The Devil Problem

by David Remnick
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1718

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.

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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 on a more positive note, at least with regard to their main characters.

Elaine Pagels comes the closest to gaining sainthood in the book. (Her article is titled “The Devil Problem,” from which comes the title of the book itself.) Hers, along with several others in this section, is a story of overcoming great hardship (the death of both son and husband in a short span of time), of affirming Life and the True and the Beautiful in the midst of the death and lies and ugliness of ordinary human experience. Nobel Prize-winning author Kenzaburo Oe and his son Hikari come in a close second to Pagels for canonization. A thoroughly modern Japanese man highly critical of his own countrymen’s traditions, Oe nevertheless comes across as a deeply spiritual man, and spiritual in a deeply Eastern way. His connection to his severely mentally handicapped son is profoundly mystical and inexplicable by any Western standards, yet fits perfectly in the world of Eastern tradition he inhabits and under which he chafes.

Joseph Brodsky also gets into the Pantheon, but mostly by his work, not his life. He stood for the best in internal intellectual anti-Soviet critique, it is true, but Remnick cannot resist constantly quoting his poetry over giving details of his life, as if to say, “For a writer, his words are his life.” If this is so, it makes Remnick’s treatment of Steve Sohmer and Mary Ann McGrail all the more pointedly pathetic (here again Remnick seems to have misplaced his article, but perhaps his readers may be looking for too much organization, or the wrong kind). This is the story of a minor Shakespeare scholar and a screenwriter-turned-amateur Shakespeare scholar fighting over what may turn out to be a rather meager bone—the idea that the Bard was using Hamlet as a sort of undercover apologetic for Luther and the Protestant Reformation (each claims the idea as his or her own, and therein is the story). As is often the case with biblical scholarship as well, it looks to the casual observer that this is indeed much ado about nothing, or at least, about very little. With so much time being spent by so many people on so little literary real estate (comparatively speaking), it is inevitable that the exegetical canons expand to include the ingenious, even fantastic theorizing of the interpreters themselves. It is the old nemesis of a certain kind of rabbinical exegesis. Midrash (the allusive, metaphorical interpretations of biblical texts engaged in by Jewish scholars—mostly ancient) can be found in any text, but is it the midrash of the text or of the interpreter? If it is clever enough, it is difficult to prove—or disprove, for that matter (and many flee into the arms of science).

To return to the basketball players. Remnick presents them in a manner consistent with the section in which he puts them—as comic heroes, life-affirming in spite of character flaws (especially in the case of Rodman). Yet these athletes seem prisoners of their own ambition even more than do the petty scholars and the politicians. Their addiction to competition may entertain audiences, but Remnick does not question (at least for these two) where it leads for the addicts themselves. Perhaps he will return to that theme in a later series.

In his last section (“The News Business”), Remnick deals with reporters, publishers, and columnists. Some he admires (Ben Bradlee of The Washington Post, Murray Kempton of the New York Post), some he does not, or at least seems ambivalent about (Al Neuharth of USA Today). Yet here Remnick is most at home. These are his people, this is the writing he understands, the genre, the values, the excitement of “being there.” It is clear this is where he is comfortable, where he lets his own feelings out. Whatever traces of admiration for Neuharth’s business acumen he might have, Remnick tells readers how he really feels in the endnote (on page 355) to “Good News Is No News,” the article on USA Today: “There are precious few cities now whereUSA Today is not the best paper in town. God help us.”

Remnick portrays clearly throughout this section the impression that he thinks that literate culture at some level is dying in the United States, or maybe even in the West or in the world. He does this by mourning the passing of his heroes (Bradlee and Kempton) as well as sadly chronicling the rise of the new media-conscious, icon-and-entertainment-driven publishers such as Rupert Murdoch or editors such as Al Neuharth. There is nobility and baseness, a war between high and low culture (if not good and evil). Here, then, is the section on drama to go with the first two on tragedy and comedy, giving Remnick his full range of human experience to explore and of which to tell the tale.

Remnick loves good writing and strives for a straightforward, almost in-your-face style which does not always feel congruent with the depth of his analysis or the profundity of his exploration of human character. It is an aggressive mix which probably goes down better in New York City than many other places. Still in all, he writes interesting stories about interesting people, and that will get him read. He quotes Pete Hamill (on page 356) of the New York Post as saying “You wanna know what I think would be God’s paper?” “It would be a tabloid that’s smart and hip, knowing.” Remnick tries, and mostly succeeds, in writing in a way that is smart and hip, knowing. Whether or not that makes him God’s writer is for his readers to decide.

Sources for Further Study

Atlanta Journal Constitution. October 6, 1996, p. L10.

Booklist. XCII, August, 1996, p. 1875.

Denver Post. August 25, 1996, p. I6.

Kirkus Reviews. LXIV, June 15, 1996, p. 884.

Library Journal. CXXI, August, 1996, p. 85.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. November 17, 1996, p. 14.

The New York Times Book Review. CI, September 8, 1996, p. 22.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIII, June 24, 1996, p. 39.

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