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second-best since Cantor

Category: reviews

M. John Harrison, VIRICONIUM NIGHTS.

It seems to me that recession is one of the key features of the Viriconium cycle: the city is vivid, immersive, without ever actually being clear, and over the course of the series — particularly this maddening final ‘volume’ of short stories — it recedes entirely from view (like an eyeball drying out, or a chrysalis desiccating and collapsing onto itself) along with its citizens, its stories, any hint of clear meaning. What’s left, in ‘A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium,’ is less than an echo; and yet the city is unbelievably rich and present even in its (or rather as an) absence. When Harrison describes a building sited in a valley ‘like a metaphor’ there’s a cruelty to it. Light seemed cruel as well, beyond the grey pitilessness which characterizes all four Viriconium books.

Empty gestures and fading memories characterize the city in this final chapter. ‘A Young Man’s Journey’ takes place in our England, more or less, and while it ends with the musical acclamation which has characterized the series throughout — ‘Viriconium!’ — the weird hollowness of it is blacker than irony. But Nights is a coda; the whole series is a coda. The other short stories, especially ‘Strange Great Sins’ and ‘The Luck in the Head,’ depict a world in its Evening, reduced to reminiscence and meaningless recapitulation. I realize now that to call the mad goings-on ‘surreal’ is to dismiss them, to consign them to the aesthetic: this is a careful rendering of ugly nonsense, which after all sounds a lot like our world in our moment (or Thatcher’s, yes?).

The language of Nights varies, though it never returns (I’m glad, or relieved) to the terrible1 dense static of A Storm of Wings. After the deliberate slow movement of the two middle volumes, night comes, rest, the fog seems to recede — but there’s nothing left to see, or rather much to see and not to understand. The clocks have run down and the creative urge is gone.

It’s hard to talk about Viriconium. No: it’s easy but futile, like talking about entropy. The concept defeats you. Digging into Viriconium is like laboriously decrypting a piece of bad news. By the end it doesn’t promise anything; in the Evening even teasing is heartless.

I realized only now that I hadn’t thought of the Afternoon cultures since at least A Storm of Wings, maybe before. Harrison deals from the same deck as before — insects, horse heads, deranged artists, lightsabers, dwarves — but face-down, now. You hardly remember that any of it ever meant anything. Maybe there never was a fucking Viriconium.

I loved these stories (this story). I’m not sure I liked it in the end, though I’m sure Harrison doesn’t care; it filled me with an intense and unidentifiable emotion.

Viriconium!

and and and

I wrote that in early July, and I’m surprised at its negativity, or no, at its anger. I suppose I was angry that Viriconium had finally been taken away, though that taking was the work of the entire series, which seems to me altogether to be one of the great works of the imagination — or rather its imagination seems greater creeping up on me/mine than, oh fuck it. I adored the book and it angered me. I can’t decide whether Harrison loves or even likes Viriconium; he must, mustn’t he? but you wouldn’t know the way he lets it go. I resent his pitilessness as I’m not convinced it’s necessary, though maybe if I knew who/what/when was the butt of the joke and maybe if I also disliked him/it/then — well —

I catch myself wanting things from Viriconium that it was built (I imagine) precisely to refuse, and so catching, I get angry at the dwarf, the city, the insect, myself, and Mr Michael John Harrison, though not in that order. Me first. What a world, a world-city unlike any other, as they say in the ad-copy biz. Viriconium!


  1. ‘Terrible’ like ‘inspiring a kind of all-consuming existential dread,’ not ‘bad.’ Prosewise, Harrison is a living god. Also a darkdreaming fucker. 
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Lion, wolf, whatever.

The differences between George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books (ASOIAF) and the Games of Thrones TV show have been endlessly hashed out. I went on about them last week. I’ll just point out one more thing here, which I realized after watching the Season Seven finale, ‘The Wolf and the Dragon.’

The novels themselves are quite good, as you may have heard. But Martin’s tie-in hardcover, The World of Ice and Fire, punches way above its weight class. When I talk about the books as a kind of fantasy-historical documentary that follows a couple dozen main characters because it must, I do so partly because the World book shows where Martin’s heart is: his main character is Westerosi society, the families and communities and ‘smallfolk’ who populate a continent. TWOIAF is largely about noble houses and royal families, but its purpose is to connect those houses, to ground the present-time shenanigans of the novels in a sense of deep cultural history.

So. In the novels, one of the key events leading up to Robert’s Rebellion was the great tournament at Harrenhal, where Rhaegar Targaryen spurned his wife Elia Martell and presented blue roses to Robert Baratheon’s fiancĂ©e, Lyanna Stark. A year later, Rhaegar abducted Lyanna, they say, and the Rebellion was on. Meanwhile the ‘Knight of the Laughing Tree’ (Howland Reed?) got into some mysterious business in the background as well, and Jaime Lannister was inducted into the Kingsguard — arguably a revenge play by Aerys Targaryen against his former beloved friend and Hand, Tywin Lannister.

