The Man Who Was Thursday


The Man Who Was Thursday is a sort of metaphysical thriller of the same generation of writers like Franz Kafka and Joseph Conrad. The action takes place at an allegorical level, – much as in The Trial or Heart of Darkness – and so don’t expect a whole lot of character development or realistic plot points.

In fact, its worth pointing out that The Man Who Was Thursday – as a major work of conservative thought – is essentially the exact counter-point to Kafka’s The Trial. Where The Trial depicts a universe devoid of meaning, Thursday comes to the exact conclusion depicting a religiously-infused world meaning (even as it remains mysterious) G.K. Chesterton is one of the leading lights of the great British conservative tradition that starts with Edmund Burke’s rebuke to the French Revolution and passes with Winston Churchill. Think surreal Charles Dickens. As such, The Man Who Was Thursday is one of the most intelligent portrayals of actual conservative thought (as distinguished from the neoliberalism of Hayek and Rand and other more pernicious forms of right-wing thinking like Sorrel or Schmitt).

The book starts with main character Syme – a young gentleman of a poetic, passionate nature – entering a fashionable get-together of what today we might call know-it-all rich kids which dabble in left-wing politics. Holding court is Gregory, the outspoken leader who propounds the most radical anarchist ideas (revolt is poetic, better to live one day as a lion then a 100 days as a sheep, etc). In a very witty, allegorical conversation, Syme humiliates Gregory as a dilettante and a fool. Chesterton introduces his key insight: the idea that order, progress, monogamous marriage, and traditional bourgeois society are what is truely “revolutionary and poetic.” Using the key image of the lamppost (upright, technical/hierarchical society) and the tree (communal, organic/spontaneous society), Chesterton advances the idea that even common criminals have the decency to participate in the great order of life (there only crime is desiring property too much; presumably, if they got enough property, they would be content); it is the people who seek change in society who are the problem. These (largely intellectual) people want to change the established order of things: this is either spoiled childishness or a dark desire to “watch the world burn.”

To show Syme he is not a poser, Gregory swears Syme to secrecy and takes him to a subterranean meeting of Anarchists (which takes place in maybe one of the earliest conceptions of a Bond Villain hideout), where Gregory is about to be elected “Thursday,” one of seven members of the International Anarchist Council. Syme reveals he is a policeman to Gregory, who in his “vote for me” speech to the Anarchists attempts to temper his fears of Syme ratting on him by talking about how Anarchists want to uplift and help humanity; Gregory’s speech is not well received. Syme leaps up and delivers a fire-and-brimstone speech on the righteous, violent vengeance that Anarchism is about to unleash on the world. The Anarchists love it and elect Syme as the new Thursday.

At this point we are treated to a flashback to the recruitment of Syme as a member of a special squad of detectives bent on a last-ditch attempt to infiltrate and destroy Anarchism; he is told that he is being sent on a suicide mission. Syme attends the meeting of the Anarchist Council – which hides in plain sight, passing itself as a group of successful gentleman just having large brunch with some harmless banter. We meet the rest of the Council, headed by the grotesque and portentous Sunday, the cold, cruel scientific Dr. Bull, the ideologically fervent Secretary, the aristocratic and vaguely De Sade-esque Marquis de St. Eustache, and the stand in for German Idealist philosophy, Professor De Worms (the other members of the council are less significant). It should be obvious that there is little of character here, post figures in this book stand for ideas or notions. We learn that Sunday is planning some huge dynamiting “outrage” and one of the members of the council is revealed to be a police spy.

Syme is now pursued, one by one, by various members of the council, who, one-by-one are also revealed to be police agents. It is revealed that they were all hired especially by one head cop who hired them in a completely dark room. The plot builds until it seems like the whole world has turned to Anarchism and is trying to hunt down the detectives, but it is an illusion; soon the entire council of detectives set out to pursue the god-like Sunday, who leads them on a truely surreal chase around London, involving an elephant and daring balloon escape. The detectives chase the balloon across the English countryside, meanwhile engaging in metaphysical reflection. Eventually, the balloon comes down.

