The Worst of 2016
This is an exciting moment. Right now, only days after the beginning of 2017, we here at The Kugelmass Episodes are ready to reveal what was great — and what wasn’t — about last year. This list is made using scientific facts and standards, and separates what was truly wonderful from what was overhyped.
As usual, you will not have to endure a Kugelmass Episodes discussion of the tragedy which was Donald Trump’s election to the Presidency, because the election of a proto-Fascist to the highest office in the land is not something my blog needs to publicize or correct. If you really want to know how I feel about Donald Trump, you can read my post on my hunger strike, or you can see the full-page ad that I ran in The New York Times with the help of close friends like David Straithern and Thurston Moore.
Let’s start with what sucked, shall we?
THE WORST OF 2016
1. The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead
What a terrible, self-important, lazy, obvious novel. I’m sure, if you haven’t read it already, that you feel a guilty sense that you ought to read it, especially since every single newspaper in America listed it as one of the best books of the year. (It’s sitting in the bestseller list next to Jodi Picoult and Nicholas Sparks.)
First of all, there is nothing special about the writing. The descriptions of things are often good, but on the whole, the novel quickly settles into the kind of obvious, patently ironic tone that puerile writers love to use to describe horrific things. (If you’re wondering what I mean, just imagine how you’d write about a global water shortage. Wouldn’t you automatically write sentences like “It was little things at first. Taking shorter showers, then no showers at all. Having a cup of water at dessert…” etc. Making the familiar strange, or the strange familiar, or whatever.)
The conceit didn’t really bore me, but it did somewhat offend me, since fictionalizing real, lifesaving political resistance as a Harry Potter-esque train network is unfortunate. Much more problematic, however, is the novel’s protagonist Cora, who has no personality. Whitehead knows this, and the proof that he knows is a sentence (around page 60) where he alludes to Cora’s personality: “After six weeks at the museum, Cora hit upon a rotation that suited her personality.” Here he’s just hoping that if he calls her self, like, a thing, we’ll think it really exists. Then he compounds his error by making a white slave-catcher into a cartoonish villain, as if putting too much makeup on half your face is the same as applying it evenly all over.
You’re not obliged by the United States Constitution to read a novel simply on the grounds that it describes both slaves being whipped and African-Americans being deliberately infected with syphilis (when they’re not being sterilized for the greater good). Yes, all these things happened, and there wouldn’t be any harm in assigning this novel to a bunch of seventh-graders, but for God’s sake, do it in their History class, not in Language Arts, and make sure they still get a chance to read Where The Red Fern Grows.
In some ways, I expect, this is an even more controversial pick than my previous entry, because everybody — but everybody — watches and loves Westworld. The reason for this is that people are very excited and aroused by the idea of killable, fuckable robots who look and act human.
Now I’m sure that you would like to tell me that there is a lot more to the show than that. In a way, there is. There are some insights into the nature of chaos, consciousness, and the mind’s resilience in a subject undergoing psychological torture. Unfortunately, all of these insights were already plumbed by Jurassic Park (also written by Michael Crichton) and Dollhouse. I know, I know, you didn’t watch much of Dollhouse. But the fact is, it’s a better, more interesting show, because the “hosts” are real people, not Turing tests. Plus, there’s no denying that the live simulation map/Situation Room in Westworld is ripped off from the second movie in The Hunger Games series.
It feels like some kind of awful heresy to declare that there aren’t any other deeper meanings in Westworld, because everyone keeps telling us that it’s profound as well as sexy. Notice, however, that they carefully avoid delineating what these deeper meanings are. That’s the sign of a person having a fantasy fulfilled. What feels like meaning is rich pleasure. I’m all for rich pleasure, and I suppose one day somebody will come along and explain the something that (I’ll admit) feels like it is actually there, below the surface, powering this show. Until then, I urge you to waste your time elsewhere.
3. FiveThirtyEight.com and the liberal media
I know a fair number of my readers arrive at this site via my Facebook, so I won’t spend too much time re-hashing my list of the enormous problems that one website, and one national political party, created for themselves and us this year. But I can’t avoid the subject entirely.
The polls were wrong. I don’t know exactly why they were wrong, because the reasons are fairly complicated: no polling in Spanish, poor polling of underrepresented minorities, small test groups, badly worded questions, etc. There were probably a hundred different things wrong with the polls. Regardless, Nate Silver & Co. had no problem reading the polls as more-or-less objective tests of political realities, especially when it came to the Presidential election.
Now, it’s true that Silver demurred when it came to making an outright prediction. So what? There wasn’t a 35% chance that the polls were wrong; there was a 100% chance that they were wrong. Given the way the race for President proceeded, Trump had a 100% chance of winning. Furthermore, Silver and his followers had no problem using the language of the fait accompli. Remember when The New York Times ran a patronizing story about poor, deluded Trump, sitting alone in his big tower, pretending he still had a chance?
