The Street with Trotsky’s Bones

I told my children while pointing to the weirdly shaped Polyforum building, the three of us sitting down in the backseat of a cab, feeling a bit foreign in the city in which we had all been born but had not lived for a long time: “The guy who did that thing is the same one who fired the machine gun whose bullet holes we saw in Trotsky’s bedroom, near your grandparents’ house.” They were, of course, immediately interested in the building. I grew up in the neighborhood of El Carmen, on Calle Viena: a quiet, middle-class, residential road that happens to have, at one end, an insane monument engraved with the hammer and sickle: Leon Trotsky’s grave.

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White Tears

In his fifth novel, Hari Kunzru confronts America’s racially stained history through an ingenious premise: the eerie appearance of a 1920s blues song in contemporary New York, where two young white men obsessed with black music persuade themselves that they’ve made the record.

It’s a sly setup for a book that takes on the controversial topic of cultural appropriation, whereby the ethnic majority adopts or even attempts to co-opt the cultural elements of an ethnic minority. The meaning of the term referenced in the title White Tears is elastic, but in essence it describes the propensity of some white people (even, and perhaps especially, those who regard themselves as enlightened) to focus on their own feelings and responses in issues involving race, instead of acknowledging their privileged position.

In the case of the two twentysomething Brooklyn hipsters in Kunzru’s novel, connoisseurship of the blues is a ticket to a kind of personal cachet that neither feels in possession of on his own. Seth, socially awkward and still recovering from a vaguely described nervous breakdown after the death of his mother, worries that he’s a parasitic presence in the life of his buddy Carter, heir to a fortune his family has built on their private prisons and security business.

Carter himself is uncomfortable with the privilege that his wealth conveys. He doesn’t like to discuss money at all, though he’s happy to use it to finance his and Seth’s budding music business and to pursue a passion for collecting old blues records. “He listened exclusively to black music because, he said, it was more intense and authentic than anything made by white people. He spoke as if ‘white people’ were the name of an army or a gang, some organization to which he didn’t belong.”

Seth, a devoted audiophile, takes long walks through the city, during which he makes surreptitious recordings. One day, Seth records a man in a park singing a haunting blues song, and Carter urges him to create a “recording,” with crackles and hisses to make it sound old. Carter posts the resulting file online as a period recording by a singer whom he dubs Charlie Shaw, and collectors clamor to buy it. One in particular, with the handle JumpJim, insists that the man and the record really existed.

Carter celebrates this bizarre development as the ultimate imprimatur of authenticity: “These fuckers think this music was made in 1928, but actually we made it. We made it, fools! We made that shit last week! So who’s the expert now? Who knows the tradition? We do! We own that shit!” Carter hopes to parlay the interest in the fake Charlie Shaw record into the purchase of other rare records from the mysterious JumpJim. Unfortunately, a disaster soon sidelines Carter — by far the more interesting of the duo. Seth and Carter’s sister, a troubled artist on whom Seth has a hopeless crush, are thrown together as they attempt to solve the ghostly historical mystery surrounding the record and how it may be entwined with Carter’s fate.

As he’s done in some of his other novels, notably his rightly acclaimed Gods Without Men, Kunzru begins hopscotching through time and geography. He takes his characters and his readers on not one but two road trips through the American South and leaves his narrator, Seth, for firsthand accounts of JumpJim and, finally, the half-figmentary Charlie Shaw himself.

The trouble is that our primary guide through the kudzu of history that White Tears creates is Seth, a young man afflicted with self-loathing and social anxiety, the kind of storyteller who has to resort to college-essay tactics to tackle a big subject:

When did I lose touch with the future? I remember how imminent it used to feel, how exciting . . . Now I would say the future is behind me. It is, in any case, out of my reach. It would be easy to put the blame on Carter, on his melancholy attachment to the crackle and hiss, but I bear my share of responsibility. I let myself fall. Nostalgia: from the Greek “nostos” — homecoming — and “algos” pain or ache: the pain a sick person feels because he is not in his native land, or fears never to see it again. Now I am nostalgic for the future, which was my native land.

Seth is so listless that he excites only a cerebral pity. He remains a cipher, dispossessed from the business he and Carter built by Carter’s parents and older brother, and barely tolerated by Carter’s sister. After a cameo by his father, his own family doesn’t figure at all in the story. Seth says early on that he “made a run for it, away from human history and its dark places,” and he’s as good as his word. He has no context and spends a lot of the book adrift, seemingly so he can be a fly on the wall for Kunzru’s project. Eventually, this function is literalized: He’s simply a tool.

