reviews/analysis

The Perils of Consumption: Rand and McCarthy on Liberal Humanism

 

While to an extent true that the ideas stemming from Liberal Humanism – laissez-faire economics, individual rights, and free and open competition in all fields – have operated as a liberating force in the modern world, when left unchecked, practice of these ideas can result in disastrous consequences for the same people and institutions they are meant to benefit. Ayn Rand’s “The Virtue of Selfishness,” is a collection of essays in which she goes into extensive detail as to why total economic freedom is the only acceptable way of life. In contrast to this, Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” presents a bleak image of Liberal Economics taken to the greatest possible extreme, damaging the world beyond recognition, and causing the Human Race to (literally) eat itself alive. This essay will use both texts to gain an understanding of the role Liberal Humanism plays in the deterioration of our society, as-well-as determine if its benefits are worth the costs.

Ayn Rand took laissez-faire economics – the idea that for a society to be truly prosperous, there should be as few restrictions and regulations as possible on that nation’s industries, and its citizens capacity to gain wealth by whatever means – to their greatest possible extreme, arguing that any attempt by the government to meddle in a person’s private economic interests is a violation of his or her’s most intimate rights. In her essay “Man’s Rights,” Rand writes:

“The right to property means that a man has the right to take the economic actions necessary to earn property, to use it and to dispose of it  … Those who advocate laissez-faire capitalism are the only advocates of man’s rights. (Rand, p. 93).”

Rand is saying that economic freedom is intrinsically tied to freedom in general. The only free nations or states are the ones who employ laissez-faire capitalism to its fullest, allowing people to take whatever actions needed to acquire as much wealth as possible.  Under this ideology, achieving one’s personal and economic desires superseded everything else – any actions taken to achieve those goals are justifiable, and any actions that place others over oneself are destructive; one should only act on behalf of himself, and if something or someone cannot be of use in achieving your goals, then they are devoid of value, even our fellow human beings.

In Rand’s philosophy, individual rights supersede all forms of authority. While opposition to oppressive governments has often affected positive change throughout history – the American and French revolutions, the Civil Rights Movement – Rand’s is concerned more with self-servitude than improving the human condition.

“A society that robs an individual of the product of his effort, or enslaves him, or attempts to limit the freedom of his mind, or compels him to act against his own rational judgement … is not, strictly speaking, a society, but a mob held together by gang rule (Rand, p. 102).”

Taken by themselves, these words are not inflammatory or destructive, but they become such when one considers the intent behind them. For Rand, robbing an individual of the product of his effort meant having to make a sacrifice for the sake of the collective good, attempting to limit the freedom of his mind meant acknowledging that some of his ideas may not translate to the real world, and compelling him to act against his own rational judgement meant compelling him to realize that, while beneficial to him, certain actions he takes may have negative consequences for others around him.

Rand was also a strong proponent of free and open competition within the economic sphere, believing that a landscape free of regulation from governing bodies would allow the most intelligent, creative, visionary individuals to exercise their abilities to their fullest potential. In her essay “The Monuments,” Rand uses great buildings, such as the pyramids of Egypt and the skyscrapers of today to illustrate how unencumbered competition benefits all of society:

“America’s skyscrapers were not built by public funds nor for a public purpose: they were built by the energy, initiative and wealth of private individuals for personal profit. And, instead of impoverishing the people, these skyscrapers, as they rose higher and higher, kept raising the people’s standard of living—including the inhabitants of the slums, who lead a life of luxury compared to the life of an ancient Egyptian slave or of a modern Soviet Socialist worker (Rand. p. 86).”

 

Here Rand presents an image of the world where the best and brightest have been allowed to let their talents shine, creating awe-inspiring structures which act as monuments to human greatness, and affording everyone a quality of life which would be otherwise impossible. Everyone who wins and loses in this world deserves to, either due to their talent, or lack-thereof. It is a perfectly fair world, where no outside forces are necessary to maintain order. This is Rand’s belief, now, the remainder of this essay will use McCarthy’s “The Road” to challenge its validity.

