Fleur Macdonald

Across the literary pages | 16 July 2012

Across the literary pages | 16 July 2012
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Any idea what an Ouroboros is? It's not the name of the cloud hanging over London at the moment but, according to Will Wilkinson, in his review of Joseph Stiglitz's The Price of Inequality on the Economist blog, a perfect symbol for the ‘progressive master narrative’ championed by a new technocratic coterie (which also counts Paul Krugman among its members). An ancient image of a snake consuming its own extremity, the Ouroboros is a fitting symbol for ‘progressives dizzy from chasing their tails’.

Nobel prize winner, former head of economics at the World Bank and adviser to Clinton, Stiglitz is apparently in the perfect position to comment on the price of inequality — costly, incidentally — and to stage an argument that's become overwhelmingly familiar in the wake of the recession.

Stiglitz views US economics as increasingly defined by an elite number: ‘of the 1%, for the 1%, by the 1%’ as the greedy few have ensured the pie hasn't become bigger but their slice has become larger. Samuel Brittan in the Financial Times considered the excessive endnotes in the text stodgy and Stiglitz's pie analogy hard to swallow: ‘when he goes on to advocate top tax rates above 70 per cent, active steps to manage the trade balance, curbs on globalisation, and restoring union powers, my sympathy begins to wane.’ For Yvonne Roberts in the Guardian however, the wealth of anecdotes and examples convince and entertain as Stiglitz put paid to Osborne's plan A and ‘methodically and lyrically (almost joyously) exposes the myths that provide justification for 'deficit fetishism' and the rule of austerity.’

But back to the Ouroboros: Stiglitz's calls for a stronger public sector, stringent regulation and clear accountability sound hollow to Will Wilkinson. Kindly economists, with their ‘superior moral rectitude and mastery of the relevant social science’, aim to present ‘a sturdy bulwark against the tide of money that threatens to corrupt our politics’. But their analysis of inequality and its reduction is self-destructively circular. They are just another elite who are prey to the nexus of lobbies and unable to extirpate the toxic relationship of politics and profit.

Here in Britain we benefit from a strong front line of intellectuals, notable for clear-sighted argument and feasible advice. The Observer interviewed Chavs author, Owen Jones, in their summer reading roundup. Apparently he’ll be savouring Das Kapital on his Kindle at the beach this summer.

The American dream also came under fire in Ben Fountain's Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, dubbed by Vietnam veteran and novelist Karl Marlantes as the Catch-22 for the Iraq era. This one-day account of the Bravo Squad, fresh from war, who are paraded at the Dallas Cowboys' Thanksgiving match, got rave reviews on both sides of the Atlantic.

Mark Wilson in the Independent said the novel was about ‘the American way of watching war, brought to you by General Motors’. Theo Tait called the 'ironic, media-saturated style' reminiscent of David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen but ‘rich, sharply drawn characters that you care about’ added an extra layer of sincerity. And after a rocky start, Geoff Dyer in the New York Times also fell ‘in love with the book, and that love finds expression in more and wilder laughter.’

But there was a lone dissenter as Observer iconoclast Robert McCrum completely ignored the ‘niftily postmodern … heavily mediated reality’ that Theo Tait found intriguing, and the ‘uber story, defined by irony and metaphor’ which fascinated Carolyn Kellogg in the LA Times. McCrum carped that ‘the unintended consequence of Fountain's bravura performance is to reduce the experience to words and style … extraordinary writing, but essentially fiction for non-fiction readers.’

Less controversially, the Observer magazine dedicated this week's issue to a cultural Olympian and a moot point: Shakespeare is great. Rather than wasting time reading Alan Cumming's musings about Shakespeare’s ‘full gamut of sexual statuses’, I'd just go see the damn plays.