ashthomas//blog: October 2005


Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Wilkerson's WH Cabal

The former Chief of Staff to Colin Powell when he was Secretary of State has an outraged op-ed piece in today's LA Times. "The White House Cabal" by Lawrence B. Wilkerson begins with this supposedly shocking revelation:

In President Bush's first term, some of the most important decisions about U.S. national security — including vital decisions about postwar Iraq — were made by a secretive, little-known cabal. It was made up of a very small group of people led by Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Well, yes, was my first response--this so-called cabal is called the National Security Council, and its purview is, not surprisingly, national security issues. Wilkerson notes that this cabal's workings were "efficient and swift"--both good things in my book, especially when dealing with military and terrorism matters.

Only later in the piece, after much of the emotionally charged rhetoric of dictatorship, secrecy and shadowy figures making clandestine decisions behind closed doors, does Wilkerson acknowledge that the constitution and processes of the National Security Council are ultimately up to the whim of the President of the day.

Wilkerson's major gripe seems to be twofold: 1) he and his boss were marginalised from the decision-making process by more forceful personalities, and 2) he does not like the decisions that were made. The first is hidden behind the second, however. He faults the process because of the outcome, which I think is the wrong way to go about making his point.

Rather, he should be making two arguments: 1) The Sec-State deserves to have more input into the making of national security policy, and/or that it should be a more transparent or deliberative operation; and 2) the decisions that were made were wrong. The first is procedural, the second is substantive. By conflating the procedural and substantive, Wilkerson's position is weakened. Some people may agree with him that the way the decisions were reached was flawed, but that the outcome was right. Some people might not see a problem with the nature of the process, but agree that the decisions reached were wrong.

All said, though, it is an important piece by a well-placed and knowledgable writer that deserves to be read.

Brent Scowcroft profile in the New Yorker

This week the New Yorker has a long profile of Brent Scowcroft. It doesn’t seem to be online in full yet, however Steve Clemons has published extended excerpts on his blog The Washington Note. The New Yorker also has an online only exclusive interview with the author of the profile, Jeffrey Goldberg.

Scowcroft was the National Security Adviser to George H.W. Bush, and is one of the leading exponents of the realist school of foreign policy thought. This has, inevitably, led him to become a spokesman for those Republican that do not agree with the neoconservative aspects of George W. Bush’s administration’s foreign policy. In his critique of the current state of foreign affairs, Scowcroft articulates many of the concerns that several conservatives share.

One of the first differences in opinion that become apparent is Scowcroft’s attitude towards the first Gulf War:

The first Gulf War was a success, Scowcroft said, because the President knew better than to set unachievable goals. "I'm not a pacifist," he said. "I believe in the use of force. But there has to be a good reason for using force. And you have to know when to stop using force." Scowcroft does not believe that the promotion of American-style democracy abroad is a sufficiently good reason to use force.

"I thought we ought to make it our duty to help make the world friendlier for the growth of liberal regimes," he said. "You encourage democracy over time, with assistance, and aid, the traditional way. Not how the neocons do it."

This leads on to his opinion of Dick Cheney. Cheney and Scowcroft were colleagues in George H.W. Bush’s administration, with Cheney as Secretary of Defense while Scowcroft was NSA. However the first Gulf War caused the widening of the split within the Republican Party into essentially three camps, and the realignment of alliances: the realist conservatives, who believed that the Gulf War was a success, parted ways with the democratic nationalists, some of whom joined with the neoconservatives. Scowcroft says of Cheney:

"I don't think Dick Cheney is a neocon, but allied to the core of neocons is that bunch who thought we made a mistake in the first Gulf War, that we should have finished the job."

Goldberg, in the interview he gives on the New Yorker site, further makes clear the difference between the motives of the democratic nationalists and the neoconservatives, despite their advocacy of the same course of action:

Preëmption is not necessarily an idealistic notion; a realist could very well argue for preëmption. I believe that Dick Cheney would put himself in this camp—the camp of people who were less interested in bringing democracy to Iraq as a means of permanently making the place stable, but who saw in Saddam a rising threat and felt it necessary to do something.

The realist position that Scowcroft supports is, by his own admission, a “cynical” one:

"The reason I part with the neocons is that I don't think in any reasonable time frame the objective of democratizing the Middle East can be successful. If you can do it, fine, but I don't think you can, and in the process of trying to do it you can make the Middle East a lot worse."

