Sunday Bookchat

March 29, 2008

If the graphic novel wins mainstream critical acceptance as a serious art form in its own right, Mat Johnson’s Incognegro will probably be a big part of the reason. This thriller ( wonderfully illustrated by Warren Pleece) mixes mystery and detective elements into a plotline drawn from a particularly gruesome chapter of America’s racial history, with a nod to real-life hero Walter White, an NAACP investigator who traveled through the South, posing as a white man in order to expose participants in a lynching plot. Imagine a storyline that combines the strengths of Chester Himes, Raymond Chandler and Walter Mosley (and, when the plots gets too intricate for its own good, some of their weaknesses as well) with a scathing portrait of American racial obsessions, throw in a bit of arcana on the inner workings of the Ku Klux Klan, and the result is a breathlessly exciting story. Mat Johnson has some points to make as well as a story to tell, and he accomplishes both goals superbly.

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Congratulations to Eric Alterman, whose new book Why We’re Liberals has just received the honor of a nasty column from L. Brent Bozell III, taking time off from his busy schedule of manufacturing complaints to the FCC and scamming money from whatever Daddy Wingbucks blows through town. Now Alterman can only get Jonah Goldberg to call him a fascist, the tour-de-twit will be complete.

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Not only is slavery still very much with us, there are more slaves in the world right now than at any other time in human history. This is the deeply disturbing message of E. Benjamin Skinner’s A Crime So Monstrous: Face-to-Face With Modern-Day Slavery, which encompasses debt bondage, forced prostitution and forced domstic servitude all over the world. In this Salon interview, Skinner describes some harrowing moments in his research, such as the visit to a Romanian brothel where he was offered the use of a young woman with Down syndrome as payment for a used car.

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A sinister cabal of oligarchs embarks on an ambitious plan to seize control control of American government, clamp down on information, establish a secret police force to control the population and hire a bloodthirsty mercenary army to wage war around the world.It may sound like the past seven years under the Bush administration, but it’s also the premise of The Iron Heel, a 1908 dystopian thriller written by Jack London, who remains better known for The Call of the Wild and his tales of the brutal life in the Yukon. Johah Raskin’s appreciation of the novel in its centenary year points out its influence on George Orwell’s 1984 and Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here:

An early, ardent fan of the movies, and a frequent moviegoer, he cast The Iron Heel as a kind of Cecil B. De Mille epic in which the revolutionary troops engage in battle with the soldiers of the oligarchy, using airships and machine guns. The spectacle in the streets of Chicago, where the novel peaks in an exhilarating chapter entitled “The People of the Abyss,” is written with real panache and gusto. Moreover, it was a stroke of genius, on London’s part, to couch his novel in the form of a memoir that chronicles not only the larger political and cultural conflicts, but also the personal life of the narrator and memoirist herself, a young woman named Avis Everhard who grows up privileged in Berkeley, California, falls in love with Ernest Everhard, the leader of the revolution, and joins the clandestine rebels who use forged documents and change their identities to evade the secret police. (Ernest Everhard is not much of a character; he is too idealized and romanticized and his name—which implies a kind of permanent sexual potency—does not help either.)

The novel itself might be aptly described as a “false document,” to borrow the incisive literary term coined by the novelist and critic E. L. Doctorow—himself an author of false documents—to describe a work of fiction that purports to be factual. London’s brilliant literary conceit, if you will, is that Avis Everhard’s memoir of love and loss, failed revolution, and ascendant tyranny, is discovered hundreds of years after its creation, and published, with footnotes by the editor and with a forword, too, for readers near the end of the twenty-seventh century. “It cannot be said that the Everhard Manuscript is an important historical document,” Anthony Meredith, the editor of the future, explains in London’s tongue-in-cheek foreword. Meredith goes on to say that the Everhard Manuscript is especially valuable “in communicating to us the feel of those terrible times. Nowhere do we find more vividly portrayed the psychology of the person that lived in that turbulent period embraced between the years 1912 and 1932—their mistakes and ignorance, their doubts and fears and misapprehensions, their ethical delusions, their violent passions, their inconceivable sordidness and selfishness.”

In particular, one theme of London’s novel that Orwell echoed in 1984 was the use of language to control thought: “the people of that age were phrase slaves . . . So befuddled and chaotic were their minds that the utterance of a single word could negate the generalizations of a lifetime of serious research and thought. Such a word was the adjective utopian.”

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With this new collection from the Library of America, A.J. Liebling’s great journalism from World War II gets a fitting shrine. Around the world in 80 slaves: Fugitive Denim follows a pair of bluejeans along the path of sweatshops leading to your local outlet store.


2 Responses to “Sunday Bookchat”

  1. Kip W Says:

    Was The Iron Heel serialized before 1908? The reason I ask is because D’Ordel’s Pantechnicon, a 1904 magazine parody, calls its serial drama “The Search for the Iron Toe.”

    (I have scanned the book it’s in and put it on my flickr page. The story starts here.)

  2. LP Says:

    While I find this interesting, I believe “Watchmen” has already made the graphic novel an acceptable form of art for the mainstream. In fact, I think it’s considered among the top 100 works of English literature of the past century, though don’t quote me on that.

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