Monday, June 19, 2017

In the Heat of the Summer: The New York Riots of 1964 and The War on Crime. Michael W. Flamm. University of Pennsylvania Press. 2017.

In Ferncliff Cemetery in Westchester County, New York, no plaque indicates the grave in which James Powell was buried more than half a century ago. The fifteen-year-old black teenager, entombed near African American luminaries such as James Baldwin and Malcolm X, lies forgotten, and many today have probably never heard his name. But his homicide—Powell was shot dead on 16 July 1964 by Thomas Gilligan, an off-duty white police officer—and the political events that succeeded it were responsible for significant upheaval in the Civil Rights Movement and, more broadly, in post-1960s US politics. In the Heat of the Summer: The New York Riots of 1964 and The War on Crime tells us how Powell’s death triggered major civil unrest in New York, shifting the already widespread call for ‘law and order’ within US public discourse to the centre of the debate on state policies designed to fight crime.

Michael W. Flamm is already known for his research on the US political culture of the 1960s as well as for his studies on debates between liberals and conservatives. In the Heat of the Summer continues more than two decades of reflection on this complex moment in US history. In the book, questions previously raised in Law and Order: Street Crime, Civil Unrest and the Crisis of Liberalism in the 1960s are discussed using a different and fruitful strategy. Here, Flamm elects a very precise cluster of historical events to put under scrutiny—the first ‘long, hot summer’ of the 1960s unleashed by Powell’s death—and analyses its main consequences: the beginning of ‘an age of law and order’ in US domestic politics, which would galvanise the so-called ‘War on Crime’ and the long-lasting crisis of US liberalism (286). The result is impressive. Written in a clear and accessible style, the book may be of interest not only to academic scholars working on related topics, but also to general readers interested in US and African American history.

Archival materials, biographies, memoirs, newspaper articles, official reports, interviews and correspondence with reporters, activists, officers and participating eyewitnesses: all are mobilised in order to write a day-by-day history of the New York riots of July 1964. Exploring the interstice in which history and story meet, Flamm weaves all these elements into a detailed, sometimes anecdotal, narrative. From the participants’ height, body shape and facial features, to their life stories and career aspirations, everything deserves the historian’s attention, who describes carefully the unfolding of events, taking into consideration ‘a broad range of personal perspectives—black and white, young and old, Christian and Jewish, angry and fearful as well as radical, liberal, and conservative’ (7).
Image Credit: Demonstrators carrying photographs of Lieutenant Thomas Gilligan march on 125th Street near Seventh Avenue during the Harlem Riots of 1964 (Dick DeMarsico, New York World Telegraph & Sun, Wikipedia Public Domain)

The book goes far beyond a simple reconstruction of the events that took place in New York between 16 and 23 July 1964, however. In Chapters One to Nine, Flamm references both the contributing factors and the political consequences of the uprisings. Flashbacks to the urbanisation in Central Harlem (Chapter Two) and Bedford-Stuyvesant (Chapter Seven) contextualise the social-economic situation in the places where civil unrest began. Chapter Two looks furthermore into previous moments of civil disorder in Harlem, such as the riots of 1935 during the Great Depression and of 1943 during World War II.

From Chapters Ten to Twelve, the narrative’s cadence accelerates. Here, the focus moves to how ‘law and order’ became a central issue during the two subsequent presidential elections: the first one won by the then-Democratic president Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964, some months after the fateful events in New York, and the second, won by Republican candidate Richard M. Nixon in November 1968. Flamm analyses the way in which, following the events of 1964, personal security and law enforcement progressively became the major concern of US citizens and how these issues were explored by both conservatives and liberals during local and presidential campaigns.

The conservative role in this important shift in focus from other domestic issues towards public safety should not be ignored, Flamm contends. By accusing the Civil Rights Movement of weakening public respect for law and authority, conservative discourse nullified the differences between nonviolent civil disobedience, civil unrest and crime, insisting that increasing crime rates were the sign of liberal governments’ failure in ensuring law compliance. The episodes of civil disorder were said to be the indication of how ‘racial integration’ and ‘permissive liberalism’ could be harmful to public safety. Liberal counter-discourse, in turn, consisted of the defence that both urban crime and civil unrest could not be understood without taking into consideration what Cleveland Robinson, a member of the New York City Commission on Human Rights, called in 1964 ‘the whole social structure’ (133): precarious housing, low-funded schools and segregated education, a lack of jobs due to automation and police brutality as well as consequent hopelessness and despair. Only an attack on these ‘root causes’ of noncompliance and unrest could enable an efficient fight against crime. The ‘War on Poverty’ declared by Johnson was said to be, in this context, the fairest and most effective way of doing so.

As Flamm shows, Johnson’s discourse still sounded convincing in 1964, when he won the election over Senator Barry Goldwater—the man who triggered in his acceptance speech to the Republican Convention the call for law and order. However, as street criminality rose over the following years despite the War on Poverty’s policies, the liberal stance lost its soundness. By mobilising anxiety provoked by increasing crime rates, conservative attacks won a new dimension: Johnson’s ‘Great Society’ programme started to be held responsible for the deviation of federal funds from issues such as public safety. The figure of the ‘undeserving poor’—associated predominantly with the urban black criminal—started to permeate the public imagination and discourse more and more, leading some sectors of the population to the conclusion that, by rewarding noncompliance, the War on Poverty led to (and did not help to defend against) more criminality. It was thanks to this scenario that Nixon’s motto could gain popularity: ‘Freedom from fear is a basic right of every American citizen’ (285). For more than fifty years, ‘law and order’ would remain the US political lingua franca, spoken by citizens of different races, classes and ideologies: a language whose syntax would offer for decades, as Flamm briefly shows in the book’s epilogue, cohesion and coherence for both parties’ discourse in their fight for power.

