The Best American Essays 2014 edited by John Jeremiah Sullivan

bestessays2014Last year it was all about divorced self absorption and the shadow of dead parents. What’s the theme this year, eh? Guest editor John Jeremiah Sullivan launches the book* with the hardline stance of the granddaddy-of-all-essays Michel de Montaigne: by examining oneself, one can examine all humanity.

And this is how the essays tie to one another. A writer investigates something — say, the burning man festival, child abuse, or a rare disease — and extrapolates it far beyond the personal to a universal shared experience. Typically death is involved. Death of self, death of parents, death of innocence, death of children, and so on. The Ultimate Concern. Lo, us poor creatures who became aware of our own guaranteed annihilation.

The thing about these essays is they are almost never bad or even mediocre; An essay on being introduced as a public speaker, the only piece that doesn’t quite mesh with Sullivan/Montaigne’s universal appeal theme is curiously the only one I straight up didn’t like. But. There’s also very few that are exceptional. The best essay in the book I had already read and I’ve already forgotten several of them.

The Best Ones:

Thanksgiving in Mongolia by Ariel Levy — A 5 month pregnant woman stubbornly decides to fly to Ukraine for a journalism piece. More to prove she can do it to herself and everyone else rather than any pressing political-writing need.Then the pain starts. Chilling, awe-inspiring, and hard to forget. I read this months ago, but it was just as powerful the second time around.

The Man at the the River by Dave Eggers — An American man and his Sudanese friend rest by a river; The Sudanese wants to wade the river but the American does not for fear of catching an infection in a deep gash on his leg. Cultural differences abound. This is almost a parable. No one is named and it’s very short, but perfectly encapsulates its theme: a westerner desperately trying to avoid being a stereotype, even as it inevitably occurs.

The Devil’s Bait by Leslie Jamison — Jamison attends a conference in support of Morgellons disease, a rare affliction that may or may not even be ‘real’ and affects people differently. They might feel worms crawling out of their skin, or get very itchy, or have little crystals start protruding from their flesh. The professional medical community is fairly sure it’s a psychological problem, but the affected patients gather, trying to take pictures or bring ziplocked evidence of their foreign growths. Or just for moral and social support. Jamison wonders if it honestly matters whether the symptoms are ‘real’ — that is, actual organic crystals or worms protruding from skin. If the suffering is so acutely felt, shouldn’t that be all that’s required for our empathy?

 

*OK, so Sullivan’s essay doesn’t actually start the book. There’s a brief introduction by series editor Robert Atwan, who has been running this every year since 1985, the year I was born. His topic is nothing less than the assault on Truth and Free Speech and Censorship in America. It’s embarrassingly out of touch and feels profoundly old.

His adversary of choice are ‘trigger warnings’, which he totally mischaracterizes to suit his point of an America in danger of censorship. Trigger warnings are bits of text preceding a piece, warning of potentially upsetting content. Not upsetting like a fly in your spaghetti, not upsetting like a bad piece of world news ruining your mood, but the sort of upsetting Great-Great Uncle Jim, trench veteran of WWI, felt when he was diving for cover, dazed and terrified at any old loud noise. It’s to stop people who have suffered greatly from having to relieve that suffering or potentially trigger a PTSD response. And indeed, the two back-to-back child abuse essays in 2014 (a mean trick of listing things in alphabetical order) are devastating, important, and extremely well written; but I would never ask someone who had experienced anything so terrible to read either without warning.

Instead, Atwan sees trigger warnings as a content endorsement for the general ‘young’ American populace to avoid reading anything that makes them uncomfortable. He also refers to a story written in 1980’s Baltimore street vernacular as ‘A Clockwork Orange-esque’. Uh. Being embarrassed by Grandpa here…

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel

Book cover:  "The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: Stories."  MagHilary Mantel is a Big Deal. For good reason; two time booker prize winner and all around great writer. This means the inevitable: Collect bits of flotsam and jetsam, short pieces from individual assignments over the last 25 years, and publish them in one honestly sparse volume and cash in on that book of short stories.

She’s a good enough writer that it’s still a pleasure to read. The stories are generally about women amidst divorce, ennui, writing, yearning. Only one, about a writer caught in a depressive cycle of speaking engagements, is unsatisfactory. The highlight was a subtle piece that begins innocently with a person lamenting their job working at a doctor’s office, before going off into stranger territory.

