• Agostino

    Alberto Moravia

    If not an outright hormonal hell, puberty is at the very least an awkward and uncomfortable age. Nevertheless, it is out of this familiar coming-of-age that Alberto Moravia crafts a graceful and sensual short novel and modern parable. The Freudian myth is placed up front, as well as the nasty hierarchies of class, power, and beauty that have such an impact on us when they first force themselves, usually quite rudely, upon our awareness. The boy Agostino will be the father to the man, just as love turns into a hard carapace to protect his innocent childhood sensibility. New identities are tried on, none of them particularly attractive. Agostino’s father is dead and his other role models are poor if not downright degenerate. I find this such a tragic story. After thirteen it’s all downhill.

  • Boiling Mad

    By Kate Zernike

    The Tea Party has for over five years now been a label in search of a definition, a search made more difficult by the multiple and contradictory nature of the movement.

    The best place to begin is with demographics. Tea Party members tend to be white people (men and women), of middle age or older, and of above average wealth and education. Though strictly independent of any party, they are a Republican sect, and one that has probably caused more electoral damage to the GOP than to the Democrats. Economic rather than cultural conservatives, their main issues are taxes and fiscal policy.

    In brief, they are yesterday’s winners: in an enviable position, but not comfortable. They are anxious people. Anxious because, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, when you’ve got something, you’ve got something to lose.

    And so, above all, they are afraid of “change.” The government is the enemy, always threatening to take things away from those that have: either their money, in the form of taxes, or cuts to the programs they enjoy (which are paid for by their taxes). “KEEP THE CHANGE,” their rally signs say, in response to President Obama’s campaign slogan. “Obama had been elected on a promise of change, and change can be scary.” Especially to older members of what has been dubbed “the precariat.” “We’re tired of hearing them talk about change,” one Partier quoted here exclaims. “We don’t need change. We need to keep what’s working in America and keep it working.” Which, in his particular instance, meant more coal mining. Climate change is considered a shibboleth, a change not to be believed in.

    If there is any change the Tea Party does like, it’s one that will return them to the past, which is a known quantity. The Tea Party is a reactionary movement, looking to set the clock back to an earlier and (this part is key) imaginary time. Hence the fetish for the founding fathers, most of whom were in fact not at all opposed to taxes (fairly administered) or big government. Or to a time when global warming, or globalization, had yet to be heard of.

    This explains some of the contradictions or cognitive dissonance of the Tea Party faithful. Though they may seem at times to be pursuing ends not in their own interests (a libertarian government would be a cruel master), they are not cutting off their nose to spite their face but choosing the devil they know to the devil they don’t. Change is scary, and so they are willing to give up a bit of something in order to avoid losing it all. They want security, not freedom. “Government was put here for certain reasons,” one elderly Tea Party organizer opines, “they were not put here to run banks, insurance companies, and health care, and automobile companies. They were put here to keep us safe.” Safe in our persons and in our property.

    And so we have the schizophrenic attitude toward the federal government. It is an object of hatred mainly because Tea Partiers see the Feds as stealing their money and giving it to others less worthy by way of various socialistic programs. Again the emphasis is on holding on to what you’ve got. In addition, at a time of lowering expectations, when the only employment security appears to be that held by government workers (the last bastion of unionism), it’s only natural to find in that a source of resentment. A cry goes out to make them feel the pinch. But at the same time, government continues to grow, in large part in order to keep people and their property “safe.”

    You can break the movement down in this fashion and see how it makes at least some sense. But it is still fueled by an irrational base. It’s a point Thomas Frank struggled with at some length in What’s the Matter With Kansas?, trying to describe a populist movement fighting against its own interests. But we should not be surprised by this. One of the most enduring of all political and economic myths is that people are rational creatures. This is nonsense, and the Tea Party is just one more example of a movement “driven more by outrage than ideology, more by pique than policy.” Passions drive polls, and the free-floating anger in America has reached a certain critical mass. At least one Tea Partier quoted in Zernike’s book is aware of this and tries to explain the break with reason by responding thusly to an Obama letter headed “Five Things That the Other Side Is Saying That Are Totally Untrue”:

    “I said, ‘I don’t care if they’re untrue. It doesn’t make any difference. The problem is, you guys are trying to sell this on the facts, but if you don’t trust the mind-set or the value system of the people involved, you can’t even look at the facts any more.’”

