Impressions of “Dragon Slayer” by Dean Barrett

While in Beijing this summer I saw an striking advertisement for a bar called “The World of Suzie Wong.’ I looked it up in my Fodor’s travel guide, and I learned that the bar was named after the book / play / ballet / movie of the same name. Soon after I returned I had the opportunity of watching the movie version (staring William Holden and Nancy Kwan). The movie was striking on two counts: first, as a contrast to China Doll (a romance set in wartime rural China, insetad of peacetime urban Hong Kong, and second, as a cipher to the works of Dean Barrett. In particular, The World of Suzie Wong helped me understand why I am a fan of Dean Barrett’s work, but did not enjoy his most recent work, Dragon Slayer.

The World of Suzie Wong, like most Dean Barrett books, is written on two distinct levels. On their face, these works are generally light-hearted, travel-based, adventerous, and focus most of the action on likable if two-dimensional characters. In their heart, they break with common perspectives and ask deep questions about race, sex, class, the law, individuality, and liberty. Just as The World of Suzie Wong is apparently the story of two libertines – who are selfish and giving in dramatically different ways – most Dean Barrett stories both contain a strong ethic of responsibility and against bias that can easily be charged with being irresponsible and biased. I won’t go into more detail here, but the best introductions to his fiction are Memoirs of a Bangkok Warrior (set during the Vietnam War) and its spiritual sequel, The Kingdom of Make-Believe.

Dragon Slayer departs from this pattern. It is a collection of short stories which are on their face more serious, but which do not problematize ideas in the same way. The book contains three novellas, “Dragon Slayer,” about a lost helicopter flight, “Bones of the Chinaman,” about the imperial slave trade, and “Golden Dragon,” about murder and revenge. The stories are more conventional, and thus it may be easier to describe the plot of the murdered family in “Golden Dragon” to friends in a book club than, say, the superficially genre fiction of Skytrain to Murder. However, I believe that works like Skytrain, Warrior, and Kingdom are not only more enjoyable to read: they carry a deeper meaning with them as well.

Often, the best books are those with the lowest entry barriers and the deepest rewards. The Hobbit is significantly better than Dune, for example, because while Hobbit reads like children’s literature and in fact distills the deeper metaethics of Lord of the Rings in one small volume, Dune creates a more complex and serious story about Arrakis that is, at its deeper level, a complex and serious story about Iraq (with the Latin suffix -us added for good measure).

If you get into Dean Barrett, you’ll enjoy his works a lot. Just save Dragon Slayer for the stage where you fill out your library. It’s not the best introduction to his cannon. And it won’t be his last.

Review of “The Post-American World” by Fareed Zakaria

This morning I finished the unabridged audio edition of The Post American World, written and read by Fareed Zakaria. No review of this book should begin wtithout noting that it is misnamed. Zakaria argues that American hegemony, agenda-setting, and dominance in nearly every field of power will continue for the forseeable future. Likewise, the title of Chapter 1 (which appears to have been an alternative working title), “The Rise of the Rest,” is also misnamed: Zakaria focuses on the United States, India, and China. So think of this book as The Rise of a World Dominated by India, China, and especially the United States, the The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Results Section, or, as one blogger suggests, even The Post-Unipolar Hegemonic American Worlds.

It’s a pretty good book.

World does a lot of things right. The starting position, opportunities, and risks for the United States, China, and India are outlined in some detail. China’s good governance, India’s low starting point, and the United States economy and culture are all world-conquering strengths. Likewise, Zakaria describes familiar themes in new ways. The law U.S. savings rate (0%) is discussed as the low household U.S. Savings right… if you factor in private savings held by corporations, the savings rate is at historical levels. Likewise, national healthcare is implied to be a solution to U.S. fear of globalization: in no other major economy does losing a job mean losing your health.

Some things are gotten wrong, as well. These may be classified as (a) brute facts or (b) fashionable biases. The brute facts can be embarrasing to listen to, and the National Review (apparently angered by his title) has been calling him out on them. From implied American decline to the Ferris wheel index, some of Zakaria’s claims are either pulled out of the air or deceptively stated.

Even worse is where Zakaria tries to fit into polite liberal society. Some of the errors here are all the more galling, as a simple email to his Harvard classmate may have resolved them. Zakaria attacks AFRICOM (the Pentagon’s new policy in no longer trying to run itself in Africa as it does in Europe) as a typical military-heavy response, when AFRICOM famously has never fired a shot. Similarly, Zakaria appears to criticize U.S. policy that promises retaliation in response to terrorist attacks, by asking if we would bomb London if the next terror attack is carried out by British muslims. It’s been five years since the Core/Gap divide was talkeda bout in Esquire and twelve yars since Zones of Peace, Zones of Turmail, but Zakaria acts as if the entire world could be consiered functioning.

In the end, this review is mixed. Perhaps this is not surprising. I was inspired to buy the book after reading Razib’s review over at gnxp. Some of the paragraph headings Razib’s review insighttflly highlight other problems with the book: The Post-American World is anchored by a series of extended essays which pass themselves off as chapters tied together only loosely by the theme of the book., Unfortunately it is here during these “close up” chapters of China & India that Zakaria also feels the need to make up “facts” and engage in some rather wild speculation about cultural differences which I believe warrant skepticism, and perhaps even dismissal, and The treatment of Hinduism was just plain sloppy, and if the author of some of the passages in this book had been a white man he would be accused of crass cultural imperialism. Still, Razbi’s gnxp review also summarizes the strengths of the book better than I am able to do:

It seems fair to say that only a multidisciplinary tapestry which weaves together historical, economic and social aspects, placed in a broader temporal and spatial framework, could add value to the knowledge base of an American target audience in regards to their own country. And so with the description and prediction out of the way Zakaria closes with prescription. Much of this seems common sense, but its validity is by necessity filtered through your norms. So I’ll just list them out and leave you to find out what he means by each….

1) Choose
2) Build broad rules, not narrow interests
3) Be Bismarck not Britain
4) Order à la carte
5) Think asymmetrically
6) Legitimacy is power

So buy it. It’s half a step better than The Man Who Loved China., and half a step worse than The World is Flat. You’ll learn more about globalization from Fareed Zakaria’s The Post American-World. But by the time he criticzes Obama for not sufficiently demonstrating to a backwards American electorate how much better he is than all the other candidates of both parties, you will know what you’ve gotten yourself into.