Study Guide

The Devil Problem

by David Remnick

The Devil Problem Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

David Remnick has compiled a series of essays he wrote earlier, mostly for The New Yorker, into a book that is easy to read and hard to put down, especially for those of us (and alas, there are far too many) who are morbidly curious about the lives and foibles of the powerful and famous. This is like a “best- of” People magazine, but in the style of The New Yorker. Remnick has a gritty, honest style which at first is refreshing, but at length has a tired Old World, we-aren’t- afraid-to-use-bad-language aspect which is slightly depressing. Perhaps the articles were not meant to be read all at once. Something about them is too rich, too much.

An example of this heaviness is Remnick’s use in two adjacent articles of the description of certain things as having “the color of dried blood” (referring to the border of a tie on page 338, and referring to a carpet on page 356). This is what happens when you bring together articles from different times or places. The first article was originally written in 1987, while the second was originally written in 1994. An author’s inventory of words and phrases is not infinite, and what were striking images used once now look tired or even strange when they appear repeated within the space of twenty pages.

Yet perhaps this criticism is missing the forest for the trees. Remnick is counting on his readers’ fundamental interest in the people he writes about and their stories, and here he has an unerring eye for the story line which will draw the reader into the narrative life of the each of his protagonists. There is a bit of the ancient theater in what Remnick is doing, and he is aware of this also. His first section is called “Forms of Exile,” and is about politicians (and one athlete), marginalized in one way or another, mainly by their own actions (Gary Hart, Marion Barry), but also with a sense of fate about their lives. Whether it is watching Reggie Jackson age or Mario Cuomo apparently miss political opportunities, regret is mingled with resignation over what must be, given the character of the hero. Perhaps this is why Americans are not shocked at the lack of repentance from Gary Hart and Marion Barry, or the lifelong insistence of innocence on the part of Alger Hiss. Even Gerry Adams (of the Irish Republican Army’s political wing Sinn Féin) does not seem anymore the anarchist, the ultimate individual, when Remnick is through with him, but rather a sad and inevitable product of ages of hatred and violence.

Remnick here strikes just the right balance between the twin metaphors of individual responsibility (sin) and social determination (sickness). His characters never lose their responsibility for their actions, but readers become more sympathetic with them (even the ones Remnick obviously dislikes, interestingly) as their stories are told. They are not excused, but they are understood, even pitied (in the best sense of the word). To read Remnick aright is to see oneself reflected, even if dimly, in the lives of those he writes about. Their passions are real, their mistakes are stupid, their ambitions are strong, their minds are clear (if at times one-tracked). They are like us, only larger.

In part 2 of his book, titled “Artists and Scholars,” Remnick deals with various writers and academics, as well as with two basketball players (Michael Jordan and Dennis Rodman). It is here that one wonders whether there is some deeper principle of organization that is not so obvious, or whether (as seems to be the case) Remnick simply did not pay much attention to how his book was put together. Not only are several of the characters in this second section candidates for the first section (particularly writer Ralph Ellison and sociologist William Julius Wilson), but he could have had another section entitled “Athletes,” and put Jackson, Jordan, and Rodman together. Perhaps what Remnick is trying to show is more of a Greek mythic sense of things, tragedy in the first act, comedy (in the theatrical sense of a cathartic or happy ending, not in the sense of being funny) in the second. Drama comes last, as can be seen below. Certainly the second section stories are generally more upbeat, and usually end...

(The entire section is 1718 words.)