Monday, December 31, 2012

Watchmen - Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons

Who reads Watchmen

Undoubtedly many people do.  If, for some reason, you have not heard of Watchmen, it is likely that you hang around with non-artist types, or other assorted individuals that do not find value in the graphic novel medium.  And if you have been denied exposure to this book, it is unlikely that you will ever read it.  And if you never read this book, you will have just avoided one of the most creative works of art of the 20th century. 

That may sound like undue praise, but the cover to the book goes further (“One of Time’s 100 best novels”). 
Watchmen’s two-decade legacy was tested by its film adaption in 2009.  I saw that film in 2010 before I had read the book.  At the time, I felt that the film was overlong, but that certain moments in the film exhibited striking originality—most especially, in the sequence that tells the origin story of Dr. Manhattan.  But on the whole, the movie cannot do justice to the book.  It is not a bad movie.  Zack Snyder probably did about as good a job adapting the book into a 162 minute spectacle as practicable.  Originally, Terry Gilliam was attached to the project, but later dropped out, deciding that the book would be better filmed as a five hour miniseries.  I am easily tempted to agree with that conclusion. 

The two major criticisms I can make of the film are the performances and—an accusation that no doubt holds true for all novels turned into films—the great parts that got left out.  It is not that any of the actors are bad, but Watchmen is a very strange work of art in its tone.  Sometimes, the book is just flat-out hilarious.  There are moments where the cynicism is so severe that the humor branches out into territory seldom ventured.  Moreover, the characters do not always take themselves so seriously.  At the end of the day they realize they are all somewhat antisocial recluses who like to put on costumes and run around and catch bad guys.  The movie could lead the viewer to believe that they take themselves totally seriously, and this would be a huge misinterpretation.  

To be sure, this book contains scenes and moments of unmistakable genius, sheer creativity, and true profundity.  The movie attempts to engage the viewer in some of those moments that only the reader will be able to fully appreciate, but in so doing, almost all of the humor and “radicalism” of the book are lost in a morass self-proclaimed greatness.  And while most of the major scenes (along with the best scenes) are contained in the film, the small details that make Watchmen such a treasure of a book must inevitably be left out in any film version.  The most glaring omission from the film is the exposition of the Tales of the Black Freighter comic book.  While honestly I felt that this was the weakest element of the book—indeed the most striking case of the peripheral niceties overshadowing the exciting main story—this is likely a literary trope that is practically impossible to film without losing a viewer’s interest or deeply unsettling their expectations.  Tales of the Black Freighter will be addressed later but the failure to account for it is the biggest “gap” between the movie and film.  Also missing are the literary interludes and fictional documents between chapters, which, conversely, contain some of the greatest moments in the book.
The plot deserves little comment but should be briefly noted: the Comedian (a.k.a. Eddie Blake) has been murdered.  Rorschach (a.k.a. would-be-a-spoiler) investigates, starting October 12, 1985.  He goes to Nite Owl (a.k.a. Daniel Dreiberg), Dr. Manhattan (a.k.a. Jon Osterman), Sally Jupiter (a.k.a. Laurie Juspeczyk), and Ozymandias (a.k.a. Adrian Veidt) to inform them of the killing and to warn them that they may be next.  

The plot of the book is very straightforward, but immaculately paced.  Each of the characters' back stories emerge in a complex interwoven narrative, supplanted by the interludes between chapters.  It is complex in that Nite Owl and Sally Jupiter were members of the Minutemen (along with the Comedian, and other costumed vigilantes such as Hooded Justice, the Silk Spectre, Captain Metropolis, Mothman) who "passed their titles" onto a younger admirer and a daughter, respectively.  The book is, arguably, just as much about the Minutemen as it is the Watchmen.  The plot is essentially a search for the person behind the killing, and the meaning of it.  Later, Moloch, the "arch-nemesis" of the Watchmen (or Minutemen), who is now an elderly man dying of cancer, tells Rorschach that the Comedian came into his bedroom one night, apparently drunk and babbling on about some kind of island.  Later, the author of Tales of the Black Freighter goes missing, and this is where that narrative strand is finally tied together.

And this is essentially the genius of the book.  Everything is perfectly connected together.  Moore peppers a variety of cultural references into the book so that it all becomes a disturbing mirror of reality--an "alternative" 1985.  One of the two dueling newspapers reporting on the cataclysmic events that befall the world is called Nova Express, and the influence of William S. Burroughs is apparent.  He is even directly referenced at one point (I am sure of it, though I cannot find it--one of the problems with quoting passages from a graphic novel).  Regardless, I have to say that Moore succeeds with the "cut-up" method in a way that I never was able to fully appreciate in Burroughs.  In his books, the narratives fall prey to the weird nonsensical prose--but here, where the narrative strands are disconnected, they are artfully re-assembled in such a way that perhaps you cannot call it a "cut-up" anymore.  

In any case, the writing is excellent.  For example, Rorschach's "voice" is indelible, and his journal entries are always a pleasure:

"October 16th, 1985: 42nd Street: Women's breasts draped across every billboard, every display, littering the sidewalk.  Was offered Swedish and French love...but not American love.  American love; like Coke in green glass bottles.  They don't make it anymore.  Thought about Moloch's story on way to cemetery.  Could all be lies.  Could all be part of revenge scheme, planned during his decade behind bars.  But if true, then what?  Puzzling reference to an island.  Also to Dr. Manhattan.  Might he be at risk on some way?  So many questions.  Never mind.  Answers soon.  Nothing in insoluble.  Nothing is hopeless.  Not while there's life."  (Chapter II, 25)

Or take a newspaper "interlude" that is dated September 1976:

"PROBE: There was Ursula Zandt, the Silhouette...
SALLY: Uh-huh.  Well, sooner or later, okay, that's going to come up, so let me deal with that...First off, I didn't like her as a person.  I mean, she was not an easy person to get along with.  But, when the papers got hold of it, her being a--what is it--a gay woman they say nowadays, when that happened, I thought it was wrong.  I mean, Laurence, who was my first husband, he got everybody to thew her out of the group to minimize the P.R. damage, but...I mean, I voted along with everybody else, but....well, it wasn't fair.  It wasn't honest.  I mean, she wasn't the only gay person in the Minutemen.  Some professions, I don't know, they attract a certain type....
PROBE: Who else was gay?
SALLY: I'm not naming anybody.  It was a couple of the guys, and they're both dead now.  One died recently.  I'm not saying who it was, I'm just saying that we all knew, and we knew she wasn't the only one, and we slung her out just the same.  When she got murdered like that...I mean, I never really liked her.  Ursula.  Was that her real name?  I didn't know that.  I didn't like her, but...throwing her out.  We shouldn't have done that.  I feel bad about that."  (Chapter IX, 22)

I have made all of the glowing comments I possibly can about this book and will not exhort myself any further because they likely fall on deaf ears: as I said, if you have not already read this book, you will probably never read it.  I came late to the party.  But if you have seen it in your pseudo-artist friend's bookshelves and have had your curiosity piqued, I highly recommend you follow that urge.                   

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Five Chiefs: A Supreme Court Memoir - Justice John Paul Stevens

I have written at length on Justice Stevens before in my reviews of The Nine and The Brethren, and unfortunately this review will not offer many more exciting biographical tidbits--perhaps one or two.  This should be fairly predictable.  I have not read Justice Douglas's Points of Rebellion or any other "literature" by the Justices, but I have to believe they would not go out of their way to air any dirty laundry.  Of course, Bill Clinton's memoir simply has to include a segment on extramarital affairs, and any Justice's book has to include a portion on Clinton v. Jones and Bush v. Gore and there are plenty of opportunities for silly jokes--but most (if not all) Justices know better.

There are zero exclamation points in this book.  Many people may fear the exclamation point.  They worry that it will cheapen whatever they say, or that it will look like they make lame jokes.  They see "bad writing" that uses 1 exclamation point (or 2) per paragraph, and they believe that this writer has simply ripped off Kurt Vonnegut too badly and that they probably have nothing of substance to say.  Of course I am not anti-exclamation point at all, but I felt the need to comment on this.  Because Stevens (who is my second favorite Justice) references another legal heavyweight (who is my favorite judge, period) from Chicago, whose book I am reading as a follow-up to this (and is packed with exclamation points):

"In many respects I did not--and do not--agree with the approach of the Warren Court to antitrust issues.  As a young lawyer, I taught courses in antitrust law at Northwestern and at the University of Chicago.  The course at Chicago, called Competition and Monopoly,was traditionally co-taught by an economist and a lawyer.  The year that I substituted for Edward Levi, who later became the attorney general under Gerald Ford and provided much needed leadership in the Justice Department after the Watergate scandal, the economist was Aaron Director, a brilliant teacher whose disciples included Bob Bork and Dick Posner.  While I did not learn half as much  about economics as either of those outstanding rising scholars, I did--through my association with Aaron--pick up a few fundamentals." (95-96)

Bork was 12 years older than Posner, and, sadly, he passed away 8 days ago.  While I find it humorous that Stevens would refer to Bork as a "rising scholar"--and 85 years is not such a bad run--I am not sure how much humor was intended in this statement.  I do not know very much about Bork except that he figured heavily in both The Nine and The Brethren as a constant "potential appointee."  We will have plenty of time to talk about Posner later.