What fascinates me, though, is the question of who funded the tournament.

This detail does not matter even a tiny little bit to the show, which actually mentions this detail in the early-season DVD infodumps (to which Martin’s subtle ‘worldbuilding’ has been relegated), but never does anything with it. Now, the novels don’t need to do anything with (‘foreground’) a detail like that: Martin can just mention in passing that perhaps Rhaegar was conspiring to remove his mad father from the throne, and that suggestion will resonate more or less strongly depending on the pace of your reading, the depth of your immersion. In the books, the world of Westeros/Essos is rich enough, the last several decades of history detailed enough, that those echoes remain audible at all times. The minor ‘historical’ question — what was Rhaegar’s purpose at the tourney? — makes the Rebellion something more than it was, regardless of the truth/resolution of the Rhaegar/Lyanna story (i.e. the plotwise mystery).

In the show, there’s no time or imaginative overhead for that kind of subtle shading. Every moment of the series needs to service a vast ensemble of well paid actors performing in expensive European locations, and at any rate TV audiences (even in the dwindling ‘golden age’) have no attention spans. Most importantly, moving images work fundamentally differently from the vivid continuous dream of written fiction in terms of how you distribute your attention. You determine a book’s playback rate and focus by your reading, but film presents an attentional agenda, deciding for you, in a sense, how much (or little) it has on its mind. Game of Thrones on TV is all foreground, so to speak, never moreso than now, as conspiracies collapse to action and historical flashbacks come to have served their point. (The idea of history having a ‘point’ is an essential dramatic distortion, a trick of the human mind.)

ASOIAF has always been interested in how its entire world fits together — carefully balanced cosmic/historical scope as such is part of its point — but the show for a variety of reasons never has, and now it simply feels small. Having nearly all the main characters in one place might excite some viewers, but it irritates me, not least because of the stupid spacetime-distortions it took to get them there.1 And without Martin’s originating vision guiding Benioff and Weiss through the changes, we’ve had to settle for simplistic ambiguity (multiple episodes of the Arya/Sansa ‘standoff’) in a story that once reveled in ambivalence. As far as I’m concerned, Season Seven was an incoherent waste of time.

But it wasn’t much of a disappointment, because the show’s limitations have always been both obvious (even at its peak in Seasons 3-4). Benioff and Weiss didn’t adapt ASOIAF because they share Martin’s fantastic-historical vision, they just thought it would make a great TV show. They were right; kudos to them, I guess? But if Jon Snow’s parentage matters, then who funded the tourney at Harrenhal matters — history matters not because it moves the plot but because human beings survive it. That’s one of the lessons of the book which the TV show has discarded outright, and if that observation implies a criticism then I can now retreat in good order.


  1. ‘But you have no problem accepting dragons and magic in the show! Now you’re complaining about how its ravens are unrealistically fast flyers?‘ Imaginary complainant, you’re stupid. Dragons and magic are part of the contract of the series, and so is a certain physical realism. The showrunners/writers have shown themselves willing to abandon parts of the contract because the other bits are what sells — the criticism is that the maximum airspeed velocity of a lightly laden raven has just increased immeasurably in TV-Westeros because that’s the only way the writers could see to get out of a corner, and this speaks poorly of them. See? 

Mary Ruefle, MADNESS, RACK, AND HONEY.

Twice-yearly lectures delivered to student-poets at Ruefle’s institution, evolving over time from perfectly pitched discursive wanderings to loose affiliations of fragment and aphorism. Ruefle’s voice is neurotically welcoming, warm, brittle; her anxieties and maladaptations are key subjects here, and she’s found the perfect musical register for exploring them. But the chronological arrangement presents the traditional lecture-lectures up front — and they’re much the strongest material in the book — while a hell of a lot of Ruefle’s pagecount is spent on aphoristic mini-‘lectures’ which are (in the manner of off-hours poetspeak everywhere) witty rather than funny, and suggestive rather than beautiful. Which is to say: the book ends somewhat less compellingly than it begins, as far as (only) I’m concerned.

The sublime peak is a lecture about ‘My Emily Dickinson,’ which takes in Emily, Emily BrontĂ«, and Anne Frank. Piercingly beautiful and sad, it’s the perfect midpoint between the longer early pieces and the more I don’t wanna say ‘mature’ later entries. ‘Mature’ definitely isn’t the word; Ruefle is playful and exploratory and interested throughout, generous with her students, and never settles for handing down pronunciamenti in the old-lecturer standard manner.

In other words, Ruefle’s lectures are intellectually and emotionally alive and utterly compelling. I’m grateful for this book.