 

In “The Road,” we see a world which has endured both the destruction of civilization, and the death of all natural life on Earth: no birds flying overhead, no fish in the rivers, no animals in the forest which might be hunted. All that’s left are a few scraps of the old world. We see the remnants of Liberal Economics in how the survivors treat one another, something illustrated to horrifying effect in one particularly striking scene:

“The boy clutched at (his father’s) coat. He could see part of the stone wall. Clay floor. An old mattress darkly stained. He crouched and stepped down again and held out the light. Huddled against the back wall were naked people, male and female, all trying to hide, shielding their faces with their hands. On the mattress lay a man with his legs gone to the hip and the stumps of them blackened and burnt. The smell was hideous (McCarthy, p. 110).”   

 

We share the horror of the characters in this scene as they discover human beings held captive so that the house’s inhabitants can eat them one body part at a time. Rather than the active “naked people were huddled against the back wall,” McCarthy uses the passive “Huddled against the back wall were naked people, male and female,” putting us in the perspective of the boy and man. The details creep in on us, forcing us to put everything together ourselves, and making the scene especially powerful. What’s more, McCarthy uses subtlety to great effect: the captives – who are, for all intents and purposes, livestock – are clearly afraid to see and hear people coming downstairs, which means they have been down there for quite some time, and the alliteration used to describe the stumps of the man’s thighs as “blackened and burnt,” emphasizes the terrifying nature of this scene. In this world, things are defined by their capacity for usefulness, just as how in laissez-faire capitalism, things are defined by their capacity for profit. The only things of any use are other people, reduced to nothing more than the meat on their bones. This scene is a striking visualization of how the principles stemming from liberal economics can persist in a post-civilized world. These people are being kept, stored, clearly whoever is holding them wants to keep them alive and consume their body parts gradually, like the man whose legs have been cut off. Their captors are maximizing their usefulness, just as laissez-faire capitalists believe all should be done to maximize the profits to be had from a resource. That this scene takes place at a former slave owning plantation has a special significance, as it ties this potential future to a period in the past when humans were also “consumed” for profit. How fitting that a novel critiquing Liberal Economics has a key scene take place in a relic of colonialism, the era in-which Liberal Economics truly took hold? In his critical essay, Cannibalism, Consumerism, and Profanation: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and the End of Capitalism,” Jordan J. Dominy explores the visible remnants of a consumer society in the post-apocalyptic landscape, such as the plantation house. Dominy believes that even in colonial days, the human cost of rampant capitalism was not lost on writers, with many comparing the consumption of luxury goods imported from the colonies—sugar, for example—with the exploitations of the enslaved bodies that toiled to produce it. The eighteenth-century social critic Jonas Hanaway went so far as to this as  “autocannibalism”(Dominy, 2015).

The world of the novel is a lawless one, all the structures which oppressed people in the old world are gone, but so are those which maintained order, forcing survivors to rely only on themselves. The individual is more important than ever, with the only right left being the right to fight for one’s life. While the father knows that the only way to survive is through selfishness, the boy still maintains that there is room for altruism in this landscape, as seen in their interaction with the traveler Ely:

“(The boy) reached with his scrawny claws and took (the can of fruit) and held it to his chest. Eat it, the boy said. The old man looked down at the tin. He took a fresh grip and lifted it, his nose wrinkling …

“I know what the question is, the man said. The answer is no.

“What’s the question?

“Can we keep him. We can’t (McCarthy, p. 164).”

Within Rand’s version of Liberal Humanism, the right’s of the individual supercede the collective good – one must do what is best for one’s self regardless of how it may affects others. In “The road,” we see this attitude is able to manifest itself to its greatest possible extreme, where the concept of a collective good does not exist – in a world with rampant scarcity, everyone must fight for whatever they can get, and generosity makes no sense. What’s more, where laws once enforced human rights, people must defend themselves from oppressive forces in the post-apocalyptic landscape. Thus, only way possible for one to express their individual rights in this world is to make conscious decisions that will ensure their survival. While the father is not inherently a selfish person, he keeps the meager resources he has acquired for himself and his son because to do otherwise would put themselves at risk. The conversation above illustrates how the father’s self-interest conflicts with the boy’s innocent sense of generosity. In their current environment, sympathy such as the boy’s is a liability, and while it is certainly not in line with Randian ideas of free will and individual rights, it does point out a fallacy in the self-centered philosophies of Liberal Humanism. Liberal Humanism preaches that the individual should be allowed to do whatever he or she wishes with their wealth, most who subscribe to this philosophy interpret this to mean that they should not have to expend resources on anything that doesn’t benefit themselves, but if one truly does have the right to use their wealth in whatever way pleases them, and one wants to use their wealth to help others, then Liberal Humanism does support altruism. McCarthy connects the concept of free will to altruism by emphasizing the boy’s hands in this passage: hands are a universal symbol of generosity, but they also symbolize the ability to take action and exercise one’s will. What is more, the boy is giving Ely fruit, a symbol fertility and prosperity – the fruits of one’s labors, be fruitful and multiply, etc. – but it is canned, a leftover from the the pre-apocalyptic world, just like the boy’s spirit of giving – in a world where nothing grows, this canned fruit is the only fruit which will ever exist; in a world where altruism is obsolete, generosity will only come from someone too innocent to understand the new selfish reality.  

