The Measure of Darkness

THE MEASURE OF DARKNESS
By Liam Durcan

There comes a time for everyone when they have to do an accounting of all that they’ve accomplished, for good or ill, in their personal and professional lives. Usually this happens around middle age, when we can no longer avoid facing the fact that our end is much closer than our beginning.

For architect Martin Fallon this process of looking back and trying to make sense of it all has a specific trigger. After his car is struck by a snow plow on a Quebec highway he suffers a brain injury that leaves him with a condition known as “neglect” which limits his perceptions of the left side of his world, while at the same time leaving him unaware of being so compromised.

From this premise, Liam Durcan, who is both an author and a neurologist, spins an intriguing and layered medical mystery. Martin is a man on a quest to put his life back together by revisiting old haunts and reconnecting with estranged family members. The goal is to reconstruct a life story out of fragments, to fashion something “linear” with integrity and coherence out of what are now ruins (it’s no coincidence that one of Martin’s daughters takes the exploration of urban ruins as a subject for a documentary she is filming). Along the way he might even come to understand what he was doing on the night of his accident.

Part of the story of Martin’s re-integration of memory and personality is intertwined with his fascination with the Soviet-era architect Konstantin Melnikov. Martin recalls a visit to Melnikov’s home years earlier, and he was working on a sort of biographical sketch of the architect at the time of his accident. It is, however, never entirely clear what connection Durcan wants to make between the two men, and one has the sense here of an angle to the novel that is never fully in play.

What is in play is the ambivalent nature of Martin’s affliction. Martin is both partially unaware of and in denial about the consequences of his accident, both of which may be coping strategies. There’s an early episode in the novel when Martin’s brother keeps the fatal condition of someone’s pet hidden from them, and in doing so feels he is doing them a favour. Too much awareness is not always a good thing.

Martin’s accident is also a metaphor for the loss of the artist’s visionary gleam of imagination and creativity. It is an excuse for his awareness that, having achieved the top rank of his profession, “There would never be a golden season and he would never be great. . . . that if there had been a vision, he had abandoned it, or forgotten it, among all the trappings of security.” These are dark thoughts, leading to desperate acts of erasure.

In short, it is perhaps better not to take the full measure of darkness. Humankind can’t bear very much reality.

Notes:
Review first published in Quill & Quire, January 2016.

The Hellmouths of Bewdley

The Hellmouths of Bewdley
Tony Burgess

I wonder if at one point Tony Burgess thought he might become a writer of tough-guy, dirty realism: adopting an approach that is popular among the (male) bards of Ontario’s backwoods. In The Hellmouths of Bewdley, his first book, you can definitely see leanings in that direction, especially in the stories dealing with the pretty town of Bewdley’s down and out. A more powerful pull, however, is felt toward the transformation of the rawest physical experiences into poetry, and in particular the transformation (metamorphosis? apotheosis?) of dead bodies into hallucinogenic, lyric visions. The end of the story “Winter” is a good example of this, and shows where Burgess would soon be heading, leaving Bewdley behind and jumping down the hellmouth into an anti-Bewdley where there is no law but the law of the jungle and everyone is either executioner, victim, or witness.

Going Solo

GOING SOLO: THE EXTRAORDINARY RISE AND SURPRISING APPEAL OF LIVING ALONE
By Eric Klinenberg

Why are so many people living alone today?

Because they can.

To unpack this: Today roughly half of all Americans are single, with just over a quarter living alone (“singletons”). These numbers have been rising sharply over the last sixty years. In this fascinating overview of the single-living phenomenon, Eric Klinenberg provides several different explanations for this “remarkable social experiment.” Today’s societies have a more advanced social safety net to care for people living alone; women have gained more wealth and power, allowing them the choice of going solo; advances in communications technology let us stay connected and socialize without being social on a more personal, shared level; more people are living in cities, which enable single lifestyles; people are living longer, meaning they are spending more time without partners who have predeceased them.