So, the bottom line is that, even though the book lacks exclamation points, and even though I find its structure a bit frustrating, Stevens's winsome character is on full display and further exemplifies why he is my second favorite Justice.  Though he does sometimes go off on tangents that seem a bit uselessly complex (generally reading the physical characteristics of the rooms in the Supreme Court) and perhaps he finds it funny that he is forcing the reader into his strange mathematical mind games, at least in this passage:

"When the marshal shouts, 'Oyez, oyez' (the traditional equivalent of 'hear ye, hear ye'; it is pronounced 'Oh yay,' not "Oh yez'), and requests all of the spectators in the courtroom to rise, the justices ascend the bench in groups of three: the chief justice and the two most senior justices are in the center; the fourth, sixth, and eighth most senior justices enter at the right end of the bench; the fifth, seventh, and ninth most senior justices enter at the left end.  Thus, using numbers to describe the lineup in the conference just prior to entering the courtroom, the sequence is 123-468-579.
The five-four split that impressed me on my first day was that of the five justices who were over six feet tall and the four--Justice Brennan, Stewart, Blackmun, and Stevens--who were all within an inch or two of five feet six.  As the most junior, I was at the end of the line, with the six-foot Lewis Powell (number 7) in front of me, and the even taller Bill Rehnquist (number 8) in front of him.  The only other justices visible to me were the broad-shouldered Thurgood Marshall (number 5), the all-pro running back Byron White (number 4), and our handsome leading man (number 1).  I won't say that I felt insignificant, but I did feel that I was beginning my tenure as a member of a small minority." (135-136)

Clearly, he could have used an exclamation point there, but it would not be appropriate.  This is dry humor, and while I previously thought that judges lacked a certain literary flair that made opinions boring to read, one cannot write opinions on the Supreme Court for more than 30 years and not become a good writer.  And there is often subtle humor found in even the most boring opinions, but one must be attentive to that dryness.

The next paragraph is, however, the one passage in the book that made me laugh out loud:

"During the argument, Lewis Powell carefully explained that when we adjourned I should be sure to push my chair back far enough to enable Thurgood and himself to walk past it before descending the steps from the bench.  At the end of the argument, attentive to that counsel, I gave my chair such a firm shove that I missed catapulting down those stairs by only a matter of inches.  I continue to thank the good Lord for saving me from what would have been a truly memorable opening argument." (136)

A note on structure: I always knew this book was called Five Chiefs and I knew enough about the Court that it didn't seem to line up with reality (if Stevens was writing about each of the Chiefs he served under).  There was Burger, there was Rehnquist, and there was Roberts--only 3.  Was Stevens implying that he was a "chief" in his own right?  (Not in the least--though he does include one chapter about his role as Senior Associate Justice and the brief period in 2005 when he served as interim Chief Justice).

Chief Justices Vinson and Warren are also included because Stevens "knew" them: Vinson, because Stevens served as a law clerk to Justice Rutledge during the 1947 term; Warren because Stevens's first and only time presenting an oral argument at the Supreme Court was before him.  As previously noted in The Brethren review, Earl Warren is universally beloved, and he can seemingly do no wrong (save the Court's antitrust jurisprudence, referenced above).  More interesting is Stevens's chapter on Warren Burger--which is probably the most intriguing part of the book (at least for those that have read The Brethren).

After reading Five Chiefs, I am apt to dismiss The Brethren as blow-hard escapist entertainment (i.e. look at all those silly Justices and that bumbling moron of a chief!) because the stories about Warren Burger are extremely demeaning.  I was willing to give Woodward & Armstrong the benefit of the doubt, and while I know that Stevens must have had certain reputational elements in mind when he published this book, I am much more persuaded by his view that Burger made more positive contributions to the Court than negative.  He does, indirectly, reference The Brethren:

"In my judgment Warren Burger's contributions to the law in the years after I joined the Court have not been fully appreciated, possibly because unfriendly critics have had so much to say about Burger's evolving views about the abortion issue.  Public interest in that issue increased dramatically in the years after 1973, when Roe v. Wade was decided.  As the seven-to-two vote in that case illustrates, the basic issue was not as controversial in 1973 as it became in later years." (142-143)

He does, however, verify that Burger had certain "lapses of memory" when he would assign a justice in a minority position to write the majority opinion, or change his own vote so he could write the majority.  Generally though, he has nothing but kind things to say about every Chief.  There are many more passages I could quote but I would like to get to my major criticism of the book: there is almost nothing about the other associate justices.

To be sure, Scalia probably gets most of the publicity in this book, and it is quite funny when Stevens mentions the dual Senate Confirmation Hearings of Rehnquist (to ascend to the position of Chief) and Scalia (to join the Court):

"Bill had served as an associate justice for fourteen years when President Reagan chose him, in 1986, to be the chief justice.  In the Senate, a substantial number of legislators opposed his confirmation because they regarded his opinions as reflecting insensitivity to civil rights issues.  That opposition overlooked the fact that the change in his status from an associate justice to chief justice would not give him any additional voting power.  Because of the senators' concentration on the qualifications of Rehnquist, they devoted relatively little attention to the far more important question of what kind of justice the new appointee, Antonin Scalia, would be.  He, of course, was exceptionally well qualified and would have been confirmed overwhelmingly even if he had been the center of attention.  Nonetheless, there is irony in the fact that the senators were far more interested in raising questions about Rehnquist than they were in questioning the new justice." (170)

Moreover, I was intrigued to see what Stevens thought of Justice Douglas--but there is very little material on him.  Of course, Justice Stevens replaced Justice Douglas, and it was noted in The Brethren that Douglas kept wanting to come to work.  Stevens does not have anything particularly mean to say about Douglas, though he doesn't have anything particularly nice to say, either.  There is one extremely chilling incident that I had never read about before:

"Chief Justice Stone's dissent in Girouard v. United States (1946) also arose out of an individual's conscientious objection to a governmental requirement [the previous paragraph discussed the Gobitis case, which involved mandatory flag salutes at school].  Although willing to take an oath of allegiance to the United States in order to become a citizen, Girouard was unable to swear that he would take up arms in support of the country.  The question was whether he could nevertheless qualify for citizenship.  In earlier cases presenting the same issue, Stone had joined dissents from decisions holding that the applicant could not qualify for citizenship without taking the required oath.  In the Girouard case, the majority decided to overrule those cases and adopt the views that Stone had previously endorsed.  Stone, however, thought that the legislative history of proposed amendments to the statute that Congress had refused to enact demonstrated that Congress had rejected his interpretation.  Although he still thought the law unwise, he believed he had a duty to accept what he understood to be the interpretation that Congress intended.
Stone planned to explains his views in an oral announcement of his dissent in open court, but while Justice Douglas was reading the majority opinion, Stone suffered his fatal cerebral hemorrhage." (35-36)

Stevens does, however, become very angry about certain opinions that were written.  He certainly makes clear that he did not appreciate a lot of Rehnquist's decisions, and he makes a stinging reference to Kennedy's opinion in Citizens United.  But he does not spare Justice Douglas.

At this point the review should shift into the "law school usefulness" test--and I think this book is probably more helpful than either The Nine or The Brethren on that score.  Because Stevens does not just supply background information on how certain cases were decided, but he whittles down incredible amounts of legalese and scholarly debate to give a law student a crisp explanation of an issue.  Most notable is his account Marbury v. Madison which still confuses me (I am not even sure what a "justice of the peace" is supposed to be)--and 1Ls taking Constitutional Law will benefit from the three or four paragraphs he takes to explain the significance of that case.

Also noteworthy are the extremely confusing cases of Myers v. United States (1926), Humphrey's Executor v. United States (1935) and Morrison v. Olson (1988).  Stevens describes these cases briefly and lucidly, and I wish I had this book at the time I was taking the course (the book was published in 2011, but I do not think it came out before April or May--and even if it did, I doubt that I would have sought it out).  I would have done much better than a B.

