Essays in an Almost Classical Mode

orbhaglund Essays in an Almost Classical ModeHow Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken
By Daniel Mendelsohn
Harper, 464 pages, $26.95

Daniel Mendelsohn brightens the dour New York Review of Books like few other contributors. This is partly thanks to his subject matter: neither Iraq nor climate change but literature, theater and the movies. It’s also thanks to his—not style, exactly; Mr. Mendelsohn’s a gifted writer, but the prose of his essays is less lyrical than that of his books, The Lost (2006) and The Elusive Embrace (1999). What distinguishes his criticism, rather, is a willingness to address not just the arts but their reception. He writes reviews as cultural commentary, and he’s more or less mastered the form.

For example, his essay on Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones not only diagnoses that book’s evasive sentimentality, but also the sickness in a country that would make the book such a massive best seller. His essays on film and theater often refer to audience reaction ("I was startled to hear people chuckling") and frequently mention earlier reviews, usually to challenge an emerging consensus ("another, perhaps hipper group of critics has objected that it is precisely as a game that we should see Kill Bill"). He even addresses an advertising campaign, lambasting Focus Features for portraying Brokeback Mountain as a standard star-crossed love story in which Romeo and Juliet just happen to be men. (The movie is "a tragedy about the specifically gay phenomenon of the closet," he says, and the vehemence with which critics hailed it as "universal" suggested an underlying discomfort about that fact.)

He also makes near-constant use of the second person: "It occurred to you, as you read these novels," goes an essay on Philip Roth, "that they were the work of an author facing his seventies." With this maneuver, Mr. Mendelsohn attempts to elevate his readers from consumers to participants. We’re not merely spectators booing and applauding Mr. Roth’s metaphorical backhands and forehands.

We’re esteemed citizens in a republic of the arts, debating the merits of Roth, Sebold et al., electing a few to lead us and banishing others to the cultural hinterlands.

If that analogy seems a bit Greek, it should: Mr. Mendelsohn is a classicist by training, and his artistic ideal is Greek drama, which "had much larger social, civic, ritual, and political resonances" than any of the arts do today. And he’s gleaned other criteria from the Greeks besides their degree of social engagement: He values deliberate, even stylized craft and prefers that art be "about" something. He also highlights "seriousness of purpose."

These standards focus Mr. Mendelsohn’s critical eye, but also narrow his vision. He’s brilliant on Pulitzer winners like Mr. Roth and Jeffrey Eugenides; serious Broadway fare like Tom Stoppard and Tennessee Williams; Oscar nominees like Sofia Coppola and Ang Lee—the upper middlebrow. He rarely takes on pop culture. When he does, he’s often funny, but much of his comedy is of the curmudgeonly kind: The movie 300, he says, "makes you wonder whether the tradition that began at Thermopylae"—i.e., "Western theater itself"—"might well have ended there, too."

When he finds the right subject, though—which is to say most of the time—he’s one of the best critics going. "September 11 at the Movies" is probably the smartest and most moving essay I have read about artistic responses to that day. Just before the towers were struck, Mr. Mendelsohn was thinking abut Aeschylus’ Persians, "the only classical Greek drama that dramatizes an actual historical event." He thinks of it again while watching Paul Greengrass’ United 93 and Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, each of which focuses on a specific occurrence from that cruelly action-packed day: the first on the passenger revolt that brought a plane down over Pennsylvania, the second on the rescue of two New York police officers trapped in the towers’ rubble.

By zooming in so close, Mr. Mendelsohn says, they avoid the bigger picture: the accidents and decisions that led a group of jihadists to target the United States and the U.S. government to overlook their preparations. In this, he argues, Messrs. Greengrass and Stone are quite unlike Aeschylus, who found a story line even in recent history—a narrative, not surprisingly, about the hubris of empire. "You could write a real tragedy," he says, "a Greek tragedy, about September 11 and what it has led to—a story with a true Aristotelian arc, a drama with a beginning that leads organically to a middle that leads organically, reasonably, to its inexorable end." You could indeed.

And if someone finally does, I hope that Daniel Mendelsohn writes a long and brilliant and beautiful essay about it. I wouldn’t be surprised.

David Haglund is the managing editor of PEN America. He can be reached at books@observer.com.