Friday, October 13, 2006

Frazier has left the building

It's not like I was likely to read Charles Frazier's new book, Thirteen Moonshistorical fiction not being my thing – but now that I've read Stephen Metcalf's review at, I may start crossing the street when I see someone carrying it:
Sacred water, huckleberry juice, wolf teats—Thirteen Moons, you may have guessed, is a catalog of faux naive Americana. Much of the book is written in a "ye olde" diction: People go "a-roving," and get "a-plenty of oats," and "travel retrograde to [their] anger," whatever that means. It's a yokely-dokely pastiche, of Faulkner (by way of Toni Morrison) and of the King James Bible (by way of Jack Handy), and it is to the actual American idiom, past or present, roughly what the Rainforest Café is to the Amazon basin. The aim is as follows: to indict the modern way of life, in tones of noble pathos, and at precisely zero cost to the modern reader's self-esteem. Great care is taken to ensure that huckleberry juice goes down nicely with that mochachino you're enjoying. Consider Frazier's talents for flattering multiple constituencies. Even as he extols the simple piety of the unlettered heart—a reverence for Native American illiteracy is announced no less than three times in the first 60 pages—the author winks maniacally to his old English-major friends, giving Will a horse named Waverly and throwing in showy namechecks, from Horace to Rousseau to Byron.

Many books are manipulative, of course, and a great many are trash, and a very sorry many of these become best sellers. And yet only a precious few reach the level of bad faith attained by Thirteen Moons.

It just gets better, pointing out something that routinely dooms these kinds of books:
The intuition that capitalism has robbed human beings of something essential has been a staple of art and thought since the advent of modern life, and it has been measured by writers as different in purpose and temperament as William Cobbett and T.S. Eliot. But what they never suggested was that hidden beneath the old rural folkways, the old courtesies, and the observances of traditional belief, lay all the liberties of interpersonal freedom. Strip them of their old-style hats and stilted speech, Frazier would have us believe, and our forefathers and mothers (the good ones, at least) were just like us: free, spontaneous individuals, life-affirming figures straight off a highway cigarette billboard. That the pose of sexy spontaneity Will and Claire enjoy with each other, it could be argued, is itself a product of modern life—of the factory and the wage system, of national markets and advertising, of the appurtenances, dreadful and otherwise, that swept away the quasi-aristocracy of the Old South—well, this never seems to perturb Frazier. The ahistorical conscience gets quite the workout in Thirteen Moons.

Ah! it is made bright, it is wrapped up for the slaughter.
- Ezekiel, 21:15

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