Book Review: State of Affairs
The current political season is reflected equally in an angry Iraq analysis and a soapy novel with a Sirkian sweep
Reviewed by Roger Gathman, Fri., Oct. 22, 2004
Cheat and Charmerby Elizabeth Frank
Random House, 560 pp., $25.95
Bush in Babylon: The Recolonisation of Iraqby Tariq Ali
Verso, 262 pp., $12
It is a political season in America, which is, by definition, a time when rich, white, American males who went to Yale slag each other for nine months before the TV cameras, said slagging then being commented upon i.e., bellowed about by other fat and redfaced white, American males and a few invited Others: various right-wing divas and even the occasional black man (although this time around, if he isn't a secretary of state, you won't see him). Can't you smell the rancid testosterone in the air? Or is that burning tires?
The two books under review more or less reflect on the present state of political affairs. Ali's is an angry tract, and Frank's is a novel with a Douglas Sirkian sweep about two sisters in Hollywood in the McCarthy era.
If you are looking for that quick sweet hit of hatred for the current regime's putrid policies in regard to the new Crusade, Ali's tract will provide some satisfaction. Ali gives us a somewhat convoluted look at Iraq's political history, but solely from the POV of the struggle between the Baathists and the Communists. This ultrapolitical take has its limits. We hear about factory workers being organized, but not about what the factories do, or who works in them. OPEC, founded in Baghdad, hardly figures at all.
One gets a sense that Ali is uncertain about his audience. He would like to be addressing the Arab "street" but his brand of leftism is as alien to them as Bush's brand of evangelical imperialism. Ali's analysis depends heavily on the thesis that the battle in Iraq is between an occupation that was intent on looting the place, under Ahmed Chalabi, and a nationalist guerilla movement. However, granting that the original intent of the coalition was to forcibly privatize Iraq, it has long moved on. Now that it's about getting out of the trap on Uncle Sam's foot, the neoliberal tag no longer fits. Meanwhile, the congeries of resistance groups, as faceless as the bombhappy guerillas in Brazil, has merely added one grim instrument to the anti-colonialist struggle: the televised beheading. Ali's book, beautiful as a strangled cry of rage, is less helpful as a map to the Mission Unaccomplished War.
Frank's novel takes us back to a period with some parallels to our own: the Fifties. They had McCarthy, we have Cheney. (In its own crablike way, civilization progresses.) Our story begins with Dinah Lasker, the wife of Marathon studio's most prestigious director, Jake Lasker, receiving a subpoena from the House UnAmerican Activities Committee in 1951. Dinah was a Communist in the thirties. To save Jake's job, she agrees to name names, only to be bullied into naming her sister Genevieve ("Veevi") Albrecht. Dinah was always the drab but decent sister, while Veevi was a Hollywood vamp. Married to a European director, she went to Europe on the eve of WWII and plunged into the French resistance. At the end of the war, her husband dead, she married his son, her stepson (who Dinah, by accident, knew that Veevi was screwing).
Frank has an excellent eye for this metamorphic moment in American culture. Organizations like the entertainment industry, needing creative people, enticed them with money. In turn, the creative people required, and got, a general atmosphere of social tolerance. They also, almost without being aware of it, transformed from down-at-the-heels bohemians to denizens of the upper-income bracket. When the squeeze came from Washington, instead of rushing to the barricades, the writers, directors, and actors abruptly dumped Das Kapital (who could read it, anyway?) for Democratic fundraisers out by the pool.
So much for the intellectual substructure. I didn't stay up to 3am reading Frank's novel for a thesis from Marcuse. I wanted to see if bad sister Veevi was going to fuck the philandering husband of good sister Dinah. (Veevi is such a bitch.) Frank has resurrected a long-dead genre: the high falutin' soap, with bigger-than-life characters going through bigger-than-life emotions in well-appointed rooms. This book is straight out of the Cozzens-John O'Hara axis that disappeared around the time Norman Mailer discovered the White Negro. My advice for relief from this campaign season is to make some popcorn, get a napkin (don't want to leave those butter spots on the pages!), and read this novel.