Monday, February 25, 2013

Opposites ("Ike and Dick: Portrait of a Strange Political Marriage" by Jeffrey Frank)

Over the last five months, I've been reading Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals, her massive volume on Lincoln's inclusion of political foes in his presidential cabinet, one chapter at a time. In that same time, I've begun and finished a few dozen other books, usually in one or two sittings, and almost always with ease...but Goodwin's tome remains unconquered on a table in my living room, the bookmark creeping every slowly from front cover to back. The reason it's taken so long is not because I don't find the book interesting; in reality, the book is too interesting: Goodwin's level of research and detail is exhausting, with each chapter saturated by first- and secondhand sources, and the 1000-page story actually ends on page 750 or so, leaving the last quarter to a small-font collection of notes and sources. To read a chapter is to find yourself dropped into ten different books unto themselves--about events, figures, laws, debates, ideas--all of which are brought together with such expert skill, such fluid narrative ease, that the mind feels over-nourished to the point of intellectual gluttony after only 20 or 30 pages. It's a beautiful feeling.

Perhaps it's because of that over-nourishment, which has kept me coming back to the book over 5 long months, that makes it hard to enjoy Ike and Dick, Jeffrey Frank's account of the relationship between President Dwight Eisenhower and his vice-president, a senator and future commander-in-chief himself, Richard Nixon. Where Goodwin's study of Lincoln and his cabinet has lasted almost half a year, I began Frank's book on a Thursday night and finished it two days later, as the Saturday evening was giving way to Sunday morning. This is a compliment to the author, but even before that first sitting had ended, I was worried: Ike and Dick, itself far from skimpy at 400 pages, was too easy. Yes, the story of these two men was written with the fluidity of a well-paced novel--another compliment to the author--but didn't challenge my mind in the way Goodwin's book--and all historical books--should. In fact, Frank's book seems like it should be twice as long and three times as thorough. Instead, his interest in this topic--and his belief in telling the story well--seems to have undermined his duty to report as much as he can about these two men so that we may better understand not only their own lives and relationships, including with each other, but also recognize how important they both were to the times in which they lived and served.

Take Richard Nixon, for example. There's little if any information about Nixon's accomplishments in Congress outside of his rabid fight against Communism, which culminated in the conviction of Alger Hiss for perjury, even though he served in that body . Was his relative success at Red-baiting his only true appeal for the Eisenhower campaign and the Republican Party? It certainly wasn't the only issue he focused on. After all, he voted to limit the power of unions (Taft-Hartley Act of 1947; co-sponsor Robert Taft plays an important part in Eisenhower's rise); helped pass the Marshall Plan, which rescued post-WWII European countries and is one of the most important humanitarian programs our country has ever undertaken; supported illegal immigration during the Communist hysteria; and supported, albeit half-heartedly at times, civil rights for African-Americans, which should have been given more attention that it is considering how important civil rights became to the presidencies of both men. Besides his legislative achievements, there is the opposite side of Nixon--his vices, his failings, his torturous mix of vicious egotism and saddening self-consciousness--that never seems to appear, except in one or two small mentions of his alcoholism (and a hint that, after he is defeated in his run for California governor, he struck his wife, as he was known--Frank tells us--for sometimes lashing out violently.) By skimping on details about Nixon and his place in American politics before becoming vice-president, Frank misses an opportunity to contrast this young, flawed, dog-faced lawmaker with the older, more experiences war hero--two men from completely different paths who will, in 1952, become the two most powerful men in the country.