The detectives are then met by carriages staffed by elegant attendants; they are taken to a estate where they are given symbolic garb to match their respective day and personality. Ushered into the presence of Sunday (who is now truely God), they sit as a symbolic unity of seven and look on as a massive costume party (people are dressed as animals, the elements, etc) goes on for several hours. The detectives are revealed as sort of cosmic principals originating with Creation. Syme has been “Thursday (the day the moon and stars were created)” all along. It’s a magical evening, but Gregory the only real Anarchist comes (as the Devil?) to complain about how God is running things; he implies that God has never suffered, doesn’t understand humanity or the human predicament. In response, the last words of the book are Sunday’s: “would ye drink of the same cup as I have?”

Intellectually the book peters out once you realize that the entire council are all police detectives – in fact, the opening two chapters make up the meat of the book in terms of actual debate and argument. In this sense, it’s curious, half-finished book which never quite susses out it’s full vision. What does it mean that God is at once Top Anarchist and all his acolytes are all police detectives? It begs the question: “What are they actually fighting? What are they actually afraid of?” The more I think about the book, the less intellectual traction of engaging with the material I find.

And while it is all tremendously witty, with a tremendous sense of playacting – Anarchist Gregory dresses up as his idea of establishment figures like a bishop, an army major, and a millionaire to avoid being detected as an Anarchist, the police detectives dress up as their ideas of Anarchists (an Idealist philosopher, the cold man of scientific reason, the exotic, yet somehow slightly asiatic decadent despotic-ness of the Marquis, the Worker).

Chesterton’s most insightful point, again, is that there is something poetic, something revolutionary about establish society (he uses the idea of a train system that runs on time, not as an example of rigid monotony, but of an thrilling departure from the lassitude of the natural world). Another way of putting it is that a successful heterosexual monogamous marriage is the truely “rebellious” relationship because of true unique/rare it is. Behind this all lays the fundamental conservative view: there is an established order to things and any attempt to change this established order is, at best foolishness, and at worst, a sinister destructiveness.

And one can easily why this would be a powerful point of view – it as the emotional bonus of being both optimistic (of a sort) and poses as a sort of timeless wisdom. The mindless destructiveness of Edwardian terrorism, masked with Romantic rhetoric was truely obnoxious. But for me, that is where the strength of the book ends. Conservatism fundamental denies that there is a problem – the only problem is people who mistakenly believe there is a problem that should be addressed with social change. You do no have to think about this for too long to realize the chilling consequences of this concept: it’s a massive endorsement of the status quo – no matter how savage or cruel – and any attempt at change, no matter how modest or sensible becomes a crime against The Order of Things. Chesterton is unable to engage with any background to Anarchism – aside from a sense that Gregory wants attention and to be taken seriously – he is unable to explain social problems, unable to grapple with what might lay behind any alternative to his world view. He denies that there are any social problems; crime and poverty are eternal, part of the cycle of stars it seems, not manufactured social circumstances which can obviously be addressed.

His ultimate response to Gregory – that God has suffered (on the Cross), is suffering infinitely more, and thus knows all (this is the way it had to be)- both dismisses actual human suffering and at the same time makes God into something of a martyr, a cosmic playing of the victim. Chesterton’s ultimate response to real, humanly manufactured suffering is a sort “yeah, well, we all have a sob story pal” but told in an optimistic, wise sort of way. The cosmic dance at the end of the book answers no questions, solves no problems, and upon reflection leaves one wondering why God is presented as a rich eccentric who has nothing better to do than to play Anarchist.

It’s interesting to see the birth and development of the traditional conservative critiques of liberals, ones that we are all too familiar with today. The sense that people interested in change are either apocalyptically destructive, bent on global despotism, or rich intellectual fools interested only in getting attention. Additionally, one can detective the growth of the spy and superhero genres – there were many scenes which reminded me of the 1960’s TV show The Prisoner for example.

Witty, enjoyably surreal and ideologically instructive. Probably one of the best, most sane /gentle portrayals of conservative thought from a time when being conservative meant something.



The Coroner’s Lunch


Since Trump’s election, I have had a hard time reading anything but escapism. Thus has started my new found love of mystery, you know: depictions of a world where justice, logic, and the public good win out in the end. Sheer utopian fantasy.

Set in 1970s communist Laos, the series follows the aged Dr. Siri as he gets inevitably wrapped up in a series of murders most foul. Enjoyable because the setting is so un-typical and marked by an interesting flight into the vaguely supernatural, this is a pretty by-the-numbers murder mystery yarn when you really get down to it.

