Another top-notch collection of previously published criticism from Mendelsohn (How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken, 2008, etc.).
“There rarely are any real ‘barbarians,’ ” the author writes. “What others might see as declines and falls look, when seen from the bird’s-eye vantage point of history, more like shifts, adaptations, reorganizations.” This long-range perspective distinguishes Mendelsohn’s criticism from that of less erudite and measured peers. The opening section, “Spectacles,” ranges from Avatar to Mad Men with refreshing matter-of-factness, pinpointing the cultural significance of commercial forms of art without over- or understating their merits. Mendelsohn’s analysis of why Julie Taymor was precisely the wrong director for the Broadway musical Spider-Man is particularly sharp. Mendelsohn’s assessments can be negative, even dismissive, but they are not overheated or personally nasty. The near-exception is “Boys Will Be Boys,” a severe going-over of Edmund White’s memoir City Boy (2009), and even that is less a slam than a forthright statement of the differences between two generations of gay writers. Although Mendelsohn mused at length on questions of homosexual identity in The Elusive Embrace (1999), his criticism reveals an openly gay writer comfortably connected to the culture at large. He is equally acute and balanced on the memoir craze, the pleasures of Leo Lerman’s journals and “the fundamental failure of genuine good humor” in Jonathan Franzen’s work. Mendelsohn’s tendency to announce that there is a single key insight that crucially explains a given artist’s work can be irritating, but often his insight is key: Susan Sontag’s affinity with French classicism, for example, or ultrasophisticate Noël Coward’s grounding in “the stolid values of the decidedly unsophisticated lower-middle-class.”
Incisive, reflective and unfailingly stimulating. It wouldn’t hurt Mendelsohn to occasionally pass up an opportunity to remind readers he’s the smartest guy in the room, but then again, he almost always is.