versuseverythingland

Empty spirit/ In a vacant space

Month: January, 2013

Hotline: Miami

by iroqu0ispliskin

hotlinemia (1)

Hotline:Miami is a wonderful video game about premeditated murder. It is played from the top-down perspective. For fourteen levels, you are tasked with navigating a space and murdering its inhabitants. It is among the more aesthetically successful games I’ve played.

To begin: it is notoriously difficult to describe music, but it’s impossible not to remark upon its brilliant soundtrack: lush, funky, sunny, synthetically menacing.  It is the sound of electric scarabs burrowing their way through your brainpan.  Which is all to say: if I was looking to botch a cocaine deal, this is the music I would choose to accompany my undoing. It imbues the experience with a distinct air of druggy unease which sets the tone for everything that occurs.

One might say that Hotline: Miami borrows from the aesthetic of Nicolas Winding Refn’s film Drive. This is inaccurate. Great artists steal, remember?  It is not just the neon-heavy color palette and aural texture of the film: Hotline:Miami is a marvelous translation of the films’s aesthetic sensibility into gameplay.

Drive revolves around a certain key duality in its protagonist: for long spells, including criminal activity, he is placid to the point of mental impairment.  And then at key moments this calm is punctuated by moments of lunatic savagery. Brains stomped across the floor of elevators. Hotline:Miami’s gameplay dynamics create a structurally similar contradiction.

On one side, it requires you to be calm and methodical in your approach to each fight.  You are extremely fragile. Your advantage on enemies comes in your ability to combine the various elements of your combat repertoire and exploit your knowledge of the level geometry. In each encounter with a roomful of enemies, you need to plan out and repeatedly rehearse a particular approach: knock one enemy down with a door, stab the next, throw a knife at a third, finish the first, seize the third’s weapon.  Because death is routine, you will make dozens of attempts at any given level. A particular pattern of engagement will cement itself in your brain. It demands a lot of self-control, and the game’s responsive controls support everything you can plan out.

But your ingrained patterns of behavior are also interrupted by episodes where everything goes to shit and you are just frantically swinging a hammer at herds of shotgun-wielding enemies and dogs, dodging back and forth from behind a door, backpedaling as you try to frantically rightclick a shotgun. Although the enemy behavior is predictable, there is a small grain of randomness to their movements and behavior each time you restart.  Which means that in the umpteenth repetition of a particular battle, you are assailed, unexpectedly, but an unforeseen attack and are forced to improvise.

Over the arc of the game, what the mechanics inculcate is a sort of studied boldness.  A thoughtful thoughtlessness.  Everything happens very quickly. You think up a plan and then don’t think about it; when you next come to yourself, you are either dead or the floor is swimming in pixelated brains. Forgot about that guy, you think to yourself.

The narrative economy of the game is also to its credit. There is a loose plot tying together the various mass murders you commit: between missions, you walk your player around your apartment, visit the pizza place, engage in cursory bits of dialogue with various shopkeepers. So much is delivered through suggestive, small details of the art in these scenes: the abstract pile of pizza boxes on your kitchen table, the disarray of your bedsheets. About a third of the way through you save a junky from a mission, and she appears in your apartment; as she stays your living space takes on a teh appearance of domestic order. Conversely, the spaces outside of the apartment become steadily more menacing– visited on its edges by surreal bits of violence and visual hallucinations.

At the heart of this plot is a certain puzzle about violence. The game accomplishes so much in the way of horrible, gory violence with its scant visual materials. As you walk back to your car after level you are treated to a gruesome sea of severed heads, spilled intestines, dismembered torsos. The quiet makes the scale of killing palpable. It accomplishes what Spec Ops: The Line attempted to accomplish with vastly superior resources: turn the lens back on the player and inquire why they sought out something so vile and graphically violent for kicks. Hotline:Miami gives the correct answer. Because it offers to the player something they can’t get elsewhere: thrills, mindlessness, oblivion.  Who wouldn’t?