This is the second murder mystery book that I have read set in communist countries during the historical past, the other being Child 44, a hunt for a serial killer in ’60s Soviet Russia. Here’s my bone to pick. I love the idea of murder mysteries in the Soviet block – the concept is brilliant, but the execution has left much to be desired. Both authors- Colin Cotterill and Tom Rob Smith – work overtime and are at extreme pains to show that their main characters are not communist and that the communist system was terrible and incompetent.

Both books have a whiff of insecurity about them – the “methinks she doth protest too much” – of having a main character who has been in the communist party for 40 years and remains totally uncommitted to the communist cause, or the Child 44, the main character goes from a Soviet Hero to being ripe for recruitment for the CIA in the course of a week. Both books labor to show the comical irony between the rhetoric and the reality to the point of drowning the actual story.

Much was made in marketing Child 44 of “how can you stop a crime that doesn’t exist” – the idea that crime and dysfunction was not recognised in Soviet Russia, so how can members of the KGP catch a serial killer when the official ideology cannot recognise any crime? Tom Rob Smith clearly didn’t dig into this idea too much. Taken rom Proudhon’s famous idea that “all property is theft,” communist theory developed the idea that most crime and dysfunction is a result of larger social systems. Thus classic Marxist theory postulates that under true communism, crime will gradually disappear (as there is nothing to steal, and the brutalisation of the human individual under capitalism will cease to produce broken people). The Soviets quickly adapted this notion as a part of their ideology as a propaganda tool.

Instead of the sinister utopia-lost of Soviet Russia playing out in the background as a extra layer of dread for the characters, instead of the prospect of the KGB trying to do something positive for once in a broken system, or the idea of an old communist trying to do what’s right, both books make their heroes self-conscious enemies of the state.

Clearly, I found The Coroner’s Lunch overshadowed by it’s failure to fully delve into the atmosphere of 1970s Laos. Perfectly enjoyable otherwise.




As with most of Eco’s books, it is impossible to place Baudolino in any one category or genre. It’s a novel which delves into history, mythology, metaphyisical speculation and mystery all wrapped up in Gulliver’s Travels-esque adventure. So as usual, this book is an intellectual romp of fancy and whim marked by its sheer cleverness, wit, and depth/breadth of scholarly knowledge seamlessly woven together into one story.

Baudolino is a peasant during the High Middle Ages in northern Italy. A cleaver boy with a knack for languages, he is adopted by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, in Italy as part of his intermittent attempts to suborn the thriving city-states of Italy. Baudolino get caught up in a series of adventures ranging from city sieges, to getting Charlemagne declared a saint, to forgery of letters and relics.

It’s a hard book to justice by in a review.  I love it because it revels in history, both the events, but the people, the mythology, the ideas, the ideologies. Eco frolics in the fantasies of the 13th century mind, relishes the kaleidoscope of christian heresies and interpretations, and lovingly mixes historical fact with fiction in a way that seems to truely respect the actual history.

It be honest, Bauldolino is the least of three Eco books I have read so far, but it was still quite enjoyable.

The Thin Man


This classic of detective fiction, a beacon of hard-boiled, noir-esque mystery, is both entertaining and curiously dated.  Set in the early ’30s, this series of murders surrounding a brilliant – yet possibly quite mad inventor – is really a comedy of manners disguised in an endless parade of drinks, speakeasies, shady characters and cops.

The hero – dry, dapper and endlessly correct Charles, hovers – cat like, mixing an endless series of drinks at all hours of the day and night – in nearly every scene; the book is almost about how much people like Charles than it is a about multiple homicide. He is paired with his just as charming wife, the two forming a perfect, completely irresistible couple. The rest of the characters form a collection of bad stereotypes, left helpless and foolish in the wake of Charles. By the end, the big reveal of the murder comes more as a relief from hall-of-mirrors effect that Hammett creates in order to create the mystery.

But it is thoroughly enjoyable none the less. Part of the appeal of Hammett is his unique writing style: a sort of debonair minimalism, ultra-dry wit attempting to appear “hard-boiled.” The result is that you spend a lot of the book trying to figure out – along with literally the rest of the characters – what Charles is thinking.

A breeze – half the fun is the long lost world were it is socially acceptable to be truely drunk literally at all times of the day and night.


The Strange Story of the Survival and Resurgence of Conservative Politics Since WWII

It’s 1945, and right wing politics – globally, and here in the US – is on suicide watch.

