The quest for authenticity
Looking back at 2023—and a glimpse at the far side of the world
“I want to do something different, and everybody wants to do something different. But we all do the same thing.”
—Alex Garland, The Beach
When we travel, we sometimes get caught up in trying to see something “authentic.”
I just got back from a conference in New Zealand, where, among other things, I learned that an espresso is called a short black and a long black is… not an espresso but a “reverse americano.” However, throughout my travels in the North Island, I tried to get a little deeper into Māori culture than coffee, Kiwi-style.
I visited Lake Taupō, a massive freshwater lake resting in the caldera of a supervolcano. And on that lake is a small cliff face with Māori carvings, the crystal water lapping against an intriguing face. Immediately, the art reminded me of mythological tombs in pulp adventure stories, such as the Tomb Raider video games.
At first glance, the carvings may seem “authentic” to precolonial New Zealand, and though they were the work of a Māori artist, they were made in the 1970s. Ancient ruins, these are not. Should that matter? What makes a place “enchanted” with aesthetic or cultural value?
On that note—while I was in New Zealand, I also visited “Hobbiton,” the Lord of the Rings movie-set turned pseudo-amusement park, in which you board a bus to a lifelike recreation of Frodo’s hometown, eventually led to Middle Earth’s favorite pub, where you can taste a very low-alcohol beer brewed exclusively by a local taproom. While hobbits are not real, plenty of people on that tour were just as convinced by the “authenticity” of the set—and Peter Jackson’s “attention to detail” as a film director—that the reactions to the set—a façade designed for an adaptation of a fantasy novel—were perceived as “authentic” to Tolkien’s novels. The only thing the set was faithful to was an influential fantasy series—but that was exactly what the Tolkien faithful wanted.1
As travelers, were often drawn to places with enchantment. In ancient times (and in modern times, too) this meant pilgrimages to holy sites, temples, healing springs or oases. But that concept was secularized in the 20th century as visiting “tourist sites” imbued with the enchantment of history. And if that history is sometimes totally imagined and imaginative? Well, people still like to see hobbit holes and indigenous art made in the 1970s.
This was the subject of my book chapter in Region (Routledge, 2023) about architectural authenticity in the Southwest. People flock to Santa Fe, New Mexico, to see the Pueblo style architecture, but most of the Pueblo style architecture in the city was adopted in the early 1900s. A century of wear and tear (and local familiarity) have granted this aesthetic choice the authenticity that comes with age.
This is my end-of-year post, so I wanted to go through my favorite reads, TV and films that I came across this year, as well as spotlight some of my writing this year, on the newsletter and elsewhere. (Scroll down to the bottom for my holiday subscription offer.)
Favorite read: The Cities of Salt novels by Abdelrahman Munif
When I was in college, I’d often browse the discount rack of the local bookstore, where world classics were often on sale for bargain prices. I didn’t have a lot of time or energy to read for fun in college, so on the occasion that I did buy these books I was hopeful that one day I’d get to them.
And I’m very glad I finally got to Abdelrahman Munif’s Cities of Salt, the first of a five-part epic saga about the radical changes a society in a fictional Arabian country experiences after American oil drillers arrive at the turn of the 20th century. (Only three of them have been translated into English; the books are banned in Saudi Arabia).
In the years since, I had read that John Updike had negatively reviewed this book,2 arguing that the book lacked a central character and the narrative spine required of fiction. In Updike’s review of the English translation, he wrote:
“It is unfortunate, given the epic potential of his topic, that Mr. Munif, a Saudi born in Jordan, appears to be—though he lives in France and received a Ph.D. in oil economics from the University of Belgrade—insufficiently Westernized that feels much like what we call a novel. His voice is that of a campfire explainer; his characters are rarely fixed in our minds by a face or a manner or a developed motivation; no central figure develops enough reality to attract our sympathetic interest; and, this being the first third of a trilogy, what intelligible conflicts and possibilities do emerge remain serenely unresolved. There is almost none of that sense of individual moral adventure—of the evolving individual in varied and roughly equal battle with a world of circumstance—which, since “Don Quixote” and “Robinson Crusoe,” has distinguished the fable from the chronicle; “Cities of Salt” is concerned, instead, with men in the aggregate.”3
Updike is arguing for 20th century American fiction, and when he doesn’t see that tradition in Munif, it baffles him. He’s arguing that Munif’s novel isn’t in the tradition of Fitzgerald and Hemingway and Steinbeck, novels about individual people faced with dilemmas, told in dramatic three or five-act structure, in ways that might have been unconsciously influenced by the rise of cinema—the Western novelist’s apparent need to describe faces, dialogue, external character movements. But why should Munif have to follow that format? He’s not Western. Why can’t any novelist pursue their own vision, and if that format is successful, succeed on their own terms?
What Updike correctly identifies is that Munif’s novel is concerned with narrative in the aggregate. This is a novel about a clash of civilizations, a postcolonial critique of the cancerous influence of oil on an entire society. Certain characters come and go throughout the story, each little story a world unto itself. I’ll never forget the little stories populating this “big” story—like the two truckers who bond over their route, a relationship bound up in tragedy—the story of the baker who falls madly in love with the apparition of a Western woman on the oil tanker yacht, and somehow meets her—and the unrelenting double-speak of the American company which refuses to compensate the father of a drowned worker.
