Criticism & Features

NBCC Reads

Fall 2008: Long Tail #3


Now that we’ve all emerged from a tryptophan-induced stupor, it’s time to resume the Long Tail entries from the latest round of NBCC Reads. This time around, we’ve got suggestions from Alex Ross, who won the NBCC Award for The Rest Is Noise, and Roxana Robinson, the author most recently of Cost, as well as Georgia O’Keefe: A Life

Alex Ross: This summer I re-read most of Joan Didion’s nonfiction, in the handsome Everyman’s Library edition, We Tell Ourselves Stories In Order to Live. From the beginning, observing the rise of Ronald Reagan as a national phenomenon, Didion seemed to have an eerily focused view of where American political culture was headed. She had—and has—an uncanny ability to analyze the surface trickery that goes into the creation of what she calls “political fictions,” yet she retains a profound, almost prophetic awareness of ominous historical movements underfoot. Her dissection of George W. Bush’s phrase “compassionate conservatism” is a case in point. Almost nothing in this collection shows its age; indeed, Didion’s writing has become ever more acutely relevant with the passage of time, as the same crimes and mistakes are committed year after year, decade after decade, in an impenetrable haze of forgetting. In “Salvador,” published in 1983, Didion writes: “The American policy in El Salvador seemed based on auto-suggestion, a dreamwork devised to obscure any intelligence that might trouble the dreamer.” The ambiguity of the word “intelligence” in that sentence is total and has yet to be resolved.

Roxana Robinson: I nominate the Rabbit Angstrom: The Four Novels, by John Updike. For me, these books reveal the deepest heartland of America. This is a flawed, limited,  provincial place, full of all the messy stuff that humans have to offer: vitality and tenderness, greatness of spirit and nobility of intention, straight meanness, pure selfishness and dumb ignorance. It’s the place where our political instincts—idealism and self-interest, greed and pragmatism, fear and misguidedness, hope and altruism—are made manifest. It’s the place where we all actually live.

Updike’s elegant prose beautifully articulates Rabbit’s small-town world in all its quotidian splendor, and the writer’s magisterial intelligence provides a radiant illumination of this world. The books offer a deep and compassionate rendering of the twentieth-century community that includes us all.