Review: Lolita Podcast by Jamie Loftus

In this day and age, is it worth it to revisit Lolita?

For me, after I got very into audiobooks over the past decade, I recently had to ask myself this question. As I exhausted all my favorite novels and must-read literary canons over the last few years, #MeToo then happened. I found myself wondering: Has this book, as they say, aged badly? Fanciful prose or not, is Nabakov’s famous opus no longer appropriate in the 21st century?

I do remember reading back in my precocious and wannabe-edgy early twenties; why I specifically recall posting quotes on MySpace. There was no question that I was absolutely mesmerized by the language. Was younger-me, however, glamorizing child abuse way back then?

The whole molestation and kidnapping plot struck me as fucked up, surely, but like in a literary way. Honestly, I don’t think I was ever quite the sort to romanticize the disturbing premise as a “love story.” Yet it was quite fascinating.

I did consider it brilliant, and worthy of the reputation. I did watch the two film adaptations as well, which did not hold up. But now, as a more well-read and more knowledgeable man (of Humbert’s age no less!), it does feel kind of wrong to just read this like a normal novel.

I’m not saying old problematic stories must be—as they say so insincerely—“cancelled.” But I am saying that there are some questions that need to be considered. We need to think about these things.

Anyhow, I apologize for this droning disclaimer, but allow us to enter comedian Jamie Loftus’ 10-part Lolita Podcast. I first became familiar with the Robot Chicken writer’s excellent Mensa podcast, which highlighted so many problematic issues with that particular organization. It turned out, her latest was the exact context I so very much needed before revisiting.

A progressive and feminist take on Lolita comes at as a welcoming time as ever. It may be even more relevant to male readers (the demographic who tend to grossly take the notorious unreliable narrator at his word). As Loftus share so expertly, there is an extremely long and detailed history of popular culture not getting the point of this book.

Firstly, let’s make it absolutely clear. There is no question Humbert Humbert is the villain of this story. This really isn’t interpretable, look it up, author Vladimir Nabakov wrote extensively on how opposed he was to glamorizing the abuse of 12-year olds and calling it romantic. Again and again, he fought with the romantic notions that outgrew his novel and into its various adaptations.

Merely a cursory literary analysis gives endless evidence: Pedophile Humbert is introduced as a criminal in the introduction, the unreliability of his narration is laid out instantly! He is profoundly unlikable, and is consciously intended to be that way. He constantly lies to everyone around him. He spends his free time at the pool ogling children. He is contemptuous and hates all around him, insulting every random he meets with the worst kind of snobbery. Seriously, just because he claims he toxically loves one person so much and that is supposed to make him some sort of flawed hero?

He is pettily cruel to his new wife Charlotte Haze, he gaslights her, he fantasizing killing her in excruciating detail, he dismisses the tragic death of her son. (So much death, by the way. A theme that sure comes up a lot with his mother and his exes. But I digress.) Hell, if one really reads between the lines, he may have killed her himself and lied to the reader about the car accident just as he compulsively lies to his victim and every single person they meet. He drugs her with sleeping pills, then he drugs the eponymous character on their first night together so he can take off her clothes and fondle her, all while writing beautiful poetry of the sky-blue color of these rapey creep pills.

Indeed, Nabakov seems to be taking up a personal challenge to create the most creepy and cringing scenarios imaginable, and then dress it up with the most flowery of poetic language like it’s some kind of dare to see if the audience will buy his take. This takes seriously writing skill, no doubt. It can even be funny. But how very unfortunate that so often the public does just and are so easily impressed with this guy.

On the subject of the unreliable narration, the most egregious monstrosity of all must be the first rape after he picks her up from camp. The famous line, “Gentlemen of the jury. I wasn’t even her first.” As if that mattered. But whatever adolescent sexual experimentation his victim may or may not have engaged in, the very next day she specifically states that he “tore something inside me.” He was just plain lying through his teeth.

And then, the heartbreaking quote that really gives away the nature of this relationship. “You see, she had absolutely nowhere else to go.” To further illustrate, how Lo “sobs, every night, every night.”

So romantic, amiright? Furthermore, he threatens that if she turns him in then she’ll be a pitiful ward of the state. He calls her a whore and a slut and unjustly imagines the worst sexcapades. She accuses him of rape multiple times, using up a significant allotment of her rare moments of dialogue with which to express her truthful side of the story.

As a reader, I wholeheartedly thank podcater Jamie Loftus for preparing me to read between the lines with such careful analysis. Thank you.

