There is a short documentary on YouTube, about twenty minutes long, about the Aokigahara Forest (also known as Jaiku) in Japan. The documentary follows Azusa Hayano, a geologist who frequents the forest, as he explores the undergrowth, looking for signs of people who might have committed suicide there. The forest, after all, is famous as one of the most popular sites in the world for people to commit suicide, a tradition that stretches back even before modern times – in times of famine, the locals used to leave the elderly, unwanted babies, the sick, and other people that society sought to exclude for the sake of survival, leading to a longstanding association of the place with death and, not surprisingly, the ghosts of those who died there.
The forest, with its rugged density and lack of wildlife, enveloping the place in an eerie blanket of silence, seems particularly conducive to this kind of mythologizing. In 1960, Seichi Matsumoto captured the Japanese imagination with the publication of his (as yet untranslated) novel Kuroi Jukai (Black Sea of Trees), a romantic story of two doomed lovers. Robert James Russell’s novella seems to have been inspired by a conjunction of these sources.
The narrative is simple enough. Divided into chapters with headings like “Sacrifice” and “Enlightenment,” the main story follows two characters, Junko, a beautiful young Japanese woman, and Bill, an American, the two having met and fallen in love while they were students. The purpose of their journey is to discover some sign of Izumi, Junko’s older sister, who had disappeared in the forest, presumably having committed suicide. Each chapter concludes with a self-contained, italicized story about an unrelated character (or characters) who died in the forest due to various motives: shame, guilt, murder, and even a simple fascination with death.
I had a number of problems with Sea of Trees. For a start, so many of the elements from the aforementioned documentary seemed to have been incorporated into the basic details of the story: the abandoned car in the parking lot, the deserted campsite, the forlorn body of a deceased person, the doll nailed to a tree with a suicide note nailed next to it. Often it felt as though the novella I was reading was a transposition of the documentary into written form, with only minor modifications.
As we get into the second half of the book, the personalities of the two main characters start to emerge, revealing a major weakness of Russell’s abilities as a writer. Both Bill and Junko are disappointingly flat characters – Bill simply switches back and forth between lusting after Junko and meekly allowing her to walk all over him, while Junko is so unrealistically obsessed with finding her sister that she abandons all logic and, particularly in the final pages, believability. She reveals secrets about Izumi that make sense of her sister’s suicide, but her own behavior is so over the top that she made no inherent sense to me at all – her actions seemed a rather artificial device on Russell’s part to push the plot to its culmination rather than any explicable, organic development in her character.
The element of Sea of Trees that I was least able to stomach, though, was its uncritical romanticism. Let’s not forget that the world’s first romantic novel – Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) – also deals with the issue of suicide. While I can sympathize with the seductive power that Aokigahara, with its legends of demons and death, wields over the human imagination (it was what sparked my interest in Russell’s novella in the first place) what I found both lazy and problematic about the book was its wholesale acceptance of this tradition. The reader is not only led to empathize repeatedly with the suicide victims in the book, but also to accept the mystical power that is associated with the place. Bill does make some feeble attempts to give voice to reason, but they are quickly lost in the emotional deluge of Junko’s mania.
Sea of Trees could have been a powerful and complex examination of what life means in the face of death, especially when humanity is faced with the complex phenomenon of its own self-destruction. Russell draws on the operatic, emotional power of the romantic tradition to give his novel punch, but the problem is that this formula is so worn out that, quite simply, I can’t believe in its nobility anymore. I read Goethe’s Werther, for instance, and I think “Put the pistols away, young man – this Lotte woman is not worth it. Your momentary, youthful despair is far less daring than having the maturity to face life with all its prismatic hardness.” Surely that is what novelists, in the twenty-first century, ought to have learned, too – or at the very least, that romanticism is fine when it arouses us into life, but pushed to its extreme it descends into the very worst kind of nihilism.
© 2014 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.
Tao Lin is hot property in the world of contemporary literature, with Taipei, his third novel, being hailed as his breakthrough work. Part of his appeal lies, no doubt, in his capacity to divide: whether as a person and a writer, he tends either to inspire adoration as the voice of his generation or hatred for being a shallow impostor. Lin also complicates matters further by blurring the lines between fiction and autobiography in making Paul, the protagonist of Taipei, into a rather transparent stand-in for his own self. Paul essentially shares every aspect of Tao Lin’s history, from his Taiwanese background to his rampant drug use.
