Generally when I write about essay collections, a genre of which I am inordinately fond, I'm a voice crying in the wilderness. One reason publishers hate to put them out is that editors hate to cover them, on the grounds that they're not "original work." This is not the case with Elif Batuman's The Possessed. Not one to keep up with the publishing world, I was alerted to the book's existence by this excellent review by the excellent Dwight Garner in the (NY) Times. Sight unseen I put my hand up over at Barnes & Noble Review, where my editor Bill Tipper alerted me to this excellent review by Jessica Allen. But Bill had a copy sent to me anyway, and I stayed away from other reviews. Usually I take the opposite tack, but if my points have been taken I don't want to know about it. It's the best book I've read all year, though Patti Smith is coming up on the outside.
As Batuman relates, she is a product of literary theory. Not as exclusively as other grad-school survivors--she's clearly read way more novels than several theory victims I've chatted with. But what's striking about her in this context is that she not only tried to write a novel herself--to no avail, apparently, but I don't hold that against her: I had my own problems availing before I fell in love with journalism--but that she doesn't write jargon. She is in fact what once was called belletristic, a term I assume has fallen out of favor, jargon evolving as rapidly as it does. I mean, this woman can flat-out write.
In addition, she's not bad at reporting, at least of the J-school-derided first-person variety, which is generally the way we journos approximate fiction, because it gives us a readymade protagonist--in this case, a strong, brave, eccentric, literate-of-couse, and extremely funny one. She's a little naive about the money gig she's fallen into--is quite miffed when The New Yorker agrees to assign her a piece in Moscow if she pays her own way there, and then starts making J-school-style suggestions for how to proceed that she finds highly impractical on the ground, though the mag seems to have published the results anyway. And to be honest, what I like best about those results is the aforementioned "extremely funny." She's not above being a little mean--most funny people are--but at least in this case most of the humor is directed on long-dead and often outrageously cruel Russian aristocrats.
Then there's the three-part "Summer in Samarkand," interspersed among other chapters of which the best-known, justifiably so, is her account of a Tolstoy convention. Samarkand sounds like a terrible place--hilariously terrible, but terrible. But along the way she falls half in love with a 12th-century Old Uzbek poet who she makes seem, well, quite wonderful. Very little fun picked here. As litcrit, it's remarkable. Also jargon free.
Samarkand, you are more likely to know it now than you were two weeks ago, is in Uzbekistan. As Batuman explains, the modern Uzbeks were conceived as a kind of political convenience by the Soviets in the '20s. Even the Uzbek language is an artificial construct. As is her wont, Batuman is humorous about this--apolitical, amused. I wonder how she's responding to the current doings in Kyrgyzstan, where this half-fabricated ethnicity is now being slaughtered for reasons not altogether clear at this distance, though the fact that they're farmers in a nomadic land and hence better suited to the stationary pursuits of the modern world seems to have something to do with it. I hope some enterprising periodical has asked this literary scholar to try and figure it out. Preferably in the first person.
By Dean Jones on July 1, 2010 9:59 AM
There's no other place for me to write this.
I wish I were exaggerating the devastation felt at the apparent loss of your Consumer Guide column. May I ask what's next (review-wise), if anything?
By a fan from Hawaii on July 7, 2010 4:15 PM
There's no other place for me to write this. 
I'm young, and I love rock n roll. Through many days of creeping, reading, listening, and thinking under your CGs, it has become my purpose (to do music), and I am eternally grateful. Thank you thank you thank you, with more thank yous to come i'm sure.
I'm also Asian, and I love Japanese music. You may or may not have heard of these artists, but I must mention them, to you. Maybe this isn't the best way to go about recommending something, but i'm young, and digital, so here goes:
RC Succession- Kiyoshiro is IMO, the greatest Japanese rock n roll singer. ever. Folkie, soul man, just a kind demon. He passed away last year.
Number Girl- an alternative giant from the late 90s and early 00s. obsessed with school girls. Husker Du, Pixies, and Sonic Youth harnessed with fiery Anime superpower intent.
Jagatara- big funk done punk, compressed in murk.
mission complete. maybe.