Well, after that summation, if I may, I’d like to add some conclusions I have come to on my own.  Much has been said in criticisms of the assumption that Delores Haze is a “brat.” There is the issue of the so-called perfect victim, how that shouldn’t matter, but upon my reread that still doesn’t make sense to me. I can’t help thinking she’s only a normal child. Was Charlotte really a terrible parent who hated her daughter, or were they just having the normal bickering that happens in any family? The poor girl was certainly traumatized after the sudden death of the mother. Furthermore, there is the indication that she flirts with Humbert and has a crush on him: Again, he’s a damn unreliable narrator sociopath. Perhaps just let the kid be herself without putting so much on her.

My main maybe-somewhat-original perspective, is that I contend Clare Quilty does not even exist! That is, perhaps he was some celebrity playwright within this world, and perhaps Humbert was jailed for murdering him after inventing a reason. But I do not believe Quilty was following them around their Americana road trip, and I do not believe he was the one who helped Delores escape. There were other ways, and it must have driven Humbert mad to never know. He is a controlling paranoid predator, who admits hallucinations by the way, and the whole gimmick of someone driving behind does not ring true. That she ends up with an even worse abuser after leaving his clutches is just something his mind would project and imagine. The perfect rationalization for it all. I don’t buy it.

So, these are some of my thoughts after re-reading the book. On the subject of the podcast, the literary analysis and interviews with Nabakovian scholars made a supremely positive difference. But Loftus’s contribution doesn’t end there.

In fact, Lolita Podcast is as much about society at large as it is about one book. Popular culture has taken the trope of the sexy underage lover, sadly influenced far more by movie posters and YouTube clips than by actual reading, and the social impact is terrible. There’s the online Tumble “nymphet” fashion scene (ugh) which I previously knew nothing of, and that Lana Del Rey sure hasn’t helped. As a casual movie buff if nothing else, insider information about the 1962 Kubrick film and the horrible world of Hollywood was crucial and interesting. The 1997 film, featuring noted problematic male Jeremy Irons, was even worse. Note both of which aged up a star character who was twelve in the source material. There were also a couple of bizarre aborted stage productions which further reinforces how bad the sexualization of children has been, and how more modern audiences still don’t get it. The interviews and biographies of the main actresses showcases how their voices deserve to be heard. An important and informative work of journalism indeed.

Loftus concludes by asking the question of whether yet another adaptation would still have relevance and make a positive difference. For one thing, it’d be nice to have one helmed by a female creator for the first time ever. While there is the controversy of utilizing teenage actresses, and another question of how simulating ages can be just as bad, Loftus concludes animation may be the most ethical way. I’d argue a graphic novel could work, but in any case point taken. A new take does seem necessary. The themes of abuse and grooming and gaslighting are absolutely as valid as ever. The trope of a “Lolita” (and Loftus compassionately makes sure to always call the character Delores), often taken up by an opportunistic news media sensationalizing real-life tragedies, is still a term in our language today. The public deserves to know better of what this really means.

The novel Lolita by Vladimir Nabakov is a horror story told from the point of view of the monster. It is, I strongly argue, a masterpiece of horrifying and toxic obsession. The ultimate anti-love story.

In the decades since, this tale has permeated the broader culture at large, drifting far from its literary roots, and the world has quite literally lost the plot. The solution is not to try any ill-fated attempt to send Lolita down the memory hole, but to think harder, and fix this mistake of pop culture by staying true to one brilliant author’s intentions and share the truth. Lolita can be a powerful tool for education on toxicity and abuse, and it is still worth a try.

 

Lolita Podcast is available from iHeartRadio and is available on podcast platforms such as Apple and Google

Against the Web: A Cosmopolitan Answer to the New Right by Michael Brooks

Full disclosure: I am a big fan of The Majority Report podcast. Watching their video clips online has become a daily habit of mine for keeping up with the political world, especially during these tense last few years.

Co-host Michael Brooks (who also hosts his own solo The Michael Brooks Show) always has a very poignant take which I enjoy listening to, with the ability to summarize complex issues in a way both intelligent and entertaining.

The news market nowadays is indeed very oversaturated, particularly when it comes to opinions on YouTube, yet there is a reason I find myself drifting towards the Majority Report more than sources like the more independent and objective Democracy Now. Because in this current climate, it’s not just about getting the most facts. Anyone can do so if they want.

The battle over messaging has really become about being able to fight back against misinformation as much as anything else. And that is what I truly love about Sam Seder and Michael Brooks, that they aren’t above the fray at all—unlike that example I’ll use again, Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman. They fully take on the trending online garbage of the extreme alt-right, refusing to cede the internet world over to those charlatans.

For whatever reasons of history, social media’s biases tend to reward the worst of the worst when it comes to extreme political rhetoric. Even the old medias of cable news and talk radio can’t compete with the unfortunately powerful trolls of today.