The character of Charlie Shaw isn’t fully embodied either, though for different reasons. His short, shattered life seems like a carapace in which to fit the reflexive lock-him-up racism of a local policeman, the rages of a prison chain gang overseer, and the casual appropriation by record companies whose representatives traveled the South panning for musical gold but leaving the musicians themselves behind.

JumpJim is the most fully realized of Kunzru’s narrators, though he gets a fraction of the airtime Seth does. The sections in which JumpJim describes his youthful road trip through the South in the 1950s with a veteran record collector and heroin addict named Chester Bly are among the book’s most engaging. In one memorable scene, a patrolman in a small southern town stops the car in which they are traveling as they seek out rare records. Wary that they may be civil rights agitators, the trooper makes a veiled threat. Chester responds that he’s a “proud American. I stand with the white man, one hundred percent.”

Afterward, JumpJim reflects on the exchange: “I don’t think Chester meant a word of it. No one could have loved that music so much and harbored a speck of racial prejudice. All the same I felt ashamed. It seemed wrong to have said what he said. For a moment I wished I really had driven along those bumpy roads to register people to vote, to tell them they ought to be free.” This conflict is the dark heart of the book, but it seldom emerges with clarity in Seth’s meandering narration.

Cultural appropriation is a natural subject for Kunzru, who’s displayed an intense curiosity about an astonishingly diverse cast of characters, from the half-Indian, half-English protagonist of his debut novel, The Impressionist, to the lonely Indian computer coder in Silicon Valley in Transmission, to the middle-aged onetime English radical in My Revolutions, to the chorus of characters — nineteenth-century silver miners and ethnographers of native Americans, 1970s UFO cult members, Iraqi emigrants, a disconsolate British rock star, the parents of an autistic boy who goes missing in the desert — whose narratives together form his kaleidoscopic last novel, Gods Without Men.

Unfortunately, the characters in White Tears are missing the blood and heart that would bring this important story to life. There’s a painstaking quality to the novel that’s reminiscent of Carter and Seth’s studious reproduction of that old record. An agenda of condemnation appears to have overtaken the curiosity that has allowed Kunzru to imaginatively inhabit so many different people. In arraying himself against his book’s appropriators, racists, wealthy elites, and corporate opportunists, he has transmuted his considerable literary gifts into a weapon that seeks out its targets, again and again.

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France Against Itself

In recent years, the traditional right has had to move rightward to stop its voters going over to Marine Le Pen. Watching Le Pen and former prime minister François Fillon on television, watching Fillon address a rally of five thousand people in Nice in the final days before the first-round election, and talking to ordinary people who said they were likely to vote for either of these two candidates, I often felt like I was listening to a French version of the Brexit and Trump campaigns, with many of the same fears about foreigners and globalization eroding the livelihoods of citizens.

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Trump’s Travel Bans—Look Beyond the Text

Imagine if a mayoral candidate promised repeatedly during a campaign that he would keep African-Americans out of the town, and then, upon election, adopted a policy barring entry from seven cities with populations that were 90 percent African-American. Suppose, further, that after that order was struck down, he issued a new one barring entry from six majority-black cities, and his aides stated publicly that it was only a technical adjustment. Would anyone doubt that the policy discriminated on the basis of race? Would we worry about chilling candidate speech? Substitute Muslim for African-American, country for city, and president for mayor, and you’ve got Trump’s executive orders.

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The Confidence Man of American Art

Robert Rauschenberg was a showman, a trickster, a shaman, and a charmer. In the retrospective that recently closed at Tate Modern in London and will be arriving at the Museum of Modern Art in New York this May, museumgoers are confronted with many different things: the imprint of an automobile tire; a couple of rocks tied with pieces of rope or string; paintings that are all white, all black, or all red; a sheet and pillow spattered with paint; a drawing by Willem de Kooning that Rauschenberg erased; deconstructed corrugated cardboard boxes; bright silken banners; a blinking light; a taxidermied Angora goat; mixed-media works mounted on wheels so as to be easily moved around; and paintings packed with photographic images. Rauschenberg’s career is the fool’s errand of twentieth-century American art.

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Charlton Heston: Hollywood’s Last Icon

Dense biographies about high-wattage Hollywood stars with limited acting chops can be tricky business for a writer and a reader alike. The former has to instill in the latter a belief in why we should care beyond yet another exegesis of celebrity, while readers, ideally, find a way to open themselves to seeing old works anew.

