This Week in Books: Several Nihilistic Frenchmen

Portrait of the French writer Joris Karl Huysmans (1848-1907). (Photo by Leemage / Corbis via Getty Images)

Dear Reader,

I feel like most of my reading this past week was preoccupied by power: who has it, who can get it, and what it looks like. The overall arc of the revelation seems to be that no matter how acutely we are aware of the answers to the first and second questions (1. the rich; 2. the rich), the answer to the third can still feel surprising: what power looks like, in the end, is nothing more or less than the ability to keep buying food at jacked up prices during a food shortage. “Profiteers were taking a hand and purveying at enormous prices essential foodstuffs not available in the shops,” writes Camus in The Plague. “The result was that poor families were in great straits, while the rich went short of practically nothing.” “We’re all in this together” becomes a pipe dream for Camus in The Plague almost as quickly as it did for us in 2020; it turns out maintaining normalcy during a crisis is the ultimate show of elite strength — even, or especially, at the expense of the rest of us. In that vein, I found Samuel Rutter’s manual for living a 19th-century decadent lifestyle, as described in the writings of Joris-Karl Huysmans, to be particularly bonkers and provoking; a perfect covid read. After all, a morose eccentric living alone in the countryside and indulging in simple pleasures may feel relatably disheveled and melancholy during quarantine, but of course by the very fact that he can afford not to work, we know he must be quite rich. Only the rich get to drop out of society with everyman style. Sooner or later, for most of us, the other shoe will drop.

Power didn’t only come up this week in reviews of books by dour Frenchmen, either! It’s there in Maisy Card’s description of the way she felt, while conducting archival research for her debut novel, when she read accounts of enslaved women and girls who found ways to rebel against servitude and sexual violence (“They were victims of course, but it was also comforting to know that, as brutalized as they were, many of them still found the strength to disobey”); it’s there in Louise Erdrich’s latest novel, which explores the twisting violence enacted by “federal language” against Native people during the Termination era, a time when the government tried to eliminate tribal existence through bureaucracy and mandates; and of course it’s the constant thread woven through a New Yorker review of the latest book by Mike Davis, whose City of Quartz and Ecology of Fear seemed to presage the Rodney King Riots and the Woolsey Fire respectively, and whose The Monster at Our Door, about the potential for an avian flu pandemic, apparently scared him so badly that he couldn’t keep a copy in his house. Davis’ latest, the memoir-ish Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties, is intended as a guide for young radicals, although its lessons are somewhat crushingly framed as a tutorial on failure: “I realized eight years ago… that the experience of that generation had to be recovered, and recovered in a way that would provide lessons and balance sheets to the current generation of activists… To understand what people fought for and what strategies they used and why, at the end of the day, we were defeated in every important sense.”

The fact that nearly every article in the newsletter this week seems to be about power could of course just be my own preoccupations at work, but I also can’t shake this feeling that a leaf has been turned, and we are on a crash course with something brand new — or perhaps very, very old. So much of what has happened lately has been completely unfathomable (even at the same time that it was totally predictable, if that makes any sense at all) but I simply can’t wrap my head around this thing where people are forced to go back to work when the virus is still widely circulating and untraced. This seems untenable? I know Americans are a surprisingly meek people when it comes to doing the bidding of our bosses, but it seems like a bridge too far, even for us.

I think something’s going to happen to stop it. Or maybe I just hope it does.

1. “A Dandy’s Guide to Decadent Self-Isolation” by Samuel Rutter, The Paris Review

Samuel Rutter scours Joris-Karl Huysmans’ classic of French decadent literature Against Nature for advice on how to live the way we must now — that is, like we are eccentric recluses “[taking] pleasure in a life of studious decrepitude.”

2. “Pointing the Finger” by Jacqueline Rose, The London Review of Books

Jacqueline Rose revisits Camus’ The Plague and re-examines old arguments about whether it is lax in assigning blame. “Each of us has the plague within him; no one, no one on earth is free from it. And I know too that we must keep endless watch on ourselves lest in a careless moment we breathe in somebody’s face and fasten the infection on him.”