Realists, in other words, are cynical, and neoconservatives are idealists. Goldberg describes Scowcroft as representing a faction in the widening rift within the Republican Party between traditional conservatives and neocons:

Scowcroft speaks for the non-neoconservative, non-evangelical, non-human-rights wing of the Republican Party—the business side of the Party.

And when asked about the backlash by the conservatives against the neocons, he notes:

They’ve been doing so for some time. Just read George Will. Their complaint is that neoconservatives aren’t conservative; they’re liberals with guns. Conservatives tend to take Scowcroft’s more jaundiced view of human nature. Paul Wolfowitz, on the other hand, is a liberal, but a liberal who believes that transformation can be brought about by force, not just persuasion. Obviously, there are other breaches within the Republican Party, on the Harriet Miers nomination, on spending, and on and on.

"Liberals with guns" is, I think, a neat description of neoconservatives. I, in fact, encourage the division: I believe that (real) neoconservatives have more in common with the DLC/centrist faction of the Democratic Party than with the Republican Party.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Jonathan Lethem's thoughts on Philip Roth

The Morning News has up an interview with Jonathan Lethem by Robert Birnbaum. Lethem is a writer that I have not read a lot of, but what I have (short stories and essays), I have enjoyed. Beyond that, from interviews with Lethem, I have found him to be extremely likable as a person as well as a writer. He seems to be quite a cool and interesting guy. All this was reinforced by the Birnbaum conversation.

What I happily stumbled on halfway through was Lethem's thoughts about Philip Roth. Roth is a writer that I have greatly admired forever. His Nathan Zuckerman novels have been a pleasure for and an inspiration to me since I found them in my first year of university.

A few weeks ago, my wife succumbed to my insistent suggestion that she read Roth, and she has since fallen in love with work as well. She began to ask me about how much of Roth's life was direct source material for his novels, and so we began tracking down articles about Roth's life and read his autobiography, The Facts.

Lethem discusses the connection between real life and fiction in the interview. Lethem uses Brooklyn in much the same way that Roth uses Newark, and Lethem cites Roth as a crucial influence in his development as a writer:

You can derive tremendous energy for yourself as a writer and for readers in their experience of a book, not only by gathering material from your real life, [but also] from raising the question of whether or not something is autobiographical. In Roth this tension often stands in place of traditional plot mechanics for generating readerly fervor. You’re always having to think, "This might be real. But it might not be. He could be fooling me." In Fortress, I switched not only to honest autobiographical methods but as well to manipulative autobiographical chimeras, where I seem to be saying, "This is me." And then I pull away. I become deceitful, and the reader responds to that as well, with irritation perhaps, but curiosity. They're being teased with the possibility of confession.

Part of the fascination of looking for connections between an author's work and their life is the very human desire for gossip. Reading Portnoy's Complaint, one wonders where the line between Roth and Portnoy is, about how much of Portnoy's life is Roth's.

Such literary trickery became more and more common in Roth's fiction as he wrote more novels. The Zuckerman books are about an author who has written a controversial best-seller very similar to Portnoy's Complaint. Zuckerman became Roth's alter-ego. But this wasn't the end of it -- in The Facts, Roth's memoir, Zuckerman contributes an afterword in the form of a letter to his creator. The line between fiction and reality is blurred and transgressed. In other books, a character named Philip Roth appears, and the lines are further fuzzied.

This literary experimentation (either modernist or post-modernist, according to whom you speak to), combined with his emotional depth and evocation of place has made Roth one of, if not the, most important American authors of the second half of the twentieth century. He is, in my opinion, the number one American candidate for the Nobel (although his chances have now diminished with the recent naming of another English-speaking writer for the prize; like it or not, the Nobel committee seems to be very politically aware of making sure they recognise writing from all over the world in all languages).

