I had planned to say a few words about Colm Tóibín’s review of Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke in this weekend’s New York Times Book Review. I thought Tóibín, much less a historian than a literary man, was an interesting choice of reviewer for a book that seeks to reappraise the Second World War. My thoughts on that are summed up in the comments section at Charlottesville Words. More interesting is this colorful rant from my friend Rick:
Brendan, the review in today’s New York Times on Nicholas Baker’s new book brings to mind much of the reading I’ve been doing the past two years. It has to deal with the nature of terrorism, and in particular, state terrorism. It’s easy to write about authoritarian monsters such as Hitler, Stalin, and Mao. They provide easy access to narratives that comfort our sense that we stand outside the scope of such heinous deeds.
But when I read A. N. Wilson’s two-volume British history—starting with Queen Victoria’s era, and covering in volume two the first fifty years of the 20th century, ending with WWII and the demise of British Empire—it was clear that previously assumed heroic figures such as Winston Churchill were anything but. He comes across as a war-mad little drunkard, a pompous class-addled ass willing to mass murder people of Mesopotamia, India, the Sind . . . you name it. That fat little fucker loved to use the British Air Force to lay waste to civilian populations, rationalized by the idea they were uncivilized.
Gore Vidal, who’s work is imperfect but still impressive in scope—especially his historical saga that begins, chronologically, with Burr and ends with the Kennedy era—has similar judgments to make. Then, there’s the case of James Carroll, whose recent history of the Pentagon lays more blame with the United States for the Cold War than he does the Soviet Union.
Clearly, in the work of Wilson, Vidal, and Carroll, we are not “the good guys.” I believe indiscriminate use of Air Force bombing raids over civilian targets is a form of terrorism. And, I believe, our country’s leaders feel a lot easier in using this kind of war. Clearly, the United States gets upset when half a dozen of our finest are killed in action. But if a thousand or who-knows-how-many are killed by indiscriminate bombing, and the major part of those people are civilians, hey, no problem.
I’ve never been a fan of Nicholas Baker’s work. I’ve tried two of his novels and they didn’t hold my attention. His attention to detail may be fabulous in its minutiae, but as a reader, it doesn’t engross me. Guess you gotta like that kind of stuff to want to read on. I prefer a good yarn. 600 or 700 dense and detailed pages by James Carroll, with a hundred pages of endnotes, were far more engrossing. But after reading the review in today’s Times, I may have to dip into Baker’s latest. We need to rub our faces in our own complicity in world terror, and stop pretending that this country is beyond such perfidy.
I’ve read three or four of Baker’s books and they did hold my attention. I continue to laugh remembering the pornographic scenes in The Fermata, and I thought Box of Matches sublime. But I’m skeptical of Human Smoke. The form is literary (hence Tóibín as a reviewer) and designed, perhaps, to invoke feeling more than thoughtful consideration. Why not write a history if yours is a historical argument? And if it is not primarily a historical argument—if it is, for instance, primarily a political argument—why couch it in history?