From Breaks of the Game

by iroqu0ispliskin

“[Bill] Russell was, if not the proudest man ever to walk the face of the earth, certainly one of the four finalists.”

All the way down

by iroqu0ispliskin

magnus

Gentle Readers: I pledge to you that there will be constraints on how much I will write about DOTA. (Terminological aside: the cool kids call it “dotes”, as in: “Hey, let’s drink gin, listen to Diane Rehm, and play some Dotes.”) While my personal zeal for managing lords knows no bounds, there are limits on how much of this I would inflict on this generous readership. But I have a few more things to sort out. If you tune into this blog to hear me bag on Susan Sontag, I’ll be back at it soon.

To me, one fascinating aspect of Dota is that a genre so unfriendly to beginners has become the most popular computer game in the world.  A large part of this unfriendliness owes to the counter-intuitiveness of the game’s core dynamics.  But this counterintuitiveness itself accouts for one reason that the game is so captivating: as you master it, it changes.  It becomes a different thing than the object you first encountered.  And the better you get, the more it changes.  Dota is basically inexhaustible as an object of thought and conduct.

Allow me to explain: the nominal goal of Dota — the one you would understand on first encountering it– is to destroy this building in your opponent’s base.  Between you and this building are a series of towers.  Between you and these towers are a bunch of enemy army units– creeps– that regularly stream out of your opponent’s base.  These little army dudes will attack your own creeps, and then your towers, unless you kill them. Killing these guys provides experience and gold and stuff which make your lord stronger.

Given this rough understanding of how things stand, you can imagine one’s frame of mind as you first trot your lord out to your designated spot on the map.  “Hey” you say to yourself, full of youthful enthusiasm, “let’s murder them creeps!” And then you set about attacking stuff.

Wrong! For chrissake, don’t attack the creeps. Don’t hit them with frost blasts, or what-have-you. If you attack the creeps, people will yell at you.  I have personally chided colleagues who have had the temerity to attack the creeps.  While killing them is a completely logical first step towards winning the game, it is strictly verboten for a good period of the match. If you murder those creeps, people on the internet will be unkind to you.  Hurtful words in a language you do not understand will be thrown in your direction.

Why? It turns out you don’t want to kill them.  Well, you do want to kill them, but in a very specific manner that involves not hitting them 98% of the time.

There are numerous reasons for this, but chief among them is this: creeps only give you money if you are the very last person to hit them before death.  You have to be the one who gives the killing blow. And since various other agents are attacking the creeps at any given time– you, your coworkers, all your own creeps– this is difficult.  It turns out that not hitting the creeps until the exact right moment is a core competence of this game.

Thus, in order to succeed at these games you have to have to perform a series of conceptual rewirings on your brain.  We are conditioned to think of loot-bearing masses of armed enemy units as, well, enemies. If you have been playing video games for a while this sort of thing is pretty standard. But as it turns out, on deeper examination these dudes running down your lanes are neither enemies nor allies.

They are a natural resource.  They are the where the game’s mechanics pour wealth into the system.  And eventually you learn that Dota is not a game about destroying towers and defeating enemy mobs. It is a contest for these limited resources. Indeed, one of the core mechanics of the game is finding ingenious ways to engineer the demise of your own army, so as to prevent their precious experience and money from falling into enemy hands. The allocation of resources between you and your allies is itself a matter of great strategic import: often you are not supposed to kill things because you’re farther down the resource-allocation totem pole on a given team.  Because resources are key: once you have fought the creeps for the right reason at the right time and in the right manner, (once you learn how not to kill), the business of toppling structures follows as a matter of course.

This one minor conceptual reversal you undergo as you learn the game presents, in miniature, one reason why I love games: as you play a great game and become steadily competent, you come to realize that the nature of the game is entirely different than what you supposed initially. When you begin to play Dota seems like a game about taking towers, and then it becomes a game about competing for resources, and then it becomes a game about spatial awareness, and then it becomes a game about information.  It goes on like this, forever.