The focus on the liberal and conservative stances overshadows in some moments the role and importance of more radical interlocutors in debates on racial and economic injustice. More attention could be given, moreover, to the specificities of Johnson’s antipoverty programme as well as its racial implications. Such reservations do not, nonetheless, obscure the book’s merits. By exploring the tensions between aspirations for ‘social order’ and ‘social justice’ (285), it helps put the history of the freedom struggle in the US in a new light. It also offers myriad materials that can be enlightening in the context of current discussions on the new dynamics of racism, the persistence of police brutality as well as the effectiveness and fairness of state policies designed to reduce criminality. Perhaps more remarkably, it is a reminder of how putting into circulation discourses on order and personal safety are one of the most effective strategies in producing and reproducing collective fear. From Harlem to Ferguson and beyond, law and order’s heritage still haunts us. In the Heat of the Summer would prove an inspiring read for those who fight against it.

Sharing This Walk: An Ethnography of Prison Life and the PCC in Brazil. Karina Biondi (edited and translated by John F. Collins). University of North Carolina Press. 2016.

‘The main avenues of São Paulo are never deserted.’ In Roberto Marinho Avenue, Karina Biondi glances from her car window at ‘the city that never sleeps’ before it is touched by the Saturday morning light. ‘The reasons people are out and about at this hour are too numerous to count. But there is one cruel reason for leaving one’s home at this hour, and I have come to know it all too well.’

Along with many other relatives of prisoners, Biondi is starting just another long journey to visit her husband in one of São Paulo state’s carceral facilities. Sharing This Walk: An Ethnography of Prison Life and the PCC in Brazil is the result of years of research conducted by Biondi in the state’s prisons in which her husband was incarcerated. In her first book, which is the English translation of the published edition of her Masters thesis, ‘Juntos e Misturados: Uma Etnografia do PCC’, the author offers an ethnographic study of the PCC or Primeiro Comando da Capital (First Command of the Capital), a prison gang which in 2010 was already present in over 90 per cent of São Paulo’s carceral institutions. In a year that began with prison rebellions and riots in seven of Brazil’s federal states, Biondi’s book is showing itself to be more relevant than ever.

The wealth of analysed ethnographic data—as well as the effort and courage required to collect it—is only one of the merits of the research, which also proves to be a ground-breaking theoretical tour de force. ‘An ethnography of the PCC that attends to the real details of the group’s movements and development is thus also a wager on the possibility of novel anthropology,’ defends the author (122), whose project draws on contemporary efforts to produce a ‘postsocial social science’, as put forth by those such as Bruno Latour, Marilyn Strathern, Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro. Indeed, Deleuze and Guattari’s philosophical jargon impregnates the book, in which concepts such as flows, intensities, velocities, rhythms, rhizomes, planes of immanence and transcendence play a fundamental role. In this regard, some of the study’s theoretical passages can be hard to follow for a reader who is not familiar with this tradition of thought.

The main line of argument is, nonetheless, clear. Elegantly and rigorously argued, the monograph offers a compelling critique of the way the press, the state and the institutionalised social sciences depict prison life in Brazil, and proposes a radical change in the categories commonly mobilised in political and scientific debates on ‘organised crime’.
Image Credit: (Neil Conway CC BY 2.0)

Since the 1990s, as Biondi shows in Chapter One, state representatives have denied the existence of the PCC. Nevertheless, the Command’s actions increasingly started to gain notice. In May 2006, a rebellion took shape in 84 penitentiaries. In São Paulo state’s capital, the impact was felt beyond prison walls: 82 buses were set on fire, 17 banks were bombed, 299 state institutions were attacked, 42 public safety agents and police officers were murdered and 38 were wounded (38-39). In the wake of the attacks, specialists in public safety and social scientists offered a diagnosis of the turmoil in which the PCC was presented as a hierarchical institution, marked by obedience, an absence of reciprocity and, above all, a lack of political, democratic societal aims, since it was said to be focused on business interests (39). Biondi’s principal purpose is to challenge this public depiction of the PCC as a hierarchical institution, structured as either a state-like, ‘parallel power’ or as a capitalist corporation.

To that end, Biondi insists that it is necessary to rethink the categories through which the PCC is commonly characterised. By departing from the definitions of ‘organised crime’ and ‘criminal organisation’ formulated in the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, Biondi seeks to show that the PCC’s specific conception of politics cannot be conflated with ‘organised crime’, whose main characteristics are commonly said to be ‘hierarchy, expectation of profit, division of labor, entrepreneurial planning, and symbiosis with the state’ (97-98).

What sets the PCC apart from other prison groups, according to Biondi, is the value of equality. The addition of this concept to the group’s original motto—‘Peace, Justice, and Liberty’—represented, for the author, a watershed in the Command’s politics. From that moment on, the PCC abolished the notion of leadership and sought to become, in her words, ‘a Command without command’ (96). It did not mean that there would not be different membership statuses inside the ‘movement’, as she prefers to designate the PCC’s politics. Those differences, however, did not allow prisoners—neither those who are fully baptised members (Brothers, irmãos), those who are just part of the carceral population (Cousins, primos) nor even those Brothers who formulate the PCC’s policy communiqués (Towers, torres) —to claim authority or superiority over one another.