Multiclassing into idiot: Game of Thrones simply gives up.

I quite enjoy Game of Thrones, though you wouldn’t know it from the way I write about the show. I much prefer the books, which are vastly more ambitious in terms of narrative economy and more serious (adult) in their conception of personality and society, but the show is beautifully made and has the occasional moment of greatness. Its cast has few weak spots, though unfortunately Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) might be one of them; like Jon Snow (Kit Harington), she’s shown less and less interesting emotion as time has gone on and the writers have moved out beyond Martin’s own work. This is partly a function of seriality — the cost of serial dramatic protagonism is that one or a few characters must bear the weight of a very world’s changing, which naturally deforms them a bit, stripping away accident and frivolity and often personality, cf. my beloved Buffy Summers — and partly a function of the Thrones writers having conceived shallowly of the characters and story. Every time I think they’ve captured the magic of the books, they deliver a monthslong embarrassment like Bronn/Jaime’s trip to Dorne, or have a once-multifaceted character like Arya suddenly fall into endless comicbook declamations, or…

…or send a party of high-level Fighting-Man PCs, including a couple of Paladins and a Fighter/Cleric multiclass, on a deeply stupid quest into an apocalyptic hellscape to, I dunno, steal a single zombie from what until now had seemed to be a single mass of zombies and, I guess, carry it back through miles of inhospitable wasteland, apparently without even the most basic wilderness gear or preparation.

Y’know, that sort of thing.

The show has been silly for years, at times ugly and dumb, but this week’s Beyond the Wall’ was the first merely contemptible hour so far. Every single plot point depended on heretofore-savvy characters (or script supervisors) behaving stupidly. Arya and Sansa didn’t share obviously helpful vital information because…’drama.’ Jon and his band of hardened soldiers embarked on their ludicrous fetch-quest through the Plane of Snow because…’excitement.’ Daenerys and Jon are tumbling into a boring romance because…’destiny.’ A raven can fly from Eastwatch to Dragonstone, and Daenerys can fly back, all in a day or so, because…’suspense.’ In each case, the need to move plot-chesspieces forward has again washed out the integrity of character- and worldbuilding. The story (generational, historical, social) has been choked by the plot, and is now nowhere to be seen. The world has gotten smaller, collapsing to the cast of named characters and a handful of stage sets; indeed, entire continents are crossed in moments because the writers have given up caring about what lies between Dramatic Locations.

This collapse has been going on for a while — I called Season Five a hamfisted near-miss and Season Six a failure, and refused to watch the show for the first several years precisely because Martin’s grand history had been consigned to the DVD Extras as monologic infodumps — but with ‘Beyond the Wall,’ Benioff and Weiss seem to’ve put aside Martin’s story altogether in favour of their Plot. Their Westeros has no deep history, no sense of place, no mystery.

If I were George RR Martin I’d be lying in a house-sized pile of money right now, screaming at the sky.

Richard Rorty, ACHIEVING OUR COUNTRY.

Lectures (dated 1998) on Dewey and Whitman, America as secular ‘civic religion,’ economic vs cultural Leftism, the Left’s embrace of the concept of ‘sin,’ the mid-60s cultural shift from fighting selfishness to fighting sadism, and the compatibility of anti-Enlightenment philosophical critique with Left-liberalism.

What a joy to read a passionate, unabashed celebration of intellectualism and Americanism and justice (social and otherwise) and poetry and philosophy and civilization — and what a shock to read a full-throated defense of the 20C American Left tradition against the bourgeois-academic equation of leftism with pseudoradical anticapitalism. Brilliant and prescient: his Littwak-esque talk of the growing desire for a nativist strongman is spooky to read with Trump in the White House.

I nearly wrote, ‘…in Trump’s America.’ But it’s not. That’s the point: it’s not his, not at all. It’s ours.

Game of Thrones and ‘narrative economy.’

Game of Thrones in its seventh season has become a different show, set in an entirely different world: instead of the densely populated, richly imagined world of the first few years, or even the rapidly collapsing stage set of seasons 5 and 6, the show now takes place in a purely abstract space unmoored from anything like actual geography. This makes for more efficient ‘narrative economy,’ but the transition from dramatic to almost comedic abstraction comes at enormous cost — to believability, obviously, and (worse) to the books’ delicately balanced historical consciousness.

What I’ve always loved best about Martin’s books is the sense that the history of Robert’s Rebellion is playing out across a second generation twenty years later; history is present for the book’s characters at just the right scale, if that makes sense, with just the right weight. The Starks and Lannisters relate to the past as people do, rather than as Player Characters, and the generational struggle which drives the various court intrigues is simply correct. (‘Realpolitik Tolkien,’ as they say.) The TV show has never given me that feeling, mainly because its world is so much smaller than the books’. The Citadel is three rooms onscreen, but Martin can situate it in a complex ecology. The same for, say, the Starks’ relationship to the ‘smallfolk,’ who don’t appear in the show because that kind of ‘worldbuilding’ (the kind that matters) means hiring even more extras. The fifth book in the series ends with Kevan Lannister grandly murdered by Varys — a complexly motivated chess move which the TV series is too coarsely plotted to accommodate. (Kevan Lannister barely appears in the show, as does his entire stratum of ‘second-string’ players in the titular Game.)