The Zone

by iroqu0ispliskin

4.2.3

I should preface everything by saying that Geoff Dyer is a writerly ego ideal of mine.  I am a sucker for a polymath like Dyer, someone who can dig into any nook of our culture and find a seemingly endless store of intelligent things to say.  Over the last 20 odd years he’s written books– good books– about TH Lawrence, Jazz, photography, and World War I.  Indeed, his book about Jazz– But Beautiful— is a collection of short stories that doubles as the finest piece of Jazz criticism I’ve ever read.  The guy can just pick a topic that interests him, intellectually assail it for a while, and then produce work that is as good if not better than work by professionals in the field– witty, serious, and illuminating.  Hell, even his novels are pretty good, which is unfair.  (If you are going to be a fantastic critic, at least have the human decency to write shitty novels, like Susan Sontag)

And it’s not just that; Dyer is also one of these freakish writers who seems to achieve this kind of thing without visible effort. As far as the practice of writing goes, I am a disciple of Haruki Murakami: I believe it is a kind of physical exertion which requires consciously cultivated reserves of discipline to succeed. Anyone who accomplishes anything in this field seems to do so by chaining themselves to a desk (or a tool shed) every morning for a pre-specified period and just writing until they understand what it is they have to say. You stop at the point where you figure out the next thing you’re going to write, so you can begin tomorrow. In my experience this is the only way good things ever get written.

Dyer is not like this.  Apparently he just writes whenever he feels like it. Books seem to grow off him like pumpkins off a vine.   While I have personally been struck by feverish inspiration at a time or two in my life, I cannot fathom what it would be like to feel inspired often enough to make a living. This ability to just write at will strikes me as godlike.  Who can just write without forcing themselves to do it?  Who are these psychopaths?

Dyer’s most recent book, Zona, is about Andrei Tartovsky’s Stalker. If you have not seen this film, you should. It is a very, very good film. Be advised that like all of Tartovsky’s films, I would call it (somewhat-euphemistically) a “slow burn.”

At least on paper, Dyer is the ideal guide though a film so deliberately serious in its tone: literate, chatty, unpretentious. He is a person with a very serious investment in European high culture (Merleau-Ponty in the footnotes, natch), but he is also a pretty irreverent bloke as these things go.

With this stated, I am sad to report that this is not a terribly great book. Structurally, it is a scene-by-scene commentary on the film, with liberal asides concerning art, Dyer’s biography, and details of the film’s production. This should be great, but I felt this book represented some of Dyer’s trademark gestures going to seed: it is a collection of observations in search of an idea. Some of them are great, some of them are only mildly interesting. Imagine you are on a bus tour of New York, and your guide spends five minutes rattling on about how he once lost this backpack at some notable landmark.

I’m not so depraved that I think every book should revolve around elaborating an argument or building a system, but the book has this odd feeling of desperation, as if the conceit of scene-by-scene analysis could forge order from a collage of miscellaneous insights.

This is all the more needful because Stalker itself is an elusive prey: a mystical  travel movie about a journey to nowhere, punctuated with enigmatic philosophical dialogues and suggestive metaphysical gestures.  It is surely barbaric to ask for an explanation for a film that is so beautiful, so occasionally wondrous. But still, to rove over each sequence, punctuating it with tales of one’s dissolute twenties and whimsical asides produces a result that is often tonally jarring.  (As the travelers approach the Room, a place which is said to grant your deepest desire, Dyer pauses to elaborate the two occasions when he almost had a three-way.) One understands the difficulty of the task: you can’t be rapt and somber about a film that is already so obviously rapt and somber. But Dyer never quite achieves the exact balance of irreverence and reverence that would mark the ideal book on the subject. The personal asides about his history with the film bear much of the blame, because while Dyer can be a great autobiographer (his story about how he met his wife is one of my favourite of his essays), the details he feeds into this book feel distinctly unnecessary.  The book is like a very clever friend has invited you over to his house in order to deliver a slide show about a trip he wasn’t on.