In order to highlight the specificity of this conception of political equality, Biondi draws on Pierre Clastres’s analysis of ‘societies against the state’. By departing from research conducted by him with Amerindian groups, Clastres argues that primitive societies are essentially egalitarian, resisting actively the development of state-like structures. Biondi sees a similar effort in motion in the PCC’s ‘micropolitics’. The different political positions are mainly due to the prisoners’ political abilities. Claims of equality prevent the crystallisation of hierarchies by triggering processes of ‘deindividualization’ that impede identification between individuals and the political position they occupy. Equality means, in this sense, the continuous collective struggle to ensure a form of life free of mutual domination (57). Both the original and the English title of the book reflect this conceptual constellation. Those who participate in ‘the Crime’ share a common ‘walk’ (caminhada), running alongside each other, side-by-side, all mixed together (todos juntos e misturados).

Here, a more detailed characterisation of the ‘modern, liberal nation-state’ (160) would have been appreciated in order to highlight the differences and possible similarities between the politics developed for and in the ‘PCC-as-movement’ and those political systems founded upon democratic representation and bureaucratic organisational structures. Such analysis could have elaborated upon the following insight formulated in the last paragraph of the book’s conclusion: ‘we have not escaped a situation in which the state serves as a tonic against the state’ (143).

Some important questions concerning the value of equality seem, moreover, to be left open. The native category of ‘thing’ (coisa) is a prime example, used to refer to prisoners who cannot enter the general prison population, being typically moved into protective custody. The complicated status of homosexuals discussed in Chapter Two is exemplary in this regard. Prisoners’ resistance against the PCC’s policy concerning the integration of homosexuals in the prison’s population (89) shows well, as Biondi points out, that the Towers’ communiqués are neither ‘orders’ nor law (157). The case also reveals, nevertheless, processes of exclusion which crisscross the formation of a community of equals. By insisting on claims of equality, Biondi tends to disregard such interconnection between dynamics of inclusion and exclusion.

The fundamental contributions of Biondi’s book to ongoing debates on the crisis of the carceral state in Brazil are, nonetheless, undeniable. By taking prisoners’ agency seriously, by problematising circulating categories such as ‘organised crime’ and by recognising prisons as places of production of knowledge where new forms of democratic politics are invented and experimented with every day, Sharing This Walk invites the reader to see prison life in a different, more critical light.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Secret Life: Three True Stories of the Digital Age Hardcover – October 10, 2017 by Andrew O'Hagan (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Andrew O’Hagan scrutinises a trio of slippery figures in these vivid essays exploring the internet’s effect on our sense of self

The internet has changed us, our means of communication, what we believe to be true, our identities and sense of self. That is a statement of such obviousness that we rarely stop to think about what it all actually means. But Andrew O’Hagan explores these themes with great depth and originality in three long essays – originally published in the London Review of Books – that make up his new collection, The Secret Life.

The first, entitled Ghosting, concerns that pathologically divisive figure, Julian Assange. The founder of WikiLeaks is awash with fictional potential. So much so that characters based on him regularly turn up in novels (Jonathan Franzen’s Purity) and TV dramas (Homeland).

O’Hagan, though, was commissioned to write ghostwrite Assange’s autobiography. On the surface, it was an inspired choice of author and subject. O’Hagan, a vivid and meticulous writer, was sympathetic to Assange’s cause, and he has the talent and staying power to draw even the most enigmatic characters out into the open.

But as becomes apparent in the essay, things didn’t go according to plan. This is partly because Assange is an unreliable narrator but a reliable narcissist. It’s also because he’s spent his life hiding in online shadows, where myths grow like fungus.

The Australian is caught between wanting to promote himself and maintain a secretive control of his image. It makes for a fascinating portrait of a prickly character who affects an egalitarian stance while awarding himself exceptional status, in which anything he does, however questionable, is by definition good because he’s the one doing it.

As O’Hagan becomes steadily more disillusioned, he can’t ignore the massive hypocrisy in which Assange indulges. For example, he makes WikiLeak employees sign contracts that threaten them with a £12m lawsuit if they disclose information about the organisation. As O’Hagan writes: “He can’t understand why any public body should keep a secret but insists that his own organisation enforce its secrecy with lawsuits. Every time he mentioned legal action against the Guardian or the New York Times, and he did this a lot, I would roll my eyes.”

O’Hagan’s eyes come in for a lot of exercise as he carefully documents a man whose ego invariably triumphs over his conscience. Gradually, the relationship comes apart as Assange attempts to play everyone off against one another. Although O’Hagan manages to get together a 70,000-word draft, Assange – then wanted for questioning in Sweden on a potential rape charge – thwarts his own book, for which he’s been handsomely paid, by refusing to sign off the manuscript.

Eventually the book comes out as a whole new genre: the “unauthorised autobiography”. This is not a hatchet job, but rather the best and most finely nuanced journalistic profile that this reviewer has read this century.

In the pantheon of internet celebrities Satoshi Nakamoto is not nearly as famous or infamous as Assange, but he is certainly more mysterious. Nakamoto is the inventor of bitcoins, the so-called cryptocurrency that has helped the illicit darknet flourish, and which, now legally traded, could one day prove the end of banks and money markets.

Nakamoto is a pseudonym that was a presence on the net during bitcoin’s development and release in 2009. Then it and its owner disappeared, prompting in their wake a search for the real Nakamoto that has turned him into the abominable snowman of the digital age.

In late 2015, O’Hagan was approached by an intermediary to write the life story of Nakamoto, who he was told was one Craig Steven Wright, another Australian who was about to become a fugitive from justice.