Season 7 has so totally collapsed the physical and temporal scale of the story that the connection to Robert’s Rebellion, say, has been lost altogether. This doesn’t seem to bother the audience, whose numbers swell further as the show abandons Martin’s sense of seriousness or purpose. But it bothers me.

All of which is maybe just to say: I told you years ago that the show would lose its brain when Benioff and Weiss passed Martin’s books and had to go it alone.

Tonight’s episode was funny and ‘heartwarming,’ and oh yes, patently absurd. It was, at several points, a literal parody of itself. Most disappointing.

Cormac McCarthy, BLOOD MERIDIAN.

An apocalyptic novel in a literal sense: for 350 pages strange lightning flashes and murderous horseman stalk a land bleached of meaning and bands of painted savages manifest suddenly on distant rises and the language is self-consciously ‘biblical,’ but none of that is as important as the fact that McCarthy’s remythologization of the West places the (no: an) apocalypse in the middle of the 19th century and says in nearly as many words that we are the ones living in the post-apocalypse. Blood Meridian reminded me strongly of the ‘Dying Earth’ tales of Viriconium, not least in the way McCarthy’s characters seem left behind by fate to play out terrible rituals against a backdrop of absolute loneliness. When the kid dies he’s surrounded by civilization, by merriment and physical pleasure — he even buys the services of a prostitute on his last night though we turn away from the act itself — but this being a western of course he can’t be fully restored to the fellowship of mankind. He and the judge converse at the bar, the judge seems to take a bottle of whiskey as if it belonged to him, and no one notices: they’re outside time. (Apocalyptic time, mirror time…) A bear is shot for nothing, suffers for nothing, dies for nothing; a couple of people in the audience notice, none reacts. If the judge had an insect’s head this would be the Bistro Californium.

McCarthy’s prose is literally breathtaking: I kept pulling up suddenly, trying to figure out how a phrase or sentence or extended metaphor could possibly have made it into our world. I’m in awe of his talents and the depth of his devotion.

There are no women in the book.

Let that sentence stand alone.1

And while the kid and the expriest do come to life somewhat by the end, they’re only players in a kind of nightmarish dumbshow — the narration comes to be indistinguishable from the judge’s weird oration, the kid’s sickbed hallucinations are exactly as real as the judge’s visit to the jail or his disappearance into the desert (the heath?) with his fool. This is myth, a world-tragedy rather than a human one. The kid’s death is sad but the horror is not that the judge outlives him but that he’ll never die. He is something unnameable and eternal. He sees himself clearly: he is a great favourite, the judge. He will never die.

Blood Meridian is one of the most American stories I’ve ever read.2 Which is to say it could only be told here, about this country’s (these people’s) twisted relationships to time, to place. Like Gravity’s Rainbow it tells the story of an American boy in a Zone stripped of comfort or sense, a zone of free play; Glanton’s gang is childish, though not at all childlike, and the judge is of course a figure of monstrous fun — dancer, fiddler, reader, scholar, autodidact, hedonist. (People forget that the life of the autodidact is both hard work — no teachers — and extraordinarily joyful, as every forward step is given meaning by the ongoing pursuit of knowledge. The autodidact has constant, deep purpose.) The horrors of Blood Meridian are not lifted or mitigated but enriched by its dreadful humour; the book gets funnier as it goes along, and the final act is preceded by a chapter-length comic interregnum. Its humour is as American as its landscape: you might even say they’re one and the same, as Americanness has always depended on an earnest-ironic response to the impossible mismatch between the vast ancient American topology and the foolishly intimate American idea.

The scene of the kid in the jail cell receiving a visit from the devil himself reminded me funnily of The Stand, which (no surprise) treats American expansion and expansiveness more literally: McCarthy’s novel compresses an universe of terror and judgment into just over 300 pages, while King’s big book treats ‘epic’ as a function of scale rather than vastness (depth of field, colour, time). Both books are ‘inappropriately’ jaunty in places, ‘too serious’ in others; both take violence as a given because it is given to men as a way into the heart of the world. To some men as the only open way. (McCarthy’s elevated tone is infectious…)

Not many novels better than this one that I know of. Christ. Plenty to say but I’ll leave it there.


