Oh. I didn't rush to review this book. That tells us a lot right off.
I think books often tell us about who we would like to be, if not about who we are in our lives as they are, idealisations. But that's not all: I think these idealisations do tell us who we are in that they we tell author who we want to be idealised so they can write about our aspirations and our phantasies of ourselves.
Yesterday's book was not so good, even though I like westerns as a rule. It was 187 pages that might have made a better short story in a magazine back in 1941 or so when it was first published. As is, the story carries on far too long to get to an obvious conclusion, not bringing anything new after the first 10-15 pages. I got it within the first paragraph, but my grasp of books of this nature is my only real talent, and I am way too good at it. So too with movies. I get it in the first few minutes and can then anticipate the whole thing in detail thereafter, making movies a miserable experience for me. And so with this book. Loyalty is admirable, and a man has to give his best friend every benefit of the doubt, even if he hates doing it. And a rotten friend must in the end sacrifice himself to redeem himself, after which the hero who has stood by while all others would not can claim the moral high ground because, like Gollem, the bad guy done good. It's lost on me. Maybe before we entered WWII this book could have hit some readers and made them happy, promoting the ideal of manly friendship and loyalty, self-sacrifice and stoic disregard for suffering when one loses to the lesser man. Maybe.
According to the leftard social scientist I cite often, Joanna Burke, in WWII those soldiers who read Look Magazine or Life Magazine were seen to be intellectuals by the majority of soldiers who read comic books. Today, those who read Chomsky or Zinn are seen by others as intellectuals. Nothing much changes. The point is that in the early 1940s in America there was no broad and shallow education among the populace as we know it today in America. My education, a generation after the war, is far superior in many basic ways to that of the average European of today. But it wasn't what I wanted. I do have more and better than most, however, and more than Obama. Of those reading Lehman's book, they would have been working class men who had little access to television. This book might have taken the average working man a week to get through, and he might have enjoyed it in its simplicity: Men are men and men are friends of men. Men love women, and they stand aside for a man the woman wants, even if they know they are the better man. It got me thinking about the book I read a few days ago, and how we see ourselves and what we like to think we think about ourselves. I read volume two of a book about an autistic girl, Stieg Larson, The Girl Who Played with Fire. (New York: Vintage Crime; 2010.) It's close to 900 pages long. It tells us much about ourselves, I think, and in a way similar to the way the tv series Dexter tells us about ourselves and the way the movie Shane tells us about who we used to think we were or would like to think ourselves to be. These books and movies are not too much different from comic books and magazines in the early 1940s, we just think we're more sophisticated, our books being longer, our details being more sordid.
I read all kinds of things, even, dare I admit, the Bible. I read pulp novels, Lehman or Larson, anything at all if that's all there is. Larson was all there was till yesterday. I'm not shocked or disturbed by what he writes, not even ashamed of our times. It's not daring, it's not edgy, it's not sophisticated. It's a comic book of our wishes about ourselves, about how we might like to think we see the world.
Close to 900 pages of social criticism from a Swede about a girl who was tormented by by her father as her mother was physically abused. A girl who was tormented and tortured by evil bureaucrats. A girl who was a victim. She is a bi-sexual who shares a book with a bi-sexual man married to a woman who has a life-long affair with a man who has sexual encounters with willing women. How utterly Swedish. But, like Lehman, Larson lays on the moralism with a shovel. A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do; and if that means shooting it out ten to one against cattle rustlers while the bad guy steals his girl, such is a man's life. Or, if a man is a gangster raping young women and a woman is mentally ill, then a man must stick up for her as she goes for her revenge, taking time out to steal from thieves, to main criminals, to cheat and lie and cause harm to numerous villains and passers by. It's about the person who must have social justice, same as the range must be tamed for farmers and ranchers. It's what we all want, the sex tossed in because we are so cool.
Yes, our genre books today are better than they were in the 40s. Larson is a hack writer like Lehman, and Larson is dynamic and interesting, as 21 million buyers attest. But is says little good about us that we want to see ourselves as sophisticated when what we would probably prefer is to see ourselves as moral. Today, stoic men suffer because their lovers are married to bi-sexual men, and they go on to do the right thing in a world of evil while taking time out to screw any available girl. This is not the 1940s, but people don't change at all, just the attitudes change. At heart, men are still the same men they have been for thousands of years.
I prefer living among simple people as opposed to sophisticated people. I like Sarah Palin and I hate Obama. I prefer in many ways Lehman to Larson. I prefer Latin America to North America. What I like about Lima is what I used to like about Mexico City and what I love about Tel Aviv: that these are cities that are what America used to be when I was a boy. Lima is a Lehman city, as it were, and America is filled to bursting with Larson cities. The former isn't great, and it would improve with some severe editing; but it is at heart, far superior to Larson in the presentation of the collective expression of the point of the Moral. If we can think about it and see ourselves as losing what good we had in exchange for a lot of tinsel and flash, then maybe we can develop a simplicity again that will allow us to like the good rather than the poisoned pseudo-moral of today's Modernity. If so, we will see superior fiction expressing our best because it will be what we demand from writers, and they will, in turn, provide us with our best selves, however made up and improbable.