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Absolute Friends, by John Le Carré. 455 pages, Little, Brown and
Company, New 
York (2003).

Former British Foreign Service officer Le Carré is famed for his
cynical portraits of spycraft: the corrupt local governments, the
political infighting that hobbles each side, and the creeping
bureaucracy that takes the highest ideals and turns them into bumbling
administration which accomplishes its task in name and not ideal. With
his latest, Le Carré strikes for a more philosophical target, and
turns not from the methods of spying but to its justifications, or the
ideological underpinnings of political ideals themselves.

No one but an enigma like Le Carré could write this. Rejecting and
rejected by right and left alike, he inhabits the middle ground
favored by those who, having seen the mechanism of government, are
perpetually distrusting of loyalty to abstractions which hover above
that which we call life, the everyday process of being able to live
and eat and have families. Previous books touched on this topic by
showing the sacrifice of individuals and normal life for political
means, and offered solutions that even if tainted, suggested an end
was at hand. In "Absolute Friends," the writer brushes beyond the
everyday and offers us a big picture that is an alarm cry screaming
from Hell.

The story is convoluted, mainly through its disorienting telling which
flits from present tense to past, establishing connections and then
taking the reader on backfill within recollections. Its core however
is simple: a young man meaning well stumbles into leftist ideology and
makes a friendship that lasts a lifetime. His new partner in crime, an
enigmatic revolutionary named Sasha, becomes his guide and ally. Sasha
goes farther into extremes than our main character, a hapless everyman
named Mundy (perhaps contraction of "Mundane"), and defects to the
Communist state of East Germany. Over time, he finds that much as the
capitalist West was to his mind oppressing its people, the East does
the same, in a different variation.

From this point on, intrigue and deception, for which Le Carré is
perhaps the most able writer in the English language, take over,
leading Sasha and Mundy through various paths which do not turn out,
bringing the narrative to the present tense. What we the readers see
at this point is a solidity of experience in these men's lives, by
which different central powerful agencies exploit people for money and
political gain, and despite often finding them pedantic and
disorganized as people, the reader is shown an honest reaction to the
tragedies of their lives. Mundy grew up in British-occupied India, and
sees in the Faulknerian dissolution of his family a metaphor for
occupation as a whole, where Sasha grew up in the dying days of the
Nazi regime, and became opposed to Nationalism as a result.

As a result, these two ideologues are convinced of an absolute
reality, one in which fascism threatens a goodwill toward all humans
and a brotherhood of humankind. Without ever clearly meaning to, they
devote their lives to this belief, and gradually discard all past
assumptions of what will make their Utopia coming to pass. Every stage
of life seems to fail these men, from their student rebellions, to
their work with governments, to finally, their activism as writers and
members of local communities. Eventually, with all options exhausted
and their lives expended in activism, they turn toward a final hope
which transcends politics, nationalities, and specific ideologies. If
such a thing would betray them, they reason, there might be no hope in
absolute belief at all, and no clear path to salvation.

It is with ironic mastery that Le Carré brings this to pass, as he
shows us humanity with warts and all. Mundy is pathetic, but
well-meaning. He partners up with a Turkish whore out of what the
reader cannot feel is cynically revealed as pity; he lives humbly and
wears his politics on his sleeve, even to the point of seeming, like
the limousine liberals of America, to be constructing his self- image
entirely from it. Sasha is shown as a half-crippled, pathetic man
empowered sexually and socially by his political vision, and when
social approval goes away, he becomes only a shrewd but heartless
implementer of ideas too abstract to exist as examples in daily life.
Governments both left and right are pictured as oblivious to anything
but bureaucracy and function, the blind leading the blind.

