A perverse tract?

Adam Kirsch didn’t like Human Smoke:

Even a book as bad as “Human Smoke” (Simon and Schuster, 576 pages, $30), Nicholson Baker’s perverse tract about the origins of World War II, helps to confirm the continuing centrality of that war in our moral lives. Myths call forth debunkers, and the myth of “the good war” — that complacent phrase that camouflages the most deadly conflict in human history — has provoked Mr. Baker to remind us of some of the ways in which World War II was not good. There is nothing to object to in this: On the contrary, no one is more alert than the historians to the true ambiguities of the war. In particular, the terrible facts of the Allied bombing campaign — which inflicted unspeakable civilian casualties on Germany, without appreciably shortening the war — have been studied and debated more openly in the last few years than ever before.

The problem with Mr. Baker’s book is that he is not interested in ambiguity, but in countering the received myth of the good war with his own myth of the bad war. Mr. Baker’s ignorance, however, is much more disgraceful than the ignorance he seeks to combat — first, because he presents it as knowledge, and second, because World War II was, in fact, if not simply a good war, then an absolutely necessary one. In arguing the contrary, Mr. Baker is trying to convince his reader that false is true, and at times even that good is evil.

It seems he is not a fan of Baker’s work in general:

Nor does Mr. Baker have any experience with writing about large historical and moral questions. On the contrary, he is known as a writer obsessed with trivia, and his novels are stunts designed to discover how narrow a writer’s compass can become before it vanishes entirely. “The Mezzanine” is an interior monologue that takes place entirely during an escalator ride, as the narrator contemplates buying shoelaces; “Vox” is a transcript of a conversation between strangers on a phone-sex line. Mr. Baker’s last book, “Checkpoint,” was something of a departure: It was a dialogue about whether it would be morally acceptable to assassinate President Bush.

When such a writer turns to history, it is only to be expected that he will be hopelessly at a loss. Mr. Baker, in fact, does not even attempt to make a consecutive argument based on knowledge of all the relevant sources, the sine qua non of historical writing. Instead, he designed “Human Smoke” as a collage or montage — a series of short paragraphs, each of which presents a single incident or observation from the years up to and including 1941. (Each one is tagged with a portentous announcement of the date — “It was May 31, 1941,” and so on — as though to give the impression of a newsreel or a rocket-launch countdown.)

And just to top things off, he thinks the book is dangerous:

A book that can adduce Goebbels as an authority in order to vilify Churchill has clearly lost touch with all moral and intellectual bearings. No one who knows about World War II will take “Human Smoke” at all seriously. The problem is that people who don’t know enough, and who enjoy the spectacle of a writer of apparent authority turning the myth of “the good war” upside down, will think “Human Smoke” is a brave book. Already a reviewer in the Los Angeles Times has praised it for “demonstrating that World War II was one of the biggest, most carefully plotted lies in modern history.” That people who think this way about the past will apply the same self-righteous ignorance to the politics of the present and future makes “Human Smoke” not just a stupid book, but a scary one.

Part of me want to read it to see if it really is this bad, but another part is not all that interested in a revisionist work on WWII from a pacifist perspective.

About the author

Kevin Holtsberry

I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season – oh, and watching golf too).

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