Against Michiko Kakutani: A Defense of Mark Helprin

FRANKFURT/MAIN, GERMANY:  British novelist Zadie Smith gestures during a presentation of the German translation of her book '
FRANKFURT/MAIN, GERMANY: British novelist Zadie Smith gestures during a presentation of the German translation of her book 'On Beauty' at the international Frankfurt Book Fair 04 October 2006. 'On Beauty', her third novel, was published in September 2005 and shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. AFP PHOTO JOHN MACDOUGALL (Photo credit should read JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images)

Amongst my coterie of literary friends, Michiko Kakutani is referred to dismissively as "that woman." Though we share very little with Jonathan Franzen aesthetically, we are in agreement with his assessment that she is "the stupidest person in New York" and an "international embarrassment." Just yesterday a close friend forwarded me "that woman's" negative review of Mark Helprin's recently published novel, In Sunlight and in Shadow. I had read her tepid review of his novel Freddy and Fredericka a few years ago, so I was not surprised by the hostile tone of this one, in the least. She begins with, "If In Sunlight and in Shadow did not have Mark Helprin's name plastered on the cover, a reader might surmise that the author was someone desperately trying to imitate Danielle Steele or Nora Roberts." Kakutani is essentially trying to defame Helprin's literary reputation here, to reduce him to being a common novelist, a writer for the herd, instead of the artistic equal of such personages as McCarthy, Delillo and Roth.

I would posit however that her review transcends merely the noted figures of Michiko Kakutani and Mark Helprin, and even the novel itself. To me, it is emblematic of the ongoing cultural war between those adhering to the tenets of modernity: irony, cynicism, minimalism; and those who obstinately refuse to bow before these pestiferous ideals, those who honor beauty, truth and emotion. Kakutani obviously falls into the former, while Helprin is perhaps the most accomplished representative of the latter. And to go a bit further, Helprin is the closest thing modern culture has to such esteemed figures as John Keats and Walter Pater -- he evinces a type of Romantic Aestheticism that is a dying breed in this barbarous age of irony and gadgets. Kakutani comments upon Helprin's use of emotion thusly, "Every emotion in the novel is italicized. Every description is pumped full of treacle." In a 1996 author interview Helprin discussed the idea of emotion in modern letters, and while not addressing Kakutani directly here, he may as well have been.

And to be more specific and to be more, perhaps, accusatory, they are cowards. They are institutional cowards. They are the worst cowards in the world, because they run from emotion as if they were going to live forever. And they look down on it, they have contempt for it and one of the most enjoyable activities for them is to identify what they call sentimentality, because they don't know the difference between sentimentality and sentiment. And they attack it because they are terrible conformists. But they're conformists and they're cowards and they write according to various modern conventions. And who needs it? They are now ascendant and triumphant and I'm upholding a tradition which is dying, so I'm not going to win. But I'd rather lose and do it this way than win and be like them. (Mark Helprin, Authorial Air)

Though the Modernists and Post-Modernists have undoubtedly dominated the twentieth century, and the beginning of the twenty-first century, I do foresee the pendulum swinging back into the realm of To Kalon, back into a novel form of Romantic Aestheticism, abjuring the likes of Michiko Kakutani in the literary arts and Jerry Saltz in the visual arts, and instead looking to beautiful-souled Mark Helprin as a leading figure of the 21st century Renaissance. I will leave you not with my own words, but rather with a gorgeous passage from In Sunlight and in Shadow, a passage that those with the soul of Kakutani will certainly find to be turgid and overwrought, but what else does one expect from these gaggle of smirking anti-aesthetes? Regardless, I would encourage, you, the reader, to read it aloud to so as to fully savor its verbal majesty.

In the very early morning when the sun was trapped by the stubby buildings across the river in Long Island City, it sent out weak rays to scout the gaps between the tenements, and these rays would leap the river and hit the bottles, their dim light making the room glow in preternatural brown, bringing up the colors so gently that they showed even finer than the blazes of color that would follow. (Mark Helprin, In Sunlight and in Shadow, 597)

-Pietros Maneos de la Mancha, Son of Sappho and Herakles,