  1. To be clear, there are a handful of female background figures, none named (few of the book’s characters get named; the protagonist is only ‘the kid,’ then ‘the man’). None of the women in the book are more than props for the main story — though of course, that all-extremely-male arrangement is itself an aspect of the story. (wb. 10 aug 2017) 
  2. I use phrases like this all the time, don’t I. And but they’re always stupid, and but here we are. (wb. 10 aug 2017) 

Lately books briefly books.

I read books, and then that morning or the next I write about them. This exercise has become important to me (much like biking, actually), and since 2014 I’ve managed to keep up even when I’ve been unable to focus on ‘proper’ writing.

Invisible Cities (Italo Calvino)

Is it possible that this book, by some unfathomable reverse causality, inspired both Amisare and Allworlds after the fact? No matter. I was surprised, in the banally chronological event, by how little I cared about Invisible Cities. Reading Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveller in college was one of my peak bookwise experiences — I’d ride the Blue Line to Logan Airport and read in the terminal, back when you could do that sort of thing; Nicole has my copy, which I guess is her copy now — and of course Cosmicomics burrowed into my brain in high school (I borrowed/stole Jeremy Ward’s copy). But I found Invisible Cities cute, which is to say off-putting. My private metric: if I start reading something before bed, but feel the need to bring it into my daylight reading, it’s got something going on. Cities never made it across the gap. Perhaps there’s a mirror-Wally in a mirror-Cambridge superposed on this one, who only reads mirror-Calvino at night, and blah blah blah you see? Calvino has been so thoroughly taken up into all my other reading and writing that I had no need to read Cities, except to prove to myself that (a certain other project of mine) should exist, which I knew already.

The Power of Myth (Joseph Campbell & Bill Moyers)

Uncle Joe in guru mode. Inspirational mind-candy. Moyers’s questions are somewhat repetitiously New-Agey, not a term I use lightly; Campbell shows off an admirably wide-ranging intellect. A uniquely flavourful dish served with a large-ish quantity of syrup.

Exercises in Style (Raymond Queneau, tr. Barbara Wright)

Mini-fictions in that vaguely academic midcentury French mode, beloved of a certain kind of intellectual male: the same scene repeated 99 times in different styles, toward a mix of literary and philosophical ends. Not exactly Calvino-esque — he was a fabulist, this is a philosophical/narratological (vs narrative) experiment — but reading this hard on the heels of Invisible Cities was a stark reminder of what/how I used to read twenty years ago, and for the most part no longer do. And my biases aside, the Exercises are genuinely funny and even educational. Certainly they’re a demonstration of the flexibility of written language. Kudos to translator Barbara Wright for doing the impossible with wit and (obvsly) style.

Proof (David Auburn)

It’s nice to see naturalistic contemporary dialogue in the mouths of smart young characters, and the structure is impressive, but if you’re going to do math in drama, you have to get it right and avoid mystefaction and vague abstraction. The math in Proof is generic, like the swordfighting in a bad action picture: auburn dramatizes the central amaaaaaazing achievement by having a character talk at length about how amaaaaaazing it is. (We know one character has ‘a touch of mathematical genius’ because she knows a random mathematical fact. In terms of the math, it’s that kind of play.)

The ‘human drama’ is artfully handled. It’s a clever play. But as it seemed to me to be neither beautiful nor strange — rather, a conventional play that I instantly felt I’d read/seen before — I must say I was disappointed, and am now irritated. Your mileage, as ever, may vary. (My wife liked it.)

SAGA, Book 2 (BKV and Fiona Staples)

Devoured this long-awaited hardcover just before bedtime, hours after it arrived in the mail. Eighteen issues of the same trick as Book 1: in broad terms, Vaughan is telling a small, complicatedly progressive story about a child reckoning with the complicated marriage of her two young parents, with Big Themes (some awfully familiar to readers of the otherwise very different Y: The Last Man) rendered in bold strokes. Staples is painting a psychedelic kitchen-sink space-fantasy with that small story at the center of it. There’s nothing else quite like it in American comics, as far as I know. I love it, I want to know what happens next, it’s obvious BKV likes being a father, and you have to take it for what it is: a madly tragic picaresque and not a contemporary serial drama like Y.

(Pia Guerra contributes two drawings to the hardcover, one depicting an auto-fellating dragon, and I’m reminded that she’s one of my favourite comics artists ever, maybe the best in the business at subtle facial expression. I do miss her work.)

SIR GAWAIN AND THE GREEN KNIGHT (tr. Merwin), briefly responded to.

You must read the classics.