I’m reminded of the timeless quote by Damon Runyon: “The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that’s the way to bet.” We knew that Hillary Clinton was definitely going to defeat Donald Trump, because that’s what Silver and the national media told us would happen. We bet on her — many of us, too many, stayed home — and we lost. We overlooked huge constituencies that were always going to vote for Trump, whether the polls knew it or not. We assumed that Clinton would have the same kind of pull as Obama, which was wishful thinking given her lackluster candidacy.
I had a gut feeling that Clinton would lose. Her candidacy just reminded me too much of John Kerry and Al Gore (and Hillary Clinton circa 2008). Eventually, as you can see in my debate recap, I reneged on this feeling because the polls seemed incontrovertible.
4. Mitski: Puberty 2 / Jenny Hval: Blood Bitch
Blame it on Elvis, maybe, or even on Beethoven, but the fact is that solo albums by self-branding artists are always statements about gender. Conor Oberst crying his way through Bright Eyes’ Fevers and Mirrors is a pretty tearful version of masculinity, but it still is masculinity.
Unfortunately, far too many artists know this, think about it too much, and let it fuck up their music. Even worse, every critic knows it, and uses it as a lens to make reviewing records significantly easier. When you have listening fatigue, as most music critics do, and you can’t really enjoy listening to new albums, you can still appreciate them conceptually, especially if they seem radically feminist, transgender (and therefore particularly rare), or exquisitely queer.
Both Puberty 2 and Blood Bitch did a spectacular job positioning themselves as radfem albums that could “carry the banner” in 2016, and as a result, both bands landed squarely in Top 50 lists by Pitchfork.com and Spin magazine. Unlike (for example) trans artist Anohni, though, or the inimitable Julia Holter, this music didn’t measure up. In Mitski’s case, it’s not enough to just sound like a cross between Liz Phair and Lana Del Rey. You need to cantilever yourself up to that level of clever, and instead, Mitski delivers a bunch of sophomoric diary entries (over very decent post-grunge). When I was playing this album in my car, and Mitski screeched “would you kill meeeeeeee….”, my wife and I both immediately yelled “YES! GLADLY!”
Hval, meanwhile, is so desperate to sound like she’s presiding over that Wiccan scene in The Doors that she loses all pop accessibility in one fell swoop. Her lyrics are just awful, like something Mitski would write while listening to Nine Inch Nails: “I get so afraid / So I start speaking.” Oh, good for you, Jenny. You found your voice. You’re a female vampire. Go ahead and discover yourself all you want! I think we’ll go ahead and listen to something else, though, if that’s alright.
5. The flip-flopping Republicans and the “Never Trump!” Republicans
When Trump was outed for grabbing women “by the pussy,” that should have been it for Trump. I rarely have anything nice to say about Republicans, but I have to admit, I was cheered by the mass defections that took place after that Billy Bush tape went public, and women started coming forward with (undoubtedly true) stories of Trump committing sexual misconduct and assault.
Then they took it all back.
I would be hard-pressed to name a single Republican politician who has maintained a hard line when it comes to Donald Trump. In fact, if anyone reading this can think of a counter-example, I encourage them to post it in the comments section, as a sign that not everyone under the elephant tent is a gigantic shameless hypocrite. In all likelihood, the three people who came closest to a genuine epiphany this year were Megyn Kelly (who has just left FOX News), George W. Bush (a Trump-like man who denounced Trump), and that balding Republican pundit with a gig on MSNBC (who already works at MSNBC). I respect all three of them a little bit more now. I’m waiting for such people to take the next step, the real step, and come out as newly-minted, newly radicalized voices for the Left. See, that’s why I don’t respect the “Never Trump!” crowd. I’m not trying to imagine how the Republican Party can shore up its inherent ideological contradictions. I’ve come here to bury the Republicans, not to praise them.
The Democrats have their ideological contradictions, too, mostly involving their close ties with corporate interests and Wall Street. But at least they don’t claim to be more moral. They claim to be smarter, which is probably not true. But they just are more moral. There it is: deal with it. If you disagree with me, just remember that the first order of business for the new Republican super-majority was to dissolve the independent ethics office monitoring Congress.
6. “Chip” cards
Let me ask you something: is your card really safer? Is it? Because if it is, why do you still sometimes have to swipe it, including in card readers that have a chip reader device built into them? (Many feature a piece of cardboard, inserted into said chip reader device, emblazoned with the words “SWIPE YOUR CARD” or “NO CHIP.”) Has the incidence of identity theft really declined since these chip cards were (sort of) introduced? Or have we just been stuck with thicker, slower credit and debit cards, for reasons that only really benefit the card issuers?
One would at least hope that Verifone et al. could create a better system for using the cards than “PLEASE DON’T REMOVE YOUR CARD OH GOD” followed by a loud foghorn blare and the words “IF YOU DON’T REMOVE YOUR CARD RIGHT NOW YOU ARE GOING TO GET IT MISTER.”
7. The Girls and Modern Lovers
These two books were both recommended to me by Cosmopolitan magazine, which I read for the articles. (The same issue of Cosmo also recommended Yaa Gyasi’s marvelous book Homegoing, which was one of the Best things about 2016.) Modern Lovers has an incredible turquoise cover; The Girls has an incredible, psychedelic red/purple cover. Modern Lovers has a fantastic epigraph by Pavement; The Girls has a fantastic opening sentence.