Though the concept of an economy has been relegated to nothing more than a memory in the world of “The Road,” the remnants of free and open competition are strong enough in the minds of survivors for them execute them to absolutely horrifying effect, as seen in the man and boy’s observation of a cannibalistic blood cult:  

 “An army in tennis shoes, tramping. Carrying three foot lengths of pipe with leather wrappings … some of the pipes were threaded through with lengths of chain fitted at their ends with every manner of bludgeon … Behind them came wagons drawn by slaves in harness and piled high with goods of war, and after that the women, a dozen or more, some of them pregnant …  (McCarthy, pp. 91 – 92).”

In this stretch of narration, there is no idea given to us of what the man or boy are doing, no descriptions of what they are thinking or feeling. Indeed, this scene has an almost detached quality to it, presenting itself  through some omniscient authority, whose cold and methodical description grant an extra weight of omniscience to the blood cult’s presence. What’s more, notice how objective the above passage feels, there are no adjectives adding any layer of emotional terror, nor is there any need to, McCarthy lets the scene speak for itself, letting us discern for ourselves the cult’s role in this world, and placing us side-by-side with the father and son, watching the absolute worst this world has to offer parade by us. We know that the men at the front, carrying weapons, are the leaders, the strongest, and therefore the most well equipped to lead this cult. In Randian logic, they occupy the same place as an inventive artist or CEO, whose natural talents have granted them a position of great prestige. Of course, the flaw in this mentality is that if there is nothing restraining just what such individuals are allowed to do in competition, then they will be allowed to empower themselves to the point where they can eliminate all other competitors and take everything for themselves. McCarthy is aware of this and chocks this scene full of imagery to communicate it. Consider the crude weapons the leaders carry, a product of their own sadistic imagination, and which are now used to augment their brute strength, and coerce others into subservience. Also, the slaves: while the man and boy carry their goods themselves, expending the meager energy they have in the process, the cult leaders let the slaves bare that burden, freeing them to use their energy solely for inflicting violence on all who stand in their way. Then we have the women, who could be seen as wives of the cult leaders, until one considers that the purpose of the cult is to amass as many resources as possible for the leaders’ use, resources which would be wasted caring for helpless children, therefore, we should conclude that these women are being kept by the cult leaders to breed babies which will later be cannibalized. Here we see laid out before us the post-apocalyptic ghost of unencumbered competition, an entity designed solely for the purpose of consumption, with nothing limiting how much it is able to consume, or what methods it is able to employ to grow its capacity for consumption. Like the corporations of the pre-apocalyptic world, the cult has reached a level of power that makes it impossible for other groups or individuals to challenge them, allowing them to consume until there is nothing left, and even they starve.

Ayn Rand would have us believe that there is a natural order to Capitalist societies and that all would be well if we were allowed to earn, compete, and consume as much as we want, in whatever way we want. McCarthy is concerned with a much harsher reality, presenting a world where Capitalism has collapsed under its own grotesque weight, leaving little of the world we knew behind. Rand’s writing deals with hope, while “The Road” deals with fear, the fear that we have conditioned the act of consumption so deeply into our nature, that when there is nothing left to consume, we will consume ourselves.

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A Postmodern Adolescence: “The Virgin Suicides,” by Jeffrey Eugenides.

