I'm usually reading four or five books at a time. At the moment, I'm in the middle of Husain Haddawy's enchanting translation of “The Arabian Nights” (forget Cervantes and Sterne — this is where postmodernism begins); Jean-Luc Marion's anti-ontotheological “God without Being”; Guy Davenport's essays; a few books of poems I switch among; and Daniel O'Malley's “The Rook.”
This last is a supernatural espionage thriller that imagines a secret secret service within British intelligence staffed by agents who can kill with a touch or who inhabit four bodies. It's devoted to dealing with unconventional threats to the Crown — like vampires manipulating the wheat market.
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Implausible adventures initiated me into a life of reading. I raced through Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House" series when I was 5 years old. By the time I was 7, I'd inhaled the old Hardy Boys hardcovers (and a couple of Nancy Drew's mysteries) as well as C. S. Lewis's "Chronicles of Narnia." And comic books — piles and piles of lurid tales of men who become bats and women who pass through walls. When I entered junior high, I'd read most of Stephen King's novels and enough vaguely medieval fantasy that it's a wonder I didn't grow up to be — as my friend Zach Baron wrote of ensorcelled-sword factory Robert Jordan — "a man looking to get lucky at a Renaissance Faire."
I never abandoned these pulpy groves. I moved deeper into them. There are writers in the genre ghettos who make Jonathan Franzen look like Stephenie Meyer. I've probably read more books by spymaster John le Carré than by any other single author besides Shakespeare. Philip Roth called his "A Perfect Spy" "the best English novel since the war." (It's not: le Carré's "Karla" trilogy is.) Ursula K. Le Guin, James Tiptree Jr. (AKA Alice Bradley Sheldon) and Octavia Butler bring feminist nuance and sharp prose to the pubescent male tree-fort of sci-fi. John Crowley's "Little, Big" is sort of like D. H. Lawrence's "The Rainbow" and "Women in Love" except with fairies, and it's one of the finest novels I've ever read. And there's the Belgian Georges Simenon, who in his "roman durs" (hard novels) developed an anti-style to match his dark, airless themes. Consider this from "Dirty Snow":
Losing his virginity, his actual virginity, hadn't meant very much to Frank. He had been in the right place. Others made it a story they still talked about years later, adding flourishes like Kromer did with the girl he strangled in the barn.
I could go on listing my favorite genre writers all day, but in recent years I've been much taken with a genre I call "fascist porn." The suspense thrillers of Lee Child, Barry Eisler and Greg Rucka each feature a macho anti-hero made of muscle, testosterone and cardboard. Child's Jack Reacher, the ex-military drifter; Eisler's John Rain, the ex-military Japanese-American assassin; Rucka's Atticus Kodiak, the ex-military professional bodyguard: These are fascist cartoon characters, able to outmaneuver and outfight any opponent, including, often, the laws of physics and probability.
Politically, I'm a bit to the left of Noam Chomsky, so it makes sense that I've become addicted to these books (I love "24," too). Our fantasies are built upon prohibition. Or maybe I just need some mindless butt-kicking action to chase a chapter of anti-ontotheology.
If five armed badasses have Jack Reacher surrounded, five armed badasses are going to the hospital or the morgue. He's basically a grounded Superman, although he's a much better shot. Reacher (who could not look less like Tom Cruise) stands up for the little guy, backing him in his fight against powerful, corrupt interests. It's just that those interests are rarely those of the state, which tacitly supports Reacher when he gets in a jam. (Child might be feeling a little guilty about this: In recent novels, there is a tonal shift leftward. At one point Reacher makes a donation to PETA.) Violence isn't just the solution to every question in fascist porn: questions not framed within the assumption that violence and force determine the good cannot even be properly formulated.
Ideologically it's garbage. As art it's garbage. But as music critic Chuck Eddy said about rock 'n' roll: The one thing I've learned from Tipper Gore (and Axl Rose and Public Enemy!) is that it makes no sense to judge popular entertainment against some kind of ethical litmus test …. When since Leadbelly's time hasn't great rock 'n' roll expressed repulsive ideas? It's part of the game, man. It helps to be born with a sense of humor, I guess.
The question, then, isn't "is it ethical?" but "does it rock?" And Jack Reacher rocks.
Anyway, I'm not sure "leftist porn" is a coherent notion. Any genuine revolutionary impulse in this country was long since subsumed and diffused within liberalism's procedural energies. And no one wants to read a novel whose characters run around starting community gardens and signing petitions in support of same-sex-marriage ballot initiatives.
I don't believe in "guilty pleasures." Pleasure's nothing to feel guilty about (standard disclaimers apply). The Reacher novels and their ideological brethren punch well below le Carré's or J. G. Ballard's weight, not to mention David Foster Wallace's or Lydia Davis', but I would argue that, while of course we apply aesthetic litmus tests to popular entertainment — Stieg Larsson's novels are truly bad — we apply different ones at different times. Sometimes you want to be manipulated by a story, full of contesting forces whose simplicity is their virtue. Real life is both more tedious and more terrifying than conspiracies involving rogue elements within the government intent on seizing power through nefarious means. Or vampires manipulating the price of wheat. Or whatever.
Flaubert said, "Do not read, as children do, to amuse yourself. ... No, read in order to live." But, assuming we even know what this means, why can't we do both? It's true that the latter injunction is too little understood, much less followed. When I see adults reading Harry Potter on the subway, I admit I wonder whether they ever read anything more sophisticated. (No doubt many do; save your emails.) The time I spend reading fascist porn is time I'm not spending with other, better books — the ones I need in order to live. But to anyone who knows what it means to read in order to live, and who does so, Flaubert's proscription is too extreme. In order to live, you have to amuse yourself sometimes.
Michael Robbins is the author of "Alien vs. Predator."
Michael Robbins' recommendations
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John le Carré (1974)
The short, pudgy cuckold George Smiley — "not naturally equipped for hurrying in the rain" — is no Jason Bourne. And, too smart to see the Cold War as a contest between good and evil, he's no ideologue. But he has "the cunning of Satan." This is the first of three terrific novels in which Smiley matches wits with his Soviet counterpart, the enigmatic Karla.
Little, Big by John Crowley (1981)
Smoky Barnable marries Daily Alice Drinkwater and they raise a family in the country house Edgewood, north of the City. Fantasy, dystopia, fairy tale, romance — this is as much a story about stories as is "The Arabian Nights": "Then there was a dark house made once of time, made now of weather, and harder to find; impossible to find and not even as easy to dream of as when it was alight."
The Hunter by Richard Stark (1962)
The mystery writer Donald Westlake saved his grittiest prose for the novels written under the pen name Richard Stark. From the opening line of this long-running series, Stark's anti-hero Parker embodies the most polished noir sensibility in American fiction: "When a fresh-faced guy in a Chevy offered him a lift, Parker told him to go to hell."
Ritual by Mo Hayder (2008)
Police diver Flea Marley discovers a severed hand 9 feet under water. The other hand turns up a day later. After that, things get fairly weird and dark. Hayder's grisly thrillers make "The Silence of the Lambs" seem as sappy as "Love Story."
Without Fail by Lee Child (2002)
Reacher is hired to assassinate the vice president. Except not really. But someone has been hired to assassinate the vice president. Could it be Reacher? Or is Reacher the only man who can stop the assassin? (Spoiler alert: Reacher stops the assassin.) Silly, adrenalized, reptile-brained fun.
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