3. “Artforum” by César Aira, Lit Hub

An excerpt from César Aira’s Artforum. And yes, the entire excerpt is about how one man’s copy of Artforum magazine has gotten very, very wet.

4. “Holy Simplicity: On Louise Erdrich’s ‘The Night Watchman’” by Thomas J. Millay, The Los Angeles Review of Books

This review of Louise Erdrich’s latest novel The Night Watchman situates the book in its historical context of the Termination era, when the federal government attempted to erase Native identity and nationhood by “giving” Native Americans citizenship. Reviewer Thomas J. Millay writes that the novel draws a purposeful contrast between the plainspoken language of the story’s protagonists — members of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa or Ojibwe Indians — and the deceitful speech of the federal government. “Federal language twists and turns, appearing good on its surface but in fact initiating great evil.”


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5. “Maisy Card: ‘There is this hazy quality to my family history that no amount of research can clarify.’” by Mickie Meinhardt, Guernica

Mickie Meinhardt interviews Maisy Card about her novel These Ghost Are Family, which is based on 12 years of archival research about her family’s history in Jamaica and the legacy of slavery. “I can easily make a character’s anger my own, and I’ll find myself walking around with those feelings after working on the book, as if I forgot that I was writing about fictional people.”

6. “We’re All Living in the Bathroom Now” by Annabel Paulsen, Electric Literature

This reflection on what Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s The Bathroom (an incredible novella about a man who lives in his bathroom and refuses to ever leave it) can teach us about quarantine is, you may have noticed, the THIRD time a sort of nihilistic Frenchman has appeared in the reading list this week. Which is pretty remarkable considering I haven’t even mentioned the Houellebecq thing.

7. “Mike Davis in the Age of Catastrophe” by Dana Goodyear, The New Yorker

Dana Goodyear reviews Mike Davis’ movement history Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties and asks him, the oracle of L.A. apocalypse, what to worry about next. The answer is less than reassuring for Angelenos, I assume: “Davis kept worrying it over, the alternative ending that might reorder everything again. ‘What if the big one happened now?’ he said. I’ve already plundered my earthquake kits for face masks and hand sanitizer. And now Davis has said my midnight fear out loud.”

8. “The Stages of Not Going on T” by Danny M. Lavery, The New Inquiry

A gorgeous piece of writing excerpted from Danny M. Lavery’s Something That May Shock And Discredit You. “Oh, I don’t want to go on T. That’s not what this is. I can see where you got the idea, I suppose, but I’m afraid hormones simply aren’t for me. I don’t even want the ones I have! I’ll never go on testosterone, but it’s simply wonderful for you. You look great. Better than ever, honestly. If I were stuck in a room for the rest of my life and could only look at one thing for some reason, it would be you (I hope that’s not weird to say), but that’s really not the same thing. I just want you to go on hormones and for me to be able to watch you do it.”

9. “Making My Moan” by Irina Dumitrescu, The London Review of Books

Irina Dumitrescu reviews a very scholarly sounding book of absolutely incredible medieval smut, Obscene Pedagogies: Transgressive Talk and Sexual Education in Late Medieval Britain. “Gloriously, the poem ‘I pray yow maydens every chone’ features a merchant offering his podynges (‘sausages’) to a group of young women. ‘Will ye have of the puddings come out of the pan?’ he asks, and they reply firmly: ‘No, I will have a pudding that grows out of a man.’”

10. “Are We Seeing a New Movement to Organize Publishing?” by Corinne Segal, Lit Hub

An interview with Amy Wilson, who runs the Twitter account Book Worker Power, which she made as a more direct-action oriented response to the emergence of the popular satirical Publishers Weakly account. (You can read an interview with the anonymous people who run that account on Electric Literature. I believe they gave this interview just before their first two cancelings, which came in kind of admirably quick succession.)

Stay well,

Dana Snitzky
Books Editor
@danasnitzky
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