And for good reason. The Great Depression destroyed faith in the capitalism system; the Western world is saved by various brands of Keynesian-style socialism. Here in the US, we know this as FDR’s New Deal.  Fascism exploded onto the scene following the Depression, but between the horrors of the Holocaust and WWII, was completely discredited. Traditional conservative causes like royalism, religion and that general notion of “we need to get back to the good old days” was intellectual bankrupt and in total abeyance.

Trump’s election in 2016 is the culmination of the survival and complete return of right wing politics in a global sense. Placing Trump as the cap stone amongst figures like Theresa May, Nigel Farage, Erdogan (president of Turkey), Szydio in Poland, Orban in Hungary, and Duterte in the Philippines,  we are living at a rather startling resurgence of right wing politics. Putin pre-dates this crop of right-wingers, but as a classic authoritarian kleptocrat, he necessarily finds himself at home with Trump, whose political essence, ideology and rhetoric aside, is fundamentally the same.

Why? How?

The crucial movement, the key time period were conservatism is resurrected from the trash heap of history is the stretch in American history that starts with the Red Scare and McCarthyism and closes with Nixon’s election. I’m calling this “the Cold War” and by Cold War I am not referring to the military and political containment of Soviet Russia, I am referring to the Cold War as a cultural phenomenon on the US.

To be blunt: our government, in collusion with big businesses and the military-industrial complex – what Eisenhower warned us all about – makes the conscious decision to promote conservative and religious groups both in the US and across the globe to fight communism.

To be clear, conservative ideas are intrinsically linked to a) power/money/privilege and b)certain psychological and emotion orientations. This means that conservatism was always going “to come back” from 1945. But this is quite separate from how it was consciously saved and promoted by the US government and how small groups of wealthy conservatives consciously set out to make the US a Christian, white, capitalist country. In 1945 the US is a ‘revolutionary’ country, distrustful of the old European imperialism; by Nixon, we are the imperialist power; and this goes beyond a simple consequence of being by far the most powerful country at the time.

Put another way, the best thing to happen to capitalism and conservatism ever – literally ever – is communism. Even today, vague and uninformed references to communism/Stalinism/Soviets is enough to chill conversation and debate over our economic system. It’s still a real bogeyman, and that is not a coincidence at all.

The hegemony of Keynesianism, socialism and communism in the post-war world allowed conservatism and laissez-faire capitalism to rebrand itself. FDR’s New Deal and the public spending of WWI created a truely middle country – economic equality had never been higher, but the spectre of the welfare state at home and totalitarian communism abroad allowed people like Frederick von Hayek – his fundamental insight being that a centrally planned economy simply could not keep up with the complexity of human society – and other outsiders like Ayn Rand to lassez-faire capitalism as a fundamental component to human freedom; a freedom under threat from the welfare state. The American Libertarian Party today is a direct result of their ideas. Corporate power was able to increasingly pose as an agent of choice and of liberty.

Shifting to domestic American politics, the Republican Party in the early 40’s was the party of monied interests, lost in the wilderness from the Great Depression – the legacy of “do-nothingism” dies hard. FDR had left the US the most powerful and respected nation in the world after a decade in power, the stark reality is that the Republicans would have to defeat the new Democratic president Truman or fade away from the national scene. It’s the Cold War that saves them. McCarthyism marks the point where the Republicans cease to be a party of loyal opposition and because a truely right-wing party.

This basic shift leads to America’s first right-wing president: Nixon. Sometimes this is referred to as the “Southern Strategy” – pandering to Souther racism and insecurity to back up the monied and military interests of the rest of the party. The larger point here is that in order to justify the sustained level of military spending to fight the Cold War, our government green-light a widespread culture of fear-mongering and conformity. It’s no coincidence that Reagan got his political start as the face of General Electric’s propaganda show. The ’60’s counterculture is as much a reaction against the Cold War conformity – the great moulding of America into either lily-white cowboys or evangelical businessmen  – as against anything else.

So we have the conscious decision of the US government to quite literally save conservative circles – be it military cabals, business consortiums, ex-nazis, etc – by providing surprising amounts of financial and ideological support. This succour went on for decades. This also cut they other way. For example: figures like Ho Chi Min (his declaration of independence for Vietnam was basically copied word for word from our own) were forced into the hands of the Communist block.