In truth, the first Eisenhower administration is portrayed mostly as one of distance and suspicion between Eisenhower and his vice-president, who is utilized mostly to do much of Eisenhower's dirty work, which includes dealing with Nixon's former colleague Senator Joe McCarthy. (Frank doesn't go into much detail about this, either, though one suspects it's more or less because Nixon--much like everyone else--had very little influence over a man who was becoming increasingly devoured by a creature of his own making.) It isn't until the second administration, when Eisenhower's health begins to catch up with him, that we see Nixon become an impressive, caricature-defying figure. Along with the president's cabinet, he takes charge of the leaderless situation, ensuring decisions are made thoughtfully and with considering for the president's wishes; he does not make a grab for power, as some expect he will, and even in making the decisions with the cabinet, he is deferential to their opinions over his own. In doing so, Nixon demonstrates a diplomacy and demeanor that changes the perceptions of not only those around him but large swathes of his detractors, who finally see him as having the skills and disposition necessary to being presidential. It also seems to sway Eisenhower, who wasn't exactly a fan of Nixon to begin with, though their relationship will remain cordial and distant for the rest of their time together.

Where Frank finds a worthy subject--and where the book finds its strongest footing--is in the years after Eisenhower's presidency, when both men are gone from politics: Eisenhower will never run for political office again and pass away in less than a decade, during which time Nixon will mount a failed campaign for California governor and move back to practicing law. Suddenly, neither man is tethered to a need for public and private facades; they speak honestly, write with personal depth, and understand the roles they play in one another's lives. As Frank notes, Eisenhower was suddenly an ex-president, and Nixon's connection to politics was his connection to politics; without his former vice-president, Eisenhower was destined to be forgotten in a fast-paced and tumultuous world consumed by civil unrest and war.

At the same time, Nixon sees a man who stands for everything he wants to be--loved, revered both nationally and internationally, respected enough for others to carry out his dirtier political requests without hesitation--but one who will not let him into his inner circle of friends. To Nixon, Eisenhower is that object in the distance he can never reach, whether it be the presidency--an easy but unsteady analogy, I should say--or simply the approval of the masses, the lack of which acts as an unending source of pain. (Eisenhower, on the other hand, never seems without that approval, even during his most controversial and divisive decisions, such as sending the National Guard to Little Rock to enforce desegregation.) By staying close to Eisenhower, Nixon not only guarantees his support for future political races but also the chance to study him more, to understand how Eisenhower can do so much for himself by doing so little.

At the end of the book, Frank wonders out loud how Nixon would have behaved as president had Eisenhower lived through his presidency. (He dies on March 28, 1969, a little more than two months after Nixon begins his first term.) Would the presence of this man, whose opinion and approval meant so much to Nixon, have changed the way he conducted himself and handled the country's most pressing issues, knowing full well he was being watched so closely? Or would the trajectory of history remained the same, Nixon's demons--almost none of which are explored here--taking him over slowly under the ambrosia of power? It's difficult to say, and anything beyond shallow speculation does a disservice not only to history but the people who lived it. All we know is that, had these two men never met--had Eisenhower run with someone else, had Nixon stayed in Congress, or run on his own volition as a stand-alone candidate for president--we would have been robbed of a political relationship--a friendship, you could argue, between two men with different ideas about what friendship actually meant--that stands as one of the strangest, most unique, and most rewarding in modern history.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Obsession ("Give Me Everything You Have" by James Lasdun)

"On Being Stalked," the subtitle of James Lasdun's memoir Give Me Everything You Have, hints at a storyline that is thrilling and suspenseful; the tiny little envelope accompanying this subtitle, which also happens to be the only image on the entire cover, hints at the opposite. Stalking is a lurid crime based on obsession, drive, and more often than not delusion, something rare that requires planning to be done successfully. Mail, whether physical or digital--daily or instantaneous, based in bureaucracy and routine or based in time-insensitive whim--is omnipotent, unavoidable, and sloppy, dominated in all forms by pointless advertisements and junk messages. Stalking is pure emotion expressed dangerously on an individual basis. Mail, in the majority of instances and regardless of form, lacks any sense of emotion beyond the customariness of greetings and closings; it is something that can be done en masse--form letters, bank statements, bills, CC'ed and BCC'ed e-mails, reply-alls, newsletters, coupons, spam--and increasingly so by machines, no human input whatsoever, which only intensifies its mindlessness.

