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Category: nonfiction

Getting the Better of a Protagonist and Vice Versa (newsletter)

It saddened me greatly when my principal muse David Cornwell—aka John le Carré—passed away last December twelfth at 89. By my lights, the Brits should make that date a national day of mourning. Were it not for the spell of the holidaze, I would have said something about it at the time, so please allow me to pay my respects now.

David Cornwell / John le Carré, recent photograph

He was a gifted storyteller. It wasn’t just how scrupulously he constructed his characters and how mercilessly he deconstructed them that I admired; he also kept me guessing about outcomes, so many of them equivocal. As in real life, few of his protagonists triumph, and some don’t make it. Along the way, he tends to adjust the attitude of some and lets others slide into more august or shrunken versions of themselves—until, like George Smiley and Peter Guillam in his 2011 A Legacy of Spies, they leap out of retirement. (Le Carré scholars reckon that Smiley would be a centenarian at the time, having cut his espionage teeth in 1930s Berlin.) Being billeted throughout Central Europe by the Foreign Services through the 1960s and having traveled widely since, Cornwell’s settings bubble with both old- and new-world authenticity.

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Coronavirus is your friend, in a way

Here in Massachusetts, yesterday the number of suspected or confirmed Covid-19 cases grew 30 percent overnight and will probably top 400 today. Most non-critical facilities are now locked down. And so, with a lot of new-found time on their hands more people than ever in my suburban neighborhood are out and about, enjoying the spring weather — biking or walking alone, as couples, with dogs or kids, and actually stopping to talk. Amid all this tsuris, it’s exhilarating to see such stirrings of a community makeover.

The good news doesn’t stop there, so let’s get on with my facile attempt to divert you from your apocalyptic musings. Instead of enduring a pitch for my work this punishing month, find here a public service announcement of sorts.

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Undoing Dystopia

Douglas Rushkoff Wants Us to Rewind

Buy Team Human from an indie bookstore

Team Human by Douglas Rushkoff (W.W. Norton, 2019, 256 p. hardbound), ISBN 987-0-393-65169-0, $23.95. Also available in eBook and audiobook formats.

The entities called computers were originally human beings, people like the accounts clerk Bob Cratchit in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. In the mid-20th century, computers were (mostly) women who worked calculators and slide rules, tasked with tabulating data and solving numerical problems. Nowadays, says Douglas Rushkoff, computers run us as extensions of applications that abuse us for fun and profit. Rushkoff has had it with the soul-sucking “innovation economy”; to retrieve the human agency and dignity that technocracy has usurped, he proposes not a revolution but a renaissance of pre-industrial, even pre-enlightenment, societal values. Rushkoff emerged as an early member of the digerati, but has since been a longstanding critic of those who control digital media and manipulate its users, not to mention capitalism itself. Now a professor of media studies (CUNY Queens), public intellectual, and podcast host, he’s quietly assembling an army of change agents. Their mission is to “challenge the operating system that drives our society” by organizing the (better-educated) masses to throw off their (block) chains by imagining and building human-scale alternatives to giant financial institutions, public corporations, and their enablers. Given how overarching and well-wired global capitalism is, that’s a tall order, but Rushkoff asserts that the battle can be won if we stick together.

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