But to return to Douglas--Stevens clearly has antipathy for the majority opinion in Lochner, but he has a different view of Griswold v. Connecticut--there, he clearly agrees with the result, but for different reasons (and for reasons, which, I must admit, strike me as just as confusing in the critique he makes of Douglas):

"Earl Warren did not write an opinion in one of the most important cases decided during his tenure as chief justice--Griswold v. Connecticut (1965)--the case challenging the constitutionality of a Connecticut statute making the use of contraceptives a criminal offense.  He must, however, accept responsibility for assigning the majority opinion to Justice Douglas, who, unfortunately, crafted an imaginative rationale for reaching an obviously correct result.....Justice Douglas's opinion is now famous--or infamous--for its reliance on the proposition 'that specific guarantees in the Bill of Rights have penumbras, formed by emanations from those guarantees that help give them life and substance.'  In his view, the statute violated the 'penumbral rights of "privacy" and "repose"' that earlier cases had protected.  Presumably he avoided the straightforward reliance on substantive due process that Justices Harlan and White advocated because of his concern that construction of the word liberty that would be broader than the specific guarantees in the Bill of Rights would rejuvenate the universally despised decision in the Lochner case.  Unfairly, in my opinion, Justice Douglas interpreted, '[o]vertones of some arguments'--presumably those of the appellants challenging the Connecticut law--as suggesting that the Lochner case 'should be our guide.'  It would have been more accurate to describe those arguments as identifying a critical difference between Mr. Lochner's claimed right to freedom from regulation of his economic decisions and the kind of fundamental right that Justice Holmes identified in his Lochner dissent......(107-108)

Stevens becomes absolutely apoplectic when talking about Rehnquist's opinion in Seminole Tribe of Fla. v. Florida (1996)--he thinks Rehnquist is a great guy, but he does not like the way he adorned his robe with special stripes, and he thinks this decision is one of the worst ever!  It deals with the issue of sovereign immunity and is another topic in Constitutional Law that made me want to throw up.  Regardless, "[l]ike the gold stripes on his robes, Chief Justice Rehnquist's writing about sovereignty was ostentatious and more reflective of the ancient British monarchy than our modern republic.  I am hopeful that his writings in this area will not long be remembered." (197)

He has good things to say about Justice Jackson (who might be in my top 5 favorites) but he scolds him for leaving the court to serve as Lead American Prosecutor in the Nuremberg Trials.  I am quite surprised that Stevens believes this was such a great error.  Indeed, from what I have read, it seems as though Jackson benefited greatly from the experience, and learned more about the degree to which the United States was threatened by shades of totalitarianism.

One final word on Citizens United:  I mentioned before that I got a B in Con Law.  Well, that is only Con Law I and II--that is, Separation of Powers, Equal Protection Clause, Due Process Clause, Commerce Clause, etc.  First Amendment is Con Law III at our school and I am still awaiting my grade.  I am praying for a good one because I just got a C+ in Accounting for Lawyers--tied for my worst grade in law school.  So it is quite funny to see Stevens speaking of a "passing grade" in a similar context:

"It is easy to gloss over the difference between prohibitions against the expression of particular ideas--which fall squarely within the First Amendment's prohibition of 'rules abridging the freedom of speech'--and prohibitions of certain methods of expression that allow ample room for using other methods of expressing the same ideas.  The difference is much like the difference between speech itself and money that is used to finance speech.  Given the fact that most of his colleagues joined the chief in his funeral-speech opinion, perhaps I should give him a passing grade in First Amendment law.  But for reasons that it took me ninety pages to explain in my dissent in the Citizens United campaign finance case, his decision to join the majority in that case prevents me from doing so."  (221)

Another place where an exclamation point would not be appropriate--but another one of the best declarations in the book.

In the end, Justice Stevens is wary of offending his colleagues, and he puts it better than anyone else I have ever read or heard, when he mentions that, while it seems like they all hate each other in their opinions (indeed if one reads Heller v. United States (2008), it looks like Stevens and Scalia are about to go for each other's throats--but Stevens mentions in this book that he is actually very good friends with Scalia), a greater intelligence is at play:

"I have no memory of any member of the Court raising his or her voice during any conference over which I presided or showing any disrespect for a colleague during our discussions.  In his State of the Union address in 1976, President Ford eloquently referred to our country as a place where Americans can disagree without being disagreeable.  That comment accurately describes the Supreme Court where I worked.  It is a place where we not only could but regularly did disagree without being disagreeable."  (244)

In short, one could do far worse than following the example provided by Justice Stevens, and Five Chiefs (like The Prince) may be considered a sort of  "how-to" manual: how to be a great jurist, and a great person too.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Slapstick - Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

In Palm Sunday (1981), Kurt Vonnegut gives each of his previous books a grade.  These are the results (books I have read will be marked with an asterisk; books I have reviewed on Flying Houses will be marked with a double-asterisk):

Player Piano: B
The Sirens of Titan: A*
Mother Night: A*
Cat's Cradle: A+*
God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater: A*
Slaughterhouse-Five: A+*
Welcome to the Monkey House: B-*
Happy Birthday, Wanda June: D
Breakfast of Champions: C**
Slapstick: D**
Jailbird: A
Palm Sunday: C*

Slapstick (1976) thus appeared to me to be a waste of time, something I would put off until after reading all the other Vonnegut novels.  (I still have a lot to go, and a lot to re-read to be posted on this blog).     Over Thanksgiving break, I saw a copy of the book on the kitchen counter-top in my parent's house.  I asked my mom who was reading it and she said she had come upon it at the dump and felt that I might be interested in it.

None of this sounds very reassuring, I am sure, but I have to say that Vonnegut was unduly harsh on himself in his grading of this novel.  While it does not rise to the heights of Cat's Cradle or Slaughterhouse-Five, it bears a certain resemblance to God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, is probably more entertaining than Mother Night (though I would have to concede that book to be much stronger overall), and may be nearly as strong as Sirens of Titan (though some people may want to hang me for making that statement).  The bottom line is that, just as Vonnegut is too harsh on himself with Breakfast of Champions (which undoubtedly deserves at least a B+ if not an A-), so too does Slapstick deserve a higher grade (B+).

I am not sure why people would forget about this book more than the others.  It is typical post-Breakfast of Champions Vonnegut, where he seemed to dismiss the idea that he should attempt to write "serious" books, while concurrently writing on a more subversive level that was more reactionary to the contemporaneous political regime.  And yet Slapstick, despite its title and moments of sheer ridiculousness, is a very serious book in terms of pinpointing the problem of all government: the idea of "extended families," out beyond the "nuclear family" or the "immediate family."

The story concerns two twins who are grotesque and tall and ultra-intelligent.  But they seem to become stupider when they are kept apart from one another.  They have some sort of telepathic connection in their sinuses.  This makes the book sound strange.

But early on they make several discoveries about the world, and one of them was quite enjoyable for me, as I was studying for my exam on the First Amendment (Constitutional Law III) at the time of reading:

"Yes, and Eliza and I composed a precocious critique of the Constitution of the United States of America, too.  We argued that it was as good a scheme for misery as any, since its success in keeping the common people reasonably happy and proud depended on the strength of the people themselves--and yet it described no practical machinery which would tend to make the people, as opposed to their elected representatives, strong.
We said it was possible that the framers of the Constitution were blind to the beauty of persons who were without great wealth or powerful friends or public office, but who were nonetheless genuinely strong.
We thought it was more likely, though, that the framers had not noticed that it was natural, and therefore almost inevitable, that human beings in extraordinary and enduring situations should think of themselves as composing new families.  Eliza and I pointed out that this happened no less in democracies than in tyrannies, since human beings were the same the wide world over, and civilized only yesterday.
Elected representatives, hence, could be expected to become members of the famous and powerful families of elected representatives--which would, perfectly naturally, make them wary and squeamish and stingy with respect to all the other sorts of families which, again, perfectly naturally, subdivided mankind.
Eliza and I, thinking as halves of a single genius, proposed that the Constitution be amended so as to guarantee that every citizen, no matter how humble or crazy or incompetent or deformed, somehow be given membership in some family as covertly xenophobic and crafty as the one their public servants formed.
Good for Eliza and me!" (57-58)

The book details Eliza's and Wilbur's (the narrator) upbringing.  They are sheltered and locked away, they behave like idiots, and they secretly learn Greek and Latin and read every book in the family library.  There is also a fair amount of incest, which is a bit disturbing, but mitigated by the fact that the plot of this book is almost entirely absurd.