The book concludes dramatically but in sparse detail, contrasting the
obvious conclusions with the muddle of human drama that comprises the
buildup to that point. Although it hammers out in detail many previous
themes from this author, there is a new and almost paranoid, but
realistic, distrust of something that is not manifested by a side or
character but by all actors in this drama. In a time when we are led
off to war by high-flying linguistic acrobatics about the importance
of democracy, or crushing fascism, or the rights of X or Y ethnic or
gender group, Le Carré is reminding us that words are just words, and
if we take them as absolutes, we risk being misled - to our collective
doom. - vijay


"Hooking Up" by Tom Wolfe. 293 pages. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, New

Literature is paradoxical because, in going into the world of fantasy,
it seeks out meaning, and in doing so, denies illusion. Tom Wolfe
approaches literature much like Hemingway did, as a journalist of his
time and a demi-philosopher of values, and thus sets forth on a war of
invective unparalleled in print at this time. His target: the "new"
America and its steady replacement of values and character with
external machinations including sex, money, digital computers,
psychology, and biology - in short, anything that lets us off the hook
(plea of woman in final chapter of Ulysses) from the task of having to
shape our own futures, gives us something to blame and to justify our
regressive behavior.

And with his classic deep-research style, Wolfe points out just how
regressive our behavior is, while simultaneously damning with
superlative praise our "freedoms" and "progressive" society. This is a
book of essays, some from early in his career but the most influential
ones from recent times, named after the first in the series, an
analysis of modern sexuality as a "liberation" that has in fact numbed
us to all subtler things. "Hooking Up" looks at the degeneration of
courtship into fornication as a result of our desire to "empower" our
young ladies, and points out that the discipline which raised us from
the level of animals is now dissipating. The effect, as Wolfe
concludes, is to make us numb and distant from one another. No more
devastating seventeen pages has been levelled at this aspect of

Additional essays provide bounty: his analysis of the goldrush
mentality at the founding of the semiconductor industry, and how it
created a hybrid of liberal values and conservative finance, providing
a new culture within America's culture based around a public image
designed to justify the empty pursuit of wealth behind (Wolfe is too
deft to spell it out in such easy terms, but for the sake of a book
review, such things are required). Another article bites into the
question of biological determinism, and its heavily politicized
opposition, casually taking a stand in the middle suggesting that
perhaps, until we understand more, we should stick to our guns and
believe we have some control over our own character and actions. The
excellent short essay "In the land of the Rococo Marxists" analyzes
Superpower America as a falling empire, collapsing from within for
lack of ideological vision.

Each of these essays includes a classic sense of humor and sharp
vision of the human soul behind these political and technological
developments, but reveals in the margins a growing sense of unease
within this author regarding his predictions for a human future. "The
Great Relearning" is a mockery of our desire to return to an original
state, illustrating that as we peel back the layers of social
assumptions which our politics tell us are "bad," we are devolving to
a state where we must relearn the basics of living as herd animals.
Its refulgent metaphor is that of the hippies in San Francisco who,
upon going to a simpler and more communal way of life, literally
reintroduced ancient diseases to modern medicine through sheer lack of
accepted hygenic practice. It's a barrel of laughs.

Arguably the high point of this book is "Ambush at Fort Bragg," a
novella which describes the ambitions of a fat, frumpy, ugly Jewish
journalist and his vapid blond companion as they attempt to entrap a
group of soldiers responsible for beating up a gay colleague. Having
read his Nietzsche, Wolfe takes an ambiguous moral point of view, and
illustrates how the impulse that seems to be "for the good" can have
the same impetus as the "bad" against which it crusades. In a time of
wars for moral absolutes and hyperbolic political ideals like
"freedom," it's a worthy lesson. The volume then closes out with some
works from early in Wolfe's career, mostly notably a satire of the New
Yorker which was so dead-on that it didn't come across to this
reviewer as satire.

Like most books of assembled pieces, "Hooking Up" requires a quiet
moment and a cup of coffee, but rewards the diligent reader.
Interestingly, one can see the history of Wolfe's research and novels
here, in that "The Great Relearning" hearkens back to "The Electric
Kool-Aid Acid Test," the essays on semiconductors and politics in art
suggest background to "A Man in Full," and clearly "Hooking Up" was a
precursor to "I am Charlotte Simmons." Wolfe writes to point out
reality to us, differing quite clearly from the trend of the last
fifty years toward symbolic and abstract detachment from reality for
the sake of unanchored, hyperbolic emotion. In this he is still a
journalist, but by bypassing such "literary" ambitions, he returns to
the function of literature: to praise life and analyze life. "The
Invisible Artist" gives us a glimpse of his thinking here. For those
who haven't yet discovered this writer, he represents the next era in
literature, which will be a brushing-aside of our imaginary worlds and
a return to realism of a pragmatic yet idealistic type. Nietzsche
would be proud. - vijay


The Iliad, Homer.  Translated by Robert Fagles.  683 pages, New York

This Greek epic poem about the Trojan War sings its tale of pride and
conflict as nothing else can.  Homer's work fully envelopes its
listeners into both a world of warring personalities and warring
nations, and into the prideful warrior psyche that values honor over
just a simple existence.  Robert Fagles' translation of The Iliad
eschews demonstrating the author's vocabulary in favor of presenting
Homer's poem in a powerful manner.

