The full story of Braun’s misadventures in China’s Communist revolution is packed with enough twists and turns for a Hollywood thriller. But in the domain of culinary history, one anecdote from Braun’s autobiography stands out. Braun recalls his first impressions of Mao Zedong, the man who would go on to become China’s paramount leader.
The shrewd peasant organizer had a mean, even “spiteful” streak. “For example, for a long time I could not accustom myself to the strongly spiced food, such as hot fried peppers, which is traditional to southern China, especially in Hunan, Mao’s birthplace.” The Soviet agent’s tender taste buds invited Mao’s mockery. “The food of the true revolutionary is the red pepper,” declared Mao. “And he who cannot endure red peppers is also unable to fight.’ ”
Most people will concede that I’m fortunate to have survived and that Edwards was unfortunate to have perished. But in other arenas, randomness can play out in subtler ways, causing us to resist explanations that involve luck. In particular, many of us seem uncomfortable with the possibility that personal success might depend to any significant extent on chance. As E. B. White once wrote, “Luck is not something you can mention in the presence of self-made men.”
Contemporary criticism is positively crowded with first-person pronouns, micro-doses of memoir, brief hits of biography. Critics don’t simply wrestle with their assigned cultural object; they wrestle with themselves, as well. Recent examples suggest a spectrum, from reviews that harmlessly kick off with a personal anecdote, to hybrid pieces that blend literary criticism and longform memoir.
Some of these pieces are certainly excellent, and, as an editor, I’ve certainly commissioned my share of what might be called “confessional criticism.” I’ve even written some, too. But—confession!—I’ve never felt especially good about it. Relating works of art to one’s life, after all, is easy. (No reference library required.) Moreover, the confessional voice is dangerously attractive; as Virginia Woolf put it, “under the decent veil of print one can indulge one’s egoism to the full.” Such a voice doesn’t necessarily guarantee more honest criticism, and, in some ways, its subtle designs on the reader make it even more deserving of our wariness.
When I was writing my first book, my editor advised me to put everything I wanted the review-reading public to know in the first and last chapters, because those are the only chapters that most reviewers read. In the years since then, I have discovered that indeed most of the quotes pulled by reviewers from my books have come from the first and last sections. In nonfiction books at least, reviewers tend to skim the middle section and read only the summaries of the argument at beginning and end.
But this is only one of many crimes against authors committed with impunity by many of their reviewers. Most elements of the art of the book review serve the purpose of making the reviewer look more intelligent or erudite than the author whose work is under review. There is The Omitted Subject: “For all its merits, this book about the South Pole suffers from the lack of any discussion of the North Pole.” And there is The Book the Author Should Have Written: “By focusing on the South Pole, the author misses the opportunity to discuss a far more important subject: the Equator.”
It is irresistible to juxtapose Watson’s bold optimism with an older and more tragic dictum: You cannot force the ones you love to change. Even, and especially, when they are both behaviorists.
The novel mostly comprises reviews of “hotels hilarious, anonymous, modest, opulent, strange”, collected into a volume to be left on bedside tables for the perusal of fellow travellers, “right alongside the scripture”. The pace is breathless as Morse jumps around in time and space, roaming cities and continents to recall holidays with “the woman who became my ex‑wife”, work trips, liaisons with lovers and lonely nights staring into the abyss. What emerges from the chaos is a vivid impression of modern life: Morse has plenty of emotional baggage, and by way of sprightly anecdote and frank confession, these reviews become essays in self-revelation.