    It’s a difficult quote to parse but seems to recall the now famous (or is that viral?) broadside made by a member of the George W. Bush administration against the “reality-based community.” The Tea Party is a faith-based community, devoted to the self-evident truths pronounced by the founders and Ayn Rand. They operate, quite consciously, in a mental space free of reality, facts, and rationalism. But there is nothing odd or perverse in this. What people care the most about are less tangible, more emotional needs: comfort, and freedom from anxiety about the future.

    Review first published online September 15, 2014.

  • Lost Christianities

    Lost Christianities
    Bart Ehrman

    Early Christianity was a chaos of different texts and doctrines that, if the faith was to survive, were going to have to be winnowed and consolidated. This stage effectively concluded in 381 when the Emperor Theodosius I declared the Nicene creed to be the orthodox position of the church, and made all other beliefs heretical. As the prolific popular historian of these developments, Bart Ehrman, tells the story, the other Christianities of the early churches were consigned to the dustbin of history (or archaeological digs). Things might have worked out differently, and Ehrman looks at some of the more interesting counterfactuals, but what was it about the “proto-orthodox” line that led to its success? Probably its very adaptability. What became orthodoxy was a big tent, a set of doctrine that tried to be all things to all people. The Nicene creed is logical and theological mush, but that’s what the age demanded. The lost Christianities weren’t lost or abandoned so much as papered over. In later centuries some cracks would show, but for a quick fix the Nicene paste of orthodoxy has proved to be remarkably resilient.

  • I Wear the Black Hat

    By Chuck Klosterman

    Are villains people we hate, or love (to hate)? Either way, our response is irrational. I hate Tom Hanks, even though (or perhaps because) he’s played the hero in every movie I’ve seen him in. I also hate Tom Brady, though I’ll admit he’s one of the greatest quarterbacks who’s ever played in the NFL. It’s just that I’m a Bills fan.

    Of course the way we speak of “hating” celebrities we’ve never met and don’t know the first thing about, and whom we’ll likely never meet or ever know the first thing about, is a colloquial idiocy. But according to the prolific music-sports-culture essayist Chuck Klosterman, who wrote a 2004 column for Esquire headlined “The Importance of Being Hated” about his own hatred of a major league baseball pitcher, these pop hates tell us not only a lot about ourselves but something about villainy (real and imagined) in our time.

    As things turn out, it’s all about us.

    Hating public figures is a subject that Klosterman is well positioned to speak on, since a lot of people hate Chuck Klosterman. Some years ago I wrote a review of his rock-n-roll pseudo-memoir Killing Yourself to Live that began by saying how “it would be hard to imagine a worse book.” In the next two sentences I went on to call it “deplorable,” a “disaster,” and “very, very bad.”

    I later found out that this was one of the nicer reviews it received.

    So yes, Klosterman is one of those pop-culture journalists who can really get under your skin. He’s a self-deprecating narcissist, and a glib but inarticulate journalist. It’s as though a lifetime of mass-media consumption has (to borrow a phrase from Apocalypse Now) really put the zap on his head.

    A singer he is, whose only song is of himself. On this point he is forthright and unashamed (if a little depressed and befuddled at his lonely consciousness). “Writing about other people is a form of writing about oneself,” he warns us. “This isn’t true for everyone, but it’s true for me. Why pretend?” What if, he goes on to wonder, this whole book is “just an uninteresting person, thinking about himself because there’s nothing else to think about?” Now that’s staring into the abyss! Alas, “there is no way around myself unless I become somebody else.”

    You see what I mean.

    That said, I Wear the Black Hat shows signs that Klosterman is on the road to recovery. Not, however, because his thesis — that villainy is subjective and situational — is very profound or original. After all, as he admits, “I’ve never had an idea that a hundred other people didn’t have before me.” And not because his koan-like definition of a villain — “the person who knows the most but cares the least” — is all that clear or meaningful.

    No, if you’re looking for big ideas this isn’t the place. But Klosterman does have some interesting things to say, and while he’s still grating, he can also occasionally entertain and inform.

    He is best in the sections that highlight the way villains are made not born, and un-made as well. Not only is villainy a matter of personal taste, it is fleeting as fame. A chapter on vigilantes real and imagined (Bernard Goetz, Charles Bronson, and Batman) is good on the construction of villainy in the media, and the value shift that takes place when moving from reality to fiction (a hero in one can be a villain in the other). And the chapter on different species of digital villains (Perez Hilton, Kim Dotcom, Julian Assange) is also excellent. Internet villains get under our skin, in part, because we are their enablers. We scare ourselves when we go online.