Aside from the last point mentioned, these factors don’t explain why people are choosing to live alone but only tell us why, all of a historical sudden, they now have the option. The reasons why they want to go solo are partly cultural – Klinenberg adverts to the tradition of American individualism – but since this is a global phenomenon such an explanation only goes so far. Instead, the bottom line is that it is more human nature to want, in Garbo’s famous line, to be alone.

So why are we living alone? Because (now) we can.

Critics have found much to complain about in these developments. Living alone goes against tradition. It is driven by selfishness and narcissism. It leads to unhappiness, poor health, dysfunctional families, and social breakdown. Against such conventional wisdom Klinenberg suggests that singletons are in fact healthy, happy, fulfilled individuals, living sustainable, environmentally-friendly lifestyles.

Klinenberg’s case is, for the most part, convincing. And yet one still feels a tug toward a negative moral judgment, a sense of uneasiness about this blossoming of the Me Generation. The buzz words, for one thing, start to nag. We are opting out of marriage “because we cherish freedom, personal control, and our search for self-realization.” Modern urban living, according to the sociologist Georg Simmel allows us to “follow the laws of our inner nature – and this is what freedom is.” That direct equivalence between our human nature and freedom is key. Going solo is all about freedom, but freedom is a tricky value. Do “the laws of our inner nature” trump other laws and social conventions? Does our cherishing of freedom and our search for self-realization mean we eschew any sense of responsibility for others, or for society in general?

Klinenberg doesn’t think so, but the people he interviews tend to adopt a limited set of values. A singleton journalist named Phil lives alone because he “sees domestic tranquility as a means of developing his self-knowledge and, in turn, enhancing his creativity.” Another singleton named Miguel takes a more expansive page from the same playbook:

“I can’t really say right now that I have a close friend, or that I’m even looking to get a close friend. This particular experience that I’m involved with now [living alone] is giving me a chance to grow more as a man, to allow the man in me to mature more, in the total sense, and to become self-sufficient and of self-worth in my own right. What I need to do is to learn to become my own close friend and best friend, and to love myself, and feel self-worth and validation.”

Is loving oneself selfish or self-centered? On a basic level the charge sticks. One can’t help finding all of this freedom to care for oneself a bit off-putting, however understandable. One interviewee, a former drug-user, admits he doesn’t want to live with roommates because he needs to be responsible for himself: “I’m not antisocial, but I have a hard enough time with my own problems without other people’s problems.” Another interviewee, an elderly woman, breaks off a long-term relationship with a man her own age, who had even proposed to her, “when his health began to fail – not to be heartless, but because she didn’t want to become his caretaker as things spiraled downward.”

We can understand feeling this way, but then wonder what would happen if everyone acted like this: feeling that they have a hard enough time with their own problems (and who doesn’t?) without worrying about others. At what point does care of the self turn into merely “looking out for number one”? As Madonna once put it in song: “You deserve the best in life, so if the time isn’t right then move on. / Second best is never enough, you’ll do much better baby on your own.” Was “Express Yourself” an anthem of liberation, a heartfelt feminist cry against the grim advice of “settling,” or just an entitled whine? It seems to me to have been a bit of both, and I wouldn’t want to downplay the dark side. It may be that living alone is truer to our nature and the inner laws that guide us, but freedom always comes at a price.

Notes:
Review first published online August 1, 2016.

Licence Expired

LICENCE EXPIRED: THE UNAUTHORIZED JAMES BOND
Ed. by Madeline Ashby and David Nickle

In our culture what is profitable endures, and so the James Bond franchise keeps right on rolling. The original twelve novels and two short story collections by Ian Fleming have been added to over the years by such big names as Kingsley Amis, John Gardner, and Jeffrey Deaver, and been adapted, however loosely, into over twenty movies.

Licence Expired is exceptional in that it is an unauthorized expansion of the franchise, exclusively available in Canada due to a quirk in copyright law landing Fleming’s creation in the public domain.