At the heart of Lasdun's book is where these two dichotomous islands are bridged together--namely, in the solitary obsession of a graduate student named Nasreen. An Iranian immigrant, Nasreen enters James' world as a shy but promising student in his college creative writing class; years later, after reuniting over Nasreen's developing novel, she becomes fixated on him, first in a playfully flirtatious way, then with increasing directness, until he must rebuff her advances. She seems embarrassed and regretful, but the e-mails soon become more aggressive and more frequent, culminating in multiple e-mails a day filled with accusations of sexual impropriety, racism, sexism, and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. Soon, Nasreen's web expands to include Lasdun's agent, publisher, colleagues, and former employers, to the point where his very life is dominated by the fear inspired by her e-mails, which are sent from hundreds of miles away. Nasreen never calls, and he never calls her--in fact, he doesn't reply to her e-mails after a certain point, which does little to stem their anger or slow their frequency. They live on those dichotomous islands--he in the land of slow-paced and emotionless texts, of college lectures and ancient tomes and print publications, she in a fast-paced land of obsession that can be dispatched at the press of a button. But they are, paradoxically, as close as two people could possibly be.

Eventually, Nasreen takes to posting anonymous comments, submitting critical reviews of his book, and impersonating others, including Lasdun himself, in the hopes of destroying him, both personally and professionally. And she does all of this digitally, using e-mail and online booksellers and discussion boards to attack from a distance that protects her both physically and legally. (You start to believe that, were Lasdun to confront her in person, she would crumble--the kind of person who uses the distance and anonymity of the internet more defensively than offensively.) Lasdun goes to the FBI, but they do nothing. He goes to his local police, but they can offer little. Even a specialist in stalking crimes to whom Lasdun is referred leads nowhere but a weak phone call and some heartless warnings. He's lost to a world that he cannot control--in fact, no one can control the online world, not even Nasreen herself--and throughout the book, we see our helpless victim slowly resigning himself to the understanding that, no, there's no way he can fight this onslaught.

At the same time, Lasdun tells us about himself at length--his research, his family vacations, his own novels, one of which bears striking coincidences to his own life at the time--a narrative choice that may have been included to make our writer more sympathetic but actually slows his book down and muddies the focus. Had Lasdun kept strictly to the story of he and Nasreen, even while preserving his occasional asides about technology and privacy in our modern age, his story would have been far more interesting, but the book itself would have come in at just under 150 pages--far from a marketable book. Add to this his incessant need to deconstruct and analyze--and to tell us his intentions as he's doing it--makes his story different than most firsthand accounts of stalking, but it also reduces his insight until many of his passages read like those of a cold lit-theory professor looking for something more where there's actually nothing much at all. Nasreen is unstable, clearly and simply, but Lasdun wants it to be more than just that--he wants to see the prisms of her disorder, the historical and personal foundations of her problems, and in trying to understand her he becomes obsessive himself. He is looking for solution by becoming the problem.

It's in this way that his book is one of contradiction. He's a man who wants his privacy and security back but has no problem opening up his private life to the readers of his book. He dismisses Nasreen for e-mails accusing him of stealing and selling her work as the work of a book about her, one that couldn't have existed without her, her work, and her words. In an age of cyber-stalking, cyber-bullying, and unregulated trolling, we're told that acknowledging the troublemakers will only encourage them--it satisfies their need for validation and attention--which is precisely the reason why Lasdun ignores her e-mails. This is perhaps the greatest contradiction of all--a man who ignores his stalker, who follows the standard procedures for dealing with an obsessive contact, and then undermines all of it by writing her into a book. In an age of e-mails that come and go, destined to appear and disappear with the same regularity and impact, Lasdun has written his villain into a book that will last--a bridge on which Nasreen can cross back and forth forever.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Loss ("My Brother's Book" by Maurice Sendak)

