Must-Reads: ‘The Last Nude,’ ‘Arrows of the Night,’ and ‘The Fallback Plan’
A damning portrait of how Ahmad Chalabi led the U.S. into war, a sensual novel of a painter’s muse, and a wry portrait of an aimless generation are all this week’s must-reads.
America’s Fatal Friend
The second Iraq War was a strategic disaster for America whose bitter legacy will haunt us for years. It was also the result of a conspiracy between a small number of right-wing Americans and a remarkable Iraqi, Ahmad Chalabi, who orchestrated the American invasion to create a Shia-dominated new Iraq allied with Iran. He outfoxed his American partners and critics alike: today’s Iraq is very much his legacy. That’s the thesis of a brilliant new book, Arrows of the Night, by Richard Bonin, a producer at 60 Minutes. His deep research charts Chalabi’s decade-long campaign to get America to do what Iraqi exiles and Iran could not do alone—invade Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein.
The scion of one of Iraq’s wealthiest and most influential Shia Arab families before the 1958 revolution, Chalabi was determined to restore his family’s position in Iraq and bring the Shia majority to power after 500 years of minority Sunni rule dating to the Ottomans. First he tried using the CIA, and together they built an opposition in exile in Vienna and then on the ground in Kurdistan. But soon the CIA found him to be unreliable about his alleged but nonexistent intelligence sources inside Iraq, and also loose with its money (he had earlier embezzled millions in bank fraud in Jordan). So Chalabi turned on the agency, outfoxed it, and found stronger political allies in Congress, think tanks, and the media. He even recruited a few of his former agency handlers, once retired, to help him outflank the CIA. He had a simple and seductive message. Saddam was evil but vulnerable. Iraqis wanted democracy and were ready for it. Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds would work harmoniously together. For American Jews he also promised that the new Iraq would make peace with Israel, ignoring the Palestinians and pesky issues like Jerusalem. It was all lies and half truths, but many wanted to believe it, especially on the far right.
By 2001 he had powerful co-conspirators high in the new George W. Bush administration. In considerable detail Bonin records their secret meetings to seek war. Then Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda provided the spark Chalabi’s plan lacked—a casus belli. No matter that Saddam had nothing to do with 9/11; the hawks had their case and did not let facts interrupt their fantasy. Iraq would be freed and even pay for its own liberation. A war without cost would lead to a free democracy with Chalabi at its head. Cheap oil would lubricate Iraqi and American prosperity. Thousands of Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqis paid for this hubris, America went broke paying for it, and al Qaeda escaped to rebuild in Pakistan. Chalabi got what he wanted—a return to influence and power in Baghdad and a Shia state where Sunnis are now the downtrodden. Bonin shows Iran had always been Chalabi’s secret partner. Tehran was his other home after Mayfair and Georgetown. The Iranian intelligence services gave him sanctuary and support, they wanted Saddam dead too, and they wanted a Shia Iraq. He gave them secret intelligence on America. They bought his promise that he could manipulate America and that it would eventually go home, leaving Iraq closer to Tehran than Washington. One of his aides, Bonin reveals, was a full-time paid Iranian agent. When the CIA tried to expose his Iranian roots, Chalabi used the far right to silence it. It was amazing. The Iranían secret service had an agent of influence sitting next to the first lady at the State of the Union address; it knew that demography, culture, geography, and time were all on its side in the battle for Iraq. Now it just needed to avoid overplaying its hand.
Iraq’s Sunni Arab neighbors were always befuddled by Chalabi’s hold on America. Didn’t the Americans see his game? Didn’t they see Iran’s hand? The Saudis and Jordanians are quick today to say "we told you so." Barack Obama called it, rightly, a dumb war from the start. Now that he has got us out of it, some of those who sold the fantasy from the start want to go back in, or at least blame Obama for the outcome. This is silly. Arrows of the Night is a timely reminder of our past folly and an indictment of those who let the likes of Chalabi take us to disaster. It's bad enough to be fooled once; twice would be tragic.
A Muse to End All Muses
The Last Nude operates at the juncture of two genres of fiction that are extremely popular just now: the Time Travel narrative, which like Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife brings the reader back to a legendary time and place or like Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris actually transports its characters back in time; and the Behind Every Great Man narrative, which, also like The Paris Wife, or Loving Frank, or any number of books by Tracy Chevalier or Susan Vreeland, tells the love story behind a well-known work of art. Most of those volumes tell the stories of women who inspired great men, women whose names are as forgotten as their lovers’ names are glorified.
But in The Last Nude the artist is a woman, and to see a creative woman and her model desire each other is a major departure from type. Avery’s novel depicts the affair between the modernist painter Tamara de Lempicka and the model for six of her paintings. Lempicka, a Polish aristocrat exiled to Paris, was known for her imposing portraits, for the rich yet cleanly molded corpulence and solidity of her figures. The model known to history only by her first name, Rafaela, inspired some of Lempicka’s most legendary work, including the notorious Beautiful Rafaela, which shows a seriously curvaceous woman fondling herself, swooning in ecstasy, head back, eyes closed.
Of course, female artists can be as difficult and unfaithful as male artists. In Avery’s imagining of the affair, Rafaela Fano is a penniless 17-year-old Jewish-Italian girl from New York who ends up in Paris after fleeing a loveless betrothal. “I only met Tamara de Lempicka because I needed a hundred francs,” the novel begins, and money, and the power it brings, is one of the novel’s major preoccupations. Likewise, although Tamara lives in a mansion in the swanky Seventh Arrondissement, drives a Bugatti, dresses like a fashion plate, and indulges a minor cocaine habit, she needs still more money and more security, which Rafaela can never give her, and this need motivates the central betrayal of the novel.
Lempicka was an active member of the community of Sapphic expatriates trading partners and ideas in the City of Light: in the course of the novel we come across Natalie Barney, Romaine Brooks, and a tearful Djuna Barnes, distraught at Thelma Wood’s “catting around.” Rafaela hangs out at Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Company, hears about James Joyce’s new volume Pomes Penyeach, and wonders at the marriage-like Stein-Toklas ménage on the rue de Fleurus. But Avery makes an odd, idiosyncratic adjustment to the legendary landscape of the Time Travel narrative: she includes a baffling figure called Anson Hall, whose biography bears a strong resemblance to Ernest Hemingway yet—in a novel peopled with real historical figures—is not Hemingway (but bears the first name of one of his grandfathers and the surname of the other). Hall, a sportswriter from Chicago wounded in World War I, with a book of poems already published, is what Hemingway would have become if he had been a nicer person and a less successful writer. But he successfully manages to shake up the predictability of the Lost Generation backdrop. Sylvia Beach, too, is more lifelike here than in any other rendering of her I’ve read: she is blonde, perky, and attentive, with too-short jacket sleeves.
This is the kind of sartorial detail that attracts Rafaela’s attention throughout the novel, for at its heart, this is a novel about craft. In addition to being a sexy model, Rafaela is a budding dressmaker, and Avery blends together her talent for couture with the art-historical facts of Lempicka’s oeuvre. For example, take the well-known portrait of the woman in the silk-and-lace negligée that is inexplicably missing one strap. In Avery’s version, it was Rafaela who made the slip for Tamara, but in her enthusiasm presented it before she had finished it. Eventually, through her dressmaking, Rafaela becomes an artisan in her own right, no longer the object of Tamara’s gaze but a subject with her own ability to look, see, and create.
Seductive and compelling, the novel is painted with as much drama and precision as one of Lempicka’s canvases. Avery’s only smudges are due to the difficulty of using Rafaela as a narrator. In spite of the rather louche year she has spent in Paris, she is only 17, but her difficulty with deductive reasoning also comes across as authorial overexplanation: Rafaela is forever wondering, and then realizing. Her own actions are often a mystery to her. “I don’t know what possessed me to imitate Tamara at this moment, instead of just telling her,” she notes, as she strikes the pose that inspires Beautiful Rafaela.