Wilbur is 100 years old as the novel begins in medias res and living in Turtle Bay in Manhattan.  Manhattan is referred to as the "Island of Death," or "Skyscraper National Park."  Gravity (and the Albanian flu) has destroyed a large majority of the human population on Earth, and the Chinese have figured out a way to shrink themselves beyond all possible human proportions.  Wilbur is President of the United States of America at one point, and runs his campaign on the slogan "Lonesome No More!"  It is based upon the idea of giving everyone new middle names, and it seems rather nice in theory:

'I spoke of American loneliness.  It was the only subject I needed for victory, which was lucky.  It was the only subject I had.
It was a shame, I said, that I had not come along earlier in American history with my simple and workable anti-loneliness plan.  I said that all the damaging excesses of Americans in the past were motivated by loneliness rather than a fondness for sin.
An old man crawled up to me afterwards and told me how he used to buy life insurance and mutual funds and household appliances and automobiles and so on, not because he liked them or needed them, but because the salesman seemed to promise to be his relative, and so on.  
'I had no relatives and I needed relatives,' he said.
'Everybody does,' I said.
He told me that he had been drunk for a while, trying to make relatives out of people in bars.  'The bartender would be kind of a father, you know--' he said.  'And then all of a sudden it was closing time.'
'I know,' I said.  I told him a half-truth about myself which had proved to be popular on the campaign trail.  'I used to be so lonesome,' I said, 'that the only person I could share my innermost thoughts with was a horse named "Budweiser".'
And I told how Budweiser had died." (183-184)

It is also funny when another faction springs up:

"Was there no substantial opposition to the new social scheme?  Why, of course there was.  And, as Eliza and I had predicted, my enemies were so angered by the idea of artificial extended families that they constituted a polyglot artificial extended family of their own.  
They had campaign buttons, too, which they went on wearing long after I was elected.  It was inevitable what those buttons said, to wit: 
[Picture of a button that reads, 'Lonesome Thank God!']" (197)

There are moments in this book of total absurdity and also moments of deep profundity.  I can sort of understand why Vonnegut might have given himself a "D" (sometimes the book seemed "padded" in some way), but it is of fairly substantial length, and--typical for Vonnegut--able to be read in a day or two.  

The small moments of profundity definitely make this book worth reading.  One of them comes near the end:

"I was impressed.  I realized that nations could never acknowledge their own wars as tragedies, but that families not only could, but had to.
Bully for them!" (244)

The science fiction elements of Vonnegut novels are not always believable, but sometimes they are at least plausible.  As usual, his imagination is driving at full speed, and it makes for a solidly entertaining read.  I certainly recommend this book--with the caveat that there are perhaps a dozen Vonnegut novels I would recommend be read before it.  

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Palo Alto - James Franco

I sat on his couch and he went over to his writing desk.  He opened a drawer and pulled out a few pieces of paper. 
                “This is the first story I want to publish,” he said to me, “Think it will be easy?”
                “Because you’re already famous?”
                “Read it.  Give me your honest opinion.”
                I read it, and I liked it.  It reminded me of a few stories I had read by Richard Lange.  The protagonist was suicidal, so that was one point in its favor.  There were hints of aberrant sexuality, so that was two points.  There was a fair amount of drug use in it, so three points.  I finished it, and looked over at him, who was hunched over his coffee table, breaking up weed to put into a bong. 
                “What’s your diagnosis?”
                “I think you’ll be able to publish it.  Everyone is going to think you’re a doofus, but if they read the story it will shut them up.  I think you have the potential to be one of the most singular artists of our generation.”
                “I’m not trying to monopolize all of the entertainment mediums; I just want to improve my writing skills.  I also want more people to read literary fiction.  I think my fans already are readers—but if I can get just a few more people reading—maybe my books could snowball into others—and I could help to end this massive ignorance threatening to destroy our world.”   
                “I just want to write because it’s fun,” I said.  “I don’t expect to change the world.”
                “Bono wants to change the world,” he said.
                “Are you like Bono?”
                “I’m not bigger than Bono, but I do aspire to raise my cultural cache to his level.”
                “And that involves ending hunger, war, poverty, environmental destruction?”
                “If you have the ability to make good things like that happen, why wouldn’t you?”
                “He doesn’t have the ability,” I said, “And neither will you, and neither will I.  Obama doesn’t even have it.  Nobody can save the world now.  Apple owns the world.  Digital cable companies own the world.  Maybe Verizon owns part of the world.  The only way the world could be saved would be the disappearance of these products.”
                “I think you’re going a little overboard,” he said as he handed me the bong.  I hit it.  He did the same and then he asked me:
                “What was your favorite part of the story?”
                Random question.
                “When the guy says, ‘don’t you ever get jealous of those girls in pornos in the middle of all those dicks?’  So hilarious.” 
                He laughed, and after a beat promulgated, “That was kind of when I realized how much more freedom there is in literature.  I mean, this could be adapted into a short film, it could, but most movies don’t have dialogue like that.  I don’t like how movies make everything seem cooler and easier—I want to represent reality in its fullness.”
                “You know, I have the exact same goal.”
                “Can we stop talking about work for a second?  It’s making me nervous.” 
-"Storyteller," Part II, Chapter 5 

This is an excerpt from my third novel, which I could not complete before starting law school.  I am looking forward to returning to it in about 9 months but I am afraid it will no longer be so topical.  I felt it was useful to include this in my review of Palo Alto because it pretty much sums up the way I felt about it--that is, the way I thought I would feel about it back in April of 2010, and it was published in October 2010.

The story referenced above is "Jack-O,'" which is the final story in the collection.  This was published in Esquire in March of 2010 and it was titled "Just Before the Black" back then.  It may serve as a barometer of the general quality of all of the stories in Palo Alto: it is "pretty good."  

I stop short of calling it "excellent" for several reasons.  My primary complaint with the collection is that the narrator in (almost) every single story is affirmatively dumb.  Or, if not dumb, at least stupid or irrational in some really obvious way.  Now this is to be expected, as Franco's subject matter is, generally, adolescence. Perhaps the narrator in "Lockheed," a girl who does not like math but who is very good at math because her father tells her to be, is the most intelligent.  She works at Lockheed Martin for a summer internship and her job sounds exactly like the type of thing that high school interns would do:

"My job was to watch old film reels of the moon.  There were hundreds.  I worked in a cold, windowless basement.  The reels would run from one spool to another on this old machine that looked like a tank.  I was supposed to record blemishes and splices in the film.  Sometimes the moon was full; sometimes it would get a little more full as I watched.  Sometimes the film was scratched so badly it skipped, or it broke.  I was in the basement forty hours a week.  I watched so many moons."  (15)

She starts to get bored and starts drawing while she does her moon studies at Lockheed.  She works for a man named Jan, and he notices that she has been making some drawings, but does not seem to care.  Later, he offers her an anecdote that is probably one of the better pieces of "advice" in the book:

"'I did these when I was at school,' he said.  'I wanted to be artist.  But it was no good.  It is no good to be artist.  I practiced every day, eight hours a day.  Then I could draw like Michelangelo.  Then what?  There is already Michelangelo.  I realized there was nothing more to do.  In science, there is always more to learn.  Always more.'
I didn't look at him; I looked at his pictures.  I felt very lonely.  I pictured him and his wife, alone at a long table, eating some bland Swedish food, not talking.  The only sounds were from the utensils hitting the plates, and the squish of their gentle chewing.
'So, he said, 'You see.'  He reached over and shut the portfolio to punctuate the 'You see,' but I didn't know what to see.  Then I looked at him.  He stood there and looked at me.  We were so awkward."  (16-17)

Later she witnesses some kind of fight at a party at a kid's house in Menlo Park.  The fight is the "climax" of the story, and is fairly well-done.  "Lockheed" is thus one of the better stories in the collection.

But if forced to pick the absolute best, I would have to say that "April" a 3-part story that is 33 pages long, is the best in the collection.  "I Could Kill Someone," while suffering from perhaps the worst title in the book, comes next in terms of quality (I know it can be hard to give good titles to things and so I am forgiving when it comes to that aspect of creative writing).  Finally, "Chinatown," another 3-part story, though only 16 pages long, fills out the top three in the collection (a mon avis, bien sur).

If you add up the content of those stories (and include "Lockheed") then it is about 85 pages and the book is 195 pages long.  So that is another reason I say the book is "pretty good" (if 170 pages were of this quality it would be "excellent").  But it is very important to point out that I read this entire book in one day.  And it is also striking that I took it out from the Brooklyn Public Library (the day I got my card) along with The Rules of Attraction by Bret Easton Ellis, another book I similarly read quickly on an airplane trip (that one from NYC to Paris; this one from NYC to Denver).  

There is a very strong connection between these two books, and it is almost as if Franco's characters are the same as in The Rules of Attraction--just a few years younger, a little bit dumber, and generally from poorer families (Palo Alto does not equal Beverly Hills, or the other rich suburban L.A. upbringings of Easton's characters).  

In fact, one of the "praise" quotes on the back spells this out further--Ben Marcus wrote, "Think Bret Easton Ellis, Dennis Cooper, Kathy Acker.  Or better yet, just think James Franco."

I will admit that I once purchased Ash Wednesday by Ethan Hawke (at the Printer's Row Book Fair in Chicago at a discount) and would like to use a line that my younger brother suggested, but I cannot.  Without having read that book, though I would say Ethan Hawke is, myyyyyyyyyyyyyyy second favorite fiction writer-cum-actor.