The editors were looking for a new Bond rendered in diverse voices, but one still anchored in the Fleming canon. It’s a sort of professional fan fiction, but with a twist.

As Madeline Ashby puts it, “As we face an era of almost continuous reboots, sequels, prequels, tentpoles, and seamless transmedia franchises, it’s important to realize that the only way to keep the machine running is to feed it new blood once in a while.”

This new blood is expressed in a wonderful variety of stories, with some authors taking their Bond neat while others preferring him mixed and stirred.

We begin with a sinister young Bond at Eton and end with a retiree in a nursing home suffering from dementia. In between you’ll find a lot of what you’d expect: glamorous girls, exotic locations, violent action, and old familiar faces (M, Moneypenny, Pussy Galore). But there’s also Bond in a post-nuclear war Canadian arctic, a metafictional Bond in letters, and even a story where our hero travels to H. P. Lovecraft’s Arkham to take on the many-tentacled Old Ones.

The question of what it is that keeps Bond going when he was so much the creation of a particular time and place continues to absorb fans and critics alike. Perhaps it can be attributed to the way his generic blankness allows for infinite adaptability, or the fact that style never goes out of style.
But whatever the reason for his longevity, Bond seems perfectly at home in Canada in the twenty-first century, his licence indefinitely renewed.

Notes:
Review first published online June 21, 2016. For more entries in the extended (non-canonical) Bond franchise, see my reviews of Jeffrey Deaver’s Carte Blanche and Anthony Horowitz’s Trigger Mortis. I also recommend Simon Winder’s cultural history of the Bond phenomenon, The Man Who Saved Britain.

Joseph Smith

JOSEPH SMITH
By Robert V. Remini

In the latter half of the second century CE there arose a movement in Asia Minor known as Montanism (named after its leader, Montanus) or “the New Prophecy.” Montanus was a charismatic Christian leader who based his authority on being directly inspired by the Holy Spirit. To some extent Montanism was the last gasp of early Christian enthusiastic teaching, something that was still widespread and popular at a time when the New Testament canon was just closing its books and the authority of Church leaders was being consolidated. Given the moment, Montanism was duly condemned as heretical and its adherents excommunicated. The age of Christian prophecy was officially over.

The problem the Church had, according to Diarmaid MacCulloch in his general history Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, was not with the teachings of Montanus. These are mostly irrecoverable today, but MacCulloch finds “little that could actually be described as heretical in what they said.” Instead,

It was not so much the content of these messages that worried the existing Christian leadership of the area as the challenge which they opposed to their authority. By what right did this man with no commission, in no apostolic succession, speak new truths of the faith and sweep crowds along with him in his excitement?

. . .

The Church was settling on one model of authority in monarchical episcopacy and the threefold ministry; the Montanists placed against that the random gift of prophecy. The two models have a long history of conflict in the subsequent Christian centuries: the significance of the Montanist episode is that this is the first time the clash appeared.

The reason for the conflict is pretty obvious. The only way organizations of any type can function over time is through a clear system of rules and an administrative chain of command. The Church in the second century was becoming a political institution, complete with its own official hierarchy. The “random gift of prophecy” upsets all of that and indeed threatens the very existence of an established order. A prophet’s authority is necessarily absolute: though they would never claim to be God, this is only casuistry. Joseph Smith rejected those who accused him “of pretending to be a Savior” and claimed instead to be “a plain, untutored man; seeking what he should do to be saved.” But at the same time, his Book of Mormon was, he said, given to him “directly from heaven . . . [and] that he penned it as dictated by God.” So where can a distinction be made? As Yahweh says to Moses in Exodus, “I have made you like God to Pharaoh.” As God’s chosen vessel and speaker of his divine word, a prophet is a proxy for the Almighty: above any moral, religious, legal, or political sanction. They are laws unto themselves, and must co-opt the old order or found a new one based on their authority.