One of Lin’s champions is Bret Easton Ellis, and it is perhaps no surprise that Taipei is being compared to Ellis’s debut novel Less Than Zero (1985). In terms of personality, though, these two writers could not be more different. Unlike the self-promoting, egoistic Ellis, Lin, to coin a term, is a “black hole” provocateur. In the interviews I have read, he comes across as curiously passive and non-committal, much like the protagonist of Taipei, in a way that initially makes me want to punch him in the face for his apparent pretentiousness but, after further consideration, makes me also admire his ability to provoke such a reaction in spite of his utterly flavorless personality (nonetheless, I still want to punch him in the face).
Taipei had a similar effect on me as I was reading it. The opening pages were a lesson in patience: endlessly detailed descriptions of Paul’s passive-aggressive interactions with his initial girlfriend Michelle, introductions to a myriad of characters who bobbed in and out of the story without much significance, a lack of clear plot direction, and most grating of all, the minutiae of Paul’s online activity, as he cycles through an assortment of online chats, emails, blogs, texts, and other social media that are just as boring to him as they are to us as readers. Taipei is a boring, plot-less novel about a pretentious, self-absorbed protagonist who fritters away his time on worthless pursuits, goes to parties, does LOTS of drugs, whines about his poor relationships with his family, friends, and girlfriends while doing everything in his power to alienate them, and generally inhabits a zone of hipster privilege that is itself a cultural cliche. Not only that, but the novel’s title misleads the reader into expecting that it will shed some light on Taipei in some way, but when Paul goes to that city he does the exact same things he does in America: takes lots of drugs, plays with his MacBook, and sets about alienating his female companion.
My opinion started to moderate a little not because the novel improved dramatically as it went on or suddenly took on some kind of coherent plot, but because I began to see some unexpected similarities between Lin’s writing and earlier works of literature. Throughout Taipei, for instance, Lin uses quotation marks to indicate phrases that seem like cliches, and while in the early stages of reading I reacted, for instance, to Kyle’s description of Traci as “really hot” in quotation marks with an angry note in the margin (“what is this? high school?”), I reluctantly remembered that Flaubert does much the same thing in Madame Bovary, albeit with italics rather than quotation marks. I remembered also reading about Sartre’s drug habits, about how he was so amped up on speed that if you examine his handwritten manuscripts you can see where his handwriting slides off the edge of the page from writing so quickly.
It was the Sartre connection that really got me thinking, making me ponder a possible resonance between Taipei and Sartre’s first novel Nausea (1938). Nausea is a meditation on the anxiety of existence, a haunting feeling which troubles all human beings but that bothers, in particular, the novel’s sensitive central character Antoine Roquentin. Roquentin seems to be more attuned than others to this existential condition, and Sartre explores his protagonist’s ongoing dilemma through two main avenues: Roquentin’s ambivalent relationship with an Englishwoman, Anny, and various lyrical moments of philosophical insight, the most famous of which occurs when Roquentin sits on a park bench and contemplates the root of a chestnut tree (a passage that was inspired, it is said, by Sartre’s experiments with mescaline).
The best parts of Taipei more or less follow these aspects of Sartre’s novel. In place of Anny, Lin inserts Erin, a writer from Baltimore, into the story, who provides a breath of fresh air after Paul’s earlier, insipid entanglements with Michelle and then Laura, relationships that revealed little about the characters and did not move along the plot in any way. Erin, by contrast, provides an excellent foil to Paul’s character in the second half of the book, indulging his immature impulses by sharing drugs, making amateur films with Paul on their ubiquitous MacBooks, going to Las Vegas with him, visiting his family in Taipei, and then returning to New York for the novel’s final binge on heroin and magic mushrooms. Erin is the only character in the novel with any warmth and depth, and it is for this reason that she actually manages to shed some light on the colorless protagonist in Paul.