A couple quotes before ending this review seem fitting, or else people may still continue to write off this "second career" as an exercise in pure dilettantism.  It is important to note at this time, when the debate on "school violence" is peaking, that Franco seems to hit at the very core of the problem in more than one story.  While I have previously suggested that the Internet is to blame for every ill that has felled our society over the past dozen or so years, Franco's story takes place in the pre-Internet era.  And while I certainly appreciate the references to Street Fighter II, The Legend of Zelda, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, "gangster rap," Menace 2 Society and Boys in the Hood, and other influential artifacts of the 80s-90s, Franco shows that my explanation is far too simple-minded to be taken seriously:

"This is Brent's joke: 'What's the difference between a faggot and shit?' I didn't know the answer.  'Nothing, you fucking faggot.'  He told that joke one time, and then kicked my foot to trip me into dog shit on the quad lawn.  I didn't fall, but everyone thought it was funny.  
Brent says I'm a faggot because I quit the football team freshman year.  I asked him about it and that's when we had our first little scene.  
'You think I'm a fag because I quit the team?' I said.
He stopped.  He had his usual black San Diego Chargers hat on backward.  His long face looked suprised, and the one stoned-looking eye opened a little bit more.
'You are a fucking fag,' he said.  He looked like he was getting a little emotional about it.  I could see it in his retarded eyes.
'Why do you think that?' I said, and my voice trembled.
'I don't think it, you are!'  Then he walked off.  It's weird, but I think it's because he was going to cry.  After that he always called me a faggot."

"After the locker room I decided that Brent needed to die.  He was never going to get smarter, and he was a bigot.  And I couldn't stop thinking about his acne-corroded flesh being opened, and his thin racist blood matting the hair of his beastly body.
I was standing over near the underpass next to the school where people smoked.  Some people called it the Bat Cave.  
'You really want one?' said Barry.  Barry was my friend.  He was chubby and lovable, and Mormon, and smoked pot and loved John Bonham.
'Yes,' I said.  'I want one.'
I wanted a gun.
Barry couldn't get me one, but he knew a guy who could." (170-171)

The story does not have a happy ending or a sad one, and fails to provide any easy answers.  But it is clear that the stupidity of teenagers--going both ways in terms of typical bigotry and the other in terms of intellectual snobbery--is a serious problem that is not easily solved, though the increased awareness of the devastating effects of bullying and the passage of criminal laws on the matter have been steps in the right direction.  

There is still, however, the problem of simply "giving up" and taking others down with you:

"'What do you think about that suicide?' I said.
'I think the parents made him do it,' said Teddy.
'He was Asian,' said Ivan.  He was on the other side of Teddy and I couldn't see him.
'What does that mean?' I said.
'That they worked his ass like crazy and pressured the shit out of him.'
'Do you think it hurt?' I said.
'For a second,' said Teddy.  'But if it's all going to be over anyway, then why does it matter?  Pain only matters if it's prolonged.'  Ivan was sucking long on the joint, then he said, 'If I was going to kill myself, I wouldn't waste it.  I would do a bunch of crazy shit first.  Maybe kill some people I didn't like and take 'em with me.' 
We all thought about that.  Then I said, 'Wouldn't it be better to do a bunch of crazy good things before you died instead of killing people?'
'Like what?' said Teddy.
'I don't know.  Give your life to save a bunch of kids or something.'
'But that's what you're supposed to do every day, not if you're suicidal,' he said.  'If you're suicidal you're probably only thinking of yourself.'
I drank the syrupy alcohol.  
'I try to be good,' I said.
'Me too,' said Teddy.
'Fuck good people,' said Ivan, and we laughed.  
We finished the joint and I gave them both cigarettes.  The stars were dots between the branches.  On the other side of Teddy, Ivan started carving in the tree with a knife.  He carved SUICIDE RULZ.  Teddy was next and wrote FUCK GUNN.  They told me I had to write something.  
'I feel bad, the tree is so old.'
'Fuck you, said Ivan. 'Do it.'
I drew a heart.  It was hard to make it round because of the bark, so it was jagged on one side." (137-138)

In summary, I have to say that this book is "pretty good"--but maybe even a little better than that.  Though it was not "excellent" and I am not going to run around telling everybody that Franco is the greatest living American artist in his prime, I do have to say that he is certainly one of the most interesting.  And I am very happy that our works seems to coalesce.  The quotation above from my incomplete third novel, and the tangent that the novel goes on, were not made without considered judgment.  Palo Alto is a collection of "linked" short stories that could be a novel if it wanted to be--not unlike my first novel.  It has taught me that my first novel is not a total failure, but could be much more "digestible" if converted into something of a similar product.  My second novel basically deals with the same themes as Palo Alto and attempts to portray the same "period" of psychological development.  Moreover this book is a paean to the community in which he was raised, as is S/M.  And the third novel posits the life I might have led if I had gotten into the MFA program at Columbia and entered in the Fall of 2007, when it was certainly possible that Franco could have been my classmate (or friend).  

I hope that he continues to write because it is important for people to realize that subjective human experiences are not always best told through the objective lens of a camera.  It is also clear that Franco has a  very good sense of humor about himself, which is important in an undertaking such as this:

"'Picasso started off painting in a classical style, but it was only after he had mastered the masters that he broke tradition and became Picasso.  He knew he had all the skill of Raphael at age sixteen, but that wasn't enough.  Technical skill is never enough.  He needed to find his voice.  We all have a voice or a style, but it takes practice, practice to find it.  The technical stuff needs to become second nature.'  Everyone agreed with this part too.  Wilson said quietly to me, 'You remind me of Sylvester Stallone.'  I stopped drawing.  Wilson went on: 'I used to go to art classes with him.  He was always trying to break away from classical form.' 
One of the ladies spoke up.  'Sylvester Stallone, the actor?'
'That's right.  He's a huge art enthusiast and not a bad artist either.'  Everyone was surprised and talked about it for a bit.  Someone said that underneath all that muscle he was actually a really intelligent guy.  'He did write Rocky, after all.'" (122-123)

Stallone did receive his BFA from the University of Miami in 1999, but this excerpt may be apocryphal.  Regardless, Franco's enthusiasm for literature is not likely to be questioned by anyone.  Though I would not be surprised if I am in the minority in my praise of this work.  I judge it according to the standards of my former classmates in creative writing classes.  If one of them had submitted such materials, I would have put them in the class of the top three or four (among the 70 or 80 total) that deserved to have their work published.  Unfortunately, not all of us have the advantage of taking classes taught by Amy Hempel, Michael Cunningham, Gary Shteyngart, Jonathan Lethem, or Dave Eggers.  Or Joyce Carol Oates for that matter....   

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Brethren - Bob Woodward & Scott Armstrong

"Justice Brennan, 
take out some insurance on me, baby, baby
it's just the i'm busted and dripping, 
my sorry lungs are all leaking, 
it's all over, it's all over i said, 
the last fair deal going down. 
you let your gown to the ground, 
but i'm not waiting around until the kiss-off. 
wasn't it you who said yeah you can shoot me lightly, 
but ask me to be excused, i won't go die politely
anytime that you want you can shoot me lightly,
but ask me to be excused, i won't go die politely. 
justice brennan, i know it's not your fault,
no baby no baby. 
it's just that you're busted and dripping, 
your sorry lungs are all leaking, 
it's not over, it's not over, i said. 
here comes the kiss-off."

-Fugazi, "Dear Justice Letter" 

This song was written at the end of the Supreme Court term in 1990, after Justice Brennan retired.  He had served more than 33 years on the Court, and was 84 years old at the time of his retirement.  He died seven years later.  It would be quite uncharitable for Fugazi to claim that Brennan quit too early, and indeed I do not think that is the point of this song.  Rather it appears to be a lamentation of the reality that the Court now had replaced Brennan, one of the strongest liberals in the history of the Court, with Souter.  Now Souter was somewhat unpredictable--but President Bush appointed him on the theory that he would be a "good right-wing vote."  Clearly this was not the result in many cases, but the Court appeared to be deprived of all its hard-line liberals: only Thurgood Marshall was left.  Harry Blackmun had skewed liberal as time progressed, and John Paul Stevens was essentially liberal, but by no means a "solid vote" for that side every time.  Sandra Day O'Connor was, like Souter, a Republican in name but perhaps the most ideological "centrist" on the Court.  While some of this may be interesting to general readers, this post is not intended as political commentary.  It is a review of The Brethren, which concerns a different Court--the Warren Burger Court from the 1969 through 1975 terms.  Now, I am studying for my First Amendment Law exam on Wednesday and some may view this review as a waste of precious studying time, so I hope you will forgive me if I skew heavily in favor of First Amendment cases so that, when I return this book to the library, I will at least have this post as a sort of "back-up file."

The first and most obvious thing to mention about this book is that it is written by 1/2 of the notorious duo responsible for All the President's Men, as well as for breaking the Watergate Scandal story in The Washington Post.  And it is quite wonderful that Bob Woodward has stayed active in the arena of political reportage.  It is always interesting to see what he has to say.  I must concede that I read All the President's Men when I was a senior in high school, for a course in journalism, and that I was unable to appreciate most of the action that took place during those tense months in Washington.  I must also concede that I am a huge fan of the film Nixon and that I am still somewhat mystified by the extraordinary distaste that the vast majority of American society has for that former President.  Indeed it appears to me that he had no reason to lose the 1972 election, had no reason to "cheat," and was simply a rather insecure candidate who was poorly advised. Frost/Nixon paints quite a different portrait of the man than the Oliver Stone biopic does.  But again, we must address the book at hand, not a political situation.