Lethem, later in the interview, discusses how critics have seemed to forgotten Roth's back-catalogue when reviewing Roth's latest book, The Plot Against America. Lethem sees the way that critics have fawned over the alternate history aspect of the book as something more sinister than mere feigned or actual ignorance of the experimental and non-realistic aspects of Roth's earlier work. What it is symptomatic of is, in Lethem's opinion, the reactionary attitude of the establishment to unconsciously regard realism (as in the nineteenth century style of Dickens or Trollope or Eliot or Hardy) as the dominant style and the only genre to be considered "literature" [paragraph breaks inserted by me to ease reading]:

You saw this happening when Roth's new book was reviewed. Roth's use of the "alternate history" was treated, in certain quarters, as though, first of all, Roth himself had never written a book that challenged mimetic propriety—suddenly The Breast didn't exist, suddenly The Great American Novel didn't exist. Suddenly Counterlife didn't exist. To write about this thing with a 10-foot pole, and say, "What's this strange method? What have we got here? One of the great pillars of strictly realist fiction has inserted something very odd into his book. We'll puzzle over this as though it's unprecedented."

It was as though there had been no Thomas Pynchon. As though Donald Barthelme, Kurt Vonnegut, Angela Carter, Robert Coover had been thrown into the memory hole. Was there never a book called The Public Burning? Do we really have to retrace our steps so utterly in order to reinscribe our class anxieties? Not to mention, of course, the absolute ignorance of international writing implicit in the stance: where's Cortazar, Abe, Murakami, Calvino, and so very many others?

Well, the status quo might argue, patronizingly, those cute magical-realist methods—how I despise that term—are fine for translated books, but we here writing in English hew to another standard of "seriousness." Not to mention, of course, the quarantine that's been implicitly and silently installed around genre writing that uses the same method as Roth's with utmost familiarity. Well, the status quo might argue, sounding now like an uncle in a P.G. Wodehouse novel: Ah, yes, well, we all know that stuff is, how do you say it, old boy? Rather grubby. No, I say, no. This isn't good enough, not for the New York Times Book Review and the New York Review of Books, in 2004.

Let me say it simply: there is nothing that was proposed in Roth’s book that could be genuinely unfamiliar to a serious reader of literary fiction of the last 25 years, 30 years, 50 years. To treat it as unfamiliar is a bogus naiveté—one that disguises an attack on modernism itself, in the guise of suspiciousness about what are being called post-modern techniques. It actually reflects a discomfort with the entire century.


If I’m right—let’s just for the sake of argument, let’s say there is a kind of reactionary shudder making its way through the literary community, from newspaper reviewing to magazine reviewing to perhaps even some of the blogosphere—there’s what feminism would call a backlash phenomenon going on. What would the motive be, for such a thing?

Well, if you permit analogies to things like identity politics, you’d say some bulwark or status quo is feeling itself threatened. Which in turn means that the very success of writers like Pynchon and Delillo and Angela Carter, and the pervasiveness of their influence is what’s threatening this status quo. For, much like feminism, if the argument had no influence, if these methods all represented failed experiments, if they led nowhere, led only to unreadable novels, then there would be no reason to draw up the gates.

In fact, that’s what’s being proposed by the false naiveté: that these activities were circumscribed, that they consisted only of a brief period of avant-garde provocation, one with no influence, that had no resonance or relevance. If those writers didn’t have hundreds upon hundreds of delighted successors who have made free and ready use of their methods, the status quo wouldn’t be unsettled. Unsettled by what they attack under the name post-modernism and what—if you accept my argument—is in fact modernism itself!

It is the success, not the failure, of the revolution, which has caused the nostalgic hand-wringing for the ‘good old days’—as always, the non-existent good old days—when literature was the safe preserve of the ‘realists.’ What are we hankering for? Examine the logic and see where this impulse ends up. Let’s see, if we chide the writer who makes reference to low-brow material, who appropriates cultural material—because appropriations are a bit like sampling in rap, really borderline plagiarism, everyone knows this—we’ll have to roll back to T.S. Eliot. Oops, we have to throw Eliot on the scrap heap, too—apparently he risked some high-low mixing, and some appropriations. Forget Joyce, of course. We’d better go even further back.

Once you begin looking at the underlying premise—a blanket attack on the methods that modernism uncovered—the kind of bogus nostalgia for a pure, as opposed to an impure, literature, what you really discover is a discomfort with literature itself. A discomfort with writing. A discomfort with the kinds of exuberance, with relevance. What’s really being called for is a deeply irrelevant—literature as a high-brow quilting bee for people who are terrified, in fact, by its potential vitality, influence, and viability.