The true potential of this novel, however, comes into focus whenever Lin follows Sartre by providing the reader with lyrical contemplations about the meaning of existence. Normally, the prose style of the novel is either dull (tedious, in-depth descriptions of drug-taking and email-checking) or, in some cases, laughably clumsy. Lin comes up with some awful similes, from comparing Paul’s inability to understand others to “an amoeba trying to create a personal webpage using CSS” (p.10), to his protagonist’s social discomfort being “not unlike playing a difficult Nintendo game alone, with no instruction manual” (p.37). But these moments are somewhat redeemed by some glimpses of true lyrical beauty, such as this passage in which Paul imagines technology subverting its role as humanity’s slave and slowing taking over society:
“At some point, Paul vaguely realized, technology had begun for him to mostly only indicate the inevitability and vicinity of nothingness. Instead of postponing death by releasing nanobots into the bloodstream to fix things faster than they deteriorated, implanting little computers into people’s brains, or other methods Paul had probably read about on Wikipedia, until it became the distant, shrinking, nearly nonexistent somethingness that was currently life— and life, for immortal humans, became the predominate [“predominant”?] distraction that was currently death— technology seemed more likely to permanently eliminate life by uncontrollably fulfilling its only function: to indiscriminately convert matter, animate or inanimate, into computerized matter, for the sole purpose, it seemed, of increased functioning, until the universe was one computer. Technology, an abstraction, undetectable in concrete reality, was accomplishing its concrete task, Paul dimly intuited while idly petting Erin’s hair, by way of an increasingly committed and multiplying workforce of humans , who receive , over hundreds of generations, a certain kind of advancement (from feet to bicycles to cars, faces to bulletin boards to the internet) in exchange for converting a sufficient amount of matter into computerized matter for computers to be able to build themselves.” (p.167)
Or, to give an another example, here is a beautiful passage from late in the story in which Paul, high on mushrooms, imagines that his being is melding with that of Erin:
“His steady, controlled petting of one of Erin’s vertebra with the cuticle of his right index finger gradually felt like his only method of remaining in concrete reality, where he and Erin, and other people, shared a world. Sometimes, forgetting what he was doing, his finger would slow or stop and he would become aware of a drifting sensation and realize he was being absorbed— from an indiscernible distance, beyond which he wouldn’t know how to return— and, with some urgency, move his body or open his eyes, seeing grid-like overlays on the walls and holograms of graph paper in the air, to interrupt his being taken. The effort became gradually smaller and more unconscious and, as if for something to do, in place of what was now automatic, Paul began to discern his rhythmic petting as a continuous striving to elicit certain information from Erin by responding or not responding to her rhythms, in a cycle whose goal was to produce momentary equilibriums. He felt increasingly attuned to the speed and quality of her breathing and heart rate, until he felt able to instantly discern changes in her physiology, which in entirety began to seem like an inconstant unit of unique, irreducible information (an ever-changing display of only prime numbers) that was continuously expressed and that bypassed the parts of them that allowed for deliberation or perception or intuition, beginning and ending in the only place where they were exactly together, undifferentiated and unknowable, but couldn’t, in their present form, ever reach, like a thing communicating directly with itself, rendering them both irrelevant.” (pp.243-4)
These are the kind of occasional gems that are buried in the midst of a novel that is otherwise focused on the annoying and pretentious task of enumerating the banality of a certain class of people in America. Could it be that one style cannot exist without the other, that these lyrical passages need the tedium of Paul’s postmodern life in the same way that a picture needs a frame, that light needs darkness? Whatever the case, I certainly don’t think that Taipei is the next great work in contemporary literature, nor that Tao Lin is mature enough to break through at this stage, even though the consensus seems to be against me. Young writers tend to suffer from a lack of discipline, but Taipei perhaps suffers from too much: its relentlessly unemotional style is suffocating, a drawback made all the more stark by the intrusion of its best, most lyrical moments, those rare times when the novel breaks free from its pretentious shackles and shows glimpses of the writer that Lin might someday become.
© 2013 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.
The most famous scene in Marcel Proust’s monumental novelistic cycle In Search of Lost Time involves a cup of tea and a madeleine, a kind of French biscuit (cookie). In that scene, the narrator, Marcel, dips the madeleine into his tea and is suddenly, without warning, transported back into a labyrinth of memories, a whole lifetime of impressions that subsequently become the base material for Proust’s gargantuan work.
Now, I want you to do an experiment. I want you to take a cup of tea and a madeleine – I’ve baked a few just so that you can try this out – and replicate Marcel’s actions. Okay. What happened? Yes, yes, the madeleine was delicious, I’m an excellent baker, but putting that aside, what about the rush of impressions? The flood of memories? Were you transported into a meditative state that inspired you frantically to write down every detail of your life? No? Well, why not? Why should this work for Marcel and not for you?