But at least some people are fighting back, and are damn good at it. Therefore, I was very intrigued when I heard about Michael Brooks’ book project titled Against the Web: A Cosmopolitan Answer to the New Right published by Zero Books. The book is slim at only a hundred pages, which fits well as an e-book for those more low-attention spanned readers struggling to keep up with the information overload of the times.

The main focus of his critique concerns the so-called “Intellectual Dark Web,” the IDW, which is truly one of the dumbest names for the cheap yet successful motivational speakers who now pervade the gross right-wing. He starts of with an analysis of Sam Harris, who rose in fame as one of those New Atheist war-mongering neo-cons during the Bush era. Brooks lays out the laziness of his debate, which never truly was very intellectual at all. Particularly embarrassing is his email spat with Noam Chomsky, in which he actually says: “The history is completely irrelevant.”

And that’s it right there. These grifters cash in by presenting themselves as deep, yet don’t care to analyze how much of the state of the world is a product of historical context. Again and again, they are proven to have an authoritarian mindset, “a penchant for defending hierarchy” as Brooks expertly sums up. Even the late Christopher Hitchens was able to mock the “IQ obsessed.” He may have been wrong on Iraq, but I can’t imagine Hitchens today tolerating the logicbro nonsense of his old contemporaries.

Much of the book focuses on Jordan Peterson as well, the very definition of a self-help hack trying to cash in on the zeitgeist. Clearly, Peterson is not very good at being an academic as he flames the campus culture wars with his overuse of the term postmodernism—that catch-all nebulous term which is usually conflated with Marxism for no reason whatsoever. Peterson famously crashed and burned in his big Zizek debate, and has since gone so off the deep end that he is now in some of kind of rehab and/or in a coma in Russia of all places after hawking a bizarre all-meat diet. You can’t even satirize this stuff.

As Brooks says, “the Petersons of the world want to naturalize or mythologize the injustices we see around us instead of analyzing them as a function of historical process that, because they are human-made, can be rectified in the future.” They never were very interested in honestly learning what makes the world turn and, God forbid, trying to make the world better. The truth is, they only want Patreon subscribers.

The way they pretend to be victims and underdogs while growing in power is particularly infuriating. As he says, “The IDW and right in general love to have it both ways with free speech. On the one hand, if a reactionary is criticized for something they say, Free Speech is Under Attack. On the other hand, if a left-wing professor says something they find objectionable, or if too many faculty members have political views they dislike, they have no problem asking the government to step in to examine the curriculum and impose ‘balance.’” (Hell, check out the presidential Twitter fact-checking controversy happening right this very moment…)

“Still, right-wing media is one of the easiest gigs in the world.” You said it, Michael.

While it’s easy enough to dunk on the shallow Dave Rubins and Ben Shapiros of the world, that standard conservative trying to rebrand as wannabe intellectuals all of a sudden—and dunk he does, who couldn’t not reference Shapiro’s disastrous BBC interview with Andrew Neils—Brooks’ real point goes far beyond such critiques. The true core of his thesis is that it’s time for the left to do better in winning over that angry young man demographic these guys so easily convert.

Don’t let them use fake terms like “classical liberal,” don’t let them have free reign on Joe Rogan and then just hope the moral superiority of the left will actually win elections and change hearts.

In his final criticisms of the “ultra-woke” left, Brooks has much to say on why we should encourage moral growth instead of shaming and canceling, of which the latter often adds fuel to the bad faith arguments of the right. Personally, I think the apparent craziness of the university protest crowd has always been exaggerated and never was as big a deal as the clickbait merchants would have us think. But Brooks does have a point.

Like it or not, this new crop of right-wingers is a loud voice today. It’s time to understand them, so that the good guys can win. The end goal is a fair and just society, a cosmopolitan socialism as Brooks concludes which is able to express itself successfully in the modern landscape and that can unify the positive traditions of cultures from all over the world. That’s the fight worth having.

It is time to form an international message of solidarity, and the path forward with be both for the left to get it together and also to finally defeat the manipulative new right of the web.

So let’s do it!

 

Hong Kong Writers Circle Podcast

A couple of weeks ago I went down to Hong Kong in order to participate in an interview with the Hong Kong Writers Circle. I met SCC Overton, editor of their anthology (latest being Of Gods and Mobsters which I look forward to reading), and we had a great discussion about my novel South China Morning Blues and the craft or writing.

(Although one never does like how one sounds when recorded…)

It is online now, and I am pleased to share. Please have a listen and check out the site as well:

 

http://www.hkwriterscircle.com/hkwc-podcast-16-south-china-morning-blues/

 

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