My Year in Books, 2017

But let’s start with movies. Ten years ago, the Scottish musician and critic Momus observed that one of the most acclaimed films of 2007, Guillermo del Toro’s Spanish-Civil-War fantasy Pan’s Labyrinth, was morally and politically simplistic and (or because) artistically complacent. He gave ten objections to the film; I will quote the first two:

1. The film bore all the hallmarks of COG screenwriting. COG screenwriting is the opposite of personal vision, the opposite of imagination. It’s screenwriting as taught by “experts” in screenwriting class, a kind of brutal, plot-advancing writing style based around a Centre of Goodness (COG) who wins the audience’s sympathy (usually by pure genetic superiority — ie a very good-looking actor is cast — but also by a series of sufferings overcome throughout the narrative). It takes no prisoners — and no risks. COG screenwriting is the filmic equivalent of modern managerial techniques. It’s brutally efficient — yes, it can and will make you laugh and make you cry — but the difference between a film made by a COG director like Guillermo del Toro and an artist like Jodorowsky or Arrabal is like the difference between a house designed by a Project Manager and one designed by an architect. I will not let del Toro pass for an artist. I’m sorry, critics. He is a cinematic Project Manager.

2. The film’s moral universe is one that was decided by the events of the 1930s — the once-and-for-all template, apparently, for all clear moral distinctions. There’s a Manichean division — hammered home to us by means of graphic depictions of brutal violence — between the good characters (Jews, resistants, children) and the bad ones (cartoon Spanish Nazis). Needless to say, in an age when the worst politics trades on exactly this sort of Manichean division, this is in itself a problem. The film teaches us to hate the baddies (its own violence-justifying “Axis of Evil”) and long for their deaths, “richly deserved”. In other words, the film brutalizes its audience (in a way that, for instance, the brilliant Hayao Miyazaki has resolutely refused to do, to his enormous credit) by making us long for certain human deaths. The film becomes, in its own way, totalitarian for this reason, although it doesn’t seem to realize it.

Momus’s decade-old critique comes back to me at the end of 2017 because I recently saw del Toro’s The Shape of Water, a film that is if anything cruder than Pan’s Labyrinth. Depicting a cartoonishly oppressive past—in one scene, a straight white diner worker berates a gay man and then literally leaps to his feet to eject some black customers while he’s at it—the film uses its fairy tale armature as an excuse to arrange easy moral and political binaries that at first seem in line with contemporary liberal thought. The villain is another straight white man, inexplicably and totally malign, and the heroes are all outsiders (female, disabled, queer, and/or black). But uncritical stereotype replicates like a virus irrespective of good intentions, and The Shape of Water has some of the direst clichés of race, gender, and sexuality I’ve seen in a supposedly artistic film, from the repressed whimsical mute white girl (Amélie by way of The Piano) to the sassy black girlfriend (I would allude to The Help, but del Toro makes The Help look like Quicksand).

A film I did like in 2017, one no less monster-ridden than del Toro’s, is Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant. I smuggled an essay on it into what was nominally a review of César Aira’s extraordinary novel, Ema, the Captive, since I saw both narratives purposefully manipulating myths and stereotypes toward the end of befuddled sublimity rather than moral clarity:

I went to see Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant this weekend; I was surprised to discover that its villain, aside from various iterations of H. R. Giger’s monstrous xenophallus, was Oscar Wilde: or rather, David, self-named for Michelangelo’s sculpture, an android become an omni-cultured aesthete, cultivator of monstrous lifeforms for their own sakes, explicitly queer seducer. Condemning nature and himself artificial, spawning new life not through insemination but through the ideological organization of organic matter (including the forced insemination of others and the gender-disordering conversion of men into mothers, i.e., incubators for the aliens of the title), the film’s antagonist is a flagrant allusion to the Wilde archetype: the Platonic idealist as dandiacal aesthete, sexual antinomian, threat to public order, and, eventually, martyr.


Though Aira wrote [Ema, the Captive], according to its subscription, the year before the first Alien film’s release, this coincidence is not exactly an accident, as both the avant-garde novel and the pop-culture film franchise are playing variations on the same coupling of narrative genres: the imperial romance with the gothic romance. Both narratives show colonizing missions derailed by inhuman assault. The difference is that Aira’s audience is a minuscule fraction of Scott’s, so he is allowed his indifference to public life—allowed, that is, to openly side with the inhuman.

The piece on Alien/Aira is my favorite of my own essays of the year.

Why, anyway, is complexity important? Why should artists be allowed to “side with the inhuman”? Why not sit back and enjoy a rousing tale of good vs. evil? Momus, recall, was writing at the end of the Bush era, when an aggressive war that claimed millions of casualties was launched with the stated aim of fighting evil. That war’s devisers have by and large been rehabilitated in American public life, their worldview now seen as progressive, if slightly errant, and mainly on the right side of history. (On this topic, see Jackson Lears in the most recent London Review of Books.) 

While the most successful piece I wrote this year—it was quoted in the Washington Post; though, in a sign of the times, Facebook drove far, far more traffic—argued for aesthetic criticism as opposed to political criticism, aesthetic criticism itself bears a politics. It is a politics of circumspection and ambiguity, a suspicion of action, even a deferral of judgment. The politics of no-politics, the comrades used to call it, and no, it will never be popular; it doesn’t have to be, so long as it is at least able to inform popular or activist or pragmatic politics. This used to be the job of the arts and humanities: not job preparation or ideological indoctrination, but training in, for lack of a better word, irony. “Negative capability,” as the poet called it.

Though I didn’t plan it as an antidote to the social climate, I read a lot of lyric poetry this year: John Berryman, Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, Virgil, Claudia Rankine. And two epic poems: Dante’s Divine Comedy and Derek Walcott’s Omeros.

Walcott, who died in 2017, exemplifies the difficult question of what to do with the beautiful art when the artist’s behavior was ugly. My thesis on that question will displease some, but I think it will prove durable as moralism falls short of answering every cultural question:

And why would we even attend to such art if not to recognize not only our ideals but also the corruptions of those ideals, in the probably—but not quite certainly—vain hope of transcending them to become a better person in a better world tomorrow? We like our poets scarred and wounded, but perhaps we should learn to appreciate them no less—strictly as poets, not as people (as people, they are and should be subject to ethical and juridical law)—when they are wounding and scarring, unless we think we are always and only the victims in our own stories and never the perpetrators. If we claim to be unmarred by the so-far endemic evils of human nature, why should anyone believe us? Your fave is problematic; you wouldn’t want it any other way.

In Dante, who lived so long ago and in such a different place that it hardly seems worthwhile to criticize his morality or politics (you might as well criticize him for not having had a smartphone), I found a politically and spiritually totalizing imagination complicated by the will to poetry:

God is the artwork that holds the totality of experience, including every opposition (male/female, spiritual/temporal, good/evil) in perfect balance and tension. God is the total book, the highest epic—or, as an incorrigible post-Christian like myself might insist, the supreme fiction. God is the Divine Comedy.

I spent an appalling amount of the summer reading a prose epic (or mock-epic) that speaks uncannily to the paranoia and conspiracy-mongering that characterizes so much of the American imagination today, Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow: 

Pynchon emphasizes that we common people are also, in a sense, Them: “The Man has a branch office in each of our brains,” we read toward the novel’s conclusion; our own manias and psychoses, our own dreams and desires, draw us into the quest for power that puts us in Their hands.

Another perverse American classic I read and will remember was Melville’s beautifully bizarre Pierre; or, The Ambiguities, whose subtitle states my whole agenda:

Pierre is a domestic, sexual Moby-Dick; it shows that you do not need to be at sea to find yourself shipwrecked on your own reckless journey toward the reality you intuit behind reality.

Other great novels were read or re-read and will have to go unmentioned, though re-readings of The Scarlet Letter, My Ántonia, Quicksand, The Ghost Writer, and Paradise stood out. Speaking of novelists, I was pleased that Kazuo Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize and not even too displeased that Lincoln in the Bardo won the Man Booker. For more, you could always see the review index.

If it is not too much of a sin to be pleased with oneself (Dante understands that he will spend time on Mount Purgatory for pride), I enjoyed writing an unofficial trilogy of essays this summer on Angela Nagle, Grant Morrison, and Boris Groys. By reading these three very different writers together, I began to understand more about the central dynamic of western art: rebellion against anything that seems official, established, middlebrow, and boring. Nagle, for all the controversy occasioned by her book, grasps this better than anyone, even if I question her belief, in this hour of reactionary rebellion, that old-fashioned Marxist politics offers much of any solution:

Readers of my essays on writers as various as Georges Bataille, Boris Groys, and Grant Morrison will know that I sympathize with [Nagle’s] downgrading of the avant-garde and the counterculture. Yet the revivified Marxism for which Nagle stands has never shown sufficient psychological awareness of the human necessity for revolt expressed by the ideology of transgression. In seeking to eliminate transgression as a cultural ideal in the name of collective peace and freedom, Marxism and related traditions (Nagle seems likewise drawn to a second-wave-style feminism) have often created the kind of repression that makes someone like Bataille look more convincing than perhaps he should.

How to express what Whitman praised as our “latent right of insurrection” without destroying the world, rebelling against life itself? For answers to that difficult question, I had to leave the realm of criticism: 2017 was the year I ventured upon independently publishing a literary novel, Portraits and Ashes. In that book, I entangle a cast of characters from murderous avant-garde artists to militantly normal suburbanites in a plot about art and apocalypse. A paragraph, to whet your appetite:

At first, she’d tried to write poetry, but she found soon enough that she lacked the strength to strip words of their merely descriptive function, to transform them into events in their own right rather than just labels for events. She wanted to make something happen, not chatter about something that had happened. When she reached high school, she turned to sculpture. Her art teachers recognized her talent and seriousness and allowed her to use what materials she wanted and to sculpt during study hall and lunch and the hour after school. A gallery of men and women, a veritable town full of people, emerged, moist as newborns, from her labor, before she fed them into the kiln’s fortifying fire: naturalistically detailed and geometrically abstract, nude and clothed, suffering, luxuriating, reclining, leaping, dancing, singing. She liked to work in wet clay, to feel the body she intuited taking shape beneath her hands. It made her feel as if she had chanced upon a person in the dark and were palpating him or her for vital information with her sensitive fingers. She won awards; she received a scholarship to the most prestigious art college in the state; she came in second for Most Likely to Succeed in the senior yearbook but won Most Unique.

If you wish in any way to support my work, I would urge you to buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes (or even just pledge to review it publicly in exchange for a free ebook). I hope 2018 contains more reading, more writing, more complexities, and more ambiguities. Happy New Year and thanks for your time!