A collection of musings offers a broad sampling of subjects and styles.
Cook (The Exact Unknown and Other Tales of Modern China, 2015, etc.) swings from the comically subjective to the high-mindedly academic throughout the course of these 13 essays. At one end of the spectrum is an intimate, almost casual approach to the author’s personal fancies, whether an elaboration of his new idea for “breast etiquette,” a proposed social nicety intended to defuse the intensity of the common male desire to see women’s bosoms; a pointed but affable criticism of the built-in social deficit in the Airbnb travel model; or the enlightened allure of polyamory. On the other side, readers have detailed displays of erudition, with an emphasis on music (he’ll reinvigorate their appreciation for Philip Glass and germinate a fondness for John Dowland) and language. Kafka and Shakespeare get special attention here, though Cook’s essay on the latter doesn’t focus as much on the plays as on the miserable quality of life in Elizabethan England. Kafka is exalted for his difficult style, embodying the “pleasures of the open-ended text.” For Cook, Kafka’s disjointed, unstable narratives serve to “oddly enhance the reading experience,” a taste that informs his own writing. But for a book of essays, the style has a blanching effect. In the case of the Shakespeare essay, for example, Cook ends with the assertion that the harrowing, anxiety-ridden reality of 16th-century life led to a taste for forms of entertainment that featured violence and debauchery. But how this may have affected the most important works of the era, those of the Bard—who Cook claims (with good reason) was likely afflicted with syphilis—only receives a nod. Indeed, despite the eloquence and expertise with which the author approaches his topics, the essays generally come off as introductions rather than in-depth investigations due to their open-endedness. Perhaps sensing this, Cook furnishes his more esoteric reflections with extensive recommendations for further reading on the topics in question. The reader, unfortunately, is left feeling undernourished by the author’s contributions.
Food for thought, elegantly prepared, that falls short of a meal.