American writing, its roots in Poe, Twain, Melville, and extended through Faulkner and, for gawd’s sake, everyone else—is encompassing, courageous, omnivorous. It gobbles contradiction, keeps its eyes open, engages with the culture at every possible level. But boundaries being crossed make the inhabitants of the increasingly isolated castle of the status quo all the more anxious. If we’re free to use these methods, allowed to talk about everything we know, if we are allowed to describe the world of advertising, the world of capitalism, the world of pop culture, the actual world where the elements described as of high- and low-brow are in a constant inextricable mingling—if we let down our guard, where will our status emblems be? What credentials will we burnish? How will we know we are different from the rabble outside the gates?

Again, it’s sheerly class anxiety that is expressed in these attacks. And, as well, a fundamental discomfort with the creative act, with the innately polymorphous, the innately acquisitive, curious, exuberant and engaged tendencies in the creative act itself.


A reactionary shudder is moving through the collective mind.

The state of criticism's attitude towards experimental or non-realist or genre fiction may not be as bad as Lethem paints, however. The authoritative voice of James Wood has recently, in a review of Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, noted that such divisions are becoming irrelevant:

Works of fantasy or science fiction that also succeed in literary terms are hard to find, and are rightly to be treasured — Hawthorne's story "The Birthmark" comes to mind, and H.G. Wells's The Time Machine, and some of Karel Capek's stories. And just as one is triumphantly sizing up this thin elite, one thinks correctively of that great fantasist Kafka, or even of Beckett, two writers whose impress can be felt, perhaps surprisingly, on Kazuo Ishiguro's new novel. And how about Borges, who so admired Wells? Or Gogol's "The Nose"? Or The Double? Or Lord of the Flies? A genre that must make room for Kafka and Beckett and Dostoevsky is perhaps no longer a genre but merely a definition of writing successfully; in particular, a way of combining the fantastic and the realistic so that we can no longer separate them, and of making allegory earn its keep by becoming indistinguishable from narration itself.

I understand how Lethem, who began his career as a science-fiction author and who still includes many fantastical elements in his work, would get a thorn in his paw over the problems in present-day reviewing. But Lethem should be heartened by the fact that many people agree with him within the literary world.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Fox and the Kitty

I caught a small section of the Disney movie The Fox and the Hound the other day. It was the section where the old lady drove the Fox into the woods and left him there. It might have been because I found that the Fox reminded me immensely of my kitty Buckley, but I was deeply moved, almost to tears, by the scene. The look of love and then abandonment on the Fox's face broke my heart.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Val McDermid's The Torment of Others

I just finished reading Val McDermid's The Torment of Others the other night. It is one of those books that for which only a cliché can describe it: a real page-turner.

I don't generally read thrillers or crime fiction, but I am a huge fan of the television series The Wire in the Blood. It is, essentially, a traditional police procedural, and I would probably have ignored it except for the fact that my buddy Dave highly recommended it. The local police force of Bradfield, a fiction northern England city of about a million people, and in particular Detective Inspector Carol Jordan, are assisted in their murder investigations by the clinical psychologist Tony Hill. Hill is the star, and his complex relationship with the criminal mind leads to the attraction of the show. It delves into the darkest corners of the human mind, into its sexual and homicidal urges.

It is a dark show in the sense that it is often unpleasant, graphic and disturbing; this also makes it compulsive viewing. The rapport, and requisite romantic tension, between Tony and Carol relieve much of the pressure, and it contains the sort of gallows humour that one would expect from a homicide detective and a forensic psychologist. Each episode is, in the tradition of British crime series, movie length. This allows the show to take its time, develop characters and explore the minds of the killers and those who chase them. The characters are so well acted that when reading the books, I cannot help but see the faces and hear the voices of Robson Green and Hermione Norris.

The Torment of Others is the fourth Tony Hill/Carol Jordan book. The television series, currently at three seasons, adapted the first two books as the first two episodes. After that, the episodes were original scripts. My wife and I decided to skip those first two books, since we were familiar with the stories, and jump to the third and the fourth books.

The third book, The Last Temptation, is set after the series, and involves Carol being seconded into an undercover sting in Germany as part of pan-European co-operation between national police forces. At the same time, a serial killer is bumping off European psychologists, which, when one of the victims turns out to be a acquaintance of Tony's, allows McDermid to bring Tony onto continental Europe as well. This book was good, but it was a departure from the Wire in the Blood that I was familiar with. The characters, beside Carol and Tony, were all new and not as thoroughly drawn, and at times it reminded me more of a spy thriller than a murder mystery.

