Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Last Magazine -- A Subversive, Inventive, Electrifying Debut

When Michael Hastings died at 33, almost exactly a year ago, everyone who followed his work knew the world had lost one of its most fearless, uncompromising journalists.

What we didn’t know was that we had lost an outstanding novelist, as well.

The Last Magazine is so many things:  a horrifying and hilarious parody; a you-are-there corporate thriller; a strange and touching love story.  Most of all, it’s a gripping bildungsroman (always wanted to break that word out in a review, and I couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity).  Hastings nails it all:  the confusion and terror of combat; the funhouse-distorted ambivalence of sexual addiction; the grubby machinations of office politics in the corridors of a major weekly news magazine.  The shallowness, the self-centeredness, the soullessness of the crabs-in-a-barrel culture Hastings deftly and scathingly depicts reminded me of the dark comedy In The Loop — these are people whose only care about the world catching fire is whether their profiles will be attractively lit by the flames.

If you've read The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan, you know that part of what always set Hastings apart was his voice (at times in The Operators he almost seems to be channeling James Elroy).  That voice informs everything he does in The Last Magazine, including a wonderful series of breaking-the-fourth-wall “interludes” such as, “Why I Write” (the narrator — or is it the author?  Both are named Michael Hastings — explains that his magazine’s no-outside-reporting policies necessitate that he disguise this true tale as a novel) and “I’m Very Sorry” (an apology to his colleagues, and again you don’t know whether this is coming from the narrator or the author) and “How a Magazine Story Gets Written” (shades of Moby Dick!).  The result is that from the first sentence you’re caught up in the meta and you don’t know where to look for the line between fiction and fact, between Hastings the narrator and Hastings the author.

But I think the location of that line is of secondary importance.  Because wherever the line lies, it animates truth.  Over and over again as I read this story, the thing that struck me most was how searingly honest it is.  Honest in its portrayal of human frailties; honest in its portrayal of what’s rotten and corrupt in journalism; most of all, honest in its portrayal of its young narrator, Michael Hastings, and of the other major character, veteran foreign correspondent A.E. Peoria (some version of an older Hastings?), both of whom suffer from many of the same weaknesses that afflict the characters around them.

This is just a great, great book, and a fitting testament to the talent and drive of an exceptional person who left the world much too soon.  I can’t help but be sad right now at the thought of all the other novels Hastings might have written, but now never will.  But at the same time, damn, I’m just glad he wrote this one.  It’s that good.

No comments: