Book review of “Recessional: The Death of Free Speech and the Cost of Lunch,” by David Mamet

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There’s an essay early in David Mamet’s new book, “Recessional: The Death of Free Speech and the Cost of a Free Lunch,” that offers a tantalizing glimpse of what the book could have been, were the celebrated playwright’s brains not so irradiated by right -wing media and memes. The essay, “King Kong,” takes as its starting point the racial and erotic subtext of the 1933 movie about a big black ape who desperately, violently desires a White woman.

Kong dies, writes Mamet, “clutching both her and the world’s biggest erection, overcome by the mechanical contrivances of the puny white men who, as unaided individuals, had no hope of combating his animal lust.”

Why, asks Mamet, were White audiences so eager to watch such a film? His answer, informed by Freud, is repression. Repression followed by the need to deal, unconsciously, with what has been repressed. Fear of Blackness. Guilt and shame at the violence visited on generations of Black people. Envy, etc. A bouillabaisse of conflicting and unacknowledgeable desires, fears and animosities that needs somehow to be metabolized. This is where the alchemy of popular culture comes in, says Mamet. A movie like “King Kong” takes the repressed feelings and then veils and remixes them enough to allow them back into view, where they can be eagerly consumed by a public in need of relief from its agitated unconscious.

So far so good. This is interesting cultural criticism, written by someone who knows from culture. I can imagine a different book in which Mamet takes such insights and goes even deeper into the American unconscious, past and present, airing its hidden racial and sexual laundry, drawing on the well of dark genius that produced plays like “Glengarry Glen Ross” and “Oleanna” to wave back at us all our unmentionables.

Who better, in this hypothetical, to challenge and provoke the left than a bare-knuckle Jew like Mamet, Chicago-born and bred, conqueror of the New York theater world, veteran of the LA movie world, scourge of self-delusion and performative piety, relative latecomer to conservatism? Who better to tell us what acts of repression and self-deception are being performed right now by right-thinking leftists and liberals? God knows we could use it.

If only. Telling an author what he should have written is one of the cardinal sins of book criticism. In the case of “Recessional,” though, it seems like the only critically generous thing to do. Because the alternative is to dwell on the book as it is, which is a pale facsimile of my hypothetical. “Recessional” isn’t really a book at all but a McBook. It’s a collection of disparate pieces, written mostly as columns for National Review, that are given back to us in book form only because the author has a big name and there’s some money to be made – or at least a valuable relationship to be massaged. Mamet does not like public school teachers. He does not like pacifists. He likes Donald Trump. He likes Israel. He does not like Black Lives Matter or Occupy Wall Street. He likes God. He does not like coronavirus restrictions. He really, really does not like liberals.

There’s nothing wrong, in principle, with this set of likes and dislikes, and I can imagine a collection of columns (there I go again) that is interesting and stylish enough to justify itself as a book. But Mamet in “Recessional” is a lazy writer. There are charming passages here and there, particularly when he’s reflecting on his professional experience or musing on the challenges of being an artist. But there’s a slapdash quality to it all, an unearned confidence that his writerly instincts are so potent that a few anecdotes or observations strung together, tied up at the end with a callback to the beginning, will naturally coalesce into profundity. That associative, jump-cutting style can work, but you have to know how to do it, and even then you have to work at it. Mamet seems beyond working at it, and I presume beyond receiving or accepting honest feedback from editors or friends.

Mamet is also, on the evidence of this book, a lazy reader. We are blessed right now with a surplus of writers and intellectuals critiquing the left with great subtlety and sophistication. Some are conservatives. Others are dissenting liberals and leftists. Mamet seems to have read or listened to none of them. He seems instead to be in dialogue only with vulgar right-wing sources. Rush Limbaugh, I suspect, was an influence (Mamet mentions a now-dead radio host). Maybe Mark Levin and Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson. Mamet’s writing is a little bit more interesting than these guys’ demagoguery. He knows history. He’s read Freud and Beckett.

What’s depressing is that he should be vastly more interesting than them, and he’s not. He’s David effing Mamet, one of the great living playwrights of the English-speaking world, a brilliant man and an extraordinarily stylish writer. Even at 74, an age when all but the rarest of us are past our primes, he should be better. That he’s not is an indictment of him but also of our times – of Twitter and Facebook, Fox News and MSNBC, National Review and the woke ACLU. They’re eating our brains. We need to figure out how to stop them, without becoming them.

Daniel Oppenheimer is the author of “Far From Respectable: Dave Hickey and His Art. ”

The Death of Free Speech and the Cost of a Free Lunch

Broadside. 240 pp. $ 28.99

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