Intrigued but wary, O’Hagan decides to spend as much time as possible with Wright in an effort to get to the elusive truth. But in The Satoshi Affair we see that Wright is a frustratingly complex character who conceals every bit as much as he reveals. He shows O’Hagan a wealth of documentary evidence, much of it extremely technical and layman-unfriendly. Yet he stops short of providing conclusive proof that he is Nakamoto. Is this because he is a conman – he gets involved in a multimillion dollar business venture that is dependent on his being Nakamoto – or because he’s reluctant to give his true self up? The answer to that question remains, like so much that concerns the internet, enticingly out of reach.

Squeezed between these two compelling character studies is a relatively short essay entitled The Invention of Ronald Pinn. This Nabokovian-sounding figure is a dead man of around O’Hagan’s age whom the author reanimates online, creating a series of supporting fake identities on social media.

It’s a strange, slightly haunting voyage into digital life that reads as much like a short story as an essay. It ends with O’Hagan encountering the dead man’s mother. And suddenly, at the core of this excellent collection, we glimpse the unbridgeable difference between the real and the invented.


Social Media , the Novel and the End of Private Life:......The Private Life of the Diary: From Pepys to Tweets: A History of the Diary as an Art Form Hardcover – July 1, 2016 by Sally Bayley ( Random House);The Private Life of Edward IV Hardcover – May 1, 2017 by John Ashdown-Hill (Amberley Publishing);The Private Lives of the Tudors: Uncovering the Secrets of Britain’s Greatest Dynasty Hardcover – December 13, 2016 by Tracy Borman (Grove Press);Spaces of Surveillance: States and Selves 1st ed. 2017 Edition by Antonia Mackay (Editor), Susan Flynn (Editor)(Palgrave MacMillan);Spectacular Disappearances: Celebrity and Privacy, 1696-1801 Hardcover – March 4, 2016 by Julia H. Fawcett(University of Michigan Press);The Public Life of Privacy in Nineteenth-Century American Literature (New Americanists)May 13, 2005 by Stacey Margolis Paperback(Dule University Press) ;Privacy, Domesticity, and Women in Early Modern England New edition Edition by Corinne S. Abate (Routledge);Privacy in the Age of ShakespeareMar 24, 2016 by Ronald Huebert Hardcover (University of Toronto Press)

Image result for 1984 End of Private Life

Will social media kill the novel? Andrew O'Hagan on the end of private life

Writers thrive on privacy, not on Twitter. What does a world in which our interior lives are played out online mean for the novel? It is a call to action, argues the novelist

The day was always coming when science fiction would seem like nostalgia. It wasn’t that everything became true but that everything became fake. Who knew, when reading William Gibson in the simple 1980s, or old paperbacks of Frank Herbert, that these writers were common realists, no less faithful than Charles Dickens to life’s essential changes. I still remember the ritual of turning off the TV at the end of the night when I was a child. There was always a scramble to do it, because the Queen was on and everybody hated the Queen. No remote control, so you had to go over and press the button – and there it was, the final exhalation of static as the mounted Queen hyperspaced into a single white dot. It meant the world was now at a distance, a veil of finality descended over Britain, unless you could read novels under the covers with a torch. I grew up that way, between the TV and the library book, and it described a perfect circle of private experience. Robert Louis Stevenson might have been spying on us in a moral sense, and so might our Catholic God – “only He knows what’s inside your heart,” Father McLaughlin told me – but we persisted in feeling that privacy was a personal possession and a first principle.

The other day I taped over the camera on my computer. Then I went upstairs and disabled the data collection capability on the TV. Because of several stories of mine, I’d suffered a few cyber-attacks recently, and, though a paragon of dullness, I decided to greet the future by making it harder to find me. One of the great fights of the 21st century will be the fight for privacy and self-ownership, which is also, to my mind, the struggle for literature as distinct from the dark babble of social media. Writers thrive on privacy, not on Twitter, and so do readers when the lights are low. Giving your sentences thoughtlessly away, and for nothing, seems a small death to contemplation, and does harm to the profession of writing, where you’re paid because you’re good at it. We are all entertainers now, politicians are theatrical in their every move, but even merely passable writers have something large at stake when it comes to opposing the global stupidity contest. Literature, which includes great journalism, might enhance the public sphere but it more precisely enriches the private one, and we are now at the point where privacy, the whole secret history of a people, might be the only corrective we have to the political forces embezzling our times.

I taped over the camera on my computer. Then I went upstairs and disabled the data collection capability on the TV

In the interests of “national security”, in the service of “global harmony”, you are now obliged to become your own Winston Smith, both watched and self-watching. The TV downstairs may not be “off” at all – it may be “fake-off”, a condition defined in a joint programme of June 2014 between the CIA and MI5 called “Weeping Angel”. (Certain models of televisions are programmed to stay on, with their cameras operative, and the “data” they collect can be harvested by agencies.) The principle, as with Britain’s Prevent campaign, is to assume that everyone with a private life might have something to hide, which means that nobody, in the future, unless they have sinister motives, should expect the luxury of privacy. Some TVs and all phones operate “as a bug, recording conversations in the room and sending them over the internet to a covert CIA server”, reported WikiLeaks as it released the “Weeping Angel” documents. Being bugged at home or stopped and searched in the street and having your “information” handed to security agencies are now understood to be security measures, and questioning it will make you an enemy of the Daily Mail’s “common sense”. One doesn’t have to be much of a freedom fighter nowadays to be branded a member of the “liberalocracy”: all you have to do is believe in free speech and freedom of movement, and stand up for basic rights of sovereignty over your own thinking. Only recently have these sanctities been taken for the demands of a potential terrorist.

