by Henry on March 22, 2005

“n+1” magazine, which sent out its second issue a few days ago, is really very good indeed. It’s a nice mixture of politics and literature – a deliberate antidote in 248 pages to both the self-congratulatory coyness of McSweeneys and the ghastly sincerity of the Believer. The stand-out article in the current issue is Elif Batuman’s piece on Isaac Babel, which is shot through with small fragments of genius. It combines a finely judged assessment of Babel’s work, which makes you want to run out and read him (if, like me, you haven’t done so yet), with an exquisite and devastatingly funny deconstruction of the Babel industry in academia. I suspect that I’d get even more from it if I’d already read Babel’s stories. I especially liked this short passage on cultural identity and alienation (n.b. that Batuman’s point goes far beyond Jewish identity politics – the Irish have a more highly developed, if less historically justified, version of the same trope).

Tolstoy observed, “Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” and he was right: surely everyone on this earth, vale of tears that it is, is entitled to the specificity of his or her suffering. But in the end, I am too deeply invested in the idea that literature can render comprehensible another family’s unhappiness. For this reason, I once became impatient with a colleague I met at a conference in New York, who was insisting that the Red Cavalry cycle would never be totally accessible to me because of Lyutov’s “specifically Jewish alienation.”

“Indeed,” I finally said, “as a six-foot-tall first-generation Turkish woman growing up in New Jersey, I cannot possibly know as much about alienation as you, a short American Jew.”

He nodded. “So you see the problem.”

Unfortunately, this isn’t available on the WWW; you’ll have to go to your bookstore and buy yourself a copy of the magazine (or become a subscriber) if you want to read it – I’d recommend the latter if possible (it’s really a great little magazine).



Matt 03.22.05 at 12:05 pm

That would be a recommendation hard to second loud enough.


Joel Turnipseed 03.22.05 at 12:49 pm

Agreed: n+1 is a great addition to our cultural/intellectual life. When I read their first issue, it felt as if someone had opened the windows after a long winter.
That said, I would point out that the revamped Virginia Quarterly Review is worth a look, too.
As for McSweeney’s/Believer — I loved that Regressive Avant-Garde piece, too (and really, the cult of Eggers is too much to bear), but… I also haven’t been able to stop reading McSweeney’s and the Believer: for every fey moment or virulently-held naivete, there’s one of genuine enthusiasm for something fresh and invigorating–that’s a trade-off not granted by many other publications.
Finally, pace n+1 Eggers take-down, there’s a great piece by John Leonard in New York Review (of each others’) Books on Jonathan Lethem that seems to strike just the right balance between appreciation and criticism, and ends w/snark that’s both brilliant and deeply appreciative at the same time.


Henry 03.22.05 at 1:28 pm

Joel, I dunno – I found the Leonard piece a little annoying when I read it. He’s right that we could stand to see a bit more acknowledgement by Lethem of his debt to high literature as well as low (comics as art are becoming a bit of a shtick with Lethem, Chabon etc) – but there’s something deeply myopic in Leonard’s take on Lethem nonetheless. Lethem does best when he juggles both the high and the low at once – Motherless Brooklyn, where he pulls off this balancing act, is a minor masterpiece.


joel turnipseed 03.22.05 at 2:15 pm

Yes, there’s something–oh, call it “uncharitable” in Leonard’s piece, and he’s using Lethem’s work as a synecdoche for something more broadly askew (very much in evidence w/McSweeney’s, and the n+1 gang’s contrary tack) in contemporary literature, which is not the worst rhetorical move, but it does ask Lethem to bear more than his share. Still, as much as I like Lethem, there’s no doubt that in, say, Fortress of Solitude, more attention to human consciousness/character and less, say, to Greil Marcus, Lester Bangs and the Trouser Press Record Guide would have gone a long way toward making that book better and this pop nostalgia lies at the heart of Leonard’s critique–it too often stands only for itself.
What I especially liked about the Leonard piece was that it showed a fundamental appreciation (love?) for Lethem’s work and hoist the stated problem with it’s own petard (BITE MY CRANK, SUPER GOAT MAN!)–or at least set up critical space in which such a thing is possible (you may, as I sometimes did, find that Leonard was raising himself up, when you laugh out loud, as at “BE BRAVE LIKE AN ARM.”).
Finally, and I think this, too, is an understated element of Leonard’s lament: ” minor masterpiece” seems to be asking too little of someone w/Lethem’s talents. I know too-well how hard writing is, but I grew up revelling in titans (my great uncle was college roommates with Jason Epstein) and can’t help but feel that we’re not really holding ourselves up to the standards we might just achieve (Thoreau: “In the long run, men hit only what they aim at. Therefore, they had better aim at something high.”).
(Aside, maybe I’m just grumpy right now after doing interview with USA Today about the 300 (!) Iraq war books available and generally feeling that way too many books are coming out undercooked of all types–while nervously glancing at the raw meat on my own table.)


tad brennan 03.22.05 at 3:57 pm

“the Irish have a more highly developed, if less historically justified, version of the same trope”
Less historically justified?? Well, there’s more persecution for you, right there! You just don’t understand us, that’s all. That’s right, in’ it Kieran?
In exploring the manifold similarities between Jewish and Irish culture, one central question is whether the horrible tasteless ethnic cuisines are cause or effect.


Kieran Healy 03.22.05 at 4:27 pm

The technical term on the Irish side is MOPE — “Most Oppressed People Ever.”


tad brennan 03.22.05 at 5:15 pm

“Most Oppressed People Ever”
Yes, and that’s just a reference to the cabbage, too–it doesn’t even cover the horrible things done to the other dishes.
or perhaps it’s “Most Over-cooked Peas Ever”? Nah–the Brits have that one sewn up.


Chris Martin 03.22.05 at 6:00 pm

The article about the New Republic in n+1’s first issue was excellent. It’s only flaw is that it fails to point out that TNR has some virtues too.


glory 03.22.05 at 6:51 pm

oh man, just when i’d thought i could let all my mag subs lapse, cuz most of what i want to read is already online (for free :) oh well!
luv babel. i was always taken by this (visceral!) line from ‘the life and adventures of matthew pavlichenko’:

“I stamped on my master Nikitinsky, trampled on him for an hour or maybe more. And in that time I got to know life through and through. With shooting… you only get rid of a chap. Shooting’s letting him off, and too damn easy for yourself. With shooting you’ll never get at the soul, to where it is in a fellow and how it shows itself. But I don’t spare myself, and I’ve more than once trampled and enemy for over an hour. You see, I want to get to know what life really is, what life’s like down our way.”

lionel trilling has a nice appreciation in ‘the collected stories of isaac babel’, btw (where i took that last quote :) oh and ‘dead souls’ is pretty great, too.


glory 03.22.05 at 10:08 pm

hmmmm… that reminds me, i’m missing ‘new left review’ :D


Matt 03.23.05 at 4:42 pm

For what it’s worth, Joel, I thought your book tasted fine, like a refreshing salad next to a full plate of Blanchot at the time (although I suppose he would be labelled raw meat around here.) Hardy har.

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