Marc Eliot has this kind of challenge in hand with Charlton Heston: Hollywood’s Last Icon — a voluminous, and possibly definitive, study one of the big screen’s paragons of brawn and masculinity. Its subject looms large in our cultural memory while remaining a limited thespian whose go-to move was leaning forward, iron jaw extended, as if forever contemplating where to get a good steak.

But if Heston lacked range, he didn’t lack self-consciousness. He was an ardent diarist, and those writings are counted on to provide new vantage points, Heston’s prose teaming up with Eliot’s, as it were, in a joint mission to tell us why we should care more than we already do about this Tinsel Town icon.

For starters, we should care because of the people Heston worked with, and what his relationship with them reveals. Consider, for example, Orson Welles, with whom Heston paired in 1957 to film the still incredibly odd, incredibly creepy B-noir Touch of Evil. Throughout this book we see Heston launching himself into intense workouts to get in shape for his parts, like he’s training for some epic last-man-standing competition, with lots of tennis worked in. He often comes off as a pawn for cagey directors but a thinking pawn all the same, with a sensitive B.S. detector making up the deficiencies of top-shelf mental acumen. In college he screened and loved Citizen Kane, and it was Heston who got Welles the directing gig for Touch of Evil, when no one in Hollywood would so much as prod Welles’s corpulent midsection with a barge pole.

Like so many Welles projects before it, Touch of Evil was hamstrung by what producers considered over-artiness, with Heston quite rightly realizing that he was a pretend star — behind Welles — in a picture that was only being made because he could draw an audience. Heston found himself having to act as go-between for the studio with an increasingly disconsolate director, who believed his leading man was a turncoat in part responsible for shearing his vision from him.

But outings like this one were the exceptions, of course. Heston was an action man, and Eliot’s book is structured around the monuments of his stardom: films like The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur, and Planet of the Apes. It’s a list that not only defines Heston’s career but a considerable chunk of what is still well remembered from Hollywood in the late 1950s and 1960s. If you’ve seen any film in your life outside of a Netflix-and-chill context in the most perfunctory film class — or hell, if you just ever leave the TV on at Easter — you’ve assuredly seen at least one of them. And if you’ve not seen Planet of the Apes, you’ve seen its ending spoofed somewhere. Heston’s physicality and the toll taken by the Ben-Hur shooting were integral, we see, to his performance. Worn down, almost like he’d been rubbed into the nitrate itself, Heston cries real tears as his character watches the Christ figure die in the film’s final shot. You watch the performance and you’re surprised, perhaps, how truly this stoic figure is emoting, with some context now worked in to flesh out one’s understanding of a scene. Ben-Hur becomes even more human a picture, and there even seems to be something preternatural about the fact that Heston performed all but two parts of the epic chariot race.

Eliot’s portrait of Heston’s life does take some turns off the set, and we catch glimpses of a fascinating political figure, so far as actors go, one considerably more protean than we now think — teaming with Martin Luther King, Jr. one moment and regularly stumping for the NRA the next. (In fact, Heston’s positions on guns are more nuanced than the anti-firearm brigade would likely expect.) But Eliot’s clear preference is the world of film, putting us right there with Heston as he mulls scripts, trains, launches himself bodily and mentally — both so far as each aspect of him went — into epics, biopics, big pictures, small pictures, more or less equally.

Heston is at its best here, revealing its subject as downright ruminative while working on The Ten Commandments, having prepped to the hilt to ready himself to play Moses. You even get the sense of some bonding/twining across the ages going on between the Red Sea parter and the Hollywood hunk: “All the Mosaic literature I’m working through, all the times I’ve read the script, mean little compared to the weeks I’ve spent wearing Moses’ clothes and breathing the air he knew.” A post-shooting bath prompts a joke about trying to part the water in the tub. You don’t expect sly wit from Heston. But when you see it on view in these pages, you realize how his performances gained in power from that push-and-pull between what was emoted and what was held back — which fosters a unique actorly visual all its own. After all, a biographer could always provide a more fulsomely emotional display — almost like production notes for a life and career — and now one has.

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A Buffet of French History

One of the bombs dropped during the current presidential campaign in France is Histoire mondiale de la France, an eight-hundred-page tome surveying 40,000 years of French history. A collaborative work written by 122 academics and directed by Patrick Boucheron, a distinguished medievalist at the Collège de France, it hardly seemed destined for the best-seller lists when it was published in January. But the French have snapped it up: 70,000 copies have been sold as of mid-March and sales are still going strong. After several decades of somnolence, academic history is a hit.