Dickens believed that rail travel would change the meaning of selfhood. In 1846, he got to know the “railway king” George Hudson, and he began to turn the mania for steam engines over in his mind, writing about it in the novel he was then working on, Dombey and Son. “The first shock of a great earthquake had, just at that period,” he wrote, “rent the whole neighbourhood to its centre. There were a hundred thousand shapes and substances of incompleteness, wildly mingled out of their places, upside down, burrowing in the earth, aspiring in the air, mouldering in the water, and unintelligible as any dream … The yet unfinished and unopened Railroad was in progress; and, from the very core of all this dire disorder, trailed smoothly away, upon its mighty course of civilisation and improvement.” He charted what was coming but also what was going. “There were frowzy fields, and cowhouses, and dunghills, and dustheaps, and ditches, and gardens, and summer-houses, and carpet-beating grounds, at the very door of the Railway.”

It wasn’t just progress and enlightenment – he saw it as a darkening, all that smoke, noise and overcrowding of the city streets, and, with it, an end to bucolic remoteness. With the closing of distance comes the new problem of proximity. And from the perspective of born letter writers the internet has done a similar thing. It started off as a kind of utopian promise, “we” would be connected, “we” would share information and experience in ways both instant and constant. But we didn’t know that “we” was not a stable commodity, and neither, as it turned out, was “I”. The most exciting prospect in recent years was that the old institutions of power, so reliant on secrets and lies, would be shaken down by an insightful technology that has no bias towards protecting self-interest. WikiLeaks and bitcoin were built to interrogate the central complacencies of the military-industrial complex: we will take your secrets away, the new digital editors appeared to say, and our computers will keep you honest. It seemed tied to a new vision of democracy: the computer owners of the world would underwrite, every day and in every place, a fresh digital constitution, exposing corruption and guaranteeing rights. Hackers would interrupt the flow of lies. But the freedom fighters forgot that agencies had big computers, too, and in time they would have state hackers and people protecting the old big money causes. Criminals have come to work the internet the way they used to work the highways of the world, and – an old story, this – the idealists have fallen into bad company. Donald Trump, that malignant narcissist and a poor American’s idea of what a rich guy looks like, could say “I love WikiLeaks”, and feel closer to Putin than he did to anybody in Washington, and tell 400 lies in 100 days, and laugh it all off and tweet more rubbish and look into cancelling the daily press briefings. It was all personal. He could accuse Obama of surveillance, share security information with the Russians, and we were all left wondering where the crossover began, and who was who. Was it a libertarian coup? And had the utopian idealists, the original hackers, the talented disrupters, allowed themselves to become the useful idiots of an international rightwing conspiracy?

At the time of his novel Falling Man, written in the wake of 9/11, I argued with Don DeLillo that “reality” was outpacing his vision, but really it was outpacing everyone’s vision. In the age of Fake-Off you might come to feel that fiction and non-fiction are indivisible, and that writers and readers have scarcely enjoyed a more apposite moment for exploring “truth”. Private life, in the sense that it meant something to Henry James, has ceded to the internet, and how we watch, are watched and how we self-watch are hot-wired to digital code. The interior life, let us say, used to be about who a person was inside themselves, and such alterations as could be detected were the stuff of literature. Nowadays the interior life means something else: it refers to who are you inside the web. Your every move, every thought suggested by your shopping patterns, your “likes”, and how they intersect with others, will tell on you. Future battles may simply be about who controls the code.

The life of Isabel Archer, her secret wants and repressions, are found in James’s sentences, of things said and not said

The life of a person such as James’s heroine Isabel Archer, her privacies, her secret wants and repressions, her history and her human nature, may be found in a pattern of sentences and paragraphs, of things said and not said, and in the end she is a person in a museum of vitality. But selfhood isn’t like that now. The “self” of a young woman of her sort today is more likely to be located in a neural network. When you look at the computer science patents lodged in the last three years, that is what you see: a future where privacy is not a matter of tender human comprehension, but of algorithms. This has been coming for a while. In 2010 Mark Zuckerberg told a conference in San Francisco that privacy is no longer a social norm, and Nick Denton of Gawker spoke for a whole generation when he said that “every infringement of privacy is sort of liberating”.

For any writer, that’s a call to action. When you write fiction you’re in a constant state of production, and I don’t mean you’re always writing. I mean you point yourself in the direction of the narratives you know you can write. I’m always going out of the house to find stories and always being changed by them. There is no gold medal for that, it’s just a habit some people have, but it seems reasonable to believe that such work sets up conversations that novelists might not otherwise have. When I’m reporting nowadays I feel less like a news gatherer and more like an actuality seeker, someone for whom the techniques of fiction are never foreign and seldom inappropriate. In recent years, I’ve tended to write about people who inhabit a reality they made for themselves or that in other ways consorts with fiction, and I was required to enter their ether and dance with their shades in order to find the story. When I was a young reader, I learned from the poets not to trust reality – “reality is a cliche from which we escape by metaphor,” Wallace Stevens wrote – and the internet figures I got involved with for The Secret Life: Three True Stories depend for their existence and their power in the world on a high degree of artificiality.

