Thursday, April 27, 2006

Book: American Vertigo, by Bernard Henri Lévy (2006)

Lévy is often described as France’s greatest public intellectual, a phrase that means he writes books that aren’t read by the pundits who bloviate about them. I readily confess he’s a hard guy for me to take seriously, with his Leopold hair and his half-open shirts.

In Vertigo, Lévy recreates and expands on the trip Alexis de Tocqueville chronicled in his landmark work Democracy in America. Lévy’s effort made a splash a few months back when Garrison Keillor carved it a new one on the front page of the New York Times Book Review.

Personally, I don’t have a dog in this fight. A parody of the American common man duking it out with a parody of a French thinker? That’s like a bout between Robocop and the Terminator.

Still, an outsider’s perspective never hurts. I decided to read Lévy’s book before deciding that I didn’t like it.

I read it. And I didn’t like it.

Lévy has his moments. He offers a warts-and-all depiction of a disturbing meeting with Native American activist Russell Means, smartly dissects the abject failure that is the American left, and demands to know why the former right wing smear artist David Brock isn’t treated like a pariah. The Kerry campaign tries to keep Lévy away from their candidate. Their reasons why, and the platitudes offered by the man himself when they do get together, demonstrate why Kerry was doomed to defeat from the get-go. Plus, Lévy has kind words for Seattle.

More often than not, though, Lévy whiffs it. He makes only a token effort to replicate Tocqueville’s survey of American prisons. When given access to key right-wing figures like Richard Perle and William Kristol, he asks obvious questions hobbled by preconceived notions. Say what you like about the tenets of neo-conservatism, Dude, at least it’s an ethos.

The lazy thinking is compounded by poor writing. Rhetorical questions, parentheticals galore. The book reads like a collection of blog posts, and unedited ones at that.

The most depressing thing about the book is the space Lévy devotes to pop culture lions of yesteryear like Warren Beatty, Woody Allen, and Norman Mailer. Not because their time is past – Beatty’s trenchant Bulworth isn’t even a decade old – but because I doubt we’ll see their kind again.

You can’t build a rep as an artist of consequence in a world where everyone’s a celebrity. And where the political landscape is so polarized that any work engaging the issues of the day will be condemned unseen by one side and overpraised by the other.

The result is muddleheaded analysis like this from conservative writer Debbie Schlussel, who says about the upcoming film United 93:

Most Hollywood directors and writers could learn a thing or two from this movie’s director/writer Paul Greengrass, who did not make editorial comment. He stuck strictly to the 9/11 commission reports and recountings of conversations provided by relatives and ground crews.

As if an artist making “editorial comment” is somehow stepping over the line, and adherence to historical records is not a political gesture in itself. Besides, accuracy will still piss people off. Greengrass took plenty of heat for his extraordinary film Bloody Sunday, which used the same scrupulous approach.

It’s enough to make you keep your politics to yourself, as I generally do around here. Which means I’m not in a position to lament the absence of titans like Beatty and Mailer. So where does that leave me? Asking rhetorical questions like Lévy.

Incidentally, Robocop would clean the Terminator’s clock, because Robo is part human. Everybody knows that.

Miscellaneous: Link

The preceding got a little out of hand, so I’ll make it up to you by saying: Journey rocks. Via Matt at