Culture in the time of Covid

My Covid’s gone and I feel strong as an ox, even though I barely know what an ox is. A big cow? Paul Bunyan’s interspecies BFF? Actually, I just looked it up. An ox is a “castrated bull used as a draft animal.” So let’s scratch the whole ox analogy entirely. 

Point is, I’m back — non-contagious, symptom-free, fit as a fiddle. (I don’t know what that means either. Skip it.) It took about five days to vanquish the virus, and it wasn’t as bad as I imagined. It was like a mild cold, but without mucus violently erupting from my lungs. This was a dry cough, little hacks, as if an infant was smoking a cigarillo.

As hoped, I got a lot of reading done during my convalescence. I wrapped up “The Sportswriter,” Richard Ford’s extraordinary, bittersweet novel about life, love and letdowns, and started three more books, all highly acclaimed and released in the past few weeks.

Alas, two of them tanked. Those would be Ali Smith’s “Companion Piece” and Mieko Kawakami’s “All the Lovers in the Night.” 

I’m not sure what critics are going on about with Smith. They go bananas for her Seasonal Quartet novels — I failed miserably to warm up to two of them — and seem to regard the new book as the prosaic sublime. I read 175 pages of “Companion Piece” and surrendered with a mere 50 left. She’s a slog, oblique, flirting willfully with incoherence. I wasn’t having fun. I was having a migraine.

I enjoyed Japanese super-author Kawakami’s earlier novels, the shrewd and touching “Heaven” and “Breasts and Eggs,” which sounds like a particularly provocative breakfast dish. But her latest, though not totally displeasing, never takes off. It’s slow going … going nowhere.

But I hit pay dirt with “Either/Or,” Elif Batuman’s sequel to “The Idiot,” tracing the turbulent interior life of a female college student who’s trying to figure it all out. It’s at once wildly funny and erudite, catchy and sparkling, and that’s about all I can ask for in a book. Bonus: the author’s name is Elif.

For someone isolating with time to burn, I watched very little in the way of shows and movies. I did stay abreast of the series “Hacks” (hilarious), “Top Chef” (harrowing) and “Barry” (hilarious and harrowing). And I’m looking forward to sinking my teeth into “Irma Vep,” the great Olivier Assayas’ dramedy about a vamp, vampires and the insanity of making movies.

Meanwhile, everybody and their easily-scared tweens are bingeing Netflix’s gimmicky genre mash “Stranger Things.” I preferred the show when it was called “Scooby-Doo.”

I also got to anticipate my July journey to Buenos Aires as I was spread out, aching and sniffling with dramatic moans of self-pity. It’s something to look forward to, and, from a piece I read recently, that’s not only a good thing, it’s a healthy thing: “Having something to look forward to boosts your mood and lowers your stress. It can increase motivation, optimism and patience and decrease irritability.” Huh.

Not quite a Covid cure, but it can’t hurt. So much so that I started looking forward to my annual October trip, leap-frogging the July trip I haven’t even taken yet.

I’m thinking Budapest, a European joint I have yet to visit. Or perhaps a return to Krakow. Or Berlin. I’ll have to see what Covid is up to in those places. I might be cured, but the tenacious bug, mean and mercurial, still has the world in its gooey grip. 

Critiquing the critics

Great piece in the April issue of Harper’s Magazine titled “Like This or Die” by Christian Lorentzen. He’s a critic taking aim at the soggy state of criticism, and his article is by turns scathing and amusing and devastating.

After noting that “clichés are pandemic” in newspaper book reviews, Lorentzen says “Endless lists of book recommendations blight the landscape with superlatives that are hard to believe.” (Guilty as charged: The New York Times and New York magazine.)

He goes on:

The basic imperatives of the review — analysis and evaluation — are being abandoned in favor of a nodding routine of recommendation. You might like this, you might like that. Let’s have a little chat with the author. What books do you keep on your bedside table? What’s your favorite TV show? Do you mind that we’re doing this friendly Q&A instead of reviewing your book? What if a generation of writers grew up with nobody to criticize them?”

His sentiments remind me of the youth-pandering boosterism of Vulture and the somewhat more adult slavering of Vanity Fair, to name two obvious culprits that more often than not elect fuzzy over fulmination. They are hardly alone in hailing mediocrities like Netflix’s “Bojack Horseman” and “Stranger Things,” floridly overpraised series that reveal a critical desperation to like stuff.

Being honest isn’t the same as being sadistic. “Negativity is part of the equation,” Lorentzen says, “because without it positivity is meaningless.”

More from the article, which can be read here:

What jars is the self-satisfaction expressed by people who should know better. Editors and critics belong to a profession with a duty of skepticism. Instead, we find a class of journalists drunk on the gush. In television, it takes the form of triumphalism: a junk medium has matured into respectability and its critics with it. In music, there is poptimism, a faith that whatever the marketplace sends to the top must be good.”

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The unhilarious “Bojack Horseman” — yet one example of a series overrated by TV critics desperate to cling onto something in the bleak crap-o-sphere.