Fagles' translation does not attempt to impress the reader through
obscure and archaic English.  He uses conversational language, and
uses it well enough to paint the full picture of the war in vivid
detail.  The death of a warrior is presented with an amazing
description of the gore, which allows the reader to imagine exactly
how it would look and feel for the cold, sharp point of a spear to
tear through their flesh.  The dialogue has a passion and urgency
fitting a commander appealing to the man who was once his friend to
forget that he has been slighted and to join the war effort.

The lust for glory and asserting oneself onto the world drives this
work.  It is what caused Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek army to
steal a slave girl from the Greek's greatest warrior, Achilles, when
he had to give up one of his in order to appease Apollo.  This
unquenchable fire is what the Trojan archer Pandarus felt when he
foolishly fired the arrow that would shatter the truce and ultimately
cause his city to erupt in flames as it was ransacked by the Greek
army.  When the Trojans sought to set the Greek fleet ablaze and ruin
their forces, they were inspired by that same lust, as was the best
friend of Achilles, Patroclus, as he tore through ranks of Trojans
after witnessing the Trojans nearly succeed at their goals.  When
Patroclus' death allows Achilles to forget his rage at Agamemnon, and
the greatest Greek warrior challenges and defeats Hector, this is what
spurred him on.  This lust even held sway over the men outside of war;
at Patroclus' funeral games, the Greek captains Ajax and Odysseus
strain against each other in a wrestling match, neither wrestler
giving way to the other.  The end of this tale is known to nearly all
potential readers, however this strengthens it, rather than weakens
it.  As Achilles and Priam, king of Troy, embrace, each weeping over
the fate that they know awaits them, this element of inexorability
allows the reader to empathize with the two characters struggling with
their own mortality more profoundly than if this fated end had come as
a surprise for the reader.

Even though The Iliad was written over two thousand years ago, it
remains current even today.  The basic realization of death, and the
resulting struggle to make one's time have meaning, is familiar to all
people.  It is strongly recommended by this reviewer for upholding
heroism rather than comfortable passivity. - cynical


"I am Charlotte Simmons," by Tom Wolfe. 676 pages, Farrar, Strauss,
Giroux, New 
York (2004).

Literature aims to render a song of reality, describing it as it
exists outside of the small worlds in our own heads, but part of that
process is singing: bringing to light the mundane and showing it as
the conflict between ideals that in human terms it is. Set in a
fictional Ivy League college called Dupont University, Tom Wolfe's
latest book, I am Charlotte Simmons, is a careful exploration of the
reality faced by college students, during what one might presuppose to
be the most idealistic time in a young person's life.

Turning his back on current literary convention, Wolfe does not use
any grand- sounding metaphorical or scientific allusions to make his
point, as a Pynchon or DeLillo might, but creates instead a literal
story, and from within it alludes to the ideals that are being
manifested in the path of his protagonist. Eighteen-year-old Charlotte
Simmons is a prodigy by our terms, having proven herself in education,
but is an everyperson in her confusion regarding social and moral
issues. This confusion is deepened when she goes to Dupont, in which
the elite of our nation's learners demonstrate an aptitude for lust,
degeneracy, sloth, filth and illusion - in short anything but
learning, which one might assume is the process of compiling knowledge
about reality.

Wolfe crafts his story in a flexible hand, borrowing freely from the
past century of American literature as well as classic Bildungsroman
archetypes, but his style is determined by what he portrays, and like
a good journalist he is an able chameleon. Charlotte is portrayed in
the primary color absolutes of childhood mixed with the dense greys of
abstract concepts applied without the context that adulthood patiently
teaches. While not perhaps as exactingly pure in voice as a character
study would be, her language captures the conceptual conflict of her
age and the time in which she lives. Much as in the literary heritage
of F. Scott Fitzgerald, characters merge the allegorical and the
organic into a portrayal of experience as if contemplated in the small
hours of a dying day. They are important as much for what they do see
as what they do not, but we as readers divorced from any particular
individual, can infer from the whole of the situation.

