Widely celebrated for his political essays, Lewis Lapham is a satirist who belongs in the company of Ambrose Bierce, H.L. Mencken, and Mark Twain. Over the last twenty years he has experimented with satire in its several forms—as burlesque, pasquinade, invective, and deadpan jest.
This first assemblage of Lapham’s satires presents thirty pieces that hold their currency and humor against the tide of social and political change that has engulfed American society in recent times. He reduces to absurdity many of the topics of the day that are often treated portentiously: Dickens’s A Christmas Carol is retold to praise the virtues of remorseless greed; the hydrogen bomb is introduced as a solemn dinner guest who doesn’t play tennis or speak English; gene banks take the form of well-trained pigs that accompany their wealthy owners in the first-class cabins of transatlantic jets.
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Lewis Lapham is the editor of Lapham’s Quarterly. Formerly the editor of Harper’s Magazine, he is the author of several books, including Money and Class in America, Theater of War (The New Press), Gag Rule, and Pretensions to Empire (The New Press). He lives in New York City.
Readers of Harper's magazine will likely recognize many of these dispatches from editor Lapham, examining roughly two decades of political and cultural folly. Many essays have aged well, but others have not; a reimagining of A Christmas Carol (Scrooge returns to his miserly self, an ending more in tune with the Contract with America) is loaded to capacity with mid-'90s topical references, and the very subjects of some chapters have faded into obscurity. The analysis of Steve Forbes's political career, for example, is amusing, but may leave readers struggling to recall the candidacy it describes. Every page offers at least one clever turn of phrase and at least one scornful appraisal of people, like the "self-appointed guardians of the nation's conscience" from academia who "wish to be consulted on matters that almost none of them understand." But those who recognize satire primarily in its farcical vein may wonder at some chapters. Is it really satire to point out that media coverage of the deaths of Princess Diana and John F. Kennedy Jr. was ridiculously overblown, or that Rudy Giuliani's attack on the Brooklyn Museum of Art was glaring political opportunism? It is: satire requires only that vice and absurdity be held up to contempt and ridicule, both of which Lapham supplies in erudite abundance. In one essay, he mentions Voltaire, Mark Twain and Ambrose Bierce. The entire book displays the skill with which he follows in their footsteps, and in another 20 years, one might expect its better chapters to be held in similar regard.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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