    This being Klosterman, there’s a lot of disjointed and downright confusing blab as well. How someone who seems to know nothing about music or sports has built a career out of writing fans’s notes on music and sports is hard to figure out.

    But if Klosterman was a publishing villain in the past, at least he’s not as big a one now. He’s traded in his black hat this time for one that’s plaid.

    I’m just worried that since I don’t hate him any more, I’ll stop loving him as well. Maybe he was better at just being bad.

    Review first published in the Toronto Star July 12, 2013.

  • Thomas Becket

    Thomas Becket
    John Guy

    The lives of the saints don’t always make for edifying reading. A case in point is Thomas Becket. A relentless social climber, Becket’s pride led him into a prolonged medieval pissing match with Henry II, which he lost. John Guy does his best to plead the defence, and there is much to be said for Becket being no worse than his sovereign, but in the end there could be only one sovereign, which is something Becket should have known. Even at this distance there’s still something unpleasantly jumped-up about Thomas. We recognize the type: the kind of person who puts on airs with unseemly haste when he wins the lottery. Finally, he died in stubborn defence of principles that are now obsolete (that is, not individual conscience but papal authority). A political saint, and a player who lost the game. There’s not much more to say.

  • From Literature to Biterature and The Edge of the Precipice

    By Peter Swirski
    Ed. by Paul Socken

    There is general agreement that the Internet is changing the way we think of literacy. It is also agreed that such change is inevitable. But the nature of the transformation we are now undergoing, and the balance of profit and loss, is harder to judge.

    In The Edge of the Precipice, Paul Socken, professor emeritus in the University of Waterloo’s French studies department, is primarily concerned with what we stand to lose. One point is worth flagging at the start: all of Socken’s contributors – who include Sven Birkerts, Alberto Manguel, Katia Grubisic, and Mark Kingwell – are academics (mainly professors of various literatures), writers, translators, or editors. That is, they are people with a vested interest in ensuring that people continue reading. And they know they are playing defence. Though the title is meant to contain some ambiguity, suggesting a leap of imagination into unknown worlds, the edge of a precipice is usually a place you don’t want to be: staring into an abyss.

    Since the future of reading is a topic that has been exercising commentators intensively for at least a decade, many of the arguments seem familiar. The virtues of solitary contemplation and reflection in an age of compulsory sharing and endless connectivity are canvassed, along with the way reading builds empathy, develops focus and concentration, and encourages critical thinking. All of this seems at least plausible, but hard evidence for the value of reading tends to come from a handful of studies boasting rather thin results. This leaves most of the essays here informed mainly by autobiography and anecdote, grounded in accounts of how the authors have found reading to be meaningful and transformative, both professionally and personally. They are testaments of faith in an atheistic age.

    All of this is preaching to the choir, since, if you’ve come this far (even in a review), you’re already counted among those who have made the choice to keep on reading. It’s less clear how convincing or persuasive these essays would seem to non-readers (whom we never hear from). One suspects not very. With this caveat in mind, The Edge of the Precipice is an impressive contribution to an important ongoing conversation, offering an inspiring and informative collection of well-expressed, non-technical perspectives on the importance of reading even as we stare into the bookless abyss.

    Of course, the way we read and write is already changing as we march further into the digital age. Might it also be the case that the very nature of authorship will change, too? In From Literature to Biterature, Peter Swirski, a professor of American literature, thinks this is inevitable, arguing that “at a certain point in the already foreseeable future, computers will be able to create works of literature in and of themselves.” To describe this new dispensation, Swirski borrows, from Stanislaw Lem, the term “biterature,” used to describe any writing of non-human origin. The authors of biterature are designated “computhors.”

    The philosophical, cultural, and aesthetic ramifications of Swirski’s thesis are fascinating and provocative. Biterature will call into question – both prospectively and retrospectively – traditional ways of thinking about art, genius, creativity, and imagination. These matters are covered in the first of the book’s three sections. From there, Swirski moves into a long second section on artificial intelligence and the philosophy of mind (the guiding figure here is Alan Turing), before concluding with some thoughts on the future of digital evolution. While composed in the same engaging (though sometimes overly glib) style, these parts of the book are only indirectly concerned with lit/biterature and tend to tread more familiar, if still intriguing, speculative ground.

    Brisk, playful, and paradoxical, Swirski presents the reader with a buffet of food for thought. Even bigger questions loom outside the terms of his discussion. For one thing, human history is full of sudden and severe cultural and technological reverses, which may set back or totally undermine some of Swirski’s prognostications. There is also the problem – which the author is well aware of – that any book like this can expect a limited shelf life. Not because its predicitons will turn out to be wrong, but because many of the questions will have changed. The death of the computhor may not lag far behind that of the author and the book.

