In THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW ("The Best Part of Every Book Comes Last,” March 10, 1991), Thomas Mallon has drawn attention to the special pleasures of indexes. The index may not be the best part of NATIVE INFORMANT—though it’s an exceptionally good one—but it is the best starting-place for a reader who wants to get the flavor of Braudy’s book: the ideal browser, deciding to read or not to read.
In NATIVE INFORMANT’s ample index, Daniel Defoe, Edward Gibbon, Alexander Pope, and Jonathan Swift cohabit with Francis Ford Coppola, Jean-Luc Godard, Jean Renoir, and Francois Truffaut; John Cleland’s FANNY HILL mixes company with Samuel Johnson’s DICTIONARY and Thomas Pynchon’s V. There are no entries for Derrida or Lacan (a good sign), but there is one for Julien Offray de La Mettrie, author of the eighteenth century materialist treatise L’HOMME MACHINE—in English translation, MAN A MACHINE, though Braudy explains in an endnote that the only available translation, as well as being badly dated, is bowdlerized. (In general, Braudy’s notes are as good as his index.)
The index tells the browser that Braudy doesn’t stay boxed in “English Literature” or “Popular Culture.” Equally important, unlike a lot of interdisciplinary work being done these days, Braudy’s book is personal, given shape by his own unique blend of experiences rather than dictated by an ideological agenda.
No reader, in other words, will come to this book with exactly the same set of interests as the author. One reader may skip Braudy on the sentimental novel while homing in on “Hitchcock, Truffaut, and the Irresponsible Audience"; a reader of Gibbon may be drawn into the essay on the films of Ernst Lubitsch. Sometimes directly, but mostly by implication, NATIVE INFORMANT contributes to the debate over the canon—chiefly by showing how unpredictable are the contents of a well-stocked mind in the late twentieth century.
There is plenty to argue with here as well, as one might expect in a long conversation with many changes of subject. Browsers who are intrigued by the index may want to start with the last piece in the book, “California Criticism: From Tweed Jacket to Wet Suit,” which deserves to be widely anthologized.