So much to talk about today, it's almost impossible to know where to start, so let's work backwards from what I last read… For years I've known of the achievements of Octavia Butler, who carries the distinction of being one of the few, if not only, African-American, female writers in the otherwise all-too-white and once upon a time all-too-male genre of science fiction. Butler's reputation, moreover, is stellar. She cleaned up in science fiction awards for her novella BloodChild, landed a Nebula for Parable of the Talents, and even had the rare distinction for a science fiction writer of receiving a MacArthur Foundation "Genius" Grant. She died from a stroke at the relatively young age of 58 after authoring some thirteen books in a writing career that spanned nearly 30 years.
Her last work before she died was a science fiction vampire novel, Fledgling, described by her as a "lark." At a minimum, let us say that it is any number of cuts above such fare as Stephanie Meyers' Twilight series, which I only know from DVD since I refuse to plow through the many thousands of pages of teen vampire angst run amok in the halls of our nation's high schools. Indeed, one wonders if Butler was not responding in part to this one of many in a genre that I have lovingly dubbed for my teenage daughter as the "hickeys with holes" brand of fiction.
Fledgling is compelling. A child awakens in a cave, badly injured, in terrible pain, with no memory of her past and struggling to survive. Ravenously hungry, operating only on instinct, Shori discovers that she is a 53-year-old vampire in the body of an 11-year-old child, a member of an ancient, anthropogenetic race known as the "Ina," who live alongside human beings. Shori's amnesia is a literary device that just borders on the trite for pumping up readers' feelings of suspense. But it's also an opportunity, in Butler's deft hands, to reimagine the human-vampire relationship as one of mutual symbiosis instead of formal parasitism. What we get is Butler's latent utopianism in which the idea of the family is reconfigured into a mixture of physical addiction and mutual dependence, open sexual relations and Western ideations of the village family unit.
But there's an added wrinkle: Shori, unlike all of her vampire relations, is black, purposely so, the result of experiments in skin pigmentation and Ina-human gene mixing. Presumably this should raise Fledgling to the level of social novel, a genre I generally favor when done right. But the material seems to get away from Butler, and what appeared so promising at its opening simply doesn't deliver on the possibilities suggested, an unfortunate result for a work that—as vampire novels today go—still surpasses its peers in depth and invention.
If no one objects to my jumping around a bit for today's post, then let me pick up where my colleague left off by discussing a wonderful book by one of our own that has come into New Haven Review's hands.
When George Scialabba's What Are Intellectuals Good For? arrived at the doorstep, I was hooked. Right away I knew Scialabba would be my kind of intellectual, regardless of what intellectuals may or may not be good for. Gathered from the last two decades or so, this collection of essays and reviews raises the question in more ways than one. First and foremost is through the persona of the author himself, who is a public intellectual in perhaps the truest sense of the term. You see, Scialabba is not a professor at a major research university or a policy wonk at a think tank or a Gore Vidal-esque aesthete pontificating from an Italian villa or one of the liquid lunch crowd flowing in and out the Condé Nast building. No, Mr. Scialabba appears to be one of those rarities: a working stiff whose vocation appears to have little to do with his avocation. When he's not busting Christopher Hitchens' chops or assessing Richard Rorty's contributions to American culture, he is presumably working budgets or dressing down contractors in his daylight existence as an assistant building superintendent. OK, I'll grant that even a plant manager at Harvard may have the advantage of proximity to some of the best minds in the country. But Harvard is hardly distinguished for its HVAC systems.
Scialabba, as a public intellectual, is part of a cultural tradition of thinkers who opt to keep their day jobs when none from MFA programs or think tanks are forthcoming. And, to be honest, that's something of a relief to me. It's probably no surprise then that Scialabba most admires those intellectuals whose qualities are defined less by their professional status than the clarity and cogency of their writing, even when on the wrong side of an issue. As a result, What Are Intellectuals Good For? is a veritable who's who of publicly accessible intellectual discourse. Dwight McDonald, Stanley Fish, Richard Rorty, Christopher Lasch, Alisdair MacIntyre, Irving Howe, and assorted others are the subjects of essays and reviews that are notable for their force of argument and precision of thought. There is nary a Continental thinker nor an American imitator to be found here.
There is a special fondness for the New York Intellectuals—Howe, Trilling, the rest of the Partisan Review crowd—in part for their achievements, in part for their apparent disdain of specialization and academicization. As a consequence, Scialabba's more recent heroes tend towards the plain-spoken and generally incisive Russell Jacoby, Christopher Lasch, and Richard Rorty. Less admirable are the likes of Martha Nussbaum (too generic), Roger Kimball and Hilton Kramer (too conservative), and Christopher Hitchens (too crazy).