    Review first published in Quill & Quire, September 2013.

  • Here on Earth

    Here on Earth
    Tim Flannery

    I find it remarkable that Tim Flannery is an optimist. Best known for his popular book on climate change, The Weather Makers, in Here on Earth he looks at a natural history of our planet and suggests two ways forward: a Darwinian war of all against all resulting in the extinction of the species through the exhaustion of natural resources (a hypothesis associated, not all that clearly to my mind, with the myth of Medea), or a more holistic approach based on Lovelock’s Gaia theory. Obviously Flannery prefers the latter, though he recognizes that the way forward will involve some significant shift in our dominant memes (or, as he chooses to spell it, mnemes). In order to change the way our economy operates we’re going to have to radically change our way of thinking. It’s hard to see that happening without a shock that will in all likelihood be mortal for our civilization anyway.

  • Feral

    By George Monbiot

    Despite a drumbeat of bad news in recent years — and the threat of much worse to come as we go sailing past any limit on atmospheric carbon considered safe — the environment continues to remain a low political priority.

    The lack of action shouldn’t come as a surprise, and is not just the result of there being no easy answers. The switch to a truly sustainable economy would not only involve a radical transformation of our current mass-production, mass-consumption way of life, it would almost certainly result in a significant reduction in our standard of living, making a green shift totally unacceptable to most of us.

    As a distinguished ex-U.S. president put it, the American way of life is “non-negotiable.”

    Nevertheless, the British journalist and environmentalist George Monbiot believes that “an ounce of hope is a more powerful stimulant than a ton of despair” and has some “positive environmentalism” to offer. In Feral he shies away from revolutionary calls to action and presents what is more of a general, guiding philosophy for change, a “vision of a better place” that goes under the name of “rewilding.”

    The inspiration for rewilding is what Monbiot describes as our current state of “ecological boredom”: a spiritual longing to reconnect with the natural world. This need to experience — or at least still believe in — an untamed, perhaps at times dangerous side of nature lies behind such cultural pheoneoma as survivalist-themed television shows, and even finds a hallucinatory expression in the peculiar British folk legend of big cats prowling the countryside, a bit of modern mythology that hints at “an unexpressed wish for lives wilder and fiercer than those we now lead.”

    Monbiot’s chapter on big-cat sightings is a fun bit of investigative journalism, but it helps drive home his point. He wants us to get out of our cars, cubicles, and classrooms and into our kayaks. We also need to consider re-introducing species into habitats where they might still be able to occupy a functional niche. Perhaps then “big cats will no longer need to be imagined” in England.

    The important thing to keep in mind about rewilding is that it is not about returning the environment to some original, primordial condition, or even about conserving what pristine “natural” environments we still have left (which may be bastard states of nature anyway). Instead, Monbiot advocates a hands-off, laissez-faire environmentalism: “Rewilding, to me, is about resisting the need to control nature and allowing it to find its own way.”

    The result of this will be to restore dynamic interactions and trophic diversity within different ecologies, protect endangered species and their habitats, and promote spiritual renewal. This last point is key: Monbiot’s rewilding is, finally, all about us. “If rewilding took place it would happen in order to meet human needs, not the needs of the ecosystem.” We will do it not to save the whales or the wolves but because we value a biologically rich environment.

    It is an interesting point of view, and Monbiot, who is a gifted nature writer, brings it to life in a globe-trotting series of essays that examine rewilding’s various applications.

    Important questions, however, remain. Chief among these is just how attractive an environment would be to most people. The concept of ecological boredom will ring true for some (especially those of us, a dwindling few, not born and raised in cities and conditioned to urban living), but it also makes the rewilding philosophy sound a bit like an advanced version of adventure tourism or Xtreme sport, with the neo-wild located in special environmental reserves.

    Put another way, a rewilded world may be a nice place to visit, but few of us would want to live there. At least not without the Internet and air conditioning.

    That said, there are no easy, one-size-fits-all solutions to the environmental problems we face. Monbiot does suggest solutions that can work in specific situations, and provides a way of thinking about these matters that has potential. And in his Introduction he notes that nowhere is new thinking needed more than in Canada: a “liberal, cultured, decent country” which has been “transformed into a thuggish petro-state.”

    Even if you don’t agree with that harsh analysis, the fact remains that we can, and should, be doing better.