This experiment came to mind as I was reading Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life for the book club that I attend each month. The experiment, of course, is designed to fail (and also provide an excuse for eating a delicious madeleine!). But what it illustrates to me, more seriously, is a realization that cuts to the heart of why de Botton’s book is a horrendous misreading not only of Proust, but also of what novels do in general.
Even though they fall under the collective umbrella of literature, the genres of the fable and the novel are quite different in their intentions. Read to the end of Aesop’s “The Fox and the Bunch of Grapes,” for instance, and the author explains the moral of the tale you have just read: “Similarly, certain people, [just like the fox,] not being able to run their affairs well because of their inefficiency, blame the circumstances.” But flip to the end of In Search of Lost Time or Great Expectations or Gravity’s Rainbow and you’ll find no such explanation. It’s not that the novelist has forgotten to put it in there, nor because there is any shortage of moral messages in novels, but instead this absence arises from the fact that novels are meant to be read in a way that differs markedly from the purposes of the fable.
The great Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin argues that the history of literature shows an evolution from early forms, which are characterized by their imposition of a single perspective and voice, to the gradual emergence of the novel, which incorporates multiple voices that are in dialogue with each other. While I don’t agree with the implication that fables and other early genres lack complexity, I do think Bakhtin’s insight into the character of the novel is correct: we ought to read every voice, every opinion, every action, not as a didactic assertion from the author about how we should see the world, but as one idea that is being played off against a whole series of competing points of view. For Bakhtin, then, the worst kind of novel is one that preaches at us, that tells us how to live rather than provoking us to enter into the dialogue and ask searching questions of ourselves.
There is a sense in which we already do this when reading drama. Take this famous dictum from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “To thine own self be true.” This saying is widely quoted as an example of Shakespeare’s great wisdom, but close readers of the play will know that it carries quite a different meaning when viewed in its proper context. These words, in fact, are spoken by Polonius to his son Laertes, and carry not the conventionally understood message of “be yourself,” but rather “look out for your own interests,” a less morally glamorous meaning that is appropriate coming from such a self-serving toady. It is a mistake, then, to attribute these words so carelessly to Shakespeare the person: they occur in a dialogical situation in the play that changes their meaning and, in so doing, strips them of their general applicability as a moralistic proverb.
The greatest novelists, then, are those who are willing to step outside the comfort zone and give serious consideration in their novels to ideas and philosophies that are not their own. Bakhtin considered Dostoevsky to be one such example, and it is not hard to see why: for a devoutly Christian writer to paint such a convincingly cynical portrait of the church in The Grand Inquisitor chapter of The Brothers Karamazov, for instance, is a daring and intellectually dangerous move. It not only shows the depth of Dostoevsky’s faith, but it also forces us, as readers, to question the extent to which we, in turn, are willing to ask difficult questions about our own beliefs. Dostoevsky is a brilliant novelist precisely because he raises these ethical questions without preaching to us, instead drawing readers into a dialogue of ideas that requires us to think for ourselves.
De Botton’s greatest sin in How Proust Can Change Your Life lies in the fact that he ignores this core logic of how novels work and instead uses In Search of Lost Time as a repository of maxims from which he can then draw moral lessons that suit his own middlebrow agenda. As such, Proust’s work is stripped of its status as a dialogue and transformed merely into a superficial “guide” to living. In so doing, de Botton, as he does repeatedly throughout the book, contradicts his own advice, for in the final chapter he warns that we must not treat writers as “oracles” whose wisdom we follow without question, for to do so would be to commit “artistic idolatry” – a perverse conclusion coming from a book that even announces in its title, without any trace of irony, that it intends to do exactly that to Proust.
What de Botton overlooks is that this kind of indirection lies at the very heart of the kind of knowledge that the humanities seeks to teach. Indeed, it is something of a lost art in today’s society, which has seems only to value only those things in which the educational intention appears clearly on the surface. Thus, everyone understands, for instance, that the concepts and skills that an engineer learns are transferred directly through the classes they take and are then applied to their jobs. Engineering, business, medicine: these are all fields that rely primarily on direct learning.