This connection between these two books is significant, however, because Woodward & Armstrong express rather uncharitable views on Warren Burger.  They glorify Earl Warren as a hero, and indeed so does almost everyone I have ever heard utter his name.  By all accounts, he was perhaps the greatest Chief Justice in the history of the United States Supreme Court.  And after reading The Brethren, most readers would be easily inclined to view Warren Burger as the worst Chief Justice in the history of the Court.  The irony is not lost on others, either, of their progression: Earl Warren - Warren Burger.

The Introduction to this book states that "[m]ost of the information in this book is based on interviews with more than two hundred people, including several Justices, more than 170 former law clerks, and several dozen former employees of the Court.  Chief Justice Warren E. Burger declined to assist us in any way." (3) They go on to state that they only make characterizations of the Justices after having several individuals from each chambers confirm that a particular view was generally held.  But the most striking thing about this book is the body blow it deals to Burger.  

Burger is absolutely torn apart nearly every single time he is mentioned.  While the events of this book may be accurate, they are certainly shocking.  And I have to believe that some of the statements are somewhat incredible.  There is one in particular that I recall being quite ridiculous (actually taken from the Memoirs of Richard Nixon):

"'Speaking in the greatest confidence, Mr. Chief Justice,' Nixon replied, 'I am realistic enough to know that if this operation [the U.S. Military incursion into Cambodia] doesn't succeed--or if anything else happens that forces my public support below a point where I feel I can't be reelected--I would like you to be ready to be in the running for the nomination in 1972."  (79)

Now perhaps this statement is in fact true, but one needs to point out the obvious: it is way better to be a Supreme Court Justice than a President!  I do not understand why millions of children across this nation are told by their parents that, "You can do anything--you could even be President of the United States one day!"  Now true, the President is ultimately the #1 most public figure in the Nation and the most powerful standing alone, but it just goes to show the irrationality of people.  It is an incredibly difficult job where you are subject to personal attacks and probably go gray and age much faster than normal people do.  You are in the limelight.  You get to live in the White House, and that is cool, but you also have to do all of these press conferences and take responsibility for all of the actions of government--some of which you have absolutely nothing to do with whatsoever.  Plus, the longest you can stay in the job is 8 years.  Afterwards of course, you are regarded as a celebrity.  But look at every President since JFK:
JFK = beloved, and assassinated.  
LBJ = did not seek second term, widely reviled.  
Richard M. Nixon = resigned.  
Gerald Ford = not viewed all that charitably, mostly remembered for his wife Betty.
Jimmy Carter = sometimes regarded as one of the "weakest" Presidents in history.  
Ronald Reagan = remembered for economic deregulation and Iran Contra Scandal, even blamed for 2008 Financial Collapse.  
George H.R. Bush = did not get elected for a second term (though history has been pretty kind to him, I must say). 
Bill Clinton = Impeached, and though fondly remembered, one cannot forget the rank arrogance of carrying on an affair while in that post--though I do credit him for opening up (later) and being honest.
George W. Bush = Often called the worst President in history while he was in office for 8 years, always mocked for his stupidity.
Barack Obama = a real triumph for America as the first black President, but always questioned about his citizenship, and bashed to all hell regarding his solution to the 2008 Financial Collapse.

By contrast you have the Chiefs since then:
Earl Warren = beloved by every account.
Warren Burger = A question mark, but for the extreme criticism in The Brethren.
William Rehnquist = Another question mark, but for some criticism in The Brethren and The Nine.
John Roberts = Did not receive the blame for Citizens United (Anthony Kennedy did), got some glory for the Affordable Care Act decision, stumbled through Obama's first inauguration--too early to tell--may serve as Chief until 2035 or later.

I think it is quite clear that it is way better to be a Supreme Court Justice than a President, and had Burger actually tried to run for President, it would have been a horrible career decision.  My point is that more parents should impress upon their children that "one day, they could even be a Supreme Court Justice!" --NOT the President!  

Moving on, I do not want to discuss how much this book disses Justice Burger, but I do want to talk about my favorite Justice in it: Justice Douglas.

Justice Douglas (along with Brennan, it must be admitted) is one of the greatest Justices in history.  He joined the Court in 1939 as the replacement for one of the other greatest Justices in history (Louis Brandeis) and he served until 1975.  He currently holds the record for the longest tenure of anyone.  He was an environmentalist before it became fashionable, loved the national parks, and most controversially was married four times (the last two being in his 60s to girls in their early 20's).  Whenever his name appears in The Brethren it is almost always automatically amusing.  One is struck by his powerful beliefs and unflinching views.  It's quite possible that he was the most hardcore liberal that has ever been on the Court (and thus comprised a powerful troika with Brennan and Marshall).  On the subject of courtroom decorum in a case involving a Vietnam War protest outside the Supreme Court building, Woodward & Armstrong reported:

"Douglas intended no delay.  He prided himself on being the fastest writer on the Court.  He often turned out an opinion the day after an assignment; his separate opinions were ready weeks, if not months, before the majority opinions.  His clerks often called these 'plane-trip specials,' because they were written after the Friday conference on an airplane, as Douglas traveled to some speaking engagement.  At times he mailed longhand drafts back to the Court, so that they could be printed and ready for revision upon his return.  The other Justices all acknowledged Douglas's brilliance and incredible productivity, White called him a 'paper factory.'  Douglas was so prolific that once when former Justice Charles E. Whittaker was unable to draft a majority opinion, Douglas finished his dissent and then wrote Whittaker's majority for him.
But the others also had come to wonder if Douglas's opinions--often disorganized treatises on sociology rather than the law--did not sometimes fall victim to his unrelenting pace and curiosity.  Declaring 'there will be no errors in my opinions,' Douglas, just the same, refused to allow his clerks to edit them." (63)

While we are on the subject of Douglas and his clerks, it bears mention that he often treated them poorly, which is quite amusing.  His clerks for the 1972-1973 term--Janet Meik and Carol Bruch--were eviscerated by him.  The book explains that Douglas's abuses of his clerks were "legendary":

"The following term [1969-1970], Douglas told one of his two clerks that he would be fired except for the fact that he was a nice boy and that he was so incompetent that he would not be able to get another job.  'I can get better legal advice from drunks in the gutter,' Douglas said."  (241)

Bruch in particular takes a lot of abuse from Douglas.  "'If you're in over your head, you can leave and I'll get someone else,' he said, hanging up in a fury." (Id.) After he wrote a cryptic note on one case that appeared to ask her to apply an area of the law that had nothing to do with the case, she said to him, "'Excuse me, Mr. Justice, I've been looking at this note and I'm afraid I don't understand it.'  
'I'm not running a damn law school,' he barked." (242) 

Later, I personally think she makes a huge mistake when she leaves him a note that says, "I'm very sorry I made a mistake on this case.  I'm sure there will be other times this year when I will make other mistakes.  However, I've found that civility in professional relationships is most conducive to improved relationships.  You can afford to be basically polite to me."  (Id.)  Later in the week, he says to her, "I gather that you think I'm not civil.  Nothing that I ever say is personal.  This is the rough-and-tumble of the law as practiced in courtrooms daily.  If my law clerks can't take it, I don't want them." (Id.)  Then she responds, "I don't need unnecessary sarcasm, Mr. Justice."  (Id.)

Their relationship further deteriorates and he begins ignoring her.  I will stop writing so much about Douglas now but I must mention the way the clerks are portrayed in this book.

They are portrayed as the "real writers" of the opinions--particularly of Marshall's.  And I often find the characterizations of them annoying and immature.  I am particularly upset that such clerks find their way into this position.  These are people that generally go to the top law schools and then seem to walk around the place like they own it.  If I were so lucky as to even be considered for a position such as that,  I would always tread cautiously--and never talk back to Douglas!  I realize things were different in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but the recent law grads of those days act more like the recent college grads of today.  Particularly lame is when they form a choir for a holiday party and sing a song about how Nixon appoints new Justices.  I cannot say anything more on the subject.

Brennan deserves to have more of a place in this post than I am giving him, but I have grown tired of thinking about this book as a whole.  It is simply worth noting that Brennan emerges as the most powerful member of the Court, and the angriest.  While Douglas's retirement would be worth noting (as would Justice Black's) I simply do not want to spoil those for the reader, as they are some of the most incredible and moving scenes in the book.  Brennan, however, remains and there has probably not been anyone as liberal as him on the Court since his retirement.  One could say that Justice Ginsburg, or perhaps Sotomayor or Kagan, approach him, but it is too early to tell for the latter two.  Justice Stevens appears at the end of the book as Douglas's replacement and is referred to as the "wild card." While I still consider Stevens to be one of my favorites of all time (indeed the one person living that I would most like to have dinner with, if I could) and was always quick to point out that he was the only one on the Court in the 2000s not to go to Harvard or Yale--I was somewhat dismayed to find that he graduated #1 in his class (from Northwestern).  Clearly, no one from Brooklyn Law School will be appointed to the Court anytime soon (except for maybe a faculty member that taught here).  

