Michiko Kakutani had the best literary criticism job in America. As chief book critic for the New York Times, she could review any book she wanted and won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1998. She used the word “limn” so much that it became a book reviewing cliché. Everyone in publishing read her, craving rave reviews (as she gave Jonathan Franzen’s “The Corrections”) and fearing an ice-cold takedown (as she gave Franzen’s memoir “The Discomfort Zone”). So why, after 38 years at the paper, walk away from the gig?
The answer lies in “The Death of Truth,” her first book. At the end of its first chapter, she turns her attention to Stefan Zweig’s 1942 memoir, “The World of Yesterday,” which chronicled growing up in Austria and Hitler’s rise: “because they were reluctant to abandon their accustomed lives, their daily routines and habits, Zweig wrote, people did not want to believe how rapidly their freedoms were being stolen.” Kaktuani abandoned her accustomed life in order, this book shows, to raise an alarm about Donald Trump.
That alarm — that President Trump presents a danger to our democratic institutions — may sound familiar. It’s in countless articles by experts in law, commerce, voting rights, the environment and so on, as well as other books. In “The Death of Truth,” Kakutani looks at the fragmenting cultural discourse that preceded Trump, the role of the internet in our lives and politics, Russian interference in the U.S. and abroad, the degradation of language, highlights from Trump’s first year in office and, of course, fake news.
What Kakutani brings to the narrative is her wide literary referent and an ability to nail an opponent with flair. “If a novelist had concocted a villain like Trump — a larger-than-life, over-the-top avatar of narcissism, mendacity, ignorance, prejudice, boorishness, demagoguery, and tyrannical impulses,” she writes, “she or he would likely be accused of extreme contrivance and implausibility.”
Looking back, she draws parallels between the regimes of Hitler in Germany and Lenin in Russia and Trump — particularly regarding their mass appeal, scapegoating and manipulation of language. She references books, such as those by historian Anne Applebaum and political theorist Hannah Arendt, in framing her observations. In explaining how social media can both be manipulated and manipulate us, she quotes virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier and Columbia Law School professor Tim Wu. Historian Richard Hofstadter’s analysis of Barry Goldwater’s right-wing appeal of the early 1960s (“America has been largely taken away from them”) is a touchstone for her understanding of Trump supporters today.
She includes novelists in her cultural tour: George Orwell for doublespeak, F. Scott Fitzgerald for greed, Thomas Pynchon for paranoia, David Foster Wallace for irony and insincerity, Tom Wolfe and Philip Roth for just about anything.
In 2010, historian Tony Judt published “Ill Fares the Land,” a slender yet comprehensive look at 20th and 21st century economic and political thought and practice, drawing connections and illustrating how one idea led to another, sometimes with inverse intention, an intellectual through line that demonstrated cause and effect. This is the kind of book I hoped Kakutani might write.
However, I should have paid more attention to the subtitle: Calling it “Notes” is accurate. This is an assemblage of observations of what is happening in America.
These observations are not meant to convince but to create nods of assent. I’m guessing that most readers who pick up a book critical of Trump by the former New York Times book critic will have noticed that Fox News has many viewers and that they probably aren’t among them. They know that climate change is real. They will have, like the author, decried Trump’s tweets. They support Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation. They keep up on the news and maybe are even newspaper subscribers.
Analysis of these events happens every day in newspapers and online, on the radio, in podcasts and on television. There is little analysis here, and the book feels thirsty for it.
When Kakutani does venture political analysis, she can misstep. “For many of these committed partisans, supporting their party was like being a rabid, die-hard fan of a favorite NBA, MLB or NFL team; it was part of their own identity, and their team could do no wrong,” she writes. “Polarized voting in Congress mirrored these developments.” That’s mistaking correlation for causation.
She’s on much better footing when she’s looking at the world through books. The passages she pulls from Zweig about life in Germany and Austria during Hitler’s rise are striking. So too is what she takes from Victor Klemperer and his diaries, “I Will Bear Witness,” focusing on the German-Jewish linguist’s real-time take — from Dresden — on the decay of language in the Nazi era.
In a weird literary theory fillip that I and only a handful of other readers may care about, Kakutani lays a surprising measure of the blame for fake news on postmodernism. The theory popularized by Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault is based in the idea that word and meaning are inherently separate; it led to, or described, all kinds of play in literary fiction (see the works of William S. Burroughs, Pynchon and Don DeLillo). Where she might have tracked money and right-wing think politics (via a book such as Jane Mayer’s “Dark Money”), the role of race and racism (with the help of a book such has Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me”) or the widening gap between rich and poor (using “Capital” by Thomas Piketty) — postmodernism is instead in her sights throughout.
In the final chapter, which focuses on Russia and its involvement in America’s 2016 election, Kakutani describes the “contemporary Russian master of propaganda Vladislav Surkov” as “a former postmodernist theater director who’s been called ‘the real genius of the Putin era.’” So deep is her antipathy that she credits “recruiting a real American to hold a sign depicting Clinton and a phony [alienating] quotation attributed to her” to postmodern “Surkovian stagecraft,” rather than recognizing its American antecedents in Nixon’s dirty tricksters.
So far, Kakutani’s move from book critic to political observer is only partially successful. She’s best when she sticks to smart texts. As a person who lives inside this world of books, I had hoped her vision on the world would be clearer. Apparently, it’s not easy lifting your focus from the page.
Kellogg is books editor of The Times.