Irreal Life Top Ten, June 2016.
- William Steig, THE REAL THIEF (1975): Nominally for children — but more sophisticated in language, story structure, and moral outlook than kids are used to today — this is the story of a palace guard wrongly accused of thievery and the titular real thief, an abject soul every bit as sympathetic as the guard. (Spoilers follow.) The guard’s friends turn on him despite his obvious innocence, and the guilt-ridden thief returns the stolen treasure to clear his name; then he has to go find the guard, who’s in hiding. Their meeting is an extraordinary scene: the guard immediately forgives the thief, because the real villains are his so-called ‘friends.’ Together they agree never to reveal the thief’s identity. The rendering of the thief’s descent into compulsive criminality is believable and harrowing, and the inner life of the guard is vivid and immediately recognizable. Steig’s deft illustrations help bring the story to life, but it’s the writing — compact, insightful, slyly funny — which carries the day. The final sentence is a ‘happy ending’ on par with The Princess Bride. This is a beautiful book.
- ‘Video sports’: First of all, don’t call them that — they’re games, not sports, unless those words are to mean nothing at all. But thanks to my burgeoning X-Wing obsession, I finally understand the appeal of watching livestreams of nerds playing games. The danger, of course, is that the commentators will tend to be emotionally crippled manchildren with all the subtlety of humour that God in Her wisdom granted a piece of rotten fruit. The upside is that mainstream tabletop games have gotten extremely sophisticated in the last twenty years (thanks, Klaus Teuber et al.!) and video games are now every inch as ‘cinematic’ as the shit movies they’re stealing their visuals from (and donating their attenuated moral senses to). This high-level X-Wing match is a lovely bit of light comedy featuring two friends flying identical spaceship fleets. They go for each other’s throats and enthusiastically hug at the end. The commentators are personable and reasonably articulate and know the game backwards and forwards. We live in a dark age, but this is good news.
- Clinton: Her reputation was salvaged by her stint as Sec’y of State — though I’m sure the number of people who can name an actual accomplishment during her tenure is statistically equivalent to zero, and I’ve heard sound arguments that her job performance was anywhere from middling to disastrous. But she’ll receive an even bigger reputational boost from simple contrast with Trump. We’ve known for a while how this would go down: anyone the GOP could possibly nominate would be humiliated on the debate stage by the oiliest (and now most experienced) of Dem candidates, and the Trump nomination was the undreamt-of best possible outcome for Clinton. Now she has an delusional moron to run against. She is smart and ruthless, as transparently self-serving as Obama said, a shockingly inept campaigner — I hope she says a prayer of gratitude every morning for her opponent. She will win ugly, Trump’s political career will be over. And we’ll keep drinking neoliberal poison for eight years while the sea levels rise. There is, of course, one small danger: if something goes wrong for Clinton during this campaign, the upsurge in fascist sympathies may bring about open streetside conflict not seen since 1968.
- Sanders: He’d have been a terrible president. (Everyone gets that, right? The man’s admirable, moral, more thoughtful about foreign policy than he’s given credit for, but his own party would’ve had him running uphill both ways to use the goddamn bathroom, never mind the Republicans — and try to imagine a Sanders TV address on 9/11/01.) Yet we need to say it over and over or it will be true forever: by dint of his political beliefs rather than his sex or gender, Sanders had the harder race to run. And he came dangerously close to winning despite lacking even a single structural advantage (ignore the eagerly self-clowning Josh Marshall et al. when they snark that the caucus system is ‘rigged’ in favour of insurgent candidates). The essential Sanders postmortem right now is Matt Taibbi’s furious piece on Dems learning the wrongest possible lessons from this primary season — bookmark that page, by the way, since it’ll apply in 2020 as well, assuming Clinton’s serious health problems don’t recur before then.
- Max Richter, SLEEP: New Age music for the New Yorker crowd. Beautiful, then boring, then beautiful again as it pushes past ‘interest’ into simple coexistence — then boring all over again, this time for the rest of its eight-hour runtime, assuming you can bear to listen to more than an EP’s worth of orchestral swells and closing-montage piano chords. I haven’t tried sleeping with Sleep on the stereo, but by process of elimination it must be perfect for the task; after all, there’s little point having it on while you’re awake.