What is gratifying about this approach is its reality. Contemporary
literature has deviated into an almost entirely symbolic realm at this
point, as if deluded by its own power of metaphor into confusing
language with reality, and Wolfe yanks us back from that not as much
through the gritty elements of the story - Charlotte's paranoid and
delusional deflowering, or the fistfights of drunken college males, or
the excreta and pathos of young people aping in extremes an adult
world they cannot understand - but through his attentive eye to the
images and concepts of areas in which we have no experience after
which we pattern our behavior. He connects impressions to action, and
shows the reader how despite our most animal impulses, we are
creatures of mind who program ourselves according to what we have

This literal story, like the most epic of literature, has a basic
structure wrapped in a proliferation of detail through its unfolding
plotline, but its theme sounds consistently throughout. Where Wolfe is
most deft is his ability to nudge a concept into every scene by not
mentioning it explicitly, letting the action conclude and the
characters then contemplate where they have arrived and what it means,
in contrast to what they expected. Although Charlotte is a vivid flesh
and blood character, her struggles mirror those of the society around
her, and through that device Wolfe peers into the evolving psyche of
our society, much as "The Great Gatsby" chronicled the outlook of its
time so well as to be emblematic.

Fitzgerald provides an interpretive starting point that gives us some
clue as to what this book is about. Much as Gatsby was an allegory for
"ambition," as the author revealed in later interviews and critique,
"I am Charlotte Simmons" is about a similar phenomenon, but at a more
fundamental level of psychology. Where in the 1920s ambition to
succeed financially dominated all else, and Fitzgerald's backward
warning was to the American establishment that it would soon be
replaced by more aggressive newcomers, since it had lapsed into a lack
of values, Wolfe tackles the lack of values by showing us an unreal
situation of sublime but not obvious danger. This allows him to point
out what replaced our values, and what obsession obscures our desire
to rise above.

Looking at this through the allegory of Charlotte Simmons, we see a
young girl who wants to rise above the world, represented by her dingy
and impoverished hometown with its hopeless and fatalistic local
culture. She goes to a place she sees as a gateway to knowledge, but
out of need for personal growth in a sexually aggressive and socially
elitist climate, becomes displaced, and spends much of the book trying
to get back on track. Wolfe raises the question, however, of an
invisible mental infection that cannot be described by the morality of
her God-fearing mother, the love of knowledge of her professors, or
the polyglot of political attitudes that encrust the campus. Using
literary negative space, he shows us what's missing, and like a mirror
reveals the attribute of the world we cannot normally see and thus do
not attribute to our actions as cause or fixation.

Where "Gatsby" was about ambition, the unstated theme of "I am
Charlotte Simmons" is the first word in the title. No matter how much
we wrangle over the named institutions and concepts of society, the
book hints, we cannot overcome our fascination with ourselves, and our
habit of constructing our worldview around our self-image. Characters
of all stripes in this book become misled by not their egos per se,
but their social desire to be seen as having certain "good" or
powerful motives; what they cannot see is the situation as a whole. We
can hear in this an echo of Nietzsche's warning against "grand
statements" of emotional meaning, but little pragmatic value. From the
yuppie fratboys to the academically amotivated athletes, this book
abounds with characters myopically blind to all but themselves as
constructed, externalized image.

As a result, this is a highly subversive book, and not only for its
frank treatment of disposable sexuality, racial recognition politics,
academic Marxist groupthink and excessive use of alcohol and drugs.
Its assault on us is cordial, but it bears the emblem of death as a
warning, revealing a worldview which defeats us in every form because
of its hook into our brain at a level we cannot even detect. Wolfe
avoids battering us with this as a dominant metaphorical structure but
lets it ring out in the soft spaces between action and the
unarticulated but visible emptinesses characters encounter even when
succeeding. On the surface, "I am Charlotte Simmons" shows us a young
woman attacked by the world, but when we read below the surface, it
shows us a species decimated by its inability to distinguish the small
worlds within individual minds from the larger world beyond. - vijay
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