Alex Massie

The Dangers of Brilliance

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Given the nature of his own work there was something delightfully, shall we say, mischievous about David Brooks' review of Simon Schama's (absurdly titled) The American Future: A History. The into was especially good:

Some people collect stamps, and others butterflies, but I have a thing for Brilliant Books. The Brilliant Book is the sort of book written by a big thinker who comes to capture the American spirit while armed only with his own brilliance.

He usually comes during an election year so he can observe the spectacle of the campaign and peer into the nation’s exposed soul. He visits the stationsof officially prescribed American exotica. He will enjoya moment of soulful rapture at a black church. He will venture out to an evangelical megachurch (and combine condescension with self-congratulationby bravely announcing to the world that these people are more human than you’d think). He will swing by and be brilliant in rambunctious Texas. He’ll be brilliant in the farm belt, brilliant in Las Vegas, reverential in Selma and profound in Malibu.

Along the way, his writing will outstrip his reportage. And as his inability to come up with anything new to say about this country builds, his prose will grow more complex, emotive, gothic, desperate, overheated and nebulous until finally, about two-thirds of the way through, there will be a prose-poem of pure meaninglessness as his brilliance finally breaks loose from the tethers of observation and oozes across the page in a great, gopping goo of pure pretension. All true and all good reasons why British journalists and travelling film-makers should rarely be encouraged to write books about their times in America. Little that is either good or new or revelatory ever comes of such broad-brush adventures. Granted, Schama's book can't be as bad as Bernard-Henri Levy's fanciful American roadtrip (inexplicably serialised in the Atlantic for, it seemed, years on end) but I can't believe it's anything close to being his best work either...

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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