This is a shame because he really does have an eye for the film’s minor miracles. In a few flashes he works up a rhetorical head of steam trying to capture in words certain luminous sequences in the film, and when he’s in this mode he is capable of being just lovely: “[Stalker] sees the Zone from amid a patch of dense weeds and collapses, first in an attitude of prayer and then on his stomach, into sleep.  An ant crawls on his finger. There is no difference between the external world and the world in his head.  Everything in reciprocated.” In this description you have communicated both the immense metaphysical relief the Stalker feels as he rolls in the grass (for a moment his immense suffering melts away) — and also the ant across the finger.   His description of the films second-to-last miracle, the sequence where the Stalker family plus dog troupes down an embankment on their way home, correctly points out that the dog is a genius, a fact that I had missed on first viewing. Stalker is full of these gorgeous epiphanies, and if the book served no other purpose it drew my eye and brain back to the details of specific moments.

For me the most powerful part of this uneven book is when he discusses the toll that mere experience exacts on our capacity to love works of  art. Here is one of the few places where the personal asides he makes throughout connected with me. When discussing Stalker, Dyer is afflicted by a kind of nostalgia for his own ability to be captivated by movies and books and music and photos. It’s not that he doesn’t love these things anymore (although he admits he now finds it difficult to read– like him, I wonder if this is a universal symptom), it’s that he has reached a point in his life where nothing is ever going to matter as much to him as Stalker mattered to his younger self.  The age of being transformed by human expression is over.  He now comes back to warm his hands on the embers of Stalkerhoping that his memories of the film can still inspire a final, minor, miracle– making him care about anything intensely enough to write a new book.

Spec Ops: The Line

by iroqu0ispliskin

spec-ops-2

Dear readers: over a mucus-intensive and gloomy weekend in Istanbul, I played a video game to completion, and it was Spec Ops: The Line. It was a good choice. I am surprised and cheered that a shareholder-owned business somehow dedicated millions upon millions of dollars to the production of this bold piece of anti-entertainment. It accomplishes a too-rare feat in videogaming, that of alienating you from the core pleasure you take in shooting fellows in the head. It goes so far as to suggest that there is something inherently wrong about this pursuit as a leisure pasttime, and I enjoyed being unsettled.

Which is to say: Spec Ops does an inside job on the shooter genre.  From a gameplay perspective, it is the most bland product imaginable. But it does a lot of things– not all of them wholly artful– to disrupt your moral relationship to what you’re making happen on-screen.

I thought its most effective tactic in this effort was the way exploited  the operational vagueness that is characteristic of the genre.In virtually all of these hooh-rah-type games, your moment-to-moment understanding of your goals tends to be moderately confused. Indeed, most of these titles have a trees-for-the-forest problem: all these inter-mission cutscenes, with their zooming maps, give a pretty clear sense of why you are fighting away in some cheerless middle eastern environment — there’s always ethnic separatists or something, provided you bothered to watch that stuff.  But in the midst of any given mission, it is all just dudes yelling at you about something or other as you soak up a bullets. “Hop on that turret!”, they’ll bellow. “Clean out that bunker!”, they’ll shriek. And then you set to, because there is a glowing UI element on whatever it is you are to interact with.

Spec Ops works by having this confusion and reliance on external orders gradually wear away at your sense of Heroic Purpose. In Spec Ops I had both a serious forest problem and a serious trees problem. I was drawn into gradually more indefensible conduct without knowing quite why I was there, or what I was supposed to be accomplishing at each point. Merely by playing competently I was drawn into dubious conduct. There was an industry-standard turret sequence/Jeep chase, and then oh shit, I seem to have destroyed the remaining water supply. Even from the perspective of someone who has finished the game, and being the kind of person who tends to be a bit more attentive to story than the typical bloke, I have very little idea what in god’s name came to pass.  

