The View from the Cheap Seats

THE VIEW FROM THE CHEAP SEATS
By Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman is a prolific author whose interests run to just about everything. He has written journalism and criticism, comics and graphic novels, science fiction, fantasy and horror, children’s books, and screenplays.

The View from the Cheap Seats is a selection of Gaiman’s non-fiction that puts this eclecticism on full display. Included here are essays, public lectures, interviews, forewords and afterwords, introductions and even reportage from the refugee crisis in Syria. The subjects dealt with range from appreciations of individual novelists (classic and contemporary, from Poe and Lovecraft to Douglas Adams and Stephen King), to thoughts on genre fiction, movies, music, and more.

The tone is gentle and genial throughout. Most of these pieces are explanations of why Gaiman likes someone or something so much. So The 13 Clocks by James Thurber “is probably the best book in the world,” The Bride of Frankenstein is “my favorite horror film,” and “Where Lou Reed is concerned I lose all critical faculties. I like pretty much everything he’s ever done.”

There are slack moments. It’s a big book and the praise sometimes slides into banality or hyperbole. A few of the more frankly promotional pieces might have been cut.

The core of it, however, offers up a thoughtful consideration of the writing life and an earnest and practical guide on how to live it. Gaiman keeps coming back to the question of what writing is for, and as he goes along he provides a lot of helpful tips – often by way of concrete examples – on how to “make good art.” This is what matters.

The title, which comes from Gaiman’s account of attending the Academy Awards in 2010, points to a nice dual perspective. Sitting in the mezzanine at the Oscars Gaiman is a wry observer of the proceedings, but he’s also gathering material. These are roles he often plays in these essays: performer and audience member, the fan and the man at the podium saying a few words. In either role, however, he is a writer at work, and loving what he does.

Notes:
Review first published in the Toronto Star June 11, 2016.

Zero K

ZERO K
By Don DeLillo

Since the publication of his epic novel Underworld in 1997, Don DeLillo has turned toward writing sparer, more abstract and philosophical works. The characters are isolated, physically and emotionally, from everyone but their immediate family, and they spend a lot of time reflecting on life’s big questions, with the biggest being what the point of it all is.

Zero K is a slim, speculative, humorous novel that sticks to this ground. As it begins, Jeffrey Lockhart arrives at a remote facility located somewhere out in the Central Asian desert. Dubbed the Convergence, it is a repository for people of means who want to skip death and be preserved for later reanimation in “cyberhuman form.” They will get to buy their own personal end of the world.

Jeffrey’s tycoon father Ross (“master market strategist, owner of art collections and island retreats and super-midsize jets”) and step-mother Artis (who is dying) are two candidates for this transubstantiation. Ross’s fantastic wealth means that money is no object, which lets the action take place on a certain level of abstraction, removed from the more mundane matters of existence and the “thinness of contemporary life.” People like the Lockharts are only interested in final things.

Zero K is not a novel with a plot so much as it’s an essay on certain themes. Like most of the people we meet in late DeLillo, Jeffrey is obsessed with semantics, as though trying to hold on to a belief in the significance of words and names as language dissolves around him. Another recurring motif is life, or the body, as a kind of performance art. Even the end of the world as we know it is reality TV. Which means it may not be real at all.

The overarching vision, however, is of the techno-apocalypse. The Convergence is also the Singularity, a digital rapture that will bring about a new heaven and earth. It is a process that has already begun, as we feel ourselves becoming “virtualized” and “unfleshed.” Systems are taking over: “transparent networks that slowly occlude the flow of all those aspects of nature and character that distinguish humans from elevator buttons and doorbells.”

It’s hard to tell how optimistically, or even seriously, DeLillo views these developments. Throughout most of Zero K his tongue seems pretty close to his cheek. But however you choose to read him, he has laid claim to a unique perspective on the zeitgeist and its dreams of things to come.

Notes:
Review first published in the Toronto Star May 8, 2016.

Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon Bonaparte
Alan Schom

Alan Schom’s biography of Napoleon is infamous for being a biographical takedown of epic scope. This part I don’t mind, and if Schom wants to consider Napoleon as a war criminal, a psychopath, “the most destructive man in European history since Atilla the Hun,” someone to whom “the memory of Genghis Khan paled in comparison,” that is his prerogative. Where I have problems is with his lack of engagement with the sources (primary and secondary) and his slighting of the beginning and end of his subject’s life, the two areas that I find of greatest interest. Then there are the maps, which are entirely inadequate as aids for understanding the complexity of the canonical battles. In many cases troop locations and movements aren’t even included. As a result, I can hardly recommend this as the first book to read on the subject, or give it a place in the top ten. It is, however, of some interest as a document in the ongoing interpretation of Napoleon and his mythography.

Hamburger

HAMBURGER
By Daniel Perry

The stories in Daniel Perry’s debut collection Hamburger are arranged in three sections: coarse, medium, and fine. These are three methods of grinding hamburger meat, so there’s a link to the book’s title (which is also that of the first story) as well as a very rough breakdown of the forms the stories take. The “coarse” stories are quite short – one consisting of a single sentence and most of the others only running for a few pages. The “medium” stories average around ten pages each, and the final section, “fine,” consists of a single story divided into three parts.

Tastes in hamburger vary, but Perry’s shorter pieces are the most successful: narrow slices of contemporary life dealing with characters who seem to have just missed epiphanic moments, as though being late for a bus. Relationships slide apart, and often appear not to have been based on anything concrete in the first place. In several cases, people aren’t even sure who it is they’re not quite connecting with.

The first story sets the tone, with its Updikean wannabe-writer hero reading Updike in a hamburger joint while connecting on some imaginary romantic level with a teenage counter girl. We are in a landscape of fast food and garbage, with the two often being equated (the story begins with an image of dumpsters that “serve hungry truck mouths”). Junk food continues to be a leitmotif in a number of the stories, both through characters working in the fast food industry or, on a metaphorical level, standing in for our disposable culture. Junk news, for example, finds its way into a local newspaper in the story “Gleaner,” disrupting lives in the process. Even junk news, it seems, can reveal truths. Even a “crappy, point-and-shoot” picture reveals beauty.

In the longer pieces Perry seems less at ease. The writing continues to be brief and discontinuous, more grounded in revealing moments and impressions than in conventional narrative. In a couple of pieces – “Vaporetto” and “Three Deaths of James Arthur Doole” – a self-regarding note enters that suggests discomfort with such conventions. Hamburger is a book with flavour, but it’s best enjoyed in small bites.

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

Napoleon

NAPOLEON
By Paul Johnson

The format of the “brief life” invites simplification, and with it overstatement and error. Paul Johnson begins this condensed biography of Napoleon Bonaparte by remarking that the French Revolution was an “accident” “because the example of Britain and the Scandinavian countries showed that all the desirable reforms that the French radicals brought about by force and blood could have been achieved by peaceful means.” This is a crazy assertion, if only because there is no historical parallel between what happened in Britain, over hundreds of years and in a very different context, and what happened in France during the Revolution. Nor is there any grounds for Johnson’s “what-if” speculation that if Napoleon hadn’t sold Louisiana, for a song, to the United States he might have built an empire of French liberty in America. France couldn’t even settle Quebec, so they certainly weren’t going to build a new nation west of the Mississippi.

Later, in the same paragraph (and we’re still in the Introduction) Johnson goes on to say that “It does not seem to have occurred to him [Napoleon] to study the example of his older contemporary George Washington, who translated military victory into civil progress and renounced the rule of force in favor of the rule of law.” Again, this is to draw a comparison to two vastly different historical contexts, and in the end doesn’t really tell us much aside from the fact that Washington and Napoleon were working towards very different ends, with very different routes available to them for achieving their goals. As Robespierre had put it, “America’s example, as an argument for our success, is worthless, because the circumstances are different.”