It is the habit of the times to organise the ironies embedded in this state of affairs and call it culture. (Just look at reality TV.) And the creative writer, given what I’ve said about metaphor, may have a head start when it comes to investigating that culture – which is why we might do well, now and then, to open the notepad and turn on the recording device. Asked which of the arts was closest to writing, Norman Mailer once told me the answer was “acting”. He talked about an essential loss of ego, a circumstance that most people wouldn’t associate with him. But the principle will be familiar to writers of fiction and non-fiction who are always on the lookout for another life, believing it must be a writer’s business to invest freely in self-transcendence. I believe that is what F Scott Fitzgerald meant when he said there can be no reliable biography of a writer, because “a writer is too many people if he’s any good”.

By hating privacy while guarding his own, Assange became to me a cautionary tale of our times

We were addicted to the ailments of the web long before we understood how the technology would change our lives. In a sense, it gave the tools of fiction-making to everybody equally, so long as they had access to a computer and

a willingness to swim into the internet’s deep well of otherness. JG Ballard predicted that the writer would no longer have a role in society. “Given that external reality is a fiction, he does not need to invent the fiction because it is already there,” he wrote. Every day on the web you see his point being made; it is a marketplace of selfhood. With email, everyone can communicate instantly and invisibly, either as themselves or someone else. There are upwards of 67m “invented” names on Facebook, many of them clearly living another life less ordinary, or at any rate less checkable. Encryption has made the average user a ghost – an alias, a simulacrum, a reflection. In this climate, only our buying power makes us real, and what self we have is open to offers of improvement – new eye colour, better insurance, slimmer body – from marketing firms and mobile phone companies who harvest our data before they hand it to governments, who aim to make us visible again in the interests of national security. Maybe Ballard was too pessimistic about the writer’s role: what if she didn’t unplug when confronted with the new fictionalities but inscribed herself into the web and re

I’m drawn to the problems of virtual reality and find that many of them are as old as the humanities themselves. It is the human thing – the magic of true feeling and the grain of lived experience – that the machines can’t know, or not yet. Looking for that thing in the face of such sweeping change feels to me like an old-fashioned job, so long as one is willing to exchange all certainties for known unknowns. For six years I more or less devoted myself to writing from the wild west of the internet, and it felt, at times, like a solo ride through the ravines and quagmires of post-industrial progress. We lived through the age of the internet before policing or a code of decency, before good manners or clear professional ethics, and the new ontological arrangements of the web are yet to become second nature. I might have swum in the ethical mire of all that, but what I found were individuals. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is not a typical figure of the internet age any more than Charles Foster Kane is a typical figure from the Age of Newspapers. To me, Assange always seemed happy to be a confection and is every bit as impractical as he is inconsistent. Like Trump, that friend he made, he is simply too narcissistic to recognise his mistakes. The six months or so I spent talking to him, or, should I say, listening to him, in a remote house in Norfolk where he was effectively under house arrest, was like spending a portion of one’s life with a man out of Trollope who is glued together with lies and denials but who is obsessed with a moral programme that makes everyone else face the truth. Visiting him at the Ecuadorian embassy, I knew he had lost his reason, and his antics since then have proved it. He always hated Hillary Clinton and I had learned enough about how his mind works to know that he would be fooled by his own resentment. Reality outpaced him, too. A brilliantly talented publisher, he has become a servant of forces he doesn’t understand, and by hating privacy while guarding his own he became to me a cautionary tale of our times.

The purported bitcoin creator Craig Wright came to me, as Assange did, out of the blue, claiming that science fiction was no longer possible. “It’s all here,” he said. Wright turned out to be a highly eccentric respondent, on the brink of digital currency, to the financial crisis of 2008, and his inner trials interested me for their own sake. Looking back, I feel that Wright saw his entire existence as something made on the internet, and when he tried to step out from it and claim his fame his selfhood fell apart. In his own mind he was unknowable, unwritable, though for me he was like the digital embodiment of a character in Theodore Dreiser. Privacy was supposed no longer to be a social norm, yet these men were haunted by theirs, and it became a task of writing to pick them apart from their digital personae. I spent a long time in pursuit of a man called Ronald Pinn, a digital person I invented based on a young man who died 30 years ago, and he pulled down the walls between fiction and non-fiction in ways that I am still getting to grips with. I did what the Metropolitan police have been doing for years, and took a name from a gravestone, building a “legend” around it. In time Ronnie became a man of the moment but also an element in experimental journalism, a person both true and not true, around whom questions of existence swirl like snow. Every man and every woman are their own Rosebud, and the web can’t hide it.

Maybe the abolition of privacy will kill the novel. But more likely, as with the invention of trains or rockets or sex, it will make it new. One of a writer’s rewards is to find himself alive in the detail of his stories, and the age of the internet provides a whole new funfair of existential provocations. In my childhood, the visiting funfair was called “The Shows”, and that is what I found when I went looking for heroes in the fiction machine, carnivalesque people who are bent of shape – by their pasts, by their ambitions or by their illusions – under the internet’s big tent. In a world where everybody can be anybody, where being real is no big deal, some of us wish to work back to the human problems, driven by a certainty that our computers are not yet ourselves. In a hall of mirrors we only seem like someone else.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Somme: Into the Breach Hardcover – August 15, 2016 by Hugh Sebag-Montefiore ( Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press; 1 edition (August 15, 2016)

Acclaimed historian Hugh Sebag-Montefiore studies the whole breadth of the Somme debacle of World War I.

2016 marks the 100th anniversary of a battlefield catastrophe that stands out in a kind of unwanted, lonely prominence even in the bloody annals of military history: On July 1, 1916, the Allied forces of Britain and France launched an all-out attack, the long-awaited “Big Push,” against German forces on the banks of the Somme River.