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The Best Kind of Princess

The three German Georgian graces who are the focus of the exhibition “Enlightened Princesses: Caroline, Augusta, Charlotte and the Shaping of the Modern World”—whose contributions to British life spanned more than a century—brought far more to their adopted country than just political stability. They were all exceptionally well educated, intellectually curious, and aesthetically attuned, even by the standards of the day usually reserved for men. This was true especially when it came to the Enlightenment ideas and principles being advanced at the time.

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The Canaries in Our Coal Mine

 

Put another way, only mass social movements can save us now. Because we know where the current system, left unchecked, is headed. We also know, I would add, how that system will deal with the reality of serial climate-related disasters: with profiteering, and escalating barbarism to segregate the losers from the winners. To arrive at that dystopia, all we need to do is keep barreling down the road we are on.

Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate

On the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970, environmental activists dumped oil-coated ducks at the Department of the Interior and dragged a net full of dead fish through downtown New York. Looking back from the perspective of a half century, such protests can seem almost quaint, but they did help to promote change — by the end of the year, the U.S. had an Environmental Protection Agency, and Earth Day is now observed in over 200 countries worldwide. What didn’t change, say Klein and most others in the forefront of the environmental movement today, is the underlying everything that must change — the still-escalating rates of resource depletion, consumption, and carbon emissions that now have the planet in a stranglehold.

The passage above is from Klein’s last chapter, in which she argues that only a global, grassroots social movement, something on the level of the nineteenth-century campaign to abolish slavery, can now trigger the changes necessary to avert disaster. Klein serves on the Board of Directors at 350.org, the climate action group that is working to reduce carbon emissions to below 350 parts per million. Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature, a 1989 classic on global warming, started 350.org in 2008 when he realized that the fight for political and cultural change was going to require not just books but boots on the ground, and in the frontline of corporate boardrooms. In his more recent Oil and Honey, McKibben tells the story of his own mobilization — how and why he took on Big Oil, requiring him to travel the world when he’d rather be in Vermont, checking on his beehives:

It’s been the most satisfying work of my life, endlessly difficult and endlessly interesting. But asleep in some Days Inn or Courtyard by Marriott, I dreamed of the Champlain Valley, with the Adirondacks towering to the west and its growing web organic dairies and community-supported agriculture (CSA) farms; I woke up to eat at the breakfast bar (non-Vermont non-maple syrup) and do rhetorical battle with retrograde congressman. But I did that battle in the name of my place, remembering what it felt like. I can try to imagine “unborn generations” and the “suffering poor” and the other huge reasons to fight climate change, but I never have the slightest trouble conjuring up the tang of the first frosty morning in the Adirondack fall, the evening breeze that stirs as the sun drops below the ridge.

Like Klein’s “Capitalism vs. Climate” discussion, Oil and Honey directs us to a choice. To emphasize that this choice must be an informed one, Earth Day, 2017 will feature a March for Science, in Washington and at over 500 international locations; April 22nd will be a day of speeches, displays, and teach-ins, because “threats to science are pervasive throughout governments around the world.” In the U.S., the Earth Day Network points to cutbacks at the EPA, to the loss or suppression of data at government websites and other issues.

In The Planet Remade: How Geoengineering Could Change the World, Oliver Morton tackles the most contentious frontier of climate science, wondering if the current experimental tinkering with the atmosphere could or should be intensified. Given the scale of our environmental problems and the speed of the change required, Morton is skeptical that either the politicians or the protesters we will be able to move the planet away from fossil fuels and a consumer mind-set in time. Although he is also skeptical of geoengineering, which brings visions of some uncontrollable “Frankenstein planet” — teams of scientists creating miracle climate solutions that turn out to be uncontrollable climate problems — he wants to fund rather than flee the geoscientists:

And yet: when I mentioned the possibility of reviving the green Sahara of the early Holocene — of streams and savannah where now there is barren sand, of animals grazing where today they would die, of rock paintings that might once again reflect the reality of life — was your response one of straightforward disgust? Did you not at least entertain the thought that more life, restored life, could be a boon to the desert sands? If you did, are you sure that reviving desert waters is necessarily a sin? There are undoubtedly ways that it could go wrong. But there are ways that it could go right, too.

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