Finally (we haven’t left the Introduction yet) we are told that France’s “inevitable” “slip from her position as the leading power in Europe to second-class status . . . was Bonaparte’s true legacy to the country he adopted.” While admittedly the Napoleonic era was France’s last turn at dominating Europe, to say that its subsequent decline was Naploeon’s doing is hard to credit. One can think of other factors that may have played a part. Was German unification under Bismarck Napoleon’s legacy Napoleon’s fault? Well, some of his harsher critics have said as much. But the rise of the United States? The First World War? Indochina and Algeria? The Cold War? At one point can we let Napoleon off the hook?

Just from these few examples you will be able to tell that in the endless debate among historians between the Good and Bad Napoleon, Johnson is going the latter way. In this he follows Alan Schom, the Napoleon biographer he is most temperamentally akin to (but who doesn’t get a mention in the list of Further Reading). What the Bad Napoleon usually means, and what it means here, is drawing a line between Napoleon’s example and the horrors of more recent history. In short, that the state he invented and dominated was “the prototype of totalitarianism in its twentieth-century manifestations.” The Revolution that Napoleon embodied “created the modern totalitarian state, in all essentials, if on an experimental basis, more than a century before it came to its full and horrible fruition in the twentieth century.”

Did Napoleon have his contemporary apologists, even worshipers? Certainly, but there have always been such useful idiots:

In the twentieth century, this infatuation was to occur time and again: George Bernard Shaw and Beatrice and Sidney Webb falling for the Staline image, Norman Mailer and others hero-worshiping Fidel Castro, and an entire generation, including many Frenchmen such as Jean-Paul Sartre, praising the Mao Zedong regime, under which sixty million Chinese perished by famine or in the camps. Similarly, the cult of Bonaparte was originally wide, but it did not last.

That final point may be chalked up to wishful thinking on Johnson’s part. Napoleon still has many admirers, and indeed the Bad Napoleon, at least of this black a stripe, is probably the minority view among historians. The thing is, most historians know that few people are all bad, and when penning a hatchet job on a political leader it’s always worth remembering that there must have been some qualities that propelled them to eminence in the first place. This is a problem Ian Kershaw had in his biography of Hitler, where he was left throwing his hands up at how such a man without qualities or “empty shell,” in his analysis, had risen to power. A more extreme example can be seen in Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday. As I said at the end of my review of that book:

At the end of the day it’s hard to believe that someone so unlikable, uncharismatic, lazy, dull, and flat-out inept as Chang’s Mao could have achieved what he did. Chang and Halliday would respond that he was totally ruthless (his “most formidable weapon was pitilessness”), opportunistic, and had a lot of help (from Chiang Kai-Shek, the Russians, and even the U.S.). No doubt all this was true, but there is still something missing. The Mao we see here is unpleasant in every way: a lecherous skirt-chaser, a paranoid, a dirty old man (he never bathed) with rotten black teeth, a sleeping-pill addict, a petty and vindictive sadist, a literary dilettante and philistine, a thorough cynic and hypocrite, a military bungler, a foul-mouthed pseudo-intellectual, but never any kind of leader. The Unknown Story is not the whole story – making it a necessary biography, but incomplete.

How much more important is a fuller portrait in the case of a figure like Napoleon, who was a genuinely popular leader?

Of course a biography of Napoleon that comes in under 200 pages is always going to be incomplete. In this case, however, it is also unnecessary because it doesn’t bring anything new to the table. It’s a good read, but should be taken as more of a conservative essay on its subject than a life.

Notes:
Review first published online October 10, 2016.

How Did We Get Into This Mess?

