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Benjamin Kunkel: The Amazon Burning, 12 September 2019

... He​ who laughs hasn’t heard the news, Brecht wrote, probably in 1939. Eighty years later, the words could serve as the motto of the eco-tourist, to be pronounced in sardonic tones of knowing guilt. Having suppressed your flugsham (‘flying shame’) – the Swedish coinage alludes to the unconscionable quantities of carbon that each passenger on a long-distance flight is responsible for emitting – long enough to book travel to the brink of some remaining wilder-than-not spot of the globe, you are mercifully plunged out of wifi range among electricityless palm-thatched cabanas along a far-flung beach, or you trek through greenest jungle with your mobile reduced to a mere camera by your remoteness from cell towers ...

Men in White

Benjamin Kunkel: Another Ian McEwan!, 17 July 2008

by Joseph O’Neill.
Fourth Estate, 247 pp., £14.99, May 2008, 978 0 00 726906 8
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... Netherland’ is an ambiguous word. It evokes, of course, the Netherlands inhabited by the Dutch, one of whom, Hans van den Broek, tells this story of a few late years spent in that New World city founded almost four hundred years ago on Manhattan Island as New Amsterdam, in what was then the territory of New Netherland. But ‘netherland’ could also mean any faraway place, as in those ‘nether regions’ of the city where Hans’s teammates from the Staten Island Cricket Club spend their nights ...

In the Sonora

Benjamin Kunkel: Roberto Bolaño, 6 September 2007

The Savage Detectives 
by Roberto Bolaño, translated by Natasha Wimmer.
Picador, 577 pp., £16.99, July 2007, 978 0 330 44514 6
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Last Evenings on Earth 
by Roberto Bolaño, translated by Chris Andrews.
Harvill, 277 pp., £15.99, April 2007, 978 1 84343 181 7
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by Roberto Bolaño, translated by Chris Andrews.
New Directions, 184 pp., $21.95, January 2007, 978 0 8112 1664 7
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... Roberto Bolaño was born in Santiago de Chile in 1953, moved with his family to Mexico City at the age of 15, and was inspired by the election of Salvador Allende to return to his native country five years later. In his short story ‘Dance Card’, which accords with the known facts of his life and does not present itself as fiction, Bolaño indicates that he hardly distinguished as a young man – if he ever did – between his politics and his love of poetry: ‘I reached Chile in August 1973 ...

Lingering and Loitering

Benjamin Kunkel: Javier Marías, 3 December 2009

Your Face Tomorrow 3: Poison, Shadow and Farewell 
by Javier Marías, translated by Margaret Jull Costa.
Chatto, 545 pp., £18.99, November 2009, 978 0 7011 8342 4
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... In one of literary history’s great instances of the pot calling the kettle black, Henry James complained of ‘the absence of spontaneity, the excess of reflection’ in George Eliot’s work. To other readers, of course, the proportion that Eliot – or even late James – sets up between narrative spontaneity (or action and event), on the one hand, and reflection or disquisition, on the other, seems harmonious and attractive, and it’s certainly easy enough to think of novels suffering from the opposite problem of lots of action and little thought ...

The Basic Couple

Benjamin Kunkel: Norman Rush, 24 October 2013

Subtle Bodies 
by Norman Rush.
Granta, 234 pp., £14.99, October 2013, 978 1 84708 780 5
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... When Virginia Woolf said of Middlemarch that it was among the few English novels ‘for grown-up people’, she didn’t explain what she meant. It’s clear that the novel looks back critically (and forgivingly) at the moral youthfulness that lands Dorothea in a marriage to an older man whose scholarly seriousness is uncompromised by wit or sexual charm; but Woolf seems to have pitied Dorothea for hanging on to some of the same earnestness in her second marriage, ‘seeking wisdom and finding one scarcely knows what ...

Why can’t he be loved?

Benjamin Kunkel: Houellebecq, 20 October 2011

The Map and the Territory 
by Michel Houellebecq, translated by Gavin Bowd.
Heinemann, 291 pp., £17.99, September 2011, 978 0 434 02141 3
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... Michel Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory tells the story, from the standpoint of a future art history, of a canonical artist of the early 21st century, a Frenchman with the curiously American-sounding name Jed Martin. Such a backward-gazing Künstlerroman invites comparison with the trajectory of the author himself. And Houellebecq also includes a character bearing his own name and more or less corresponding to his public image as the sad bad boy of French literature, and does something unusual with this by now familiar device ...

Just don’t think about it

Benjamin Kunkel: Boris Groys, 8 August 2013

Introduction to Antiphilosophy 
by Boris Groys.
Verso, 248 pp., £16.99, April 2012, 978 1 84467 756 6
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... rather than activism. Far from imagining a revolutionary popular art, as Brecht and Walter Benjamin had in different ways done in the 1930s, Adorno elaborated an aesthetics of suffering, in the senses both of passivity and pain: ‘Authentic works are those that surrender themselves to the historical substance of the age without reservation’; for the ...