Though there is some debate as to precisely when the Postmodern period of literature ended, if it ended at all, it is generally agreed upon that Postmodernism’s peak lasted from the mid-1960s to the early 1990s. Published in 1992, Jeffrey Eugenides’ debut novel “The Virgin Suicides” should fit firmly in that window. Taking place in the 1970s, in an unspecified upper middle class suburb in Michigan, Eugenides’ novel is narrated by the collective the voice of the community’s teenage boys, now grown men, recalling their fascination with the five beautiful Lisbon sisters – Lux, Cecilia, Mary, Bonnie, and Therese – and how they all committed suicide over the course of a year. Eugenides’ novel mythologizes the fragility of suburban youth and examines the darkness that resides within the cracks of the American family. Of course, just because a book is published during a certain literary movement’s peak, does not necessarily mean it’s part of it. In this essay, we will determine if “The Virgin Suicides” can genuinely be considered a Postmodern novel, by dissecting specific scenes in the texts and comparing them to other books and films to determine how they deal with aesthetics, identity, and sexuality.  

The narrative center of “The  Virgin Suicides” is the neighborhood boys’ obsessive desire to explain why the Lisbon sisters ended their lives. In their quest, they steal the diary of Cecilia, the youngest sister, and the first to commit suicide, to gain insight into her mental state leading to her death. However, in attempting to explore who Cecilia was as a person, our narrators come up with more questions than answers, including ones about the nature of identity. Eugenides writes:       

“The diary is an unusual document of adolescence in that it rarely depicts the emergence of an unformed ego. The standard insecurities, laments, crushes, and daydreams are nowhere in evidence. Instead, Cecilia writes of her sisters and herself as a single entity. It’s often difficult to identify which sister she’s talking about, and many strange sentences conjure in the reader’s mind an image of a mythical creature with ten legs and five heads, lying in bed eating junk food, or suffering visits from affectionate aunts (Eugenides, pp. 38 – 39).”

 

Unlike the Victorians, who viewed identity as dependent upon one’s relations with others, or Modernists, who saw it as something outside social norms, Postmodernists maintain that the self is something entirely shallow, nothing beyond social constructs, and drawn from predetermined roles within society. In the case of the Lisbon sisters, that predetermined role is that of the American teenage girl, forced upon them by a patriarchal, conservative society. The narrators note how Cecilia’s journal is lacking in any ego, and that she seems to view herself and her sisters as indistinct from one another, as though she seems to have no sense of identity beyond being “a Lisbon sister.” Our narrators also notice the lack of any imagination or romantic desire in Cecilia’s writing, as though she is incapable of abstract thought, or thinking beyond herself, and since Cecilia views herself as inseparable from her sisters, we can conclude that the other girls may be the same. The Lisbon sisters’ apparent lack of individuality is due to their being raised by strict Christian parents, who forced them into a cloistered existence, in which they were allowed very little exposure to the outside world, and denied chances to connect with anyone outside their family. Thusly, the girls connected with the only people available, one another. That said, however specific the girls’ unique psychological state is, their lack of individuality should be viewed as exemplary of how Twentieth and Twenty-first-century culture trains teenage girls to conduct themselves. American culture forces women and girls to adopt a constellation of accepted behaviors so as to function. In doing so, they allow themselves to become a homogenous mass, rather than a collection of individuals, similar to how the Lisbons are described as “an image of a mythical creature with ten legs and five heads, lying in bed eating junk food … ” When we consider our culture’s dehumanizing treatment of girls, we begin to notice that the neighborhood boys’ concern with the Lisbon’s and their deaths seems to be derived less from any sort of empathy, and more a voyeuristic fascination. The boys look at the Lisbons as curiosities to be understood, rather than people to be helped, and their investigation into their deaths feels primarily motivated by the need to satisfy their own interest, rather than possibly help anyone who may be going through similar strife.  

A postmodern work which parallels “The Virgin Suicides” take on identity is Michael Cunningham’s novel “The Hours,” specifically in the arc of Mrs. Brown, who struggles with her less than privileged role as a woman in 1950s America, as illustrated in the scene in which we are introduced to her:

   “She should not be permitting herself to read, not this morning of all mornings; not on Dan’s birthday. She should be showered and dressed, fixing breakfast for Dan and Richie. She can hear them downstairs, her husband making his own breakfast … (Cunningham, p. 38).”