HOW DID WE GET INTO THIS MESS?
By George Monbiot

At one point in this collection of essays George Monbiot quotes Owen Paterson, then British Secretary of State, describing a previous government’s refusal to dredge waterways as a “blind adherence to Rousseauism.” This is one of the two ways that Rousseau’s name is most often invoked in today’s political discourse: as being hopelessly naïve and sentimental. The other way, paradoxically, is for being a dangerous proto-fascist, but that’s a trump card that’s usually saved for a final play.

I’m pretty sure Monbiot would rate Rousseau differently, as he’s one of the two presiding intellectual spirits behind this collection. The influence can be seen in everything from Monbiot’s environmentalism (which includes not dredging rivers), his theories of education (“Rewild the Child” by sending them outdoors to learn from nature), and his general distrust of society. “Civilization is Boring,” is the title of one essay, which nicely captures the spirit of Rousseau in our day, for good and ill. In another essay, jumping off from a consideration of the film Avatar, we even get a conventional re-hashing of the myth of the noble savage:

When the Spanish arrived in the Americas, they described a world which could scarcely have been more different from their own. Europe was ravaged by war, oppression, slavery, fanaticism, disease and starvation. The populations they encountered were healthy, well nourished and mostly (with exceptions like the Aztecs and Incas) peaceable, democratic and egalitarian.

I think there are a lot of caveats to be registered here – as populations grow and societies become more complex they tend to all fall heir to the same problems and develop in much the same way – but in any event the inverted hierarchy is pure Rousseauian Romanticism: allied with the child (up to and including idealistic university students, before they are absorbed by the system), the primitive, the natural, and the subconscious against the adult values of civilization, progress and order.

As with most Romantic thought, the political point is revolutionary. Our natural sociability and desire to live within nature has been corrupted by the oppressive ideology of a ruling class that needs to be overthrown. This is where Noam Chomsky comes in, the second of Monbiot’s guiding spirits. Chomsky’s name isn’t mentioned in this book (and Rousseau’s is only once), but he’s there on the first page of the Introduction as we hear about the “apparatus of justification” and “infrastructure of persuasion” utilized by the powers-that-be to control the minds of the masses. In other words, manufacturing consent.

Key to this process of control is stealth. “You can learn as much about a country from its silences as you can from its obsessions. The issues politicians do not discuss are as telling and decisive as those they do.” The ruling ideology of neoliberalism, to take the primary example, “remains largely invisible to citizens.” “That’s how you measure the depth of this problem: by our inability even to discuss it.” “We have all become skilled in the art of not seeing” our mental chains, which has led us to a state of “superhuman passivity” and “elective impotence.”

This is all good Rousseau-Chomsky in that it posits an essentially good human nature that has been corrupted and is now controlled by various systems of power. The opposite view can be identified as Hobbesian or (social) Darwinist: viewing life in terms of a fallen nature, as a vicious struggle for dominance and survival. Monbiot only mentions the name of Hobbes a couple of times, and that is to forcefully reject him: “Thomas Hobbes could not have been more wrong when he claimed that in the state of nature, before authority arose to keep us in check, we were engaged in a war of ‘every man against every man.’ We were social creatures from the start, mammalian bees, who depended entirely on each other.”

Truth lies somewhere in between. Despite having huge respect for Chomsky, I’ve never been entirely persuaded by the brainwashing thesis. An alternative view of human nature, seeing humankind as neither inherently good nor originally sinful (broadly, Rousseau and Hobbes, the liberal and conservative positions), is provided by Ian West in his book Why the West Rules – For Now. While disagreeing with some of what West says, his description of human beings as essentially lazy, greedy, and fearful seems correct to me and perhaps the best explanation for how we got into this mess. The truth is out there about our unsustainable lifestyles, the damage we are wreaking on the environment, our exploitation of the poor and the weak, and all the rest of it. On some basic level we understand the situation we’re in perfectly. We just don’t want to think about all of these problems very much, as most of us are managing pretty well and in any event there’s not much we can do about the mess we’re in anyway. If this is “elective impotence,” it is freely elected.