But how does one become a person who is capable of learning and understands the path to success? These ingredients are just as important for becoming a successful doctor or businessman as prescribing the right pill or balancing an account book, if not more so, for such personal qualities are the foundation from which success springs. These qualities – let us bracket them under the name “wisdom” – can only be learned from experience, never directly from a book or a teacher, as Proust’s character Elstir observes:
“We cannot be taught wisdom, we have to discover it for ourselves by a journey which no one can undertake for us, an effort which no one can spare us.” (p.67)
De Botton quotes this same passage but, in yet another example of self-contradiction, he nonetheless undertakes the journey of reading Proust for us in order to mine the latter’s work for every last sparkling piece of wisdom while ignoring its deeper meaning and context.
De Botton’s writing calls to mind Milan Kundera’s notion of kitsch. Kitsch, Kundera writes in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, is the kind of populist art that simultaneously manipulates our emotions and transforms the extraordinary into a generic form, easily consumable by the masses and thus a perfect tool for political manipulation. De Botton does exactly that to Proust, especially because for many of his readers, How Proust Can Change Your Life will be the easy-to-read, populist excuse for not actually reading In Search of Lost Time: look at readers’ reviews of the book on the internet and just count how many times they say “well, I’ve not read Proust and I probably never will, but I loved de Botton’s book about him…” Make no mistake: underneath his veneer of fake intellectualism, de Botton represents a social agenda that is merely bourgeois morality masquerading as self-improvement.
The reality is that wisdom, if it can be taught, can only ever be taught indirectly. Just as you won’t evoke the torrent of memories simply from eating a madeleine, so too there is little chance that Proust or any other novelist can really change your life unless you learn to enact the kind of indirect, dialogic thinking that lies at the very heart of what the novel does – a mode of thinking that de Botton, despite all his knowledge and education, abandons in order to turn out this tawdry piece of kitsch.
© 2013 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.
Most readers already know the basic structure of Cloud Atlas, which consists of six overlapping stories: a mid-nineteenth-century journal written by Adam Ewing, an American lawyer on his way home from business in Australia; a series of letters from an ambitious young composer, Robert Frobisher, to his lover Rufus Sixsmith, about how he has apprenticed himself to an ailing composer, Vyvyan Ayrs, shortly before the rise of the Nazis; a pastiche of a 1970s reporter/detective novel in which feisty journalist Luisa Rey investigates corruption at a nuclear power plant; a contemporary piece about a small-time publisher, Timothy Cavendish, whose brother tricks him into entering a nursing home; a post-apocalyptic interview with an android, Sonmi-451, who has transcended her programming to become fully human; and campfire account told by Zachry, who lives in a tribal world set even further in the future, and focuses on his encounters with a woman named Meronym, whose people still possess advanced technology. Only the last narrative is told in full: each of the other stories is told in part, with Mitchell returning to each narrative in reverse sequence until the book ends, once again, with Ewing’s account.
I have mixed feelings about this book that have mostly to do with its technical execution. The success of the different accounts, for instance, varies greatly: some of them are quite dull in the first half, but pick up measurably in the second, and it is for this reason that the first-time reader should be somewhat patient with this book. It does drag at first, but as more connections start to appear, it definitely gets more interesting. Two sections in particular stand out for me: the Luisa Rey section is hilarious if you are familiar with 1970s culture, especially because of the hyperbolic way in which Mitchell frames the narrative as a knee-jerk reaction to the times, from the Three-Mile Island accident to Watergate. But the best parts of the book belong to Sonmi, both because she is the most sympathetic character and because Mitchell’s technique seems at its smoothest here.
Mitchell is a very good writer, but he still has some polishing to do before he becomes truly great. Like many other readers, I did not appreciate the silly flourishes he gives to the English language of the future, and my reading speed noticeably slowed in that sixth story because of it. However, the greater technical flaws lay for me in two other areas. First, Mitchell’s characters are not always as interesting or developed as they might be, so that they sometimes seem to be ciphers for ideas rather than complex beings. Second, Mitchell’s use of literary allusions can sometimes be really clumsy. When Cavendish is waking up from his apparent stroke, for instance, he thinks the words “speak, memory” in a very unsubtle allusion to Nabokov’s autobiography. Similarly, there is Mitchell’s decision to call the faceshaper Madam Ovid after the Roman author of The Metamorphoses because, you know, she metamorphoses people. Such references are too unrealistically close to the surface of the text, and as such they are jarring. I really wish authors would trust the intelligence of their readers rather than using such clumsy devices.