 

Here Mrs. Brown feels anxiety at slacking in her duties as a wife and mother; she feels embarrassment at the knowledge that her husband has to make his own breakfast. These negative feelings are drawn less from the need to make her family happy, and more from fear of what society may think of her not fulfilling the role assigned for her. Her personality at this point in the novel is wrapped entirely in the shallow, predetermined set of tasks she must fulfill, and not in any internal desire for spiritual or intellectual growth. Like the Lisbon sisters, Mrs. Brown’s is not an identity she has chosen for herself, but one the world has thrust upon her.

A novel entitled “The Virgin Suicides” should be deeply concerned about the sexuality of its characters. Indeed, part of the reason the boys are so infatuated with the Lisbon’s is their sexual purity. However, as the boys and the readers eventually realize, this purity has been imposed upon them by their family, eventually causing one of them, Lux, to rebel through promiscuity – it should be said that Lux’s behavior renders the book’s title somewhat ironic, as she is not a virgin when she commits suicide. Lux’s sexual escapades become legendary among the boys, and their reaction to them grants an opportunity to explore Postmodernism’s take on human sexuality.     

 

“A cellophane body swept its arms back and forth against the slate tiles like a child drawing an angel in the snow; then another darker body could be discerned, sometimes in a fast food restaurant uniform … once in the drab gray suit of an accountant … Lux and her partners enjoyed relative safety, but there was the unavoidable prior noise of sneaking down to let boys and men in … the men sweating, risking statutory rape charges, the loss of their careers, divorce … For our own part, we learned a great deal about the techniques of love … Years later, when we lost our own virginities, we resorted in our panic to pantomiming Lux’s gyrations on the roof … We received reports of her erotic adventures … the acidic taste of her saliva … but none of these signs of malnourishment or illness or grief … detracted from Lux’s overwhelming impression of being a carnal angel (Eugenides, pp. 140 – 143).”  

 

The above passage is highly indicative of the postmodern idea of sexuality as having no privileged role within perceptions of identity, as well as the belief that any importance placed upon sexuality are illusions. Note how the narrators begin by referring to Lux in this scene only as a body, this choice of words communicates to us that the image of Lux engaging in the act of sex is divorced from any picture of her as a human being with a personality. The layperson traditionally views sex as an act of bonding, in which lovers can come to know each other, but Postmodernism maintains that sex is a purely physical act, with no profundity to be found therein. Lux is a body, nothing more than a  mass of flesh and bone into which someone may insert his penis. Postmodern ideas about the deprivatization of sex are apparent in the line which refers to the older men Lux seduces as “ … risking statutory rape charges, the loss of their careers, divorce,” thus illustrating the constant scrutiny of, and ubiquitous concern with, other people’s sex lives, which is highly indicative of the Postmodern era. While works from other eras also contain this motif – Rochester experiences public humiliation for his attempted bigamy – it is it’s unabashed and uncoded approach to portraying the public reaction to people’s sexuality that makes postmodernism unique. Part of what is supposed to make sex special is that it is supposed to be a private act, but here sex is a matter of public knowledge, and the boys draw upon it for their own use. By definition, something cannot be personal if it’s shared by the public, and if something is not personal, it has no special meaning to you as an individual.

   Treatment of sex as a resource or commodity is also seen in Michael Gundry’s film “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” in which Joel (played by Jim Carrey), heartbroken after his breakup with his girlfriend, Clementine (played by Kate Winslet), pays for a medical procedure to have his memories of their relationship removed from his mind, including memories of their sex life. The company in the film treats erasing people’s memories like a service, not unlike tuning up a person’s car, or debugging their computer, and they approach their work with the same casual professionalism as a mechanic removing a worn out engine part, or a programmer deleting a piece of outdated software – the technicians who perform this service show no reverence for the intimate moments they are destroying, they are only there to do a job and get paid. If your memories and experiences of sexual intimacy become, not only disposable but something that can be disposed of as a means of making a profit, then do they mean anything?  

Among other things, Eugenides’ novel is an examination of how Americans react to tragedy, a key part of which, especially in a work set in Twentieth or Twenty-First century, should be the role of the mass media – television, radio, and in this case, newspapers.