I expected the pagan wildness of it to stick with me — this is a Christian tale set in the bizarre hybrid mythosphere of Arthur’s Round Table — but was taken aback by its strange proportions. The Green Knight’s physical description takes dozens of lines, and the longest descriptive setpiece in the book is an account of a boar hunt and subsequent skinning and dismemberment. (A later foxhunt takes only slightly less space, and refers to the fox directly as ‘Reynard,’ adding to the atmosphere of feral primitivism.) Because courtly knighthood was a form of insanity, and because the bedroom scenes are skillfully intercut(!) with the frenzy of the hunt, the simple virtue-testing story is tinged with an unexpected weirdness. Merwin’s translation is unadorned, which is the right approach: our distance from the story is part of the point, now.

Reading Gawain felt a bit like my long trip with Graves’s Greek Myths, a more self-conscious ‘literary’ experience in terms of presentation but generating that same feeling of enormous distance and mystery. I know that ‘deep time’ refers to the geologic, specifically as distinct from the historic, but the term feels appropriate all the same: the old mythoi fill me with a particular ‘adventurous expectancy’ which has to do with the unbridgeable distance between ways of seeing the world. I think of Mark Booth’s silly Secret History of the World, all about a lost mythic mode of seeing; I think of Julian Jaynes, of (getting less silly as we go) Eliade, Couliano, Aegypt, Star Wars, the new Westworld, Gilliam’s Munchausen, of storytelling and drama as incarnation of gods/myths rather than remembrance. The idea of story as a transmission vector for a way of apprehending the world which is in a sense a lost world unto itself, a hologram, invisible interference pattern left by light now past which when properly illuminated brings the old forms and colours back into being — that’s why I turn to the mythic and the mythological.

Distance and time. Terrible distance and murderous time.

SHATTERED (Allen and Parnes, 2017).

Attention conservation notice: I wrote this a while back, after devouring the first 2/3 of the book (on Clinton vs Sanders) and choking down the rest. This 2,400-word ‘review’ started as a personal exercise in summary and reasoning-through, so don’t expect cogent argument or lofty rhetoric. The book is useful but not good, which is the best we can hope for this blogpost too. N.B. Subsequent events have changed my sense of Comey’s role in the election; I’m no longer sure that ‘sinister’ is at all the right word to describe his catastrophic intervention. –wa.

Terrifying, a little heartbreaking, but not a good book — the authors should be embarrassed. Shattered is essentially a less elegant Game Change.

It’s totally myopic in the same way as that earlier book: nothing matters but the campaign process, no one matters but the campaigners, every staff squabble is a nuclear war, every personality flaw is a great plague, and everyone is a hungry young assassin or a wizened old hand plus everyone (we’d never say this aloud) is a vicious sociopath. There is no world in Shattered except the campaign, and because the authors had no access to the Trump campaign (and almost none to the Sanders campaign), there are two kinds of events in the world of Shattered: what HRC’s campaign does, usually incompetently, and the inexplicable and unpredictable and above all totally unfair acts of God which happen to them.

This myopia means the book is worthless as an analysis of American politics in 2016, but in compensation Allen and Parnes happily deliver page after page of the court intrigue which again plagued the Clinton campaign. As a kind of implicit sequel to Game Change, Shattered delivers a genuine shock to those of us who took her competence for granted: Clinton and her team overreacted to the 2008 race without actually learning from it, and ran a totally incompetent trainwreck of a campaign.

Obligatory pitch and synopsis

The book is an inside-baseball account of Clinton’s 2014-2016 official/active run for president. (Surprising no one, Allen & Parnes make it clear that HRC’s work at the State Department was always intended as prelude to a 2016 run.) The central drama of the book is the generational fight within the Clinton campaign between the ‘data’-driven folks, led by millennial campaign manager Robby Mook, and an ‘intuitive’/retail-politics cohort which included John Podesta and ex-President Clinton himself.

(Scare quotes around ‘data’ because it’s not at all clear from Shattered alone that Mook has any actual expertise w/r/t his precious Numbers, just an abiding faith in what the analytics team put up in lieu of ‘old-fashioned polling.’ If there’s a villain in Shattered, it’s Trump, but Mook comes off worst relative to his reputation. If there’s justice, he’ll never work in Washington again, but I’m willing to bet he’s already making $200K+/yr somewhere.)

The authors conducted ‘scores’ of interviews entirely on background, with promises not to publish a word until after the election. As a result, they had a running commentary from inside the campaign, and the ambivalent and critical tone of the early interviews is telling. A&P write in the introduction that Trump’s victory finally ‘made sense of’ their reporting — they knew the Clinton campaign was an omnishambles and that the mainstream press was missing the deep electoral stories, but they couldn’t quite believe their eyes until election night.

Clinton not only never shared but apparently never actually possessed a clear vision of why she should run the country, only that she would (by dint of her mastery of policy, intense work ethic, extensive Washington experience, and enormous Rolodex) be good at it. Repeating one of the key mistakes of her 2008 race, she built a campaign organization characterized by the same sorts of warring cliques, and followed her campaign manager Robby Mook’s strategy of spending as little as possible, completely avoiding ‘retail’ politics, literally hiding from voters in ‘swing’ states, and making no attempt to convince undecided voters or those weakly supporting Trump (beyond pointing out what they already knew, i.e. that he’s a vile imbecile). Within her organization no one had permission to criticize her; the contrast with Obama’s ‘team of rivals,’ a purpose-driven organization built on ex-Professor Obama’s respect for competence, is striking.