- GAME OF THRONES and VEEP: Two years ago you could make a case for these as HBO’s best shows: Veep, a merciless comedy about the venomous incompetence of Washington, boasts a couple of TV’s best comic performances and Armando Ianucci’s signature subtle comedy (which masquerades as a stream of profane insults but reveals its depth at quieter moments), and GoT was compulsively watchable even for those of us who realized how much richer the books were in every way. Both shows have missed the mark this season, though — oddly enough, for the same reason: they’ve had to go beyond their creators’ visions. GoT showrunners Benioff and Weiss are working without a complete book of George Martin’s to base the season on, and while they can still write a strong scene, they have neither Martin’s ambition nor his skill at crafting serial storylines. And they can’t begin to approach the scope of the books’ myth-history or social texture, its step-by-step depiction of the simultaneous rise of several forms of religious fundamentalism throughout Westeros and Essos… There’s a lot more fanservice and lurid nonsense in this season of the show, more big pointless declarations, more coincidence, and fewer moments of unexpected connection and revelations of vast scope. The first few episodes were merely stupid; it’s picked up somewhat, but the pacing’s been inconsistent and the Dramatic Plotty Bits (e.g. Daenerys’s tiresome born-in-fire rerun) haven’t quite hit. Meanwhile Veep has simply lost its verbal wit and its subtlety of characterization; it’s currently just a funny workplace sitcom. It’s surely too simple to blame the missteps on the showrunner transition from Ianucci (a cerebral Scot) to an American who worked on Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, but I suspect the show has fallen prey to that old TV curse: they no longer have a Genius in the Writers’ Room. If you don’t believe me, watch a random episode from Seasons 2-4. Same with Game of Thrones, by the way (Season 5 featured some extraordinary cinema (Hardhome!) but was marred by e.g. Benioff & Weiss’s utterly cack-handed Dorne storyline, while Seasons 2-4 were as good as their word).
- Pulse: I’m writing about these other things because the news this week is horrible, and (even more horrible) no longer unexpected. My heart breaks for the families of the victims in Orlando. I don’t want to dwell on the rage I feel about the hypocrisy and capitulation of ‘sophisticated’ observers quick to pretend these murders were solely about American TV and not a specific murderous form of fundamentalist religious insanity. Talking about TV, or TV characters like Donald Trump, is easier at the moment than facing the horror of 50 dead and 50 wounded and millions terrorized. Forgive my lack of nerve.
- Luttwak on fascism: His LRB essay ‘Why Fascism Is the Wave of the Future,’ once ‘merely’ sobering, is now terrifying: ‘A vast political space is thus left vacant by the Republican/Tory non-sequitur, on the one hand, and moderate Left particularism and assistentialism, on the other … [T]hat is the space that remains wide open for a product-improved Fascist party, dedicated to the enhancement of the personal economic security of the broad masses of (mainly) white-collar working people. Such a party could even be as free of racism as Mussolini’s original was until the alliance with Hitler, because its real stock in trade would be corporativist restraints on corporate Darwinism, and delaying if not blocking barriers against globalisation. It is not necessary to know how to spell Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft to recognise the Fascist predisposition engendered by today’s turbocharged capitalism.’
- Adulthood = childhood + discretionary income: The website narrative.ly ran a piece by an aspiring novelist, if memory serves, about how she was afraid to confess to her husband that she collected My Little Pony toys and did My Little Pony cosplay and went to My Litle Pony Conventions and so forth, but then she told him and he didn’t actually care because he collects stupid video game stuff. The deep message — being honest is important — is a banal but useful reminder. The surface content is deeply disturbing. I don’t actually object to adults liking children’s stories, not at all. I object weakly to adults filling their houses with children’s toys, but I recognize that this isn’t so different from filling a house with, say, statuettes of the Virgin Mary, which would seem weird and excessive but not contemptible. I strongly object, however, to the idea that the best use of adult time and money is reliving childhood fixations. Increasingly, the American ideal of ‘adulthood’ is about the freedom to ‘explore (and/or express) your identity’ rather than the obligation to join the community body — and the notion that your identity is what you own is so deeply ingrained that this woman is, as Freddie de Boer points out, the norm. She’s living the dream: her husband helps her surround herself with a fantasy of eternal childhood, and she gets an NYT byline out of it. Funny thing about that fantasy, though: among other things, it’s a recipe for absolute political apathy and cultural atomization. Which is another big reason Maria Cook and her My Little Ponies are in narrative.ly and you’re not.
- There is no ten.