1. Maybe Michael Caine missed his calling. He could have been a superb economist.
2. A Mencken appreciation. He was a flawed man, but a valuable one too, and I say that as a proud Jew who has always been appalled by Mencken’s anti-Semitism. I have a number of his books–Prejudices included–and very much look forward to getting a chance to read them . . . once all of the other books on my reading list get taken care of, of course.
At 933 pages, the fourteenth was comparable in size to the heralded omnium-gatherums of its era (1996′s Infinite Jest, 1997′s Mason & Dixon and Underworld). For sheer head-scratching postmodern tricksterism, though, Messrs. Wallace, Pynchon, and DeLillo had nothing on the collaborative deadpan master jam that was the fourteenth. Infinite Jest‘s reams of endnotes were distinctive but hardly as radical as Chicago‘s editorial comments for a text that was essentially invisible. “Millicent Cliff was Norton Westermont’s first cousin, although to the very last she denied it,” 15.47 tells us—but who was Norton Westermont? In this sense, much of Chicago reads likePale Fire without the poem. On the very next page, 15.51′s directions on how to style acknowledgments delivers both a name right out of Pynchonland and a DeLillo-esque consortium: “The author gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Dr. Oscar J. Blunk of the National Cyanide Laboratory in the preparation of this chapter.”
The story that the fourteenth edition tells, underneath its scaffolding of instructions, is at once clear and murky. The tone morphs from page to page, a mixture of low humor and highbrow allusion. The effect is unsettling, as genuine scholarly works (Virgil Thomson’s “Cage and the Collage of Noises,” chapter 8 in American Music Since 1910) sit alongside bogus, anything-for-a-laugh ones (Irma Tweeksbury’s If Only We Had Known! Confessions of a Regretter). The blitheness is disorienting. If the manual’s authors seem to be having a lark, can their instructions be taken seriously?
Beginning in chapter 5 (“Punctuation”), the authors supply numerous examples to illustrate almost every rule, and the reader strives to form links between the discrete sentences, as in the hysterical 5.106 (“Sudden Breaks and Abrupt Changes”):
“Will he—can he—obtain the necessary signatures?” Mills said pointedly. The Platonic world of the static and the Hegelian world of process—how great the contrast!
It’s like glimpsing the surviving title cards for some legendary ruined silent movie. The non sequiturs cluster into miniature Ashbery poems (5.70: “One committee member may be from Ohio, another from Pennsylvania, and a third from West Virginia. / Ronald adored her and she him”), and even the terser lists take on a shimmering pillow-book feel, as in this passage from 7.29, “Commonly Accepted Epithets”:
the Great Emancipator
the Wizard of Menlo Park
the Autocrat of the Breakfast Table
Whatever the case, I have to get the book, and read all the way through; front to back.
Yes. You read that right. Front. To. Back.