I think it’s important to examine why conservative, authoritarian politics has returned. Since neoliberalism gained real power in the ’80s with Reagan and Thatcher, economic inequality has exploded. Privatisation, austerity, trickle-down economics, free-trade all boil down to a sustained attack on the idea of the public good by corporate combines with resources and concerns which exceed the confines of individuals and nations.

The generic name for all this is “capitalism,” but this would be inaccurate; the reality is an increasingly globalised system of private corporate power which has utilised a rhetoric of “free trade” to leverage votes, promising prosperity (a prosperity strangled by regulation and laziness). The stark reality is that these companies are profitable because they escape the tax burden and are the beneficiaries of governmental policy. The US’ effective policy is for Americans to drive cars; oil companies receive massive tax breaks. Or Wal-mart effectively taking advantage of welfare policy to under pay its employees. The result is impoverishment of the society at large. If you need more proof look at Russia: the largest privatisation and corporate giveaway of all time.

The basic pattern here is that the system which we all roughly refer to as “capitalism” siphons off wealth away from the larger society, obviously leading to a period of crisis. During the last cycle (the ’30s), government enacted the welfare state and taxed the ultra wealthy and corporations. These protections have been worn away with the obvious result that we have today.


The Spanish Labyrinth


Gerald Brenan’s The Spanish Labyrinth is one of the best known works on the Spanish Civil War. It is a impressive example of specialist’s history that instead of being stuffy, arcane and pedantic, achieves a clarity of thought and style which reaches the general public. Labyrinth manages to make what to most would be obscure details into important, powerful and relevant narrative.

In this period in American politics, it strikes me as quite timely to read a book about the socio-economic and political history of a country’s run up to a civil war. Gerald Brenan’s The Spanish Labyrinth is a deep dive into the reasons behind the Spanish Civil War. At once an examination of the Spanish character and experience, as well as a detail of the ideological forces – the Anarchists, the Socialists, the Carlists and the Falange, etc – that played out in the war.

The Spanish Civil War is not just a historic event, it is a focal point of the world crisis of the 1930s: the ultimate lab for the ideologies of the time. It is also cool. The sheer drama, mixed with Spanish panache and the overwelming sense of everyone casting aside their masks, all set in the style of the 1930’s. Hemingway, the International Brigades, Hitler and Mussolini looming in the background, fascinating characters like Queipo de Llano (a fascist general, famously drunk, who bluffed his way to take over an entire city and spent the rest of the war haranguing Spain with a nightly radio broadcast), Azana (the majestic and competent prime minister of the Republic; the ultimate good guy) and Durruiti (an anarchist leader who both made decisions and led from the front in the most literal sense in battle).

Labyrinth only touches on the actual events of the Spanish Civil War in the closing chapter, and rather focuses on the run-up to the war. Of particular note is the chapter on Spanish Anarchism, probably the major example in history of actually existing anarchy in practice. The rendering and evaluation of Spanish Anarchy is fascinating considering that “anarchy’ is such a scary and confusing word for most people.

Insightful, well-written: this book will make you think about where we are right now as a society and where we are headed.

L.A. Confidential


James Ellroy writes brutal crime-noir thrillers set in 1950’s Los Angeles. Dramatic, savage, soaked in gore and lust and slang, Ellroy’s books are both grimy realistic and flights of pure mythology.

L.A. Confidential  – I actually have not seen the movie – is set around three cops and their role in tracking down a serial killer, in a hunt that lasts decades. More than a simple hunt for the murderer, this book is steeped in the personal psyches of its characters, the politics, culture and mythos of the L.A. PD, and the illusions and ideology and lies that lie at the heart of society.

Yes, part of the thrill is the police procedural side, the politics of crime  and the interdepartmental feuding. Yes, part of the thrill is the simple backdrop of ’50s, L.A. It is Ellroy’s mastery of mystery and his ability to weave a unreadably complex web of lies, truths, stories, and theories which make for a truely epic book. Watching as three detectives slowing unravel the thread of truth and eventually put it all together at the end of the book is more than entertaining, it strikes me as a major feat of literature which I would truely despair of ever coming close to achieving.

The real hook for my is Ellroy’s ability to link the specific instance of “crime” – the murder, etc – to the larger crime of society; the instance of crime is a symptom, an expression of a deeper, larger crime. The sense that “something is rotten in the state of Denmark” and the heroes are drawn inexorably toward this core rottenness. The very characters which represent the Great and the Good are revealed to be the origin of the crime; they stand out, Cronus like, as the purveyors of the founding lies that community so often seems based on.

