book reviews

Book review: Zero Hour for Generation X

Initially, Michael Hennessy’s book Zero Hour for Generation X says it’s about a coming showdown between generations. It’s time for Generation X, he says, to show lazy, shallow, tech-obsessed millennials what it means to make sacrifices and fight for what matters. As Generation X occupies the prime middle age years, it’s time for us to claim our moment setting the national agenda or else we’ll get usurped by those younger and less capable than we are.

The book does follow through on this premise. There is a section contrasting the economic woes of Generation X and millennials, in which Generation X is seen to have it worse off, and there is a short chapter laying out the now predictable argument that millennials have been so coddled by a culture of self esteem and safety that they now inhabit an alternate reality of safe spaces and social justice where free speech and self reliance are impossible. Only some of this is convincing. 

The book has plenty of bile for Baby Boomers, too. Though they presided over the end of the Cold War and the unprecedented economic boom of the 1990s, a formative time for Generation X, Hennessy argues that they suffer from the same self-importance as millennials. This has led them to keep too many of their economic gains for themselves and to fail to lay a real foundation for long-term prosperity. But worst of all, says Hennessy,

… has been their flaccid acquiesce to the still-incoming wowy-zowy technological utopia dominated by Internet connectivity and artificial intelligence, in the process of putting untold numbers of artists, businesses, trades, and traditions on the road to extinction. This betrayal is at the heart of the economic and social riddle that Gen Xers will have to help unwind.

ZAnd it’s here that Hennessy gets to the strongest arguments in the book, and the only ones that ever lend any real support to the somewhat spurious concepts of generations. In the postwar era, the most powerful shared experience people born around the same time can have is the effect of new technology, and Generation X will be the last American generation to know from experience what life was like before the Internet co-opted every part of it. And when I say every part I’m not exaggerating. 

Boredom, privacy, silence, uninterrupted concentration and direct experience, and the exhilaration of discovering something or someone not because an AI shoved it into your feed, but because chance and sensibility led you to it–all these are being given up in exchange for whatever else the Internet may have to offer. 

Hennessy is the Op-Ed editor of The Wall Street Journal and Zero Hour for Generation X is a conservative book. I don’t agree with his criticism of a universal basic income or of the supposed vapidness of social justice culture, but I do agree with his assessment that it is a shift in the main medium by which we experience life that is changing its essential character and that too little attention is being paid to this fact.

Americans have not become dumber or less virtuous since the late 1990s. But we have changed the way we experience life. Where once we saw one another face to face, now we spend most of our time peering at screens.

Hennessy is a conservative, but he is no lover of Donald Trump and the thoughtless social media culture which helped bring him to power. Like Bill Kristol of The Weekly Standard, Hennessy is an educated, cosmopolitan conservative who feels alienated by the Republican party and the America it represents, and Zero Hour‘s call for a more mindful future is one that thoughtful people on the left and the right can share. 

In the end, as with other technological critics, Hennessy has little to say other than to turn away from the new devices and spend more time in the world. Put down your phones, he says, and set a better example for the millennials.

Short Story Review: Ibn-Hakam al-Bokhari, Murdered in His Labyrinth

Ibn-Hakam al-Bokhari, Murdered in His Labyrinth by Jorge Luis Borges is less than seven pages long, yet I remember it more vividly than entire novels I’ve read.

It starts on a blustery English coast with two young literary gentlemen discussing a local legend, and unfolds from there into a story that is part fairy tale, part murder mystery, part friendship chronicle, and part fever dream. The main location and central image is a labyrinth, constructed on a hilltop in England by an exiled king as a home and a refuge from a terrible vengeance.

The story shifts on every page, in nearly every sentence, like jewel in a ray of light. Just when you think you’ve seen every facet, another one slides into view, betraying the incompleteness of what you saw before. Like Iain Pear’s masterpiece of misdirection, An Instance of the Fingerpost, this little tale delightfully puts you off balance from the first word to the last.

I mention it here because I reread it as part of my short fiction binge this autumn. It falls solidly into the category of stories which seem to achieve as much as novels, and which also achieve what only short stories can, relying on a density of sensory impression and a strangeness it would be impossible to sustain for more than a few pages.

And for me, the spooky season is pretty much year-round, though my craving for the gothic is strongest from the autumn to the spring equinoxes.

Any good spooky short story recommendations?