Except that I killed a lot of people for no apparent reason. I trouped your way through a silted-over Dubai, with the nominal aim of finding a squadron of American Marines that have gotten lost in the course of an evacuation mission. However, the operational goals get hinky real quick. I got ambushed by the troop I was supposed to be saving and had to shoot my way out; for the next six-odd hours I was running through various sand-intensive environments pursuing god knows what.

Refreshingly, I suppose, the opponents in this game weren’t a faceless vaguely-Arabian horde.  They weren’t even Persian. I murdered a ton of American soldiers that (supposedly?) had gone rogue and run a post-apocalyptic Dubai into the ground. Once, a random unarmed person ran across my field of view during a firefight and I shot them down. (In a rare moment of moral subtlety, this murder passes without comment) At another point, I was manipulated by the game into murdering a dozens of innocent civilians with an incendiary mortar, an act whose aftermath the game requires you to vividly witness.

In the interstitial cut scenes, your NPC squadmates helpfully express bewilderment about what-all you’re supposed to be accomplishing out here in the first place, and also voice skepticism about your stated explanation for what you’re doing on a level-by-level basis. In the cutscenes you say some cursory remarks about preserving the civilians or somesuch, but the actions you undertake never really reflect any such aim.

Your character never has a convincing explanation for his actions.  And this makes sense, because he really just is the player. He’s not there to save Dubai. He’s there to see how this gun shoots. Madness.

Defense

by iroqu0ispliskin

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Oh Jesus, Dota 2.  What to say about Dota.  It’s a video game.  To describe Dota as an enthusiasm of mine would be to slightly underplay its colonization of my intellectual geography.  If they asked me I could write a book.

DOTA is the progenitor of the wildly popular Lords Management Simulation genre. Originally a fan-made modification to the game Warcraft 3, the most popular representation of the genre at the moment– League of Legends— is being played by two percent of the entire population of Taiwan at any given moment.

Let us outline the basics of its fiendish grip.  It is a 5v5 real-time competitive multiplayer game– each player controls a single character with the object of moving across a large map and destroying an opponent’s base.  You move your dude around and cast spells and punch these defensive towers and murder other lords, with the help of colleagues.  It’s great.

An extended contrast with some games you may know may serve to shed some light. At the higher skill levels, the dynamics of Starcraft– another highly popular strategy computer game–  converge on those of Poker.  It is a game that takes place in the donkeyspace. The most important skill in Starcraft is the ability to ferret your way into your opponent’s head, to be able to infer their intentions and resources based on the meager data to which you have access. I have heard say that top-tier Starcraft players are brilliant at Poker (and vice versa), and this makes total sense to me.

With Dota you have a game closer to Bridge.  Dota is like Bridge in two crucial respects:  The first is that the most important rules that govern how you play the game are implicit.  In Bridge, the partners observe a set of unspoken rules about bidding.  There’s an elaborate set of conventions about how you are supposed to bid in response to your partner and opponents– online bridge players will actually list them by name (the Flannery, the Muiderberg, or the devasating Checkback Stayman)  in their profiles, so that potential partners know how to bid correctly.

‘Tis the same with Dota.  It’s not just that some of the more basic mechanics that govern the game are counterintuitive (although this is also true), but it is also that essential elements of how you play the game (such basic matters as where you are supposed to go on the map, when you are supposed to go there, what you are to do when you get there) are matters of convention. Depending on the lord you have chosen to manage, there are well-worn standards guiding how you are to behave, which your opponents and allies both understand.

Which brings us to the second point: its mechanics engender an incredibly high level of dependence on one’s allies  If one or two players fail to hit their marks, defeat is more or less assured.  Because I play this game with random strangers with a predominantly Russian playerbase, the prevailing emotional environment of any typical Dota match is one of blind rage.  I have people tell of married bridge partners who have won tournaments while not being on speaking terms, so great was their mutual disaffection over some misplay. Gentle reader, you may imagine that strangers on the Internet are a patient, nurturing, and racially sensitive bunch; I am sad to say that this has not been my experience.