There is some historical irony in the fact that Christianity itself was such a movement, a Jewish splinter sect forming around a charismatic leader. What’s more, Jesus’s end would set the pattern that other prophets would follow: persecuted by both the religious and the political establishment and finally executed.

This pattern has been re-enacted countless times, with varying degrees of success. David Koresh’s takeover of the Branch Davidian sect by claiming the gift of prophecy was a dead end. Joseph Smith and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, however, took off and never looked back. Despite the different outcomes, the parallels are obvious: the same splintering away from an established church; the same foundation in charismatic prophecy; the same questionable “marriage” practices, which, as so often, involved older men in positions of power wedding very young women (something the early Mormon leaders said they were reluctant to do, but that God commanded); the same persecution by church and state (Haun’s Mill, Waco); the same bloody ends for their leaders.

I’m in no way condoning the kind of intolerance that led to the tragedy in Waco or the persecution of the Mormons and the murder of Joseph Smith, but it’s important to recognize why these things happen. No state, or church, can allow individuals to claim a separate, sovereign authority. They must be cast out. There may even be something in our evolutionary biology, as social animals, which dictates this, some ground rule written into our genetic code for group preservation.

Leaving that final speculative point aside, however, there was still ample justification for the kind of backlash that the Mormons experienced. Fear of a theocratic dictatorship was not mere paranoia, as Smith at the end of his life did in fact (if in secret) set up what has been described as a “shadow government” with himself as anointed “King, Priest and Ruler over Israel on Earth” (so much for the “plain, untutored man”). He also rejected all previous forms of Christianity, contending “that all other religions and their preachers were corrupt and an abomination in the sight of God” and declaring that only the Mormon Church was the true Church of Christ. He also set out to either take over the current government (he was planning on running for president) or create his own. As Robert Remini concludes, “it is most probable that he was executed for the simple reason that his political activities had become extremely dangerous to the citizens of surrounding towns.”

It is hard to write the biography of a prophet, as you have to either believe that your subject was right (that is, divinely inspired), deluded, or a fraud. There are no other options. In this brief biography, part of the Penguin Lives series, Remini tries very hard to remain non-judgmental, but this is finally impossible. One suspects that Remini (who is not a Mormon) leans toward the fraud definition, but doesn’t want to offend anyone by coming out and saying so. His summary judgment, that Smith was “a decent man who claimed to be a prophet of God,” is tepid and safe, but takes a very American sidestep. Smith’s critics “could not extinguish his message or the promise he made to his followers of their ultimate triumph. They could not prevent the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from achieving global recognition and acceptance.” In other words, all that really matters in the end is not whether Smith really was what he claimed to be, but that his was a success story. Say what you want about his motives or authenticity, there his Church stands, an international corporation that is one of the richest in the world.

In getting to this point Remini has to accept, or at least recite, quite a lot of the Mormon party line. A good example is the idea that the Mormon faith was not something new, or even a reformation of the established Church, but rather a restoration of what had been lost. In particular what this meant was a return to the practices and beliefs of primitive Christianity (that is, Christianity before the second century CE). Smith, in Remini’s words, made it clear that “it was not his purpose to reform Christianity, like Protestant churches. Rather, he had come to restore what was ancient and lost, restore the teachings and institutions of the Savior, restore the doctrines and practices of the New Testament Church.”

This is nonsense. Mormonism made a complete break with traditional Christianity. The new covenant revealed to Smith had, in the words of the Lord, done away with previous dispensations. As already noted, Smith found that all other religions and their preachers were corrupt and an abomination in the sight of God. What followed could never be construed as a restoration.

And even if restoration had been Smith’s intention, how could he possibly have effected it? What did Joseph Smith know of the early Church? When he took to rewriting the King James Bible, revising it and correcting what he considered to be mistranslations, he did so under the influence of the Holy Spirit, not through the exercise of any special training in ancient languages. And whatever one thinks of the Book of Mormon, whether one takes it to be the inspired word of God or just a slack, crudely-imagined fantasy, you can’t deny that in terms of its theology it’s something entirely new. Smith was restoring nothing. He was settling a new frontier.