That narrative intricacy continues in the book’s sequel, The Trench, which I also read this year. This volume focuses on the crooked court of the sultan of the same country, and the downfall of an ambitious technocrat’s family. The passage I was most impressed with was the one in which a character from the first book, Muhammad Eid, returns to the port city (“Harran”) that is the main setting of the first novel, and finds the port entirely changed:
“Once, Harran had been a city of fishermen and travelers coming home, but now it belonged to no one; its people were featureless, of all varieties and yet strangely unvaried. They were all of humanity and yet no one at all, an assemblage of languages, accents, colors and religions. The riches in the city, and underneath it, were unique in the world, yet no one in Harran was rich or had any hope of becoming so. All of them were in a race, but none knew where to or for how long. It was like a beehive, like a graveyard. They even greeted one another differently from people in any other place—a man greeted others and then looked searchingly in their faces, as if afraid that something might happen between his greeting and their reply.”
—Munif, The Trench, p. 162.
In this passage, the accumulated narrative weight of all the past history of Harran in Cities of Salt comes to the fore. This is a story about the nuances of cities and nations, and it’s only through Munif’s kaleidoscopic lens do we get such complexity. We would not get this nuance from the Westernized, individualistic moral adventure story. (I prefer Cities of Salt to the colonial-apology narrative of Avatar). And it’s not to say each book doesn’t have a narrative arc. Both Cities of Salt and The Trench do, as viewed from 30,000 feet, have overarching plotlines and culminate in climactic conflicts that do actually pay heed to Aristotle’s three-act structure, so really, I don’t know what the heck Updike was talking about.
Favorite film: Oppenheimer
When I write history, I try to write it an engaging way. Telling the story of something so monumental to human history as the Manhattan Project will always leave something out, and you have to pick your angles into the story, which will dictate what you can include, and what doesn’t fit. I liked Oppenheimer because it made history entertaining (and scary), and its intricate, triple-threaded structure helped the movie get past the Trinity Test—the natural place to for a narrative finale—to explore perhaps the most interesting part of J. Robert Oppenheimer’s life—the part where the reality of the devastation of the atomic bomb had become clear, and when McCarthyism (partially) ended his career.
I also liked Oppenheimer because it was a movie about science with exactly zero scientific explanations in it, and literally every bit part had a (former) movie star cruising in and crushing it. Here’s hoping Nolan devotes part of the rest of his career to exploring important moments in history and creating wild ensemble casts to act out his Rubik’s Cube screenplays.
Favorite TV series: Le Bureau des Légendes
Le Bureau des Légendes was a new discovery for me—it’s basically like French Homeland, about French spies working for the DGSE (the French CIA), and it was on the air from 2015 to 2020. The story centers around Agent Malotru (Matthieu Kassovitz), an agent who spent several years undercover in Damascus and had an affair with a Syrian professor, Nadia (Zineb Triki). When he’s recalled to Paris, he has to break it off with Nadia and abandon his old alias. But when she appears in Paris, he can’t resist seeing her again, and soon he’s lying to his agency about meeting her and everyone else besides. Plus, it turns out Nadia is a Syrian agent!
But the show is much more than its initial hook. Loosely inspired from the spycraft worlds of John Le Carré, this narrative is ripped from the headlines, roving from the war against the Islamic State in Algeria to the war against ISIS in Syria, featuring spies stationed in Iran, Azerbaijan, Yemen, Cambodia, and eventually, Russia and Ukraine. There’s a point in Season 2 that the show shifts into an otherworldly suspenseful gear, a gear that doesn’t really let up until Season 4, when the show finds time to reinvent itself in a Russian setting. There’s a set-piece in Season 5 that was so gripping I felt like shouting at the screen. I don’t normally binge shows, and I usually only watch a couple episodes of a wide variety of things so I get a sense of trends in the industry. But The Bureau is just as good as other perennial TV classics, like Mad Men, The Wire, The Sopranos, etc. An American remake was supposedly in the works… but while we wait for that, go to the original (available on AMC+ or Sundance Now). Don’t let the subtitles scare you off!
Highlights from 2023
In PAW’s September issue, I wrote about an intellectual spat between a “Monuments Man” and the guy who introduced avocados to California—over the purported existence of the Holy Grail. In the December issue, I wrote about the scurrilous undergraduate career of esteemed Chilean novelist Jose Donoso.
For The Brooklyn Rail, I interviewed TCM presenter and “noirchaeologist” Eddie Muller about the annual Noir City Festival.
My pilot Usonia, a sci-fi thriller set in a world designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, made the cut-off for the Black List’s “Top List” in 2023. It’s also a Quarterfinalist (so far), for Filmmatic’s 2023 Sci-Fi/Fantasy Awards.
This year, I also joined the Writers Guild of America and went on strike.
I have a lot of exciting projects in the pipeline for 2024, and I can’t wait to share them with you. But for now—a look back at the newsletter.
From the virtual pages of The Usonian
I also started a new sub-channel related to my Doxiadis research, The World Planner. Highlights include my profile of the late Athanasios Hadjopoulos, who worked for Doxiadis, Le Corbusier, and knew Frank Lloyd Wright—and my piece on the destruction of Doxiadis’ celebrated Porto Rafti house.
Season’s Greetings: A Special Offer
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I’d put photos up of Hobbit-land, but their photo policy is a bit restrictive, so I thought I’d play it safe and omit them. Check out Hobbit-land at its official, very green website.
The New Yorker, October 17, 1988, p. 117.