Where Mitchell’s novel really hits home, though, lies not so much in the writing, but in the probing questions it asks about human existence. The shifting time periods of the narratives is a calculated tool designed to push readers outside the received political and philosophical assumptions of our time. When we strip these away, Mitchell shows, what remains are the ineradicable differences between weak and strong, which express themselves in different ways throughout human history. Through a logic that is explicitly informed by Spinoza, Hegel, and Nietzsche, Mitchell argues for a qualified version of eternal recurrence: not that history repeats itself literally, but rather that it follows a cycle of birth, strength, decline, and fall in a way that applies equally to individuals, civilizations, and ideas. Mitchell aligns these ideas in the Timothy Cavendish story, which pointedly overlays Cavendish’s decrepitude, both in terms of his physical weakness and his out-dated ideas and slang, with quotes from Gibbons’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. In terms of its ideas, Cloud Atlas delivers a brilliant, incisive blow to the modern reader’s assumptions, a potential for greatness that, unfortunately, is not quite matched by Mitchell’s technical skills as a writer.
© 2013 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.
In 1972, the great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges published a short story called “The Other,” in which his elderly self, seated on a bench in Cambridge (the alma mater of Serena Frome, the protagonist of Sweet Tooth), bumps into his younger self. The two versions of Borges engage in a dialogue from which each comes away disconcerted by the differences between them, a device that is used by Borges to reflect on the disparate selves that we inhabit in the course of our lives. McEwan replicates a similar but fleeting moment in the course of his narrative. Toward the end of the book, as Serena is making her way through the crowd at Victoria station, she has a sudden vision: “I happened to glance to my right, just as the crowd parted, and I saw something quite absurd. I had a momentary glimpse of my own face, then the gap closed and the vision was gone.” Sweet Tooth follows the same logic as Borges, for McEwan, now sixty-four and the author of more than a dozen books, uses this novel to reflect back on his early career.
On the surface, the plot seems to belie this strategy. Set in the 1970s, its first-person narrator is a young woman who, after graduating from Cambridge with a degree in mathematics, is recruited by MI5. Although women are usually given MI5’s lowliest tasks, Serena is given a break: she is assigned to an operation called Sweet Tooth, which provides covert funds to authors who have an established anti-communist bias. As such, Serena recruits Tom Haley, a budding young writer with whom she soon begins an affair. In this layer of the story McEwan provides a searching and sometimes hilarious examination of artistic integrity in relation to the state, a subject that resounds in a number of directions: the rise of a neoconservative ideology that has seen cuts to arts funding over the last four decades, the grounding of Sweet Tooth in the real-life precedent of the CIA’s funding of the magazine Encounter, and even Haley’s choice of Spencer’s Faerie Queene as the topic of his doctoral thesis, since Spencer’s work is an allegorical epic poem that bears a similarly complicated relationship to the politics of the Elizabethan age. Indeed, one might argue that the Faerie Queene, rather than any spy thriller, is McEwan’s biggest clue as to how to read this particular dimension of the novel (although I suspect that Spencer will somehow not see a dramatic spike in sales as a result).
Concealed within this story is a recurrent set of in-jokes about McEwan and his early career, expressed through the character of Tom Haley. As part of her background research, for instance, Serena reads Haley’s published stories, which bear strong similarities to the style and themes of McEwan’s early fiction. Like Borges, McEwan treats his younger self with a mixture of appreciation and amusement, establishing a deliberately ambiguous relationship with those earlier works. On the surface, he asks us to admire them, but underneath he seems to be smirking at their now-apparent youthful enthusiasm. McEwan also gives Haley many of his own biographical features, from his lanky frame to his home university of Sussex. Again, this quasi-portrait is undercut with an Austen-like irony that is easy to miss the first time through, most notably McEwan’s repeated insistence on Haley’s being a “swordsman” whose mastery in bed is commented on at every turn by Serena. It is difficult – and therefore deeply humorous – to work out whether McEwan is engaging in sexual boasting by proxy, or whether these moments arise from self-deprecating humor, or whether, like in Austen, the line between the two has become so blurry that it is no longer possible to judge the difference. Either way, careful readers of the novel, especially those who are reading it for a second time, should have wonderful time picking out these shades of ambiguity.