This is, however, a short biography, and Remini is less concerned with theological matters and religious history than he is with broader political and cultural developments. Joseph Smith is as much a portrait of a period as it is of the man. Remini is content to place Smith in the context of the intellectual and religious ferment of the Age of Jackson and the Second Great Awakening, and for the most part is very good in dealing with this side of things (though readers may lift an eyebrow skyward at his calling the election of Andrew Jackson “the beginning of the long love affair Americans would have with their victorious generals”).

My own preference would have been for a more critical, and I suppose sceptical, biography. As noted, however, writing about a prophet is hard. One’s sources are muddy, and access to those sources often involves some degree of compromise. The same difficulty apparently faces anyone wanting to write about more recent American prophets such as Ayn Rand and L. Ron Hubbard today. Is this muddiness the same fertile Nilotic ooze from which Gods (and their prophets) have always arisen? If so, we need historians to drain the swamp.

Notes:
Review first published online July 11, 2016.

Misery

Misery
Stephen King

It seems to me that Stephen King’s best novels are the ones (a) that he wrote in the 1980s; and (b) that are centripetal or focused inward, sculling streams of consciousness to a rhythm set by the subjective awareness of time.

With those two criteria set, I think Misery is one of his two or three best books. It’s a much darker story than the Rob Reiner film version, as King’s Annie Wilkes is a cruel ogre out of the world of fairy-tales as much as she’s a psychological case. She would eat Kathy Bates for breakfast.

Then there is the subtext, with Paul Sheldon as King’s alter ego: a successful genre writer whose dreams of literary cred go up in smoke on a portable barbecue. A little lower layer, however, is darker still, with Paul recognizing that he is playing Scheherazade to himself, that junk fiction is his junk, the opium not only to the masses but for his own bitter soul. He’s weeping as he writes, though at least the pay is good for misery.

Trees on Mars

TREES ON MARS: OUR OBSESSION WITH THE FUTURE
By Hal Niedzviecki

In humanity’s never-ending struggle to control all of nature and bring it under our dominion there is one final frontier.

The future.

In this forceful and fascinating new book, culture critic Hal Niedzviecki sees the future as ground zero for the latest round of ideological struggle. Pundits and politicians alike ask: Who will own the future? Who will “get there first” and control it?

In chasing the future we have made a fetish not so much of progress, though that’s an idea that still receives lip service, as of change. A “disruptive futurism” is our new faith, one that “rejects stability, continuity, even community,” and offers up a complete restatement “of what we should desire and aspire to, what we should believe in and live for.”

That may sound very broad, but it’s an argument with many different moving parts intriguingly linked together.

The keynote is struck by the mantra of “innovation,” a rhetorical trademark of today’s most successful tech firms (firms whose success has had little to do with either innovation or foresight, but that’s another story). Today’s entrepreneurs want to change the world — and not incidentally make a killing doing so — planting their corporate flags on the shores of tomorrow.

From here the story broadens to take in subjects like education (universities being re-branded as tech centres and innovation incubators), the science of forecasting, and the myth of the libertarian superman. Futurist ideology champions these latter types as being the proper end of history. As the world continues to divide into fewer winners and many more losers, it won’t be the losers who inherit the earth.

Niedzviecki is critical of these developments, countering them with evidence of our basic human need for security and stability, and the anxiety we suffer when faced with so much disruption and relentless change. An obsession with the future is also a reflection of our despair over where we are now, and provides an excuse for not having to think about things like environmental and economic collapse.

A forward gaze that’s concentrated on the bottom line exacerbates current problems while selling us utopian dreams of the coming Singularity, or of running away to live on Mars. Only by abandoning such false hopes can we get on with the serious work of building a meaningful present.

Notes:
Review first published online June 27, 2016.