General Sir Douglas Haig, commander-in-chief of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in France, in conjunction with General Sir Henry Rawlinson, commander the British 4th Army tasked with spearheading the offensive, envisioned a fairly neat sequence of events: A massive artillery bombardment would so soften up the German lines, then in its wake Allied soldiers would be able to climb out of their trenches and perform only the lightest mopping-up exercises while marching virtually unimpeded into enemy territory. The one-two combination would finally break through the trench-warfare stalemate in France that had frustrated Allied commanders for months.

After nearly two million British shells were lobbed across No Man's Land, the Allied attack began early in the morning of July 1. Soldiers went “over the top” and began advancing toward the shattered landscape of the German front lines. “They are coming!” went the cry all through the German troops, as Hugh Sebag-Montefiore dramatizes in his big new book Somme: Into the Breach; “It was a cry that was repeated again and again, all along the attack line to the south, as more and more British troops, over a vast area, were seen to be advancing.”

But the massive bombardment hadn't worked its expected magic; the Germans hadn't been flattened or driven back, and the damage the shells did to the countryside and the German trenches created swaths of broken ground ideal for improvised machine gun emplacements. Those Allied soldiers who'd gone “over the top” found themselves walking into a horrifying field of fire. “It was,” as Sebag-Montefiore writes, “a disaster waiting to happen.”

The initial results have become emblems of the wastage of war. Entire ranks of men were leveled in instants; battalions were devastated; thousands of bodies were torn to indecipherable pieces by unremitting gunfire. The British casualties alone by the end of that first day were in excess of a staggering 57,000 (with at least 19,000 dead). It was the single bloodiest day in the history of the British military, and it's been seen for most of the ensuing century as a bitterly perfect illustration of the madness and futility of the military imbalances of World War I. It became shorthand for battlefield insanity brought on by clueless, hidebound generals, resulting in the loss of an entire generation of bright-faced young men.

Sebag-Montefiore's book studies the whole breadth of the Somme debacle, from that blistering first day to the exhausted and mud-caked final weeks in late November. He sifts through volumes and volumes of original documents, attempting always to put a human face on every single moment and aspect of the campaign.

He shows us Lieutenant-Colonel Kyme Cordeaux writing to his wife Hilda during that initial bombardment on July 1 wondering what “the little fledgling swallows in the nest above my bed think of it all,” and going on to guess that they'll be “deaf for the natural time of their lives.”

He utilizes the intimate archives of letters, diaries, and dispatches to produce a far more detailed and individualized portrait of the subject than earlier big single-volume treatments like Peter Hart's "The Somme" in 2009, or Martin Gilbert's "The Somme" in 2006, or "The Somme" by Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson in 2005.

Each of the individual battles that made up the whole of the Somme is given a rigorous and very readable account of its own, from Fricourt and Mametz to Delville Wood and Montauban to Fromelles and Guillemont. The narrative moves easily from the larger logistical tangles back at headquarters to the experiences of the men fighting in the front lines, and Sebag-Montefiore is every bit as authoritative writing about the birth of air and tank warfare as he is picking apart the psychologies of the men involved.

“Many soldiers have talked about the red mist that descends over their normal sensibilities when in the midst of battle,” he writes. “That has its uses, for it helps to banish fear.”

There will never be a last word on the Battle of the Somme, Sebag-Montefiore concludes. By the time it was all over, each side had lost half a million people – and yet virtually nothing had been gained, and the German lines had mostly held firm. Our author echoes the verdict of some historians that the bloodbath of the Somme prompted the German command to pause its offensive at Verdun, and likewise he brings up the frequently-made contention that the vicious pounding the German forces underwent at the Somme effectively broke their spirits, guaranteeing an eventual Allied victory.

Such things may be true, although they would have been cold comfort to the thousands of men cut down on either side of the river a century ago. At least those men get to speak again, in this enormously satisfying book.

Magpie Murders: A Novel Hardcover – Deckle Edge, June 6, 2017 by Anthony Horowitz ( Harper )

"Why is it that we have such a need for murder mystery," asks Susan Ryeland, the narrator of British author Anthony Horowitz's new novel, Magpie Murders, "and what is it that attracts us — the crime or the solution? Do we have some primal need of bloodshed because our own lives are so safe, so comfortable?"

If anyone should be able to answer these questions, it's Susan. As an editor at a publishing house, she works with the massively successful Alan Conway, a writer of Agatha Christie-style whodunits. Magpie Murders is one mystery novel wrapped in another: we the readers peruse Alan's latest manuscript alongside his editor, while another crime plays out in Susan's life. Evidence mounts that finding the guilty party in the book will shed light on the case in real life.

Horowitz has spent a long career thinking up suspense stories in the vein of the genre's greats. In addition to creating the popular British detective shows Midsomer Murders and Foyle's War, he has written screenplays for the Poirot TV series, a James Bond novel commissioned by the Ian Fleming estate and a number of successful YA thrillers. Much like his character Alan, he is both prolific and a bona fide student of the golden age of detective fiction — and his knowledge shines through in this book, which is catnip for classic mystery lovers. As a Christie disciple, he is near equal to his master.