It is a poisonous atmosphere.  I consider myself by temperament gentle and forgiving human being.  But within the context of competition I find myself, again and again, sympathizing with the behavior of Kobe Bryant: shaking my head in open disgust, berating my incompetent teammates on the bench.  An as-yet- undernurtured capacity to feel disgust at the venality and ig’nance of my fellow lords has planted its seed in my heart.  I’m not proud.

I will say more about this game in days to come.  Much like bridge it is a game of infinite depth and strategy.  I sincerely wish there were a column in the Boston Globe each day (Ideally, also written by Omar Sharif) debating the circumstances in which it is appropriate to have Batrider solo the offlane.  Such things may yet be in our future.

Hassan Khan– Jewel

by iroqu0ispliskin

From The Round House

by iroqu0ispliskin

“They were offhandedly heroic men who drank quietly, smoked an occasional cigar, drove a sensible car, and only showed their mettle by marrying smarter women.”

In Bad Decline

by iroqu0ispliskin

06saunders2-popup-v2 (1)

George Saunders has a new book out today, which is a big deal.  How big a deal?  The man got a blurb from Thomas Pynchon.

I prepped for its release by finally reading his first short story collection, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, which is finally available on the Kindle.  I commend it to you. (A great addition to this book is its afterword, in which Saunders charmingly describes how the work was written over seven years using moments stolen from his desk job at the sinister-sounding Radian corporation of Rodchester, NY)

It is difficult to explain what makes Saunders so wonderful.

The engine that drives his works is this contrast between a world gone really and truly to shit and his characters’ naive commitment to coping with it in the most naively positive way.  It is sinister and hilarious and bizarrely heartening.

In a typical story, a vague cataclysm has swept away the social order.  I mean, things have really gotten out of hand.  We tend to find ourselves on the sketchy, perilous outskirts of whichever social establishment persists, plugging away at some kind of dubious concern: a decaying theme park, a raccoon removal company.

The main survival of the American way of life in Saunders stories is corporate bureaucracy   Though the physical and moral infrastructure that sustains corporate management of human beings has been brought down in the most dramatic way possible, its suite of self-management procedures has lived on.  In Saunders the artifacts of bureaucracy are usually flagged by using capitals: “It made me livid and twice that night I had to step in to a closet and perform my Hatred Abatement Breathing.”  In this register Saunders has pioneered a new genre of literature: the Apocalypse Office Novel.

Much of the humor in Saunders grows from how language and attitudes geared towards managing the niggling personal conflicts of office life (“How do I tactfully explain to Jane how I dislike it when she eats Indian food at her desk?”) gets deployed onto a world inhabited by packs of roving cannibals. As his world’s workforce bends towards sex slavery and scrapping for their daily bread, there is something hilarious and oddly heartening about a protagonist who chooses to invest emotional capital in the completion of accurate yet merciful performance reviews of himself and colleagues.

Despite the absurdity of the environs, the emotional register of Sauders’ books is close to that of Hemingway.  His protagonists tend to be human beings of unwavering loyalty and patient of immense suffering.  They tend to be suckers.  Good people, with a sound moral compass. And also titanic suckers.  His characters undertake titanic self-sacrifice for those they love and are more or less constantly visited by betrayal.  The narrators tend to be emotionally opaque, relaying their joys and pains to the reader in direct terms, and explain their moral principles in forthright language: “You kill a nice little kid via neglect,” a wave-pool operator laments, “and then enjoy having sex.  If you can do it you’re demented.  Simone’s an innocent victim.  Sometimes I think I should give her space and let her explore various avenues so her personal development won’t get stymied.  But I could never let her go.  I’ve loved her too long.”  Here we have it all: the lapidary depth of emotion, the corpratese (Personal Development) and the moral principles, all wrapped in one.

One noteworthy effect of his fiction is to hold up our own form of life at an intriguing angle.  It’s a world that is much better organized than any in Saunders’ fiction, but cruel to many of its participants — the physical sufferers at the bottom and the bewildered folks at the top. Saunders doesn’t really have a lesson to impart about this world, aside from maybe pointing up the uselessness of jargon.    And this: kindness gets you nowhere.  But goddammit, what else is there?