Into the Big Tent

Benjamin Kunkel: Fredric Jameson, 22 April 2010

Valences of the Dialectic 
by Fredric Jameson.
Verso, 625 pp., £29.99, October 2009, 978 1 85984 877 7
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... and writers. Not only did he develop interests in film, science fiction, or the work of Walter Benjamin, say, earlier than most of his colleagues in the humanities, he was also a pioneer of that enlargement of literary criticism (Jameson received a PhD in French literature from Yale in 1959) into all-purpose theory which made the discussion of all these ...

How Much Is Too Much?

Benjamin Kunkel: Marx’s Return, 3 February 2011

The Enigma of Capital: And the Crises of Capitalism 
by David Harvey.
Profile, 296 pp., £14.99, April 2010, 978 1 84668 308 4
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A Companion to Marx’s ‘Capital’ 
by David Harvey.
Verso, 368 pp., £10.99, March 2010, 978 1 84467 359 9
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... The deepest economic crisis in eighty years prompted a shallow revival of Marxism. During the panicky period between the failure of Lehman Brothers in September 2008 and the official end of the American recession in the summer of 2009, several mainstream journals, displaying a less than sincere mixture of broadmindedness and chagrin, hailed Marx as a neglected seer of capitalist crisis ...

Paupers and Richlings

Benjamin Kunkel: Piketty’s ‘Capital’, 3 July 2014

Capital in the 21st Century 
by Thomas Piketty, translated by Arthur Goldhammer.
Harvard, 696 pp., £29.95, March 2014, 978 0 674 43000 6
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... Capitalist societies​ today exhibit ‘an arbitrary and inequitable distribution of wealth and incomes’ as bad as or worse than in the 1930s, when Keynes declared this one of ‘the outstanding faults of the economic society in which we live’. (The other – not unrelated – was the failure to achieve full employment.) Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century is an intelligent, ambitious and above all informative treatment of the problem ...

Forgive us our debts

Benjamin Kunkel: The History of Debt, 10 May 2012

Paper Promises: Money, Debt and the New World Order 
by Philip Coggan.
Allen Lane, 294 pp., £20, December 2011, 978 1 84614 510 0
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Debt: The First 5000 Years 
by David Graeber.
Melville House, 534 pp., £21.99, July 2011, 978 1 933633 86 2
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... Most analysts divide postwar capitalism into two periods. The first extends from the late 1940s into the 1970s. The end of the second appears to have been announced by the crisis – at first a ‘financial’ crisis, now often a ‘debt’ crisis – that broke out in 2008. The precise boundary between the postwar eras gets drawn differently depending on which feature of the terrain is emphasised ...

The Capitalocene

Benjamin Kunkel: The Anthropocene, 2 March 2017

The Birth of the Anthropocene 
by Jeremy Davies.
California, 240 pp., £24.95, June 2016, 978 0 520 28997 0
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Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital 
by Jason Moore.
Verso, 336 pp., £19.99, August 2015, 978 1 78168 902 8
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Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam-Power and the Roots of Global Warming 
by Andreas Malm.
Verso, 496 pp., £20, October 2015, 978 1 78478 129 3
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... How​ is the ecological predicament of the 21st century to be conceived of? Politically, how is it to be confronted, and by whom? The basic features of the problem are plain enough, when you can stand to look. Universal carbon pollution, known by the mild term ‘climate change’, is already distempering the seasons with bounding extremes of heat and cold, and magnifying storms and droughts; increasingly, it will spoil harvests, spread tropical diseases, and drown coastlines ...


Daniel Soar: Benjamin Kunkel, 5 January 2006

by Benjamin Kunkel.
Picador, 241 pp., £12.99, November 2005, 0 330 44456 5
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... whose comments appeared in the New York Review of Books and who has written some forty novels to Benjamin Kunkel’s one, has a peculiar idea of what constitutes inactivity. Dwight makes a big noise about his ‘indecision’, which he believes has reached such disabling levels that the mere promise of a miracle drug called Abulinix is enough to make ...

Beware of clues!

Joanna Biggs: Geek lit, 21 September 2006

Special Topics in Calamity Physics 
by Marisha Pessl.
Viking, 514 pp., £16.99, September 2006, 0 670 91607 2
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... for what it really is: geek lit. It’s only here, as in the worlds conjured by Miranda July or Benjamin Kunkel, that Gareth Van Meer would suggest that Blue write up her theory of who killed Hannah Schneider as ‘Mixed Nuts: Conspiracies and Anti-American Dissidents in Our Midst or Special Topics in Calamity Physics, something with a bit of rumba to ...


Joanna Biggs: Keith Gessen, 22 May 2008

All the Sad Young Literary Men 
by Keith Gessen.
Heinemann, 242 pp., £11.99, May 2008, 978 0 434 01848 2
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... for the New Yorker and the New York Review and now co-edits the journal n+1 with Mark Greif. (Benjamin Kunkel is an editor at large there, and All the Sad Young Literary Men is a sort of younger brother to Kunkel’s Indecision.) Was it as part of the project to make intellectual solemnity cool, in art as in ...

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