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Kunstler Strikes Again
on January 9, 2002
Any review of a James Howard Kunstler book must nearly by necessity begin with a tip of the hat to his "Nowhere" books, to acknowledge their quality, to (perhaps) lend an air of authority to the reviewer, but most of all to place in context his current offering. The City in Mind enlarges and deepens the concern he voiced in those previous books for the human condition, as it is affected by our man-made environment, specifically living arrangements such as cities and, even more particularly in those prior works - suburbs. While continuing to skewer our domestic "National Automobile Slum" which made his "Nowhere" books famous (look out Atlanta), Mr. Kunstler presents a broad and rich discussion of eight cities both domestic and foreign, in chapters devoted to, and named after, each city in question.
Kunstler describes the historical evolution of each metropolis as it developed through the geography, culture, personalities, and psychology particular to it. In so doing he provides an explanation for the current condition of each, and attempts a prognosis. In earlier days, Kunstler wrote novels (Embarrassment of Riches, etc.), so he knows how to tell a story. And the story of each of these cities is vivid - so vivid in fact that Kunstler could easily bring his ample literary skills to bear on writing history and do it in a way that would enthrall people who otherwise find it lifeless. For example, the first chapter on Paris describes the massive renovation undertaken by Louis Napoleon and his able administrator Haussmann. Those for whom this era in the life of one of the world's most beloved cities is unknown (like me) will find the fascinating details provided (funding projects via convoluted financial schemes, providing water to the City of Light via Roman-like aqueducts) a revelation. Or read about the institutionalized Aztec cult of human sacrifice and cannibalism for a real eye-opener.
From a broad description of the history of each city, Kunstler increases the resolution, focusing on aspects of urban and architectural design. He provides insight into why and how design principles, primarily the classical rules as developed by the Greeks and Romans, can enhance our surroundings where they are employed, or damage them where they are not. These aesthetic considerations are complemented by Kunstler's appreciation for tougher realities, such as the threats imposed by the peaking of global oil production on places like Las Vegas, or the scarcity of fresh water to places like Mexico City. In any case, his message is clear - we must change our man-made environment or risk those things we value most.
No review would be complete without a mention of the mode of Kunstler's writing style used in the service of exposing the dreadful effects of malconfigured urban and suburban landscapes, a style termed "wickedly mordant" elsewhere. This description is too restrictive: one that I prefer is savagely eloquent, a phrase that captures the uplifting, positive aspects of his writing, while acknowledging his masterful sarcasm. Here's an eloquent example as he stands on a hill in Rome, surveying its ruins: "On the Palatine Hill, time's remorseless power is revealed in the silence that shrouds the enormity of a civilization's destruction and the palpable shock waves that still emanate from its physical residue". Beyond all this, I find his prose simultaneously funny, entertaining, touching, instructive, brutal - astonishingly expressive regardless of the subject - and it makes for marvelous reading.
I made mention earlier of Kunstler's humor, which doesn't do his comedic skills justice; at times his stuff can be hilarious. These laugh-out-loud sections I have taken to reading to my family at their request. Read the description of tourists crossing 150-foot wide thoroughfares in Las Vegas in a sort of modern day "Bataan death march", and you'll know what I mean.
Otherwise get the book and read it for all the reasons I've described. It's a special book, one that can evoke and recognize the tragic, and yet be comedic at the same time - classical in a way. In his Roman chapter, Kunstler asks if the classical can rescue us - his book will certainly help.