Sweet Tooth has wrongly been billed as a spy novel in the vein of, say, John le Carré, or even a thriller in the mold of McEwan’s earlier novel The Innocent, but that is not what this book is about at all. Instead, it asks searching questions about the value of literature to both the educational and political vitality of a society. Serena is a voracious but poor reader: she reads purely for the surface entertainment of a book, for instance, while missing the subtle underlying meanings of the text. As such, she avoids poetry and experimental prose, refusing to grapple with difficult works in what McEwan intimates is a symptom of a larger failure to engage in true critical thinking. Books are in danger, he warns us, of becoming as useless as the defunct telephones in Haley’s dystopian novella: “Without a telephone system, telephones are worthless junk.” Without a critical reading audience, McEwan implies, works of literature, including Sweet Tooth, are “worthless junk,” toys that are reduced to lowly entertainment when they could be used for so much more.
To conclude, if you have never read a book by Ian McEwan, then do not start with this one. The reason is simple: Sweet Tooth is in many ways a literary retrospective, an oblique reflection by the author back on the origins of his career. As such, if you haven’t read any early works by McEwan – especially In Between The Sheets – and don’t know anything about his life, you will miss a great deal of the logic and rich humor embedded in this novel.
© 2013 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.
The Quantity Theory of Insanity is Will Self’s first book, and although I had previously read Cock and Bull before I picked up this text, I felt as though I was starting over with his oeuvre. Reading Self from the start, in sequence, is not a bad strategy – after all, his fiction is littered with intratextual references, recurring characters, and little in-jokes that build from one book to the next.
Self is a polarizing writer whose reputation usually precedes him. He tends to be either loved or hated as a consequence, which is unfortunate, because authors should not be judged solely on the emotional reactions they provoke. You see, Self is clever and witty and erudite in a way that only the English seem to be able to pull off. Personally, I was captivated by the stories in The Quantity Theory of Insanity. Self is not merely showing off here: his satire has real teeth, and is grounded in a fierce intellect that attempts to be revolutionary even as it acknowledges such precursors as Kafka and Chekhov.
My experience of reading the first story in here, “The North London Book of the Dead,” is a perfect example of the unsettling yet amusing nature of Self’s texts. What appears at first to be a tragic tale of how a man loses his mother to cancer gradually transforms itself into minor pathos. The dead don’t go away altogether, the narrator discovers, they merely move to a different part of London. I was, by turns, confused and then amused as I realized the true purpose of the metaphor that Self was creating.
This biting caricature of the dullness of English life is replicated in other stories, such as “Understanding the Ur-Bororo.” The story follows the career of Janner, an aspiring anthropologist who dedicates his career to studying this obscure tribe, the Ur-Bororo, winning a special grant dedicated to this specific purpose. What Janner discovers, however, is that the romance surrounding the tribe derives purely from their obscurity. In reality, they are the most boring people in the world, whose culture shows a remarkable indifference to sex and whose conversations consist of bland observations about the weather. Janner marries one of the tribe and, in a brilliant satirical twist, brings her back to England, where she fits right in.
The stories in The Quantity Theory of Insanity thus typically explore one of two themes: the unexciting, self-limiting way in which humanity tends to live life, as exemplified by the two stories mentioned already as well as the book’s closer, “Waiting,” and Self’s exploration of madness, rationality, and power. It is in this book, for instance, that we first meet Self’s most important recurring character, the experimental psychiatrist Dr. Zack Busner, together with his notorious mentor Alkan (a not-too-subtle but utterly enjoyable caricature of Jacques Lacan). This latter theme is by far the most profound and interesting, and I particularly liked “Ward 9” (an inversion of Chekhov’s “Ward 6”) and the title story, which engages in a brilliant deconstruction of psychology’s attempts to legitimize itself through “objective” testing, a message that few will appreciate and even fewer will understand.
On the whole, I loved The Quantity Theory of Insanity with only a couple of reservations. The first is that I didn’t like the story “Mono-Cellular,” a testament to the occasional tendency of English fiction writers to overreach their abilities (I’m looking at you, A.S. Byatt). The second is that, well, at times it felt strangely dated, in the same way that reading literary and critical theory from the same period feels dated. I get the same feeling when I read Self’s other books, too, as if he is still trying to push the boundaries of 1980s postmodernism without realizing that the rest of the world has moved on. Nonetheless, it’s wickedly clever stuff, for all its strange anachronisms, and I highly recommend it if you are in the mood for something intelligent and anarchic.
© 2012 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.