The Years of Lyndon Johnson

by iroqu0ispliskin

Landscape

Over the past year I’ve read 3/4 of Robert Caro’s now biography of Lyndon Baines Johson.  Having just polished off the most recent volume over Xmas, I should say something about these books.

Caro has succeed in crafting one the most compelling fictional heroes in literature this side of Lucifer.  I will concede that prior to making my way through the last 3 volumes of the series, I knew very little about this man or his era.  My previous impressions of LBJ derived mostly a David Foster Wallace short story and this famous recording of him ordering pants.  How accurate Caro’s portrait is, I cannot say.  But there is “Robert Caro’s Johnson” out there now, existing in people’s minds apart from the real man, and this person is a fascinating human being.

Lyndon Baines Johnson was a son of a bitch.  LBJ, as rendered by Caro, embodies all of the personal characteristics I most despise in a human being.  He is by turns cruel, corrupt, cowardly, sycophantic.  His treatment of his subordinates is almost uniformly loathsome, and he was most cruel to those people who loved him the most.    He had an incredible ability to sense the emotional makeup of the people around him, and target most fragile elements of their character. He was fawning and obsequious to his superiors, particularly the elderly men on whom relied for favors and political advancement.  He stole about a half-dozen elections through fraud in the volumes I read, ranging from student government to his senate seat.  (I never thought it would be possible to experience actual rage over a senatorial election some 60 years past,  but the theft of Coke Stevenson’s US senate seat did just that.)  Lyndon Johnson would produce his penis to near-strangers in men’s rooms and urge them to wonder over its impressive girth.  A truly, truly despicable human being.

By some happy accident, the most important public goods of the United States– the struggle for civil rights, the quest to end poverty– aligned with the political ambitions of the most ruthless and manipulative man imaginable.  This is the central contradiction of Caro’s biographies: it seems to have required a man of this character in order to achieve a better nation.  Indeed, for a tender-hearted liberal such as myself, the things he actually achieved during his presidency (important legislation covering health care, immigration, civil rights, education, and gun control to name a few) represent key components of a just  and good society.

The most dizzying aspect of this contradiction is that LBJ really did care about the political agenda he advanced, one dedicated to eradicating poverty and racial inequality.  He had a tremendous insight into people’s emotions– their hopes and fears, and he saw how racism and poverty robbed its victims of basic dignity.  Indeed, it was this empathy that was a key component of his capacity for cruelty.

Would he have pursued these goods unless he saw their advancement as the key to his political success?  All signs point to no.  The desire for power and the crippling fear of failure seem to have been the ruling elements of his character.  But it so happened that the makeup of the political landscape in the late 1960s was such that pursuing social justice — a cause he authentically, if secondarily , believed in — was key to realizing his ambitions.

As a piece of biographer’s craft the book is almost without flaw.  Readers of the whole series may find certain parts repetitive, because the basic character traits that shape LBJ’s reaction to new events are well-established by later volumes; Caro tends to repeat certain episodes throughout, to lesser effect.  This tendency is fortunately mitigated by his deft character portraits of new figures throughout the series –volume four is particularly blessed by the entry onto the stage of LBJ nemesis Robert Kennedy.  (RFK, also a total bastard!  Smashed a friend on the head with a beer bottle because he suspected him of trying to diminish the glory of his birthday party)

It’s impossible to read about this man without also thinking about our own dire political situation. Barack Obama is by almost all accounts a kind and decent man, one whose political convictions generally agree with my own.  But much like Kennedy, he seems singularly inept at the task of realizing his convictions in legislation.  Substitute Tea-partyism for Southern states-rightism as the insane ideology du jour (not a big stretch), and the situation facing Obama is not dissimilar to the one facing Kennedy, an incredibly popular man totally unable to coerce congressmen into obeying him.  The outlook is not good.

Which is just to say: I would love to have a Clinton back.