Monday book musings

Two more mini-reviews here, since I’m feeling a bit tired and rundown today. But hopefully The Slip will spark me up more tonight. Anyway:

  • Ken Mandelbaum’s Not Since Carrie, written back in 1991, covers flop musicals on Broadway ranging from the just-post-war period or so through the time of the book’s publication. I’d guess this was in part the inspiration of another book I read last year, Second Act Trouble by Steven Suskin, though that covered less plays and did so in an interesting fashion, relying on either contemporaneous or otherwise specific commentaries about the musicals in question and therefore actually being an anthology (and an often very interesting one) rather than a study. Suskin’s volume concludes with a famous piece about a retrospectively famous disaster, Lewis Lapham’s Saturday Evening Post piece on the 1965 production Kelly, and it’s worth checking out for that alone.

    Kelly is discussed in Mandelbaum’s book as well, but his focus is that of celebratory analysis of a wide range of numbers, acknowledging faults but also looking to find gems and to discuss why some sure-fire bets go down (as well as looking at which bets should never have been made to begin with). As such it’s actually a fantastic study not merely of the subject in question but of Broadway culture in general, specifically that knowledgeable fanbase that has become its own stereotype above and beyond more ‘obvious’ ones. (Mandelbaum’s odd skirting around gay issues — sometimes clearly stated, other times left as cryptic comments — is a bit strange, but possibly only given the passage of time.) He’s especially strong at noted the afterlife cult of some failed musicals by means of the original cast recordings, a common but not always fully recognized practice that even short-run productions often made before being shut down, and some of his best discussions throughout the book touch on how a strong or at least passable cast recording with some good songs can end up masking the dramatic failure of the original presentation to start with.

    A sequel would be of interest, and the fact that it ends before the impact of Disney upon Broadway is unfortunate but, again, inevitable given the time of its publication. Ultimately where it succeeds is that it goes beyond the usual if still enjoyable snark approach towards failures to bring an at-times idiosyncratic but still very well-informed and expressed popular history of the downsides of Broadway that becomes a good general study in its own right. And yes, the musical of Carrie is discussed, as a framing device for the book that also serves as a sharp analysis of why people rush to see flops before they close. Intriguing stuff all around.

  • Dan Kennedy’s new book Rock On is also about failure — which is appropriate, seeing as the book fails. Badly.

    I was unsure whether to spend too much time talking about this book or not, so grouping it in within a shorter post like this seems to be the best. A couple of friends had looked at it already and mentioned its shortcomings, but a coworker at the library had read it and indicated it was all right enough. Not knowing anything about his work, but thinking that the subject matter was promising (guy talks about his experience working at a major label this decade as the business started to collapse inwardly), I thought, ‘why not?’

    The giveaway, though, should have been the fact that Kennedy’s a contributor to McSweeney’s — simply put, the style of Dan Eggers’ breakthrough, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, has had the same pernicious effect on first-person writing as Wes Anderson has had on any number of filmmakers (or Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan on graphic novels or the Flaming Lips’ Soft Bulletin on bands, except I like those two, at least). The hyperarchness masquerading as unironic naivete which is part and parcel of all these creations is something an audience member has to deal with in an individual way; I deal with it via barked annoyance.

    And so while there are stories buried within Rock On that are of amusing interest, too much of it feels like a dreary Xerox of texts and styles, and the fact that Jerry Stahl’s given a blurb to this thing on the back cover feels deflating somehow, given how excellent Permanent Midnight was and is. Kennedy’s hardly trying to be Stahl, I’ll note, and I’m glad of that. In any event, there’s a suffocating preciousness in this book’s organization, its chapter titles, its interjections and lists, its portrayals of office politics that aren’t anywhere at all new or interesting or surprising…there’s so little here to sink one’s teeth into. It’s all just so frustrating, and having him break into yet another monologue that boils down to ‘why am I here again? gosh I’m so out of place! am I the only person who feels like this and realizes what’s going on?’ makes it all out to be a combination of self-congratulation and droning dullness.

    I’ll just end by noting that one of the most bizarre tics Kennedy has throughout the book is the refusal to directly name the ‘grandson of the liquor mogul’ who ended up buying out the company and letting a slew of people go, including himself. This was and is Edgar Bronfman Jr., of course. This wasn’t a secret. It wasn’t meant to be a secret. There’s no way it can be a secret. This is public knowledge. He bought the company, he let people go, he still runs it. And yes he’s written songs on the side too, including at least one for Celine Dion. This is also public knowledge. He’s richer than God. He’s had all sorts of things said about him. The amount of time he would give to caring about whether or not his name was mentioned in this book is probably less than nil. SO JUST GO AHEAD AND MENTION HIS NAME FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE, JEEZ!

Meantime, I’ve only had a chance to dip into this one for a bit before having to return it, but John Darwin’s After Tamerlane looks to be a well-written and argued survey of ‘world history’ from the death of that figure onward from the point of view of early 21st century scholarship, bringing in subaltern work, oral histories, a less Eurocentric perception and a series of overarching meditations on the non-inevitability of European triumph and the reign of the American hyperpower. Book was recalled so it’s out of my hands now, but I’ll try and snag it again at some point.

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