Tiny Book Reviews

The Line of Beauty (2004), by Alan Hollinghurst

Alan Hollinghurst reveals his mastery of English prose with The Line of Beauty, the 2004 Man Booker Prize-winning novel set in the decadent days of Thatcher’s Britain.  In the novel, Nick Guest, a Henry James scholar, spends time as a houseguest of the Feddens.  Gerald Fedden is the newly-elected Tory MP and lives with his wife and children in a glorious mansion in Notting Hill.  Nick’s long-burning infatuation for Gerald’s son Toby gets extinguished and then transfigured in the two loves he meets.  The first love is with Leo, a West Indian, while the second is Wani, a wealthy Lebanese heir to a grocery store fortune.

Hollinghurst’s controls the prose with a crisp precision.  The novel explores the life of Nick’s closeted homosexuality in a social commentary emanating as interior observation, not shrill agitprop.  In a conversation with Lord Kessler, the brother of Rachel, Gerald’s wife, Nick explains that his thesis is about Henry James’s style, specifically “style that hides things and reveals things at the same time.”  One could summarize The Line of Beauty in a similar vein.  One could describe Hollinghurst’s style as Realist, but it is the heightened realism of James, Waugh, and Proust.  The conceit of hiding and revelation play out in the novel’s plot.

While the line between the hidden and the revealed get blurred in the machinations of the characters, other lines reveal themselves.  Clandestine encounters between men; lines of cocaine sniffed on mirrors; and the veiled specter of AIDS.  In the end, the vanity, the wealth, and the connections reveal themselves as mere dross when Nick comes to terms with the very real, very close, and very tragic devastations of AIDS, bigotry, and love.

One sentence summary: Hollinghurst’s prose hits the brain like a perfectly balanced gin martini in this tale of love, lust, and loyalty set in Thatcher’s Britain.

My Friend the Fanatic: Travels With a Radical Islamist (2009), by Sadanand Dhume.

My Friend the Fanatic: Travels With a Radical Islamist, by Sadanad Dhume, is a fascinating look into Indonesian current affairs, culture, and religious tension.  The twin engines of globalization and Islamism work diligently to earn people’s loyalty.  One of the more disturbing things encountered in the book were the familiar enemies the Islamic extremists targeted: lesbians, abortionists, pop culture, individuality, and free choice. Odd how these targets meet with the same ire and hatred in the United State’s own Christian Right.

Unfortunately for Indonesia, two successive dictatorships, the Asian economic collapse of the late 1990s, and the nation’s misleading reputation as a “moderate Islamic country” make it ripe picking for the extremists and opportunists. Like the Catholic Counter-reformation of the 17th century in Europe, the Saudi Wahhabist “Counter-reformation” (against modernity, feminism, etc.), funded by petrodollars, has produced a global spread in extremist madrases.  The madrases are insidious institutions, since they only produce more madrases.

The sciences and humanities, the benchmarks of any decent educational system, face slow eradication, making the madrases de facto “factories for idiots” (Lindsay Wier’s description of detention in the TV series Freaks and Geeks).  The amoebic spread has its origin in the Asian market collapse of the 1990s and Indonesia’s lack of separation between religion and government.

In the end the nation will become populated by pious clones who know the Koran backwards and forwards but will be unable to fix a motor, titrate a chemical compound, or interpret a passage from Salman Rushdie.  Since hypocrisy is the conjoined twin of piety, the madrasa-products will decry the West, the US, and Modernity, while using terrorist tactics that include weapons and explosive made in the West.  The transformation of the book’s “fanatic”, Herry, from a quasi-secular, kind of skeptical follower, to a full-on anti-Semitic, anti-Freemason author is both tragic and comedic.  Comedic in the belief system so devoutly followed and tragic in seeing one person’s individuality strip-mined and obliterated.  Herry’s devolution from pious journalist to fanatical clone mirrors Indonesia’s devolution from an archipelago embracing ethnic and religious pluralism to a Saudi puppet regime shackled to an arid puritanical faith.

One sentence summary: An exploration of the insidious nature of extremist faith and the methods by which political, legislative, and cultural power centers get co-opted.

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