The novel within the novel, also titled Magpie Murders, has all the fixings of a murder in the English countryside, with a fussy detective, a daft sidekick, a meddling busybody, a peculiar vicar and a bombastic aristocrat. In addition to referencing Christie mysteries like 4:50 From Paddington, Horowitz name-drops his own oeuvre: "I thought it sounded too much like Midsomer Murders," says one character of the manuscript's title. In fact, the plot of the book bears a certain resemblance to the 1997 pilot of Midsomer Murders, which is itself based on the 1987 Caroline Graham novel The Killings at Badger's Drift — a kind of in-joke for Horowitz fans. But even as Horowitz pays homage to the greats and teases his own ego, he manages to skewer our obsession with homicide. "I don't understand it," says one character. "All these murders on TV — you'd think people would have better things to do with their time." The combination of reverence and irreverence makes the book irresistible for those of us with mixed emotions about our crime-fiction addiction.

Speaking of mixed emotions, the novel arrives in the U.S. at an interesting time for Horowitz. He recently got in hot water for saying he'd been warned off writing black characters as a white author. And he previously drew ire for calling black actor Idris Elba "too street" to play James Bond, for which he apologized. On the other hand, his own 007 novel introduced a gay best friend for the spy, and many of his stories, including Magpie Murders, feature gay narratives. With one foot in the present and one in the past, his public persona is perhaps a bit like his fiction.

But back to the story. As Susan digs into Alan's personal life, she learns that he's been inventing his own in-jokes in his novel plotting: hidden anagrams, thematic character names and other rhetorical devices to keep the writing process interesting for himself. It turns out the master of mystery isn't as smitten with the genre as his readers. But the readers get the last laugh as these games lead to the ultimate twist.

With its elegant yet playful plotting, Magpie Murders is the thinking mystery fan's ideal summer thriller.

Girl on the Leeside by Kathleen Anne Kenney;Coming of Age and Literature: The Power of Reading as an Adolescent by Kathleen Anne Kenney

Kathleen Anne Kenney is an author, freelance writer, and playwright. Her writing has appeared in Big River, Coulee Region Women, and Ireland of the Welcomes, as well as other publications. Here, Kathleen discusses how reading impacted her when she was growing up. Her newest novel, Girl on the Leeside, will be released June 20th.

In the film “You’ve Got Mail” the charming character played by Meg Ryan speaks passionately to the also charming character played by Tom Hanks: “When you read a book as a child, it becomes a part of your identity in a way that no other reading in your whole life does.” This devastatingly true statement was written by the brilliant Nora Ephron.

Speaking for myself, I was drawn to writing from a very early age because I was surrounded by books. The youngest in a large family with reading-addicted parents, the lives I led immersed in stories were as real and valuable to me as the life I led in our bustling, loving home. I was raised in an Irish-American family – we were Catholic – and, luckily, my parents had a catholic taste in literature. Shakespeare, Agatha Christie, John Le Carre, Rumer Godden, Iris Murdoch, W.B. Yeats and Pogo were jumbled together, amidst many others, in the dozen or so bookcases spread around the house.

At no time can I remember my parents ever fighting or giving each other the silent treatment. They adored each other. They also adored being parents. So I was happy; I was really a happy kid. Can a writer emerge from a persona that isn’t going through any more than a token fledgling angst?

My novel is entitled Girl on the Leeside. And while I wasn’t sheltered nearly to the extent that my protagonist is, I was raised ‘on the lee: the side that is sheltered or turned away from the wind.’ If Mom and Dad could have arranged it, our childhoods would have lasted twice as long. I was the youngest by three and a half years, and my parents tried to make exactly that happen with me. I was a sophomore in high school before I was allowed alone in the house in the evenings. I was “Little Guy” – for years my brothers, and sometimes Dad, called me that. I was a senior in high school before I wore my first pair of high heels. I craved books that took me on adventures while I at the same time held onto my innocence within the walls of my bedroom.“I was drawn to writing from a very early age because I was surrounded by books.”

I loved our busy home and busy neighborhood, but reading was absolutely what I did whenever I had time to myself. (Bedtime was maddeningly inconvenient, so routinely I read by nightlight, hanging over the space between my mattress and headboard. I wore glasses by the time I was seven). In early childhood my favorite books were Winnie-the-Pooh, Wind in the Willows, the Madeline books, and everything by Virginia Lee Burton, Dr. Seuss, Maj Lindman, and Beatrix Potter. I vaguely remember believing animals could talk.

The Betsy-Tacy series showed me that I could be a writer – if Betsy could, I could! So I started scribbling stories in notebooks. In grade school we had reading and math groups designated by skill level: Rockets, Jets, and Planes. (Really – this was a thing). I was a Rocket in reading! In math I was a Plane (more like a Helicopter, actually). To my school’s credit, much of the advanced reading included stories about other cultures around the world, stories about children living during war, etc. Snow Treasure and The Snow Goose affected me profoundly – when children your own age are in real danger within a story you’ll never forget how you identified with that fear. And how you hope you’d be as brave as they were in the face of it. Who doesn’t read A Wrinkle in Time and make it part of their DNA? The Navajo story Annie and the Old One handled death and family traditions in a such a universal way that I was comforted in the aftermath of my grandfather’s passing.

Once the formidable pre-teen years arrived, boys were ‘meh’ – I had four brothers, after all. I’ll admit Nancy Drew became a favorite, along with books by Edward Eager, Roald Dahl, and Beverly Cleary, and early forays into Christie and Wodehouse. In high school I began to read plays, too: Neil Simon, Jerome Lawrence, Philip Barry, Thornton Wilder, and Shakespeare. That’s when I started writing with real determination. Even as a happy kid, I had my dreams – a jumble of dragons, ancient cities, witty drawing rooms, tropical islands, and time travel. The dreams are still there, still jumbled together. Because I suspect this Little Guy never fully grew up.