The powers that be are, earlier than usual, taking away an hour from the reality-based community tonight. We don't know why they're doing this, or how, but then again, most of the 'gosphere is still on the Julian calendar. In any case, losing the 2-3 AM hour shouldn't be too traumatic, except that the 47-hour weekend leaves us literary dilettantes who dawdled all week with an awful Sophie's choice: do we go back and read the Times review of Kurt Andersen's historical epic Heyday or the Times Book Review review of Kurt Andersen's historical epic Heyday?
Both the NYT review and the NYTBR review (hereafter, Times and Times', respectively) have things to recommend them. The latter is by Geoffrey Wolff, who is the "Berthold Leibinger fellow at the American Academy in Berlin." The former is by Janet Maslin, who is Janet Maslin.
Although "Heyday" is a historical novel conceived on a grand scale, it is also a walking, talking almanac. Classifications, notations, translations, amplifications, derivations and formulations are not tangential to Mr. Andersen's story. In a very real way they constitute the book's main event... As befits its boyish spirit, the book is squirmy about emotion but delighted by excitingly showy constructs. When Ben talks to a dinner guest of his father's, the "esteemed barnacle expert" called "Professor Darwin" (there are many such cameos), about adaptation, he eagerly applies the professor's ideas to the way America's government evolved from England's. Sometimes these ideas are pointedly anachronistic, as when the book mentions "the spurious argument that Polk was obliged to attack Mexico before Mexico turned its weapons against the United States."
Ooh, political! All in all, Times' is a more positive take on Heyday, though Leibinger isn't beyond admiring Andersen's massive brain:
"Heyday" tries also to be a novel of ideas, gamely providing mouthpieces to test theories of political unrest, economy and evolution, free will versus security. Darwin walks on as a character, and Engels enjoys the enthusiasm of Benjamin. Manifest Destiny is deplored, the notion of the Noble Savage mocked and embraced. Again and again Duff specifies that "destruction and creation are the cycle of life." Andersen declared in a recent interview that our "elective" invasion of Iraq was on his mind as he invoked our earlier war against Mexico, and that the "commune stuff" in his novel "reminded me of the late '60s."
That's actually about it. But forced to make a choice? While Times tries to be a review of ideas, Times' is a historical review conceived on a grand scale, which is to say it contains this altogether unsettling personal anecdote from Berthold:
I was once asked by a grade-school kid whether toilet paper had been invented when I was a little boy; in much the same spirit of wonder, Andersen — generally through Benjamin or Timothy Skaggs —is besotted with the products of research masking as observation.
Eww. "Besotted" indeed. Advantage, Times'!