The eponymous final story did not do much for me. Perhaps you need to be English to feel the true impact. I thought The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher was going to be an ironic title, but it is quite literal — a woman has an assassin enter her house whilst Thatcher is at an eye doctor nearby, and he assassinates her. It boils down to musing how events might have gone differently:

History could always have been otherwise. For there is the time, the place, the black opportunity: the day, the hour, the slant of light, the ice-cream van chiming from a distant road near a bypass.

Pretty but forgettable.

J by Howard Jacobson

jThis book left me baffled, confused, and more than a little angry. As the plot is boring and amounts to nothing, the only real interesting point of discussion occurs in the last twenty percent of the book and thus this review will contain some spoilers.

A great catastrophe occurs in humanity’s near future. Later titled WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED, the details are lost as history, indeed any recollection of the past, is forbidden. Technology is frozen, and in some cases gone backwards. Internet and mobile phones are banned. Censorship has restricted all but the most empty and vapid of books, music. Movies seem to have disappeared. All this government-ordained. As a result, people have become rote and boring. They’ve settled for petty antagonism and widespread misogyny instead of their past industriousness. It’s an off-putting and honestly strange thought that the first sign of deterioration in this tightly controlled culture is men hitting women.

Fortysomething year old Kevern, a peevish and indifferent man with OCD tendencies meets and falls in love with ninteen year old Ailinn, whose defining characteristics seems to be a Moby Dick metaphor (she insists she is the white whale and Ahab is on her trail) and her unconvincing fondness for Kevern. The characters are all unlikeable and banal, except for Ailinn, who is merely banal. They’re self-aware and even have a conversation about their own meta-banality. They’re a sort of bland-distasteful unlikeable that does not evoke much genuine feeling. You’d hurry by them in the street or avoid them at work, not curse their name. Not the best anchors for a novel.

As I mentioned, the plot meanders for most of the book. Characters are introduced and have lengthy chapters dedicated to their point-of-view only to end with an irrelevant or complete lack of denouement. There’s a serial killer plot that goes no where. The town the story takes place in is featureless, which could be intentional, but like the intentionally bland characters, intent doesn’t make it any less boring. And then, and then, and then, after slogging through all this, the novel’s crux is revealed: WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED most definitely did happen, and what happened was some kind of mega-holocaust that almost entirely wiped out the jewish people. It turns out that Kevern and Ailinn are some of the very last descendents of the bare few survivors of WHAT HAPPENED. Not only that, they’ve only met due to some government agent’s scheming, and said agents have plans for them — make fruitful and reproduce, revive the jews. It’s an elaborate strategy to reinvigorate society, but altruism this is not.The plan is to return the jews to public consciousness to give people a target they can unify in hating once again.

High concept dystopian literature have clear themes, 1984 gave us Big Brother. Brave New World warned of consumption, escapism, technology. Even something like The Hunger Games elicits a clear and thoughtful point on entertainment and class.

J’s central dystopian thrust is this: society cannot function without xenophobia. Without some Other-group to hate, people become listless, beat their wives, seek pointless extramarital thrills. This is a weak thrust, but maybe defensible as part of a general philosophical notion people sometimes hold: that conflict is essential to human progress and happiness. But narrowing it down to hate is unconvincing. Especially in this world where society is bereft of basic happiness luxuries — technology, travel, history, literature, music, heirlooms, family, spirituality, identity, craft. Is hate really more valuable than self expression? Did no one think, maybe it’s the tyrannical censorship that is making people unhappy?

But what is much more unsettling and infuriating is that it is not any Others that people must hate. No, Jacobson’s horror-future exists, because it is specifically jews that the world needs to hate to function. The shadowy-government entities behind the novels plot have picked out Kevern and Ailinn to reproduce because they are some of the last living people descended from Jewish bloodlines. Bloodlines, a subject the books accepts uncritically and attributes great veracity.

Ailinn is dark-skinned; There’s a district in the Capital with Middle Eastern immigrants; Classism seems largely defunct; while the only mention of non-hetero sexuality is a father accusing his daughter of being a lesbian (negatively), there’s nothing else to indicate the world is particularly hostile to gays. All of the above peoples have traditionally served as scapegoats, objects of derision, someone to pointlessly hate or blame. But it is the Jews who need to be revived specifically to be hated to allow society to run again, for the happiness of all. It’s completely nonsensical in the narrative-built universe (and on real-planet-earth). It reminds me of the end of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead where the novel completely abandons all internal logic and characterization and cause-effect consistency just to make an ill-conceived point.