It is somewhat ironic that the book considers Brennan something of a "mouthpiece" for Marshall.  "Marshall parroted Brennan," (442) according to the unattributed thoughts of Justice Stevens, which is one of the more confusing literary techniques Woodward & Armstrong use.  It has been suggested that Brennan was something of a "reverse-Scalia" -- extremely vocal and angry -- but super liberal rather than super conservative.  And the irony appears when Marshall is replaced by Thomas, who often dispelled accusations of being Scalia's "parrot."  It's a perfect example of the moment the Court changed--not when Brennan retired, but when Marshall retired.  It hasn't really been the same since, and some people wonder whether the composition of the Court will change in the next four years.  It seems doubtful that Scalia or Kennedy would be willing to retire before 2016, but I would not be all the surprised if Ginsburg retired during Obama's next term.  There will be a very interesting same-sex marriage case next year, and though I didn't mention this above, one of the more amusing aspects of The Brethren is the way that the Justices simply do not want to retire because they love their job too much.  Once you're in, unless you have a nervous breakdown and just can't take it or have some sort of scandal (both of which are mentioned in this book), they'll probably need to wheel you out.  

The Brethren, like The Nine (reviewed here is quality reading, particularly for law students.  I would say that it is a more entertaining book than The Nine and they are pretty similar in length.  The Nine is just denser, and deals much more heavily in the appointment process, as well as the Bush v. Gore decision.  The Brethren, predictably, deals heavily in the Nixon v. United States decision--but it also discusses the voting strategies of far more cases, and is thus more revealing (if not useless) to the law student who happens to be studying them.  However, The Nine is much more "respectful" to the Justices whereas this book treats the Justices more like "human beings" or "mere mortals."  This is a nice perspective to have, but I can't help but feel that this book, more than The Nine, makes the Court appear more petulant and politically-interested than interested in applying a coherent body of law.  Regardless, it is a great book, and I am very glad it was written.  The only thing that remains to be made is a Ken Burns documentary on the Supreme Court.  That would be awesome.  


This is for purposes of studying for the First Amendment Law.  It will mention every case that we have studied in the particular section of our course that is mentioned in this book.  Caution: there is a lot about the obscenity cases in this book so I will do my best to keep the passages limited to the essentials.

Gooding v. Wilson (1972) (this is nothing substantive: just an example of Burger's case assignment mischief...)
"In another case, the Chief had assigned a case in which he and Blackmun were a two-vote minority.  Douglas, as the senior justice in the majority, had already assigned this case at conference to Brennan."  (170)
[Note: Brennan actually did end up delivering this opinion--Burger dissented, stating that, "It is not merely odd, it is nothing less than remarkable that a court can find a state statute void on its face, not because of its language--which is the traditional test--but because of the way courts of that State have applied the [fighting words] statute in a few isolated cases, decided as long as 1905 and generally long before this Court's decision."]
[When Rehnquist and Powell join the Court after Black and Harlan retire, the case emerges again]:
"One 4-3 case involved an antiwar demonstrator who had cursed at a policeman (Gooding v. Wilson).  The Chief said it should be re-argued.  
Douglas was sure the vote had been 5 to 2.  'Who was the third vote to reverse?' he asked.
'White,' the Chief replied.
His jaw jutting out, White stared at the Chief.  No, he was with the majority, he stated.  The issue of reargument was finally dropped."  (177)

Roth v. United States (1957)
"The Court's sin, Douglas felt, had been to make obscenity an exception to the First Amendment in the first place.  And the original sinner, the father of obscenity law, the author of the first Court opinion that had attempted a definition, was Bill Brennan.  In a 1957 case (Roth v. United States), Brennan had written an opinion holding that there was one category of expression, obscenity, that was not speech, and thus was not protected by the First Amendment and could properly be banned." (194-195)

"Douglas knew that Brennan had developed his definitions to protect serious literary works--James Joyce's Ulysses, William Faulkner's Sanctuary, Erskine Caldwell's God's Little Acre--from overzealous prosecutors and judges.  Under Brennan's definition, material was obscene if, to 'the average person, applying contemporary community standards, the dominant theme of the material taken as a whole appeals to the prurient interest.'  But lower courts continued to ban material Brennan thought was obviously not obscene.  For a plurality, in a 1966 opinion (Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure [Fanny Hill] v. Massachusetts), Brennan had next tried a formulation holding that material had to be 'utterly without redeeming social value' before it could be banned.  This placed the burden on prosecutors to prove that nothing in a work redeemed it.  Pornographers then took to citing medical reports or throwing in lines from Shakespeare to protect the product." (195) 

Stanley v. Georgia (1969)
"In Douglas's view, these efforts by the Court to define obscenity were absurd.  The only remotely rational development, he felt, had occurred in a 1969 case (Stanley v. Georgia) when Marshall had said obscenity was largely a personal privacy question.  He had written, 'If the First Amendment means anything, it means that a state has no business telling a man, sitting alone in his own house, what books he may read or what films he must watch.' 
As defense lawyers attempted to expand the logic of Stanley, hundreds of cases began working their way up the Court.  If there was a constitutional right to possess obscene material in one's home, then there was a right to buy it.  If there was a right to buy it, there was a right to sell it.  If there was a right to sell it, there was a right to distribute it.  If there was a right to distribute it, there there must be a constitutional right to write, photograph or film it.  Or so their logic went.
If the privacy logic could be extended all the way, the lawyers argued, the distinction between obscene and not obscene would become largely irrelevant.  There would be no need to define obscenity as long as people had the right to see and read what they wished.  But Brennan had dissented from Stanley, and during the previous two terms had refused to provide the liberals a crucial fifth to extend the logic.  Now, with White shifting and two new Nixon Justices taking their seats, Douglas feared that a majority modify Brennan's old definitions and declare a war on pornography--and soon on free speech."  (195-196)

Miller v. California (1973) -- Decision to pass over to the next term
"The Chief could hardly wait for three obscenity cases that were to be among the first argued to the full nine-man Court.  He considered it fortunate that the Warren Court liberals had never gotten five votes to agree on a definition; that would have settled the law.  Their lack of agreement gave him an opportunity to leave his mark in an area of the law on which the Court had been stumbling for fourteen years.  There had to be a way to suppress pornography and still protect free speech, he felt.
The January 21 conference, with Powell and Rehnquist now in attendance, was a test of endurance.  By the time the Justices got to the three obscenity cases, their energies had measurably faded.  The first case (Miller v. California) was the most difficult, in that it raised questions about the definition of obscenity.  The conference put it aside and turned to two cases that involved extending the Stanley privacy decision (* U.S. v. Ortito and U.S. v. Twelve 200-Foot Reels of Super 8 mm. Film).
The discussion was complex, the positions difficult to follow, but Douglas counted votes quickly.  Stewart and Marshall were ready to vote with him to extend the Stanley decision to cover both cases.  To Douglas's surprise, Powell also joined them.  In an effort to bring himself up to par on constitutional law before he arrived at the Court, Powell had asked associates at his old law firm to prepare memoranda on major areas.  One of their recommendations had been to extend the Stanley privacy doctrine.  Powell was willing to follow the advice, at least tentatively.  Brennan and Blackmun seemed ready to go along with the four in one case, but not the other.  
The Chief waited and spoke last.  He was willing to go along in one case, perhaps both.  'I'll try my hand at the opinions,' he said." (196)

Paris Adult Theatre v. Slaton (1973) 
"Burger also shared Brennan's concern about protecting children from pornography.  'I consider the state free to make a serious felony out of any conduct that permits access to minors to nonprotected material,' he said.  Most importantly, he would be willing to extend the Stanley logic to permit importing pornography for private use.
Brennan was still partially encouraged but wondered what the Chief had in mind.  Surely his draft was not ready for publication.  He went to see Burger to talk over the situation.  
The next Monday, June 19, the Chief sent around a simple note.  'In the present posture of the [obscenity] cases neither Justice Brennan nor I can make specific recommendations as to the disposition of the cases held for opinion...We will discuss this at the June 22 Conference.'
Brennan reassessed the situation.  White, Blackmun and Powell seemed concerned with the need to give a publisher or seller fair warning that he could be prosecuted; he must be told what is obscene.  If that hurdle could be overcome, they might follow the Chief's lead and permit the states to restrict obscene materials even from consenting adults.  
To keep them from voting with the Chief, Brennan wanted them to take cases that did not involve unwilling viewers but rather cases in which consenting adults had sought out pornography.
One involved the sale of a pornographic novel without illustrations to an undercover police officer who asked to buy some pornography.  The other two involved an adult movie theater and an adult bookstore, both plainly marked, both without offensive advertising outside, and both of which refused to admit juveniles.  If those cases, involving only printed matter or consenting adults, could be argued early, Brennan might be able to show that his approach was preferable to the Chief's redefinition of obscenity.  
The conference on June 22 readily agreed with Brennan's suggestion to take the additional cases (* Kaplan v. California; Paris Adult Theatre v. Slaton; Alexander v. Virginia) and to argue them early in the next term.  They also put over the three cases before them.  They now had a package of eight cases that would present virtually every unanswered question in obscenity law." (203-204)
"Two weeks into the term, the Court heard the first of the obscenity cases.  These were three cases that Brennan wanted considered first.  They posed the question of whether states could ban consenting adults from walking into a theater or store and buying or seeing what they wanted and expected to see. There was no exposure of books or movies to unwilling viewers or children.
The first case involved the Paris Adult Theater in Atlanta, whose owner had been convicted of showing the X-rated movies Magic Mirror and It All Comes Out in the End.  At oral argument on October 19, the attorney for the theater noted the Chief's frequent public complaints about the Court's heavy case load.  One way to reduce it, he suggested, was to permit the 'controlled' sale and showing of sex-oriented films.  The courtroom erupted in laughter.  The Chief did not smile."  