What is “Egyptianism”? It’s a word that Nietzsche uses in Twilight of the Idols to describe the way in which philosophers take an idea and “mummify” it by draining all the life out. He writes of philosophers:
“There is […] their hatred of even the idea of becoming, their Egyptianism. They think they are doing a thing honour when they dehistoricise it, sub specie aeterni—when they make a mummy of it. All that philosophers have handled for millennia has been conceptual mummies; nothing actual has escaped their hands alive. They kill, they stuff, when they worship, these conceptual idolaters—they become a mortal danger to everything when they worship. Death, change, age, as well as procreation and growth, are for them objections—refutations even.” (p.45)
Philosophers, in other words, rework concepts so that they reflect their own values and prejudices because they cannot stand the idea that things have changed and evolved over time in ways that contradict how they think the universe ought to work. As such, they find ways to paper over those changes, to hide the twists and turns of how something came into being so that it appears, falsely, to possess a clarity and purpose of which we can make sense. Don’t like that an idea or event doesn’t fit into your system? Then rewrite it according to your own simple prejudices – that is a common operation in philosophy, according to Nietzsche.
As usual, Nietzsche’s choice of metaphor is a multi-layered one. Not only is he talking about how philosophers “mummify” ideas in a generic sense, he also clearly has in mind a particular episode in the history of Egypt: the reign of Akhenaten, also known as Amenhotep IV. Upon ascending to the throne, Amenhotep IV undertook a project that was common for all new rulers in the ancient world: he systematically dismantled the legacies of his predecessor in order to establish his own. This revisionist process went further than any previous pharaoh had dared, abolishing the powerful state worship of Amun-Ra in favor of a new monotheistic religion. Thus, Nietzsche’s sarcastic comment: “Be a philosopher, be a mummy, represent monotono-theism by a gravedigger-mimicry!” (p.45)
I kept thinking about these words as I was watching the recent BBC adaptation of Great Expectations, a book that is fresh in my mind from having taught it to my graduate class last semester. Readers are almost invariably disappointed by how books are translated onto the screen, but I have to say that I am not a purist. I don’t expect a one-to-one translation, and it is understandable that some economies are going to be necessary in the process, but what really annoys me are the repeated ways in which these adaptations overlook key ideas that the author is looking to explore in a work.
Great Expectations is a novel about class, for instance, and while the adaptation hits us over the head with the way in which money draws barriers between people, the idea of class being entangled in notions of birth and nobility is completely eschewed. Of course it is: the culture of aristocracy has been so thoroughly exterminated that we have difficulty understanding its prejudices today, and so Pip’s journey is rewritten as simply a problem of social mobility. How very curious it is that aristocratic culture is only ever presented to us in a flattened, caricatured manner, in terms that only a bourgeois audience can understand. Is it only about understanding, though? Isn’t it that there is something inherently dangerous in having people learn that, until recently, there existed a social order that represented a genuine challenge to our bourgeois values? How insecure we must be, that we still cannot even acknowledge this past. In so doing, we turn ourselves, like Pip, into frauds, mere parodies of the sophisticated beings for which we mistake ourselves.
The irony is that Dickens, in his own time, was highly critical of the contradictory way in which English society related to its own ideals. Do you remember that scene early in Great Expectations – omitted in the adaptation – when Magwitch holds Pip by the feet, so that the church tower is inverted? This symbolic moment is part of Dickens’s larger critique of the gap between Christian rhetoric and practice, showing how Pip’s willingness to help someone lower than himself is reconfigured as a criminal gesture, not a Christ-like act of virtue. A similar seam runs throughout Dickens’s work: think of the way that Oliver Twist wanders from parish to parish, unable to find a single Christian willing to help him, instead finding greater charity amongst a group of thieves than in the church. None of these religious hypocrisies appear in the adaptation either. We may be living in an outwardly secular, enlightened society, but we continue to pay lip service to a sense of Christian charity that we do not practice , just as we continue, with a strange hysteria, to proclaim the essential goodness of the bourgeoisie, even as Dickens reviles the potential vulgarity of its mindset through such characters as Pumblechook.
So it is that, in this year, the two-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens, we are predictably doing what we always have done to our cultural heroes: in the name of false piety, we mummify them by taking the critical essence of their ideas and hollowing them out until they become crude puppets for our own prejudices.
© 2012 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.