This is difficult but important to understand: Clinton and company never saw Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump coming. They were tragically mistreated by the press and (sinisterly) by FBI head James Comey, whose reputation for unimpeachable nonpartisanship was badly wounded by his repeated political interventions in the race; not to mention more than a decade of coordinated voter disenfranchisement efforts by every level the Republican Party (no mention of this in the book, of course), but Clinton still could and should have won — Shattered makes clear that a competent campaign, never mind a competent and bold one, could have handled these external forces. The tide of history is against candidates like Clinton right now, but she and her team ran a bad campaign from beginning to end. There’s plenty of blame to go around, but Clinton’s team bears much of it, as must Clinton herself.

Obligatory recommendation

Shattered is likely to remain the #1 source for telling anecdotes about Clinton’s miserable campaign, but hitting the high (low) points should suffice for normal people. Like the less ‘juicy’ but more skillful Game Change, it ends up an accidental portrait of the absolute hollowness of these wanting days of neoliberal empire, directly appealing to fans of a debased media-electoral process but indirectly (yet more importantly) throwing light on deeper problems with the republic.

Why did Hillary Clinton lose?

Allen and Parnes don’t know. They’d have you believe that it was mostly (1) the incompetence of Clinton’s campaign, which stemmed from (2) her catastrophic lack of any kind of vision for governing this country, which was only a problem because of (3) HRC’s combination of greed/cynicism/lust for power and her obsession with ‘wonkish’ policy details, all of which ran up against (4) Trump abstractly rendered and (5) the extraordinary intervention of Comey.

But that’s not an explanation, and it’s certainly not an analysis. Clinton had every imaginable institutional advantage and the best possible general-election opponent; if elections were sporting events 2016 couldn’t possibly have been anything but a blowout for Clinton. But elections are about voters, not candidates, and only D.C. myopes (is that a word?) and those addicted to/duped by the ‘horserace’ believe otherwise. Moreover, this revelation of incompetence isn’t even news: everyone knew Clinton’s campaign was a leaden disaster — even Obama got a big laugh at her expense all the way back in April, joking that her campaign slogan ‘Trudge Up the Hill’ had proven less than inspirational. Her inability to ‘crush’ Sanders was evidence of her campaign’s incompetence.

The news, which won’t reach the apologists who need to hear it most, is that the implausible ineffectiveness of HRC’s campaign trickled down from the candidate herself, who was unable (for a variety of reasons, not entirely her fault) to serve as a backstop, a guiding light, a strong and trustworthy chief executive. This is an ancient pattern with the Clintons: they can never fail, they can only be failed. (It was forbidden, inside the campaign, to criticize Clinton to her face — can you imagine? At points they had to bring in outside ‘friends of Hillary’ to point out her shortcomings.) Shattered reveals that Hillary doesn’t actually possess certain essential skills for executive leadership. Trump certainly doesn’t, and neither does Sanders, but then Clinton’s (not actually) (cf. Bush Sr, Nixon) the ‘most qualified candidate ever for this office’ etc., etc., etc. Her campaign was always a bid for meritocratic and technocratic ascendancy, which is why ‘inevitable’ really did strike the insiders as a plausible rationale: the correctness of her nomination and election could be logically deduced, and anyone who ‘disagreed’ — i.e. who failed to see the truth — was himself incompetent. Deplorably so.

And so anyone who says she should have reached out to white working class voters is a racist or a reactionary or a misogynist(?), even though the funny thing about Rust Belt working-class whites is that they were actually ‘undecided’ this time around, i.e. the exact people a candidate should be going after. They went for Sanders and then Trump in a big way because Clinton didn’t (couldn’t) talk to them on their terms. We’ll never know whether they would have been open to a Clinton campaign pitch, because as far as they knew Clinton didn’t actually make one. (‘But her policy papers are on the website!’ Sure, I’ll print them out and mail them to grandpa out in Little Valley.)

Maddeningly, Shattered doesn’t concern itself for even a single paragraph with why so many voters were furiously angry this electoral cycle. This is the authors’ greatest failing, and whatever their personal politics (betcha a dollar they’re 100% conventional Democrats), it’s enough to say that they come from the D.C. bubble, which is cut off from actual citizens’ concerns by design. (How can you get real work done if you have to listen to that braying and snorting all day?) Bill Clinton is derided repeatedly in Shattered for talking about Brexit, seemingly without context or provocation — which is to say his political instincts were still right on, but he didn’t know how to act on them, and his minders thought him a babbling old fool (because they’re deeply, deeply stupid). The idea that populist anger might be justified, that there might be anything questionable about the neoliberal consensus that Bill and his DLC fellow-travelers sold the post-Reagan Democratic Party a quarter-century ago, never crosses the authors’ minds, nor does it occur to even a single one of the alleged human beings in Shattered. Poverty and despair are ‘millennial’ concerns, you see, they’re not real.