And yet whatever Scialabba's verdict, we'd do well to listen. He's often on point, even if you disagree, and quicker than most to get to the root issues in any writer's corpus of thought. But what really distinguishes this collection, especially the reviews, is how Scialabba lets the books and their authors take center stage. Too often in venues such as the London Review of Books and, albeit less frequently, the New York Review of Books, one gets the funny feeling that the reviews are more about the reviewer than the reviewed. Now, it would be mean-spirited to begrudge a reviewer his or her authorial voice: I can assure you Scialabba doesn't conceal his. But 4,000 word essays in which the title under review makes its grand entrance in the last two paragraphs do not always seems worth the price of admission. Reviewers with grand ideas and theories of their own are sometimes better off just writing their own books. Fortunately, Scialabba avoids this species of reviewing hubris.
But already I commit the very sin I deplore, too wrapped up in sound of my own voice and not letting Scialabba's book take over from hereon. But let me shamelessly plead the constraints of space and conclude on this note: What Are Intellectual Good For? is, in a sense, the meditation of one deep-thinking critic on the work of other deep-thinking critics and their views of politics, social justice, and morality. In another sense, it is a reader's roadmap to some of the best cultural criticism written in the last half century. And in both senses taken together, it is a highly recommended starting point for anyone who cares deeply about this much-endangered species of criticism.
So who the hell is Robert Levin? Well, there's always the Wikipedia article, where you can learn that he's a jazz critic, a short story writer, and a writer of music liner notes. He seems to have had his heyday here and there—a critical letter to the Village Voice about the 1963 March on Washington that drew a year's worth of responses; a 2004 recipient of "storySouth Million Writers Award Notable Story."
That story is the title of a collection of Levin's writings, When Pacino's Hot, I'm Hot: A Miscellany of Stories & Commentary. Dare I confess that I read this slim 90-page volume over the course of seven dog walks? (Yes, I can walk and read at the same time; I can also chew gum and type.) Let me add that it was one of my more pleasurable dogwalking experiences, which is otherwise a dreadful bore. The reason is simple: Levin is funny. Leaving aside the eponymous lead short story, itself a ribald tale of mistaken identity and the sexual pleasures that can derive therefrom, the miscellany and commentary are laugh-out-loud grotesques, some weirdly Dickensian in their exaggeration of the mundane, others Jamesian in their syntactically elaborate transformations of the bizarre into the clinical or poetic. Only examples will do. In his screed "Recycle This!" on a recycling notice asking residents "to sort and…rinse [their] garbage before leaving it out," he writes: "So while I'll allow that self-immolation would constitute a disproportionate form of protest, I have to say that reacting with less than indignation to so gratuitous an imposition would also be inappropriate." That's a fairly ornate response to a recycling notice. Like I said, pure Dickens.
Or consider "Peggie (or Sex with a Very Large Woman)," a story so wonderfully offensive that it would be impossible not to relish the absurd attempt to poeticize the physical challenges set before Levin's narrator: "…Peggie's particular body could have served as a Special Forces training ground for the field of hazards and challenges its presented. I'm speaking of the twisting climbs and sudden valleys, the crags, the craters and the amazing plenitude of gullies, ravines and bogs that I was, and on my hands and knees, obliged to negotiate and traverse in my search." And don't even ask what he was searching for. You can probably guess.
In some ways, Levin is at his best wringing every drop of qualification from a feeling or thought, an instance of rage or fear, often in one long but densely packed sentence. The bathos of the stories and of some of the miscellany—there are cantankerous whines about cashiers and their stupidity, smoking bans, HMOs, aging, the aforementioned recycling notices—is actually what makes it all worth the reading. Levin, in essence, gets more out of the mundane through an overwrought prose style that is utterly apropos to the sensibility behind it.
But there's no substitute for the man himself, so let's conclude with his thoughts on when one of God's "natural wonders"—in this case a solar eclipse—fails to deliver the goods: "I'll allow that, however disappointing it may be, it's ultimately of small consequence when He mounts a shoddy eclipse. But it's something else again when, for one especially egregious example, He leave you to blow out all your circuits trying to figure just where a mindless inferno of neuroticism like Mia Farrow fits into the notion that everyone's here for a reason." Consider my own circuits blown.