One of the greatest interviews I've ever seen took place only a few years ago between Maurice Sendak and Stephen Colbert for the latter's television show. Broadcast over two nights--three if you include clips broadcast the night after Sendak's death--the interview was noteworthy for more than a few reasons, the most important being the similarities both men shared. Yes, they were separated by decades--Sendak was in his 80s at the time and visibly ill, while Colbert was in his forties--as well as by backgrounds and careers. After all, Sendak was gay, Jewish, and from a small family, whereas Colbert grew up one of 11 children in a Catholic home. But they were also two men who found serious faults in the world in which they lived and chose to express their anger, frustration, and overall disappointment with humanity in different ways. Colbert took to satire, and four weeks a night he lampoons the thoughtless, compassionless, hypocritical, and megalomaniacal members of our society, often found in positions of great power and influence, by imitating their brazen selfishness and egotism to the point of hyperbole. Sendak, on the other hand, chose to be thoughtful, compassionate, and humble towards those who had the least amount of power and influence in our society: children.

As Colbert noted in his interview, Sendak's books do not talk down to children or attempt to sanitize the world they live in and will someday inherit; the truths, failings, and horrors that come with adulthood appear frequently in Sendak's books through the prism of a child's mind. There is death, disappointment, and loss, especially where animals are concerned, and few if any of his books come with what one would consider a happy, uplifting resolution. Sendak even illustrated Tony Kushner's Brundibar, a story based on the one performed by children in Terezin, a Nazi concentration camp. When Colbert asked him, naturally, about his reputation as an author-illustrator of children's books, Sendak responded, "I don't write for children....I write, and somebody says, 'That's for children.' I didn't set out to make children happy or make life better for them or easier for them." When Colbert pressed him, Sendak admitted he liked children slightly more than he liked adults, which wasn't saying much because "I really don't like adults at all, practically." It's this outlook on adults--that they're unpleasant, unwise, and prone to stupidity--that makes Sendak's book all the more fascinating, considering he's essentially writing books about adult themes for readers who aren't yet adults, whether he intended to or not. In a sense, he's trying to teach millions of children a lesson about the world before they, too, are old enough and powerful enough to make the same mistakes. He wants them to be better, smarter, more mature, and he does this by presenting a world that exists both honestly and fantastically. Real life, he is telling his readers, can be strangle and ugly, yes, but that doesn't make it any less beautiful.

Perhaps the greatest similarity both men share has little to do with their adult work, ironically, but tragedies both suffered in their personal lives. Much of Sendak's extended family perished in the Holocaust, and Sendak's brother Jack--an inspiration and two-time collaborator--died in 1995 at the age of 71, while Colbert's father and two of his brothers died in a plane crash when Colbert was only 10 years old. Very little affects a child more than being surrounded by death and all the emotions it entails, and what is death but just another honest part of an honest world? It's this nakedness toward death and the emotions it entails that form the basis of My Brother's Book, Sendak's last work: a short poem inspired by Shakespeare and accompanied by artwork reminiscent of William Blake. The story concerns two brothers who are wrenched apart by a cosmic occurrence, a meteor standing in for death, and drift apart on a planet now split in two--Guy's world is light and populated by an anthropomorphic bear, Jack's world is cold and brutal, transforming him over five years into a tree--only to come together in the end, a bittersweet reunion, an embrace that is tinged with the knowledge that the only way both brothers can truly be together again is not in life or a stitched-together world but in death. Jack does not unfreeze, un-root, or de-branch to join the living; instead, he wraps his brother in his bark-branch arms to keep him safe and allow him to dream.

There's little question that Sendak's poem is profound and well-written, just as there's no question his artwork is stunning. But as you close the book, which can be read in around five minutes, you feel underwhelmed. There's so much here but, somehow, so little. You want more, crave more, even though you know that this story is as long as it needs to be, and any more would have soured this bittersweet morsel of a story. The feeling you experience after finishing the book is joy for having read it, followed by despondency--you're slowly but suddenly aware there will never be another Sendak book, ever. The man is gone now, sleeping in the arms of his brother, wherever that cold half-planet may be, deaf to our pleas for more. Yes, we are selfish for wanting more in the face of such an irreversible loss, one that touches us only distantly and impersonally as readers rather than family or friend, but what better reason to be selfish than for a book like this, and what better person to be selfish for than a man with such a heart for those he loved?