I don't know if McDermid received criticism from fans for moving outside of Bradfield, but The Torment of Others returns Carol and Tony to their old beat. Carol is now a Detective Chief Inspector, and is given command of a major crime taskforce. The plot revolves around the grisly and disturbing rape and murder of a prostitute. This is usual fare for Carol and Tony, with one twist: the murder is identitical to a series of murders from a few years earlier... and Carol and Tony caught the killer back then. Is the killer somehow orchestrating murders from behind the bars of a psychiatric prison, or maybe he is innocent? Neither is the case, and Tony and Carol race against the clock as the killer on the street begins taking further victims.

The mystery element of the story is intriguing. I found myself switching suspects more than once. The relationship between Carol and Tony deepens, complicated by events that occurred at the end of the third book. Another twist is the death of a second-tier character whom I had grown quite fond of from the books and the television series.

McDermid is coming here for Writer's Week of the Adelaide Festival of Arts next year, so I will definitely attend her readings and book signings. There are some questions that I would like to ask her about how an author feels when her characters are used by other writers, and how she views the relationship between what happens on the show (i.e. in stories not written by her) and what happens in the books. Does she see them as distinct and separate, or part of the same continuity? It will be very interesting to hear her thoughts.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Murakami's Wild Sheep Chase and Dance Dance Dance

Haruki Murakami is a literary idol of mine. His blend of the everyday and the fantastic, metaphysical/philosophical meditation and genre writing, enchants me. I am an enormous fan of his. I have recently finished reading two of his novels, The Wild Sheep Chase and Dance Dance Dance.

I now try to avoid reading books by the same author back-to-back like that, because I have found from experience that if I do read too much of one author's works consecutively, I tend to conflate the storylines and confuse myself about what happened in which book. This time, however, I permitted myself to do so because the books are related.

The Wild Sheep Chase is the Chandler-esque story of an average guy narrator who is hired by a rich and mysterious business-man, or rather his ice-cool secretary, to find a specific sheep that was in a photograph sent to the narrator by an old friend, The Rat. This leads to a strange run-in with the Sheep Professor, a man obsessed with sheep, and an even more strange encounter with the Sheep Man, a man wearing a sheep costume who may have a connection to the spiritual world.

Dance Dance Dance is a sequel to The Wild Sheep Chase. The unnamed protagonist narrator (who, I have picked up from elsewhere is actually named Boku) is the same, but the besides the cameo appearance of the Sheep Man from the first book, the second book has all new characters. A character from the first book, Kiki (unnamed until the second book), has gone missing, and Boku spends the sequel trying to track her down. In the meantime, he returns to the Dolphin Hotel. In The Wild Sheep Chase, the Dolphin Hotel was a decrepit, dusty hotel that was the home of the Sheep Professor. In Dance Dance Dance it has become a skyscraping luxury hotel. Boku meets a new cast of strange and bizarre characters and becomes involved in the police investigation of a murdered prostitute that he slept with.

I found Dance Dance Dance more satisfying than The Wild Sheep Chase. Although neither resolves all their mysteries in an entirely neat way, I actually don't mind. The ambiguity of the endings is one of the charms of a Murakami book. If you want everything tied up neatly, read an Agatha Christie. With Murakami, the journey is more pleasurable than the destination (if, indeed, you ever in fact reach a destination).

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Lit Prizes Cause Controversy

Days before this year's announcement of the Nobel Prize for Literature, one of the judges has quit over the committee's choice last year:

Academician Knut Ahnlund gave notice he was quitting in disgust at the 2004 laureate, whose writing he called "whinging, unenjoyable, violent pornography."

Apparently it took him 360-odd days to realise the depths of his feelings against Austrian Elfriede Jelinek.

Speaking of controversial decisions, the Booker Prize was announced yesterday. After shockingly failing to shortlist Ian McEwan's Saturday, the Booker committee also failed to award the prize to the other worthy contenders, namely Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go and Julian Barnes' Arthur and George.

John Banville's The Sea, the eventual winner after a tie-breaking decision by the committee chairman gave it the prize over Never Let Me Go, has been harshly criticised. Boyd Tonkin, literary editor of The Independent, has called awarding the Booker Prize to The Sea:

the worst, certainly the most perverse, and perhaps the most indefensible choice in the 36-year history of the contest.

Banville does have his supporters; if you are a fan, I recommend the lengthy interview with Banville on The Elegant Variation.