Once the novel switches to an elderly Tamara’s point of view, narrated as she repaints Beautiful Rafaela on the last day of her life, the language is suddenly much tighter, more muscular. It is here that Avery’s own craft is most apparent. In a series of scenes set in Mexico in 1980, Avery’s portrait of the artist as an old lady blends Tamara’s longing, frustration, paranoia, and diva-like demands as she feels death approaching. It is in this final section that Avery’s ideas about art come soaring to the surface. Trying to understand why Rafaela was the perfect muse, Tamara realizes it is the right subject that brings out the artist’s best abilities. “I remembered how it felt when she came to pose. A gratitude, a joy that translates badly into words. I know how to mix these colors. I know what to do with these lines.” Words that form the credo of any artist who has hit her stride, be she painter, writer, or dressmaker.
Something About Her Generation
Reading Leigh Stein’s novel The Fallback Plan, I had the distinct sense that it exists as the first and very possibly the best of many books to come in a similar vein. Its affably glib opening lines set the tone while acknowledging the First-World-problems aspect to the text. “In June, the monsoons hit Bangladesh. Chinese police discovered slaves in a brickwork factory who couldn’t be sent home because they were too traumatized to remember anything but their own names, and Dr. Kevorkian was released from prison. In other news, I moved in with my parents.”
Protagonist Esther Kohler, having recently graduated from Northwestern University without job prospects, returns to her parents’ house and begins applying for what Douglas Coupland, in his own 20-something anthem, Generation X, referred to as “McJobs.” She applies at PetCo and Starbucks, though she can’t quite bring herself to pass out the fliers she made to advertise her services as a dog walker.
“You shouldn’t have to walk dogs,” Esther tells herself. “Sofia Coppola should hire you as her personal assistant. You should get paid to update her website and remember to bring a bag of her favorite snack foods when you two have to fly to international film festivals together.”
She soon scores a gig as a weekday babysitter for a couple she met more than a year before, just prior to the death of their younger daughter. That’s the point from which the story begins to move. Esther shares her days with the family a few streets away and witnesses up close the grown-up baggage of the adults and the innocence of their surviving daughter. Privately, Esther still dwells in the in-between world, living out the personal dramas of a not-quite-adult still living at home.
Arguably, Stein’s novel isn’t the story of one character. It’s the story of a cultural moment, of a fresh wave of college graduates who believe—wrongly, it turns out—that being bright and well educated guarantees them a place in the world. Herself only 27, Stein offers a portrayal of her tribe that is both perfectly executed and very funny. It’s true that nothing in her writing suggests she aims to represent her entire generation or even a part of it, though one could say the same of Jack Kerouac and On the Road.
In an early chapter, as Esther’s friends Pickle and Jack play Super Mario Kart, Jack elbows his opponent, “causing Pickle to drive Bowser into the ocean,” a videogame reference that will be meaningless to most readers over 35. Similar mentions are all over the The Fallback Plan—not aggressively, in the way, for instance, that Jonathan Franzen constantly mentions brand names. Stein’s references dot the text in a way that suggests the author isn’t showing off or making a point. It appears she writes about these things because excluding them would strain verisimilitude far more than including them.
Even Stein’s references to the past read as contemporary somehow, a commentary on how this generation in general and her protagonist in particular are always scanning for a frame of reference and not coming up with much. A page after her description of the videogame bump-off, Esther describes her feelings for Jack, a violent and unpredictable part-time Best Buy employee. “He was James Dean and I was Natalie Wood, and I just wished he’d put on a red jacket and we could go find a cliff to play Chicken on.”
Naturally, there are places where Stein’s inexperience shows through. But on the whole I found myself eager to return to The Fallback Plan when I was away from it. It’s hard to imagine a better book to give the smart, struggling young person in your life.