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Harper’s

November 2011

The discharge of bile can be a bracing thing. I’m speaking here of verbal bile, of course, not the brackish stuff sloshing around in our guts. If you’re looking to be bathed in the former, look no further than Broken Britain, an invigorating eight-page rant by Guardian senior correspondent Ed Vulliamy on an England where one in five people between 16 and 24 is unemployed and almost two million security cameras track the comings-and-goings of its island population.

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Rants, admittedly, can be numbing. What elevates Vulliamy’s is not just his use of the personal anecdote (his tale of trying to get his parents’ home heating up to snuff is bleakly, blackly hilarious), the telling statistic and the fatuous quotation, but also the heady, exhilarating precision of his vocabulary. Britain, is described as “corporate mediocrity, a place where the customer is almost always wrong and people always seem to be working but not much gets done very well. Ineptitude is packaged with a wrapping of present participles, as though an advertising agency had taken over the government and the economy alike, which in a way it has: British Gas is ‘Looking after your world’ … the Metropolitan Police are ‘Working together for a safer London.’ ” Whether you agree or disagree with the point made, it’s damn well said, yes?

Intelligent Life

Nov./Dec. 2011

The only thing taxing about an Andy Warhol canvas, especially anything he did in, roughly, the 20 years preceding his death in 1987, is its price. As Sunday Times feature writer Bryan Appleyard observes in Intelligent Life, The Economist’s culture magazine, he’s “the art market’s one-man Dow Jones.” Between 1985 and the end of 2010, his average auction prices rose 3,400 per cent and last year his works accounted for 17 per cent of all contemporary art sales at the world’s major auction houses. According to Appleyard, a Titian these days will set you back only $17-million (U.S.) whereas a choice Warhol from the early 1960s can cost as much as $71-million.

Appleyard provides an excellent survey of Warhol’s apotheosis as the god of contemporary art, canvassing dealers, collectors, philosophers and critics, pro and con. While acknowledging Warhol’s appeal and his influence (to artists of the under-45 set, he’s what Picasso was to the Abstract Expressionists), Appleyard, in the end, takes a rather jaundiced view of the oeuvre and predicts that soon “the bubble will burst, prices will fall and the drinker of all that Campbell’s soup prepared by his mother will be restored to his rightful place – as a briefly brilliant and very poignant recorder of the dazzling surface of where we are now.”

The Paris Review

Fall 2011

“But I digress.” This should be Geoff Dyer’s epitaph if he hasn’t chosen it already. Recently named Rolling Stone’s “hot writer” for 2011-12, the Brit has built a compelling literary career largely on the strength of his digressions. His Out of Sheer Rage from 1998 is as good an illustration as any – a book about his failed attempt to write a study of D.H. Lawrence, it’s nevertheless, in its roundabout way, a fine contribution to Lawrence scholarship, as well as a clever meditation on the pitfalls of research, a travelogue and a hilarious memoir.

The Paris Review serves up an ample sample of Dyer’s latest foray into digression, namely a 40-page excerpt from his upcoming book Zona, subtitled (tellingly) A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room. The film in question is Andrei Tarkovksy’s astringently brilliant and demanding Stalker, released in 1979. Dyer loves the movie, which can be (very) loosely described as science fiction. Indeed, based on The Paris Review excerpt, it appears Zona is nothing less than a scene-by-scene analysis of all its 163 minutes. That sounds daunting, but in practice it’s not: A born raconteur and ruminant, Dyer shifts his appreciation this way and that, piling on the footnotes, all the while keeping the narrative on track and the reader engaged. Amazing!

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