JK: There is more about Miller v. California, but I grow tired of transcribing so much and worry that this may be the most flagrant violation of copyright that I have ever proffered on Flying Houses, so I will move onto other cases.

Cohen v. California (1971)
"Harlan's view of the First Amendment was not always so expansive.  Paul Cohen, a young antiwar protester, had been sentenced to thirty days in jail for disturbing the peace by wearing a jacket with the words 'Fuck the Draft' inscribed on the back.  Harlan termed this case (Cohen v. California) a 'peewee.'  
Black found the conviction of Cohen so outrageous that he insisted that the Court summarily reverse the conviction without even holding oral argument.  Harlan's strong opposition prevented the summary reversal, and only reluctantly did he agree to have it argued.  
Many clerks, however, saw the case as symbolically important.  Sentiment against the Vietnam war was at its height.  Many of the clerks opposed the war, and felt a little guilty that they had signed up for a year with an establishment institution like the Supreme Court.  Most agreed with the sentiments on Cohen's jacket, and one way or another many had themselves avoided military service.  In a vote on whom to invite to a question-and-answer lunch, one of their top choices had been the outspoken anti-war activist Jane Fonda.  
The antiwar movement was part of the clerks' culture, and its slogans part of their politics.  The obscenities used to denounce Vietnam and the draft were important political expressions.  Clearly, if the First Amendment protected speech of any kind, it protected political speech.  Abrasive, outrageous expressions were sometimes called for.  'Fuck the Draft' was hardly the most extreme.  A decision against Cohen, in essence banning 'Fuck the Draft' from the jackets and posters of the antiwar movement, could have deeper ramifications, some clerks believed.  Police throughout the country were looking for grounds on which to curtail the activism unleashed by the war
....One of the clerks [in Stewart's chamber] fashioned a makeshift patch combining the themes [of flag sculptures and jacket slogans] and put it on the back of his suit coat.  'Fuck the Flag' it said.  He wore it for several hours around the chambers before deciding that he did not want to test the Court's tolerance for political speech in its own building." (128-129)

"The ritual that Harlan enjoyed most was sitting with his clerks on Thursday afternoons, reviewing the cases argued that week in preparation for the Friday conference.  The afternoon of February 25, the clerk he had assigned to the Fuck-the-Draft case reviewed the details at length, pointing out that according to Harlan's prior opinions, the slogan was clearly protected by the First Amendment.  Cohen's conviction was for the content of the message on his jacket, for his opposition to the war, and not for some disruptive conduct.  
For Harlan, and for all of his colleagues except Douglas and Black, there were exceptions to what was protected speech under the First Amendment.  The clerk went down the list to assure Harlan that none was involved.
Did the words advocate an insurrectionary act--the overthrow of government or interference with the draft?  No, they merely conveyed Cohen's view of the war and the draft.
Did the words immediately endanger observers--like shouting 'Fire!' in a crowded theater?  No, of course not.  
Did the words incite a noisy disruption?  No, the only one in the courthouse apparently bothered by them was the arresting officer.
Did the words provoke a violent reaction from observers, so-called 'fighting words?'  No, again only the arresting officer seemed concerned.  He had tried and failed to get the judge to hold Cohen in contempt.  
Were the words 'offensive' to unconsenting viewers?  This was the most difficult problem for Harlan.  Some passersby in the corridor might have been offended.  But they could have limited their exposure by moving away, the clerk argued.  The only captive audience would have been the one in the courtroom where Cohen appeared, but there he folded his coat over his arm, so that the spectators were not exposed.  Moreover, the clerk reasoned, a certain amount of 'offensive' exposure had to be expected in public.
At conference the next afternoon, the Chief referred to the case as the 'screw the draft' case.  He voted to uphold the conviction.  To everyone's surprise, Black's position had changed drastically.  He did not offer his absolutist position.  Instead, he agreed with the Chief: this was a question not of political speech but rather of the pernicious use of a vile word.  Cohen's jacket slogan was not protected 'speech' but unprotected 'conduct,' he said.  Cohen could be prosecuted.
With his most boisterous drawl, Black claimed that he was not deviating from his absolutism.  Conduct was different from speech.  His favorite example was picketing a courthouse.  It was unacceptable conduct, not speech.  People could not 'tramp up and down the streets by the thousands' and threaten others, for example. 
Douglas and the other First Amendment liberals--Brennan, Stewart and Marshall, who grumbled that it wasn't a case worth 'giving blood on'--all lined up in favor of reversing the conviction.  White and Blackmun sided with the Chief and Black.  
Harlan provided the days second surprise.  He had thought it over, and he was not leaning toward overturning the conviction.  But he was still not sure.  He wanted the case put over for a week.  He needed more time to consider it.  
The others agreed.
Douglas's clerk joked about how the 'magic word' set off such severe reactions in the 'Bad B's,' as he referred to Black, Burger and Blackmun.  Douglas was disappointed that Black had deserted his long-standing First Amendment position.  Perhaps Black was simply too old to understand these issues anymore, to pursue the reasoning necessary to draw consistent parallels.  But Harlan's hesitation offered little encouragement.  He would likely end up voting to uphold the conviction.  He too was out of touch with the country.  The key would be Black, Douglas figured." (129-131)

JK: This last quote may set a record for the longest single passage on Flying Houses.  There is more, but I believe this is enough.  But it is worth noting that Blackmun, Burger, and Black dissented from the majority in this case (which reversed the conviction), and White joined paragraph two of the dissent (written by Blackmun) which read, "I am not at all certain that the California Court of Appeal's construction of section 415 is now the authoritative California construction....Inasmuch as this Court does not dismiss this case, it ought to be remanded to the California Court of Appeal for reconsideration in the light of [a subsequent] decision by the State's highest tribunal.  (White did not join paragraph one of the dissent which reads "Cohen's absurd and immature antic, in my view, was mainly conduct and little speech...the case appears to me to be well within the sphere of Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, where Mr. Justice Murphy, a known champion of First Amendment freedoms, wrote for a unanimous bench.  As a consequence, this Court's agonizing over First Amendment values seem misplaced and unnecessary."  

Alright, that is enough on Cohen!

Buckley v. Valeo (1976)
"Also pending was a challenge to the massive federal campaign law, which had been enacted in 1974 to reduce the influence of big money and large contributions in political campaigns (Buckley v. Valeo).  The law had four major provisions.  It provided for the financing of presidential campaigns from federal tax revenue; imposed elaborate contribution and campaign-expenditure reporting in which contributors were publicly named; limited individual campaign contributions to $1,000; and set strict limits on campaign spending by candidates.  
Senator James F. Buckley, a conservative Republican from New York, and Eugene McCarthy, a liberal Democrat from Minnesota, had led the legal challenge, arguing that the limitations abridged free speech.  The case presented more than twenty constitutional questions."  (395-396)
[JK: As you can imagine, I am exhausted at this point, having finished this actual book at 9 AM this morning, and having taken an hour long nap in the napping room of the library, and it being 3:35 PM now]
"Douglas returned to Washington at the end of November.  When he came to his chambers, he buzzed for one of his clerks.  No one came.  He pushed the buzzer again.  Still no one.  It was strange.  They always came running.  He pushed longer and harder on the buzzer.  
Marty Bagby, Douglas's senior secretary, finally appeared at the door.
'Where are the clerks?' Douglas angrily demanded.
'There are no clerks,' she stammered.  The Chief Justice had reassigned his clerks while he was gone.  
Douglas glared at her.  No clerks?  He was a Justice.  He had work to do......
Douglas had been a full member of the Court when oral argument was heard on the campaign finance law.  He saw no reason not to participate in the decision, since his replacement would not be able to take part.  He decided to write an opinion......."  (396-397)