In other words, Shattered both (cattily) renders and naively embodies the limitations of the D.C. consensus. The few moving moments in the book tend to involve mentions of the ‘eighteen million cracks in the glass ceiling,’ reminding readers that Clinton’s appeal has always been her combination of bloodless technocratic competence and symbolism. She desperately wanted to be a candidate of destiny like Obama, but never found a way to make that case — opinion polls showed that 2016 voters didn’t care much about her sex, though on the other hand never forget that states which have never elected a female governor cut hard against her, i.e. culture is complicated and ugly, time to read (a synopsis of) Albion’s Seed.

I think the reason Hillary’s moments of humanity — maternal, teacherly — are so compelling in Shattered is that they make such a startling contrast, not only with Clinton’s alternately feckless and scolding managerial persona, but with the overall gossipy-melodramatic tone of the prose. In the midst of such a grim parade, the reminder that Hillary is a human being comes as a relief (rewatch the scene on Veep where Selina finds out she’ll be president, and hides in the bathroom) (Shattered confirms that Veep, along with The Wire, is the best-ever show about American politics). But oddly enough, her command of policy does not function the same way in the story — we learn in the first few chapter or two that the happiest time of the campaign for Hillary was the intial period of four-hour meetings with her policy director, hashing out the fine details of her plan for running the country. For someone like me, this is a genuinely heartwarming scene; I know how she feels, and in those moments I ‘connect’ with her ‘as a person.’ But the flipside of this portrait is the revelation that Clinton didn’t want to run, delayed entering the race partly for that reason, and admitted to aides over and over throughout the campaign that she had no idea what was going on in the country or why she wasn’t breaking through to voters.

The cost of running a ‘modest midwestern Methodist’ candidate, a ‘wonk in both the positive and negative sense,’ is just that: she had, and has always had, no idea how to reach people outside of her circle. This is a personal flaw, but a private citizen can make a life which mitigates it. For a lifelong politician and would-be chief executive, this is a crippling professional liability — though less so in the Senate than we might wish, since that august chamber is in the main a club for wealthy corporate-friendly compromisers (Clinton was, by all accounts, undistinguished but effective there).

So: is Hillary Clinton to blame for Donald Trump’s presidency? It’s an ill-posed question, sorry. ‘Monocausal’ is a bad word! And Trump’s margin of victory was miniscule, as my wife has repeatedly pointed out to me. But Shattered takes us back to 2008, to an odd and telling moment: desperate to figure out what went wrong against Obama, and wanting to root out leakers and disloyal courtiers, Hillary got administrator access to the campaign’s internal email server, and read all of her aides’ emails. (She and Bill then made up ‘loyalty cards’ indicating which ones should be purged from the party.) This is paranoid, yeah, but it’s also a contemptible violation of her employees’ privacy. And from her own action she drew an iiiinteresting (and sensible!) lesson: you have to control your email, because otherwise someone — someone like Hillary Clinton, perhaps — will come along and uncover your deepest secrets.

It’s an ugly and telling moment, the kind of on-the-nose foreshadowing a novelist would be embarrassed to invent. It made me pity and dislike her all over again.


OK, I’ve burnt out on this book despite having said only part of what needs saying. Let us summarize: Shattered suggests that Clinton’s 2016 campaign was a hollow, soulless disaster, which seems fair; it suggests that she and Robby Mook bear a big portion of the blame for the disastrous outcome, which also seems fair — they were in charge, after all. But Shattered has no interest in the historical forces which made a Trump candidacy possible (led to Brexit, brought Marine Le Pen closer than ever to running France, etc.), none whatsoever, nor do its authors evince any empathy with the tens of millions who got up on Election Day, waited in line to vote, and pulled the lever for one of the worst candidates (and now presidents) in history; its overemphasis on day-to-day campaign blunders is symptomatic of the same D.C.-insider cynicism that made Clinton’s candidacy ‘inevitable’ in the first place. Shattered suggests, but can’t quite admit, that regardless of the dangerous extremism and (at times hilarious) dysfunction of the Republicans, the Democratic Party is a shambling disaster — this isn’t a ‘big picture’ book. It’s an indictment, not a work of history. Clinton and her staffers should read it. I’m not sure anyone else should, but everyone should know what it says. It says: it didn’t, and hopefully doesn’t, need to be this way.