An example of how this works can be seen in Monbiot’s essay on “The Population Myth.” The point he wants to make here is that it’s not population growth, especially among the poorer nations, that is the big problem facing the environment but rather consumption. “While there’s a weak correlation between global warming and population growth, there’s a strong correlation between global warming and wealth.”

“Where’s Class War when you need it?” he concludes by asking. “It’s time we had the guts to name the problem. It’s not sex; it’s money. It’s not the poor; it’s the rich.”

All of which may be true, visible, and out in the open, but what of it? As he also notes, almost in passing, “no one anticipates a consumption transition.” Sure we could get along perfectly well with 10 billion people on the planet if we all lived like Bangladeshis, but that isn’t going to happen. “The American way of life is not negotiable,” as a former U.S. president once put it.

Class War, or revolution, isn’t the answer because this isn’t just about the 0.1 % and their monster homes and yachts. There is a very high-consumption lifestyle to which a significant proportion of the people on this planet have become accustomed, and that an even greater number aspire to. At the end of the day, while it’s true that consumption is a bigger driver of global warming than population, it’s not a true dichotomy. People are consumers. You can try all sorts of things to lower your carbon footprint (Monbiot sensibly suggests eating less meat and not buying so much junk at Christmas), but there’s no getting around this bottom line. Humans consume. The single most environmentally destructive act a middle-class North American can do is have a child. That’s a bit of carbon that’s going to go on burning a lot more carbon for the next 80 years.

As Edward O. Wilson once said, “for everyone in the world to live like Americans do would require the existence of four more planet Earths.” Or, in other words, 7 billion Americans would already take us far beyond the planet’s carrying capacity. I don’t think Class War is going to provide any kind of solution to that big a problem. A Great Mortality is more likely, and may well provide a more humane and softer landing than revolution.

Notes:
Review first published online October 5, 2016.

Who Needs Books?

WHO NEEDS BOOKS?: READING IN THE DIGITAL AGE
By Lynn Coady

There’s no bigger issue in the publishing world today than the economic and cultural impact being had by the Internet, with sides clearly drawn between cybertopians and Luddites, digital optimists and pessimists respectively.

There is, however, a third ground that takes a step to one side. This is the approach adopted by Giller Prize-winning novelist Lynn Coady in this slim but engaging book containing a lecture given at the University of Alberta on reading in the digital age.

Coady’s response is to shrug at our fears. The Internet is no big thing. There have always been people wringing their hands over the decline of Western civilization, from Plato down to the present day. But decline is something that’s hard to measure, and it may well be that we are no less bookish today than we were a hundred, or five hundred years ago.

I’m a little more concerned about where we’re heading, but what ultimately makes the conversation so stimulating is the fact it’s addressed to that most unknowable country, the future.
Coady’s main target is the defence, made by a self-appointed elite, of “serious” literature’s “cultural primacy,” especially as measured against the leveling forces of the Internet. As a counterpoint, Coady sees the Internet as reflecting a robust and durable human nature that isn’t threatened by digital barbarians because, when you get down to it, “they” are really just “us.”

“Fear not,” Coady assures. “Technology does not have the power to alter our most profound human yearnings and experiences. How do I know that? Because in all of human history, it never has.”

Still, doubts remain. One could argue that technology has altered the most profound human yearnings and experiences (like work, love, and family) a great deal. Meanwhile, a more topical concern is that the threat the Internet poses to literary culture will be felt less by an elite than it will be by an already squeezed middle class.

It’s true that throughout most of human history people didn’t read books, but that’s because they couldn’t read. In an era of near universal education and literacy, and with all the best that has been thought and said literally at the fingertips of anyone with a cellphone, we might expect better than a return to conditions that obtained in the early Roman Empire, with a small tribe of hedonists who read for pleasure and the Internet providing the spectacle of bread and circuses for aliterate masses.

With all the digital revolution has wrought, are we experiencing progress? If nothing has changed, isn’t that a sign of failure?

Notes:
Review first published online September 29, 2016.