Then both novels descend to levels of unimaginable triteness. Their subjects aren’t trite, to be sure: both novels are about the pain of being a young adult, and there’s real stuff to be said about that. (Meg Wolitzer said a lot of it in The Interestings, and Hanya Yanagihara did the same in A Little Life.) But the way these two novels exploit the scandalous events they invent (or borrow from the Manson cult, in Cline’s case) is just a pathetic cry for attention. Unfortunately, these cries were heard from coast to coast, and answered by millions of hapless readers.
I give you my Goodreads review of The Girls:
What a huge disappointment. Cline can write, that’s for sure, but her style is inconsistent. Some of her sentences are surprisingly dense and wise: “I was a woman outside his range of erotic attentions.” Many others are lazy: “I’d forgotten that dopey part of teenage girls: the desire for love flashing in her face.” (The good and bad alternate at random, as here, where both sentences are about the same thing, and nearly adjacent.) When the novel seems to push hardest for meaning and effect, it falls the most flat, e.g. “how could you ever tell yourself what you wanted was wrong?” A whole section of the book stops short at this mediocre, answerable question.
Her characters are more sharply defined by circumstances — the drugs they happen to be taking, especially — than by their experiences or aims. All of Cline’s stoned characters talk the same way, and blur together. The supposed center of the novel, mysterious Suzanne, only stays consistent during an amphetamine phase she undergoes at one point. Not one minor character stands out. There are the inevitable “beach scenes,” and “commune scenes,” and so on, that one finds in any post-60s California novel. This is worsened by the author’s totally literal use of the state’s cities and towns. Every location — Carmel, San Francisco, Mendocino, etc. — is like a postcard of itself.
The Manson connection is deeply unsatisfying. I certainly wasn’t keen to read some sort of fictionalized Manson tell-all, but Manson was at least weird, in all kinds of unpredictable ways. (An obvious example being his interpretations of “Helter Skelter.”) The character based on Manson here isn’t even credibly psychotic. He trundles through the novel, practicing free love and speaking in self-help cliches, until suddenly all his “girls” go on a murder spree. His minor crimes, such as sucking up money from his followers, seem like ham-fisted characterization of what a “cult leader” does, not a profound and gradually darkening portrait.
The novel is fairly short, which is a weakness, too. It ends before anything has really befallen the main character except misplaced guilt. Spare yourself the read.
9. The death of David Bowie and the hype surrounding Blackstar
I really, really wanted to include Blackstar on my list of the worst things of 2016, but I couldn’t, because there are some excellent songs on that album. Specifically, the first three songs are good, and the best one is “Lazarus,” which (yeah, OK, fine) is more moving because the singer is old and clearly thinking about his impending death.
As grateful as I am for “Lazarus,” specifically, and for Blackstar‘s existence in general, I wish that Bowie had died before releasing it. What a weird thing to say, right? Well, the problem with Blackstar is that it made Bowie seem really significant and relevant right now, to the music scene in 2016, which is a joke because he’s neither significant nor relevant. It certainly wasn’t one of the best albums of the year, and its existence sort of obscured the places our focus should have travelled, such as back to Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane and all the glam albums that made Bowie so magnificent and influential. Instead of giving an accurate eulogy for Bowie — “Glam Star Dies, Who Also Did Various Mediocre Musical Experiments For Many Years” — we heard over and over again that Bowie had “many phases” and that he was basically good at everything he tried…which he wasn’t. His remasters of the Stooges are terrible. So are most of the songs on his supposedly classic album Low. So is the music he made in collaboration with Trent Reznor.
Look, David Bowie isn’t Madonna. Stop trying to make him into Madonna! At the end of the day, a chameleon is just a brightly colored, cold-blooded, sun-loving lizard. That’s what David Bowie was, and he was great at it. Why does a chameleon change color? Because it doesn’t know what color it is supposed to be. And that was true of David Bowie, and he elevated it to a sort of genius when he married that inner void to glamour and queerness. We should be honoring him for that, not for the set of scales he happened to flash last.
10. People talking about what a bad year 2016 was
Guess what? When 2016 started, I was teaching in Connecticut. Now I’m blogging in Sacramento. That’s what you call having a bad year. I’m sick and tired of these bullshit status updates about what a terrible year 2016 was ’cause Trump won and lots of famous artists died. Badmouthing 2016 speaks to a certain inability to accept what a truly awful year 2017 is going to be for this country, whether or not any famous people die. Plus, the decision to blackball Bernie Sanders was made long before 2016. The decision to publicize, without comment, Trump calling Mexicans “rapists” was made in 2015.
The person I will miss the most is not David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, or Bernie Sanders, even though their deaths were terrible blows. I will miss Scott Eric Kaufman, my friend and fellow blogger. He created communities of people; he inspired movements, especially the movement that was “academic blogging.” Without him this blog would not exist. I will love him for as long as I live.
Through his writing, Scott gave everything to us. Unlike Bowie, he gave everything away. This post is dedicated to his memory.