From Publishers Weekly
Lévy's journey through this "magnificent, mad country" is indeed vertiginous as he loops from coast to coast and back, mounting to the heights of wealth and power—interviewing the likes of Barry Diller and John Kerry—and plunging into the depths of poverty and powerlessness, in urban ghettoes and prisons. (In this last, he truly follows Tocqueville, whose assignment in the young America was to visit prisons.) Each scene is quite short, which is frustrating at first, but soon the quick succession of images creates a jostling, animated portrait of America, full of resonances and contradictions. Sharon Stone in her luxurious home, railing about the misery of the poor, is quickly followed by Lévy's chat with a waitress in a Colorado town struggling to make ends meet. A gated retirement community in Arizona seems to the author like a prison, while Angola, a prison in Louisiana, has lush grounds that resemble a retirement community's. Lévy (Who Killed Daniel Pearl
), the celebrated French thinker and journalist, is a master of the vignette and the miniature, whether explaining why he could feel at home in Seattle or pondering whether Diller's apparent amorality is "too flaunted to be completely sincere." In France, where anti-Americanism has been so popular, Lévy has been an anti-anti-Americanist, and while he finds serious fissures in this country's social landscape, in the end he is an optimist about the future of a country he admires for the richness of its culture and its political vision. (Feb. 1)
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When Tocqueville wrote "Democracy in America," in the eighteen-thirties, it seemed as if only a foreigner could identify the essence of American culture. Now Lévy, a new kind of French aristocrat, has retraced his steps, travelling through our malls and megachurches and prisons. Lévy's writing has always been an arms race between shrewd observation and rapt self-absorption, but that's not the only problem here. The outsider's advantage is to see things fresh; his disadvantage is that he doesn't know when his observations are anything but fresh. In recent decades, our national self-scrutiny has spawned a library of its ownJoan Didion, Christopher Lasch, Mike Davis, Richard Sennett, Thomas Frankand the time is long past when extracting profundities from the Mall of America seemed daring, rather than trite. Lévy's hortatory prose seethes with provocation and paradox; the trouble is that so many of his observations are so stale and predictable.
Copyright © 2006 The New Yorker
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