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Surfing the Zeitgeist is a collection of essays by Britain's preeminent post-modernist. Confronted with a world in which too much is changing too fast, the attitude of most British critics is simply to ignore the fact that today's culture is in a state of constant ebullience and continue turning out, or churning out, week after week, month after month, the kind of article, a complacent conflation of artistic impressions, that could have been written thirty, fifty or a hundred years ago. Gilbert Adair is a critic with a difference. Witty, perspicacious and in love with language, he is prepared to engage with the multifarious realities of our culture - culture in the least restricted sense of the word. He is prepared to embrace them, if not unconditionally, then at least without encumbering hinself with any twinges of nostalgia for the past's redundant credos and repertories. The essays which make up this collection - on subjects as various as postmodernism and pop music, AIDS and art movies, Tintin and the Titanic - thus constitute a uniquely stimulating record of the nineties and, like the cool, glinting surfaces of a Calder mobile, reflect the most significant fragments of our cultural agenda.
British writer Adair has an imposing record with three novels, books on film such as Hollywood's Vietnam and Flickers and one of the more convincing acts of translation with his version of Georges Perec's "e"-less A Void. This collection of short, occasional essays he wrote for London's Sunday Times is less impressive. He covers a range of contemporary subjects--"On decadence" and "On Freud" to "On AIDS"--but all are rather lightweight. Adair tries, ultimately unsuccessfully, to give his book the kind of sharp, witty analyses of popular foibles found in Roland Barthes's Mythologies. But part of the problem is that Adair's reflections do not travel well, since they are too often based on what he read in the British press or saw on a British stage the day before; he quotes a theater critic like Michael Billington as if he were well known, not just in England but all over the world, which is certainly not the case. Moreover, even for the London Times in its current sadly decomposed state, the comments here are often trite, such as in "On melody," when he wonders why the tune of Gershwin's "Summertime" "took so long" to be discovered by a composer, any composer at all. The same holds true with jokes, as when he suggests in "On American presidents" that Jimmy Carter should star "in a play entitled A Streetcar Named Retire." Such problems might be forgiven a writer faced with a newspaper deadline, but the mistake is in immortalizing them. This prolific author will no doubt soon offer a new book of greater value on one of his pet themes, films or France.