My only complaint is that Ellroy’s commitment to slang – especially slang that is a frankly antiquated – and his writing style which often comes very close to stream of consciousness often makes for slow, hard reading. Most of the time this adds “flavour” but every so often it results in a complete breakdown in the reading ‘flow’.

I enjoyed L.A. Confidential much more than Black DaliaConfidential, as not based on real events, allows Ellroy to explore both the “police procedural” side and the “mythology” side a little bit better. Dalia struck me as going a little too deep into the personal pathos of its characters.



Absolute Recoil


I can admit that Zizek – as brilliant and original as his writing is – does have a slight tendency to copy himself. Certain jokes, certain passages tend to repeat every now and again through the ranks of his books. I will even go so far as to say some of his books are simply random collections of things Zizek felt like commenting and that have been published just because it’s Zizek.

Absolute Recoil is not one of these books. In fact, this title is a cornerstone of Zizek’s system, one of the most comprehensive and concise formulations I have encountered so far. The title is taken from the writings of Hegel and is meant to describe the moment when one polar extreme immpiedtaly gives rise to its exact polar opposite, and that “moment/movement” itself, the moment of “absolute recoil” is the very thing that gives coherence and meaning to the two polar opposites in a larger sense. I should probably mention that this takes places on a level of what is ultimately deep human psychology.

I will not claim to fully understand “absolute recoil” or some of the other more abstruse points of Hegelese, this is quite simply my understanding of what I have read.

Zizek is a proponent of “dialectical materialism” a rich vein of philosophical thought whose’ philosophical insight has been only grown in proportion to its lack of political success. The idea of “dialectical” or “the dialectic” harkens back to Plato and Socrates, but was given its more modern interpretation by Hegel. The idea behind the dialectic, at its deepest, most fundamental point is that Rationality (again, in it’s fullest, most complete majesty) is comprised of an ongoing, moving tension. Based on Plato’s idea that true wisdom emerged through rigorous conversation, I like to think of “dialectical-ness” as the formal recognition that the means are an end to themselves. The unity of opposities, the idea that tension is the only constant, the idea that the cycle or the change is the reality all stem from ‘dialectical thinking.’ Anytime a logic of “two sides of the same coin” are at work, you are in dialectical thought.

Materialism is the idea that all is grounded in a tangible, tactile reality. It’s best to think of Karl Marx’s formulation of base and superstructure when thinking about materialism:  there is the way humankind makes and produces its food and shelter (the base) and the superstructure is everything else, which results from the way we go about producing what we need. In this light, the internet’s obsession with cats has more too do with neoliberal office methods/stresses of work than with any sort of natural cuteness of cates. Obviously, this is a powerful way of seeing the world; it often dismisses ideology and the power of ideas out of hand.

You might be able to tell from reading the above paragraphs that “dialectical materialism” is a bit of a paradox in itself; it points both towards the lofty realm of idealism bordering on eastern mysticism and the brutal, realpolitik ground that dismisses that same idealism as an illusion generated by systemisation of power drawn from modes of production. Upon reflection however, and in true “dialectical” tradition, the unity of these two opposites capture a much higher standard of rationality which escapes the narrow, small mindedness of positivism and the abyss of moral relativism that deconstructionism leads to.

With this book, Zizek is attempting to restart this great tradition. It’s an attempt to put a much maligned and even more misunderstood way of thinking back on the map. Will it be successful…?

We can only hope.

The Monkey Wrench Gang


Another book which has gained in relevance over the past few years, The Monkey Wrench Gang is the story of four brave souls who set out to stop the ecological destruction of the American West by sabotaging construction machinery, bridges, and power plants. Complete with a happy ending, this story mixes Hunter S. Thompson hi-jinks with a deeper environmental and sociological message.

Part of the reason why I picked this book up was because of the legacy of Edward Abbey himself, a legitimate representative of the great American tradition of independents, libertarians and free thinkers a la Emerson, Thoreau, Twain, and Muir. Abbey clearly drank deeply from the the sacred font of wisdom which is Walden. One of Abbey’s most well known quotes is “growth for growth’s sake is the ideology of the cancer cell” which is directly inspired by Thoreau’s meditation on ant society; where the business of American society is directly compared to an ant hill. “Of course we are busy” asks Thoreau, “but what are we busy about?” Or something to that effect.