    Review first published in the Toronto Star June 8, 2013.

  • The 40s: The Story of a Decade

    The 40s: The Story of a Decade
    Ed. by Henry Finder with Giles Harvey

    The 1940s were the before-and-after decade of the twentieth-century, and in this compilation of stories drawn from the pages of The New Yorker magazine the main fault line is evident: the Second World War. Before WW2 the New Yorker was not known as a heavyweight magazine, but under the stress of events and with a stable of writers constituting a who’s who of great essayists, critics, poets and short story writers, all under the editorship of Harold Ross, it was during these years that the magazine came of age. A collection of great writing and contemporary perspectives on the important events, fashions, art, and literature of the period, The 40s is a fascinating anthology filled with terrific material, much of which has remained surprisingly relevant into our own time.

  • Chris Eaton, a Biography

    By Chris Eaton

    The Internet didn’t invent narcissism, but it has had the effect of amplifying already powerful cultural trends taking us in that direction. Social networking, after all, has nothing social about it, but just provides a way for us to spend more time alone. The Internet is a mirror in which we endlessly examine ourselves, analyzing not just our own identities but the way others see (and evaluate) us. Or, taking the metaphor of the network, the Internet is a web that always has us at the center.

    Who, for example, hasn’t Googled him or herself? And when we find all of our name’s secret sharers, haven’t we wondered if there might be some mystical connection between us and that legion of virtual avatars and digital selves peeking out from behind the Cloud?

    Such a sense of connection is the inspiration for Chris Eaton’s Chris Eaton: A Biography. Notably, it is not an autobiography. Chris Eaton has little to do with the Chris Eaton who is a Canadian musician (recording as Rock Plaza Central), and currently one of this country’s best under-the-radar writers. Instead what we have here is a composite portrait of a number of Chris Eatons: men and women, gay and straight, young and old. After a while it becomes hard to tell some of them apart, but that’s the point. The life you’re reading about might be your own.

    The book’s loosely biographical structure follows Chris Eaton (all of them) from cradle to grave. But Eaton (the author) isn’t interested in telling a story in the traditional way, unless the tradition you’re referring to is that of the experimental “new novel” or magic realism. Within those terms of reference one can recognize a number of familiar elements, as we are constantly being sidetracked into rambling lists, historical background, flashy displays of esoteric research, and complex digressions dealing with obscure (and often imaginary) subcultures and secret societies.

    It’s information overload, and it poses the question of just how all of this information — and we are all bits of information now — adds up to a life: that is, something coherent and meaningful with a beginning, middle and end. Your Facebook and MySpace pages, your LinkedIn profile and Twitter account, your personal homepage and network of friends, your genealogy, cache of Google searches and other digital spoor . . . you can package all of this together into an identity that can be sold to advertisers, but the whole will be less than the sum of the parts, and has little relation to your life as you experience it.

    What is it about us that is un-Googleable and most real? Nothing that can be captured between the covers of a standard biography, but rather those spots of time and flights of the imagination that defy the dry realism of data. In rendering these, the author Chris Eaton, like the painter Chris Eaton (one of his subjects), has as his goal “not to depict just one moment in the life of a person, nor even the complete biography . . . but to capture life itself in its entirety.”

    All of this may make Chris Eaton (the book) sound a bit high-minded and programmatic, but that’s not how it plays. In the first place, the writing is alive with an energetic use of language and wit. Eaton’s similes are a particular delight. Take, for example, this description of a young Chris Eaton learning to swim:

    He was just a child, a spastic three-year-old with wet towels for feet, head like an overgrown ape’s paw, his legs like welded bows, too fast for his body, so they just bounced up and down like the limbs of some delicate, drunken ostrich.

    That’s perfect, both at capturing in a jumble of discordant analogies how an awkward three-year-old moves, and how those movements feel.

    What’s even more impressive, however, is the way Eaton puts heart into his personal brand of magic realism, a self-consciously literary genre all too often taken over by intellectual gamesmanship and superficial cleverness. One of the Chris Eatons we meet is an experimental musician who finds his work falling in-between the derivative pop platitudes that provide ear candy for the masses (“music for people who hated music”) and the “equally frustrating” efforts of the avant garde “who seemed to praise so-called ingenuity, but at the expense of true beauty or feeling.”

    This is the same non-commercial middle-ground Eaton’s fiction occupies: exciting and experimental writing with intelligence and soul.

    Review first published in the Toronto Star May 24, 2013.