Short Story Review: Miao Dao by Joyce Carol Oates

Since a friend read aloud the entirety of The Wendigo by Algernon Blackwood while we were sitting in Central Park at dusk, I have been on a short story binge.

The Wendigo took about two hours to get through and produced in me a sense of strangeness, horror, and wonder I have not quite experienced before.

I’ve mostly ignored short stories as an adult reader. Why take just a bite of an alternate world when you can have the full meal of a novel? But The Wendigo reminded me that there are certain mental states that only short writing can induce. Blackwood’s story depends on the evocation of an atmosphere, which a novel length work would attenuate to the point of inefficacy. Much of odd or uncanny fiction has been disserved by the modern literary market place, which makes novels the sole focus for anybody but the few people who read literary magazines.

But short stories, as Michael Chabon says in one of his essays, were at one time synonymous with the odd and uncanny, so much so that all short stories may be descended from ghost stories, depending as they do on the single unexpected turn or the use of brief atmospheric effects, like a magic trick or a poem. To avoid short stories is to miss out on just how weird and enchanting writing can be.

Kindle Singles, which is designed to showcase short fiction, has a number of great stories on offer this October in their Dark Corners series. They are perfect for a single sitting, to be read on whatever screen is at hand. It’s probably most similar to the way the Victorians, the first great market for short writing, would’ve consumed short fiction. They were published in newspapers and magazines to be read in the spare moments of a busy life. And they were somehow of the moment, more like news reports than novels.

I recommend Miao Dao, by Joyce Carol Oates. Before ascending to literary recognition, Oates wrote mysteries and the kind of Gothic novels popular in the 1970s. Think of a lurid cover with a woman in a dress fleeing from a castle with a single light on in the window, and you know the type. Miao Dao has that easy readability of pop fiction. But it’s also nearly perfect in its craftsmanship.

It’s about Mia, a young girl who is going through puberty and doing a bad job of coping. Assailed by bullies at school, domestic upheaval at home, and strangely attracted to the feral freedom of an empty lot infested by stray cats, Mia is a narrator who is more interesting after every page.

I don’t know how Oates does it, but there is a horror about this story that seems like it could only explode from a much longer fuse. Like the terror that can emerge from the sterilized corners of suburbia, where Miao Dao is set, the mental disturbance of this story comes out of nowhere, but strikes like an avenging devil. Spend 45 minutes with Mia, and you’ll have a chill that’s far deeper than any spooky film or TV show I can remember.

Media Diet: The Hedgehog Review

This is what happens when you go on Arts & Letters Daily after midnight. You end up buying a year’s print subscription to the Hedgehog Review and some back issues, all because you read a great blog post there about the scarcity of time in the age of instant gratification.

I’m most looking forward to reading the issue about The End of History. Liberal democracies and the view of ourselves as the independent, free people that democracy depends on are under assault. The combined forces of technology, resource scarcity, terrorism, and the apparent strength of China’s model (free economy, unfree politics) are all seen as existential threats to the liberal order. The Economist, which was around at the birth of the liberal order, is taking a hard look at this problem. But so is Francis Fukuyama, whose book on The End of History helped spark this whole resurgence of the debate. His new book, Identity, on the rise of Trump, is also on my infinite to-read list.

Which brings me to another reason I subscribed to The Hedgehog Review. I’m also looking forward to another source of book reviews.

I’m acutely aware, every day, that I won’t get to read everything I want to before I die. So great, crisp reviews like the ones in these pages are a way of at least getting a cursory tour of all that knowledge.

See anything in the article titles that strikes your fancy?

Saturday Book Review: FIASCO by Stanislaw Lem

FIASCO by Stanislaw Lem

FIASCO by Stanislaw Lem

FIASCO is a science fiction novel with all the trimmings, but it is also a mind blowing work of literature.  It begins with a man alone inside a giant mechanized transport getting lost in a hostile alien forest, and unfolds into a ripping good first contact story, of cosmic proportions.

Along the way, you get an encyclopedia of weird environments, science fictional ideas, actual scientific knowledge, satire, philosophy, theology, history, game theory, and adventure.

You get all that because Lem was an irrepressibly enthusiastic genius, bursting with a desire to let his love of these subjects into the world.  Think of this book as a (mostly) benevolent Pandora’s Box.  Once you open it, there is no going back for you.  It’s one of those rare books that entertains you all the way to a slightly different view of yourself in relation to a suddenly bigger, weirder universe.