicians, is at such pains to make Hillary Rodham almost preternaturally moral. The novel’s climax is a debate speech where Rodham calls out the public obsession with her “likability,” but what is this novel except an extended argument that people ought to like her? She is allowed token flaws– elbowing out Moseley Braun, accepting Trump’s endorsement– but the novel rushes past these matters so quickly there’s no time to take them seriously as compromises. Far more space is spent on her compassion– the bond she forms with a cancer patient who visits one of her rallies– and her diligent scrupulousness.

Freeing Hillary from Bill Clinton doesn’t just separate her from his moral failings. It also takes away the figurative asterisk that will forever remind us that the first female presidential candidate from a major party was also the wife of a former president, just as many of the first female members of Congress were wives and daughters of male politicians. It’s an ugly truth, but it is a truth, and I’m not sure that Rodham does us any favors by ignoring it. Would Hillary Rodham, or any other woman, have been a credible presidential candidate in 2016, let alone 2008? The fact that 2020, a year in which an unprecedented number of women were running for the Democratic nomination, quickly became a race between two elderly white men suggests a dispiriting answer. I can only echo Nora Caplan-Bricker’s observation that the best comparison to Hillary Rodham might be Amy Klobuchar.

I’ve said very little about Rodham as an example of the novel form, because it barely is one. Its voice is unquestionably that of a political memoir, full of trivial scene-setting, stilted dialogue, and abrupt summation, and light on unvarnished human emotion. I don’t know whether Sittenfeld meant even the most intense moments of Rodham’s life to feel curated, as if the narrator is carefully controlling for her reader’s expectations, but that’s the effect. A more sophisticated novel would generate at least some irony around this, but I think we’re meant to take Hillary Rodham at face value. If Sittenfeld had embraced the cod-memoir angle and fleshed out the underexplored aspects of Rodham’s life at the expense of the flabby soap opera of her relationship with Bill Clinton, this might have worked as a formal experiment. As it stands, I’m left with the impression that she simply couldn’t find a voice for Hillary Rodham without aping the tone of Hillary Clinton’s memoirs. That’s the novel’s greatest flaw: it wants to create a Hillary who stands alone, but its protagonist is every bit as artificial, and every bit as defined by her relationship with Bill Clinton, as the one in the popular imagination.