Abbey is best thought of as the same generation of Hunter S. Thompson and Jack Kerouac. Abbey’s frame of reference and reading of the American political and social landscape is distinctly that of the early Baby Boomer generation; by that I mean that formative group of people who seemed to shepherd in the Hippie movement.

I will admit to being disappointed in this book – especially since several people commented on how much they loved Edward Abbey while I was reading it – therefore a little disillusioned with people in general. I still cannot decide if Abbey consciously modded himself after Hunter S. Thompson or they shared a similar cast of mind and similar audience. Simply put, Abbey is the poor man’s Thompson and the ecologically concerned man’s Kerouac (Kerouac was always about being cool).

Rather than focus on the why – the deep and multifaceted justification for their actions – and evaluating and reflecting on the powerful corporate and social forces which perpetuate ecological destruction, Abbey likes to dwell on the actual details of the sabotage escapades; what stands out in the book is the sensuous landscapes of the south west, lovingly described, followed by desperately mediocre character scenes followed by not-all-that-suspense sabotage scenes which often feel more like a fraternity hazing stunt  rather than action that would be instantly labeled “ecoterrorism” by the Media.

The four characters do strike an interesting symbolic balance. There is Dr. Sarvis; a gentleman and scholar, a character who represents classical Enlightenment thought an the academic’s concern for the natural world based on the large, classic sense of Reason. Then there is Seldom Seen Slim, a jack Mormon and river guide who can be understood to represent sincere and open faith, viewing the destruction of the landscape and ecosystem as a crime against God. Third is George Hayduke; probably the most pathos-filled character and could only have been created in the universe of post-Vietnam America. Hayduke is a Vietnam veteran who sees the destruction of the environment as simple a continuation of Vietnam; the war has shifted to his home. He is the only character who consistently advocates violence and a path towards true terrorism; he is by far the most unrealistic character. Last is the lady interest. She’s from New York and Jewish; chic and into Buddhism, she lends glamor to the otherwise sex-appeal-less male characters.

Abbey does a poor job of making a case for environmentalism. He flounders at articulating exactly why we as a society should be motivated to take action. His characters are one-dimensional and forced. Some of his other books might be better – I understand that he has something of a autobiography – but The Monkey Wrench Gang is pretty easy to skip. Read Ecotopia instead.



When I was teenager, was handed James Clavell’s Shogun, a masterpiece of exciting historical fiction. Drawing inspiration from real historical figures and a real global-historical context, Shogun was vivid and dramatic, and intoxicating mix of cloak-and-dagger, Robinson Crusoe, and epic, sweeping narrative. It was a book that read like a movie.

I have re-read Shogun several times, and each time enjoyed it throughly. I am sorry to report that Clavell’s other ventures in writing are far less successful. Clavell actually wrote about half a dozen novels based on a similar formula to Shogun: a culture clash between East and West, set in East Asia, dramatic characters caught up in wheels-within-wheels intrigue and passion. Gai-Jin is the third in the “series” set in Yokohama in the early 1860s, when foreign governments where first trading with Japan after the expedition of Commodore Perry. I have previously read Tai-Pan, the second in the series; the books are all linked in many ways, though each can pretty much stand on its own.

Gai-Jin, like Tai-Pan focus more on European/English characters; and both badly fail to live up the awesomeness that is Shogun. What is used to great effect in Shogun comes off as kitschy or trite or cliche in his other books. The tricks seem predicable; the endless cunning and seeming depth of characters in Shogun are recycled, but clumsily. Not only did I not care about the plot in Gai-Jin (there was no sense of building towards a climax, no sense of larger purpose), but each character seemed essentially the same: calculating, but blinded by their rather shallowing passion.

I picture James Clavell, the toast of society after Shogun. Then, after a month or so, his editor calls him in and says “Wow, James, Shogun is amazing. When can we expect the next one? Oh, and by the way, can you write it with a screenplay in mind?” And to me, that’s the secret of Gai-Jin. It was meant to be turned into a movie, or a TV series. It’s very much like a HBO series in book form (I’m specifically thinking of The Tudors here): the same dozen-or-so-characters swirl around in pomp and splendour and cunning and drama but really not all that much happens, despite many dramatic scenes. Really, the fact that the Clavell books are not HBO-ized I find seriously shocking.

Read Shogun. Do not bother with the rest.