“The newspaper, later writing about what they termed a suicide pact, treated the girls as automatons, creatures so barely alive that their deaths came as little change … boiled two or three months and the suffering of four individuals into a paragraph with a heading “When Youth Sees No Future” … often quoted rock lyrics that alluded to death or suicide. (The reporter) befriended a local deejay and spent an entire night listening to the records that Lux’s schoolmates listed among her favorites … a song of the band Cruel crux entitled “Virgin Suicide” … Virgin suicide/ What was that she cried?/ No use in staying’/ On this Holocaust ride/ she gave her cherry/  She’s my virgin suicide (Eugenides, pp. 170 – 171).”\

 

Part of the Postmodern aesthetic is a reverence for mass culture, and a celebration of the ordinary, this may be the one area in which “The Virgin Suicides” is subversive of Postmodern ideas, for while mass-produced cultural properties are a significant presence in the novel, Eugenides frames these elements of the story in a less humorous or ironic light than some of his contemporaries would. Indeed, there is a palpably seething critique of the dehumanizing nature of the public’s relationship to media. The narrators criticize the reporters for presenting the girls as having no life in them, then trivializing their anguish into the something as common as a newspaper headline. These were people whom the boys knew, to whom they felt almost mystical, albeit objectifying attraction, and yet the media crassly use them as bait for readers and viewers. While most Postmodern works would shagrinely shrug their shoulders at the idea of a person’s life being reduced to a series of mundane details, Eugenides’ characters react with subtle fury. The mention of the reporter listening to Lux’s favorite rock records gets to the heart of Postmodern aesthetics, namely, an emphasis on the idea that people not only relate to the world through the media they consume but that a person’s entire sense of identity is composed of their consumption habits. It is here we can detect a possible attempt by Eugenides to satirize Postmodernism, with the journalist filling the role of a Postmodernist, reducing Lux’s favorite things to their something she can use for professional gain, while Lux and the boys represent the masses, who feel a great loss at seeing the things they love robbed of any transcendent value.   

Postmodern literature can feel a bit soul-crushing at times, telling us that our sense of identity is shallow, and created for us by forces outside of our control, that our sexuality isn’t as important as we may like to think it is, and that the individuality we think we are creating for ourselves through consumption, only makes us more like everybody else. Jeffrey Eugenides’ “The Virgin Suicides” presents these ideas to us in a way that is palatable to readers, that empathizes with the frustration we may feel at wondering if the things we love and experience have any value. And the end of it we see a bit of the Lisbon sisters in ourselves, and a bit of ourselves in them.  

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Book Review: “Prep,” by Curtis Sittenfeld

Americans have a contradictory view of preparatory schools, most of us view them as little more than holding pens, where over-privileged children bide their time until they’re old enough to take their parents’ places among the elites. However, it is these same qualities that have caused us to mythologize prep school. There is an undeniable mystique about spending our most formative years cloistered off from the real world. Who among us didn’t fantasize about packing our bags and being spirited away from our families to be a part of a hidden world, where we will be free to indulge in whatever decadent fantasies we choose? What makes Curtis Sittenfeld’s novel “Prep” such a beautiful piece of literature, is how elegantly it subverts this trope, favoring a sense of melancholy and isolation over glamorous escapism. “Prep” chronicles Lee Fiora’s journey as she leaves her simple, but loving family in South Bend Indiana to attend the prestigious Ault School in Massachusetts. Over the next four years, we witness Lee receive a formal education in literature and arithmetic, as well as an informal one in the difference between those who have money, and those who don’t. We see and feel every cringe-inducing moment Lee experiences as she tries and fails to navigate the social politics of sex and friendship and feel her heartbreak as she inadvertently alienates herself from he family in her quest for something better.

 

If I could describe the plot structure of “Prep” in one word, it would be efficient: the book is divided into four sections – one for each year of Lee’s time at Ault – with each chapter in those sections centering around one or two key events. This approach both makes the novel feel much more streamlined than it would had Sittenfeld tried to cram as many of Lee’s experiences as she could, as well as allow for the situations in-which Lee finds herself to have their maximum emotional impact. The best example of this, and my favorite section of the novel, is when Lee’s parents visit Ault for parents’ weekend, an extremely important scene from a thematic standpoint, in that it is one of the few times when Lee’s old life, and her life at Ault, are forced to occupy the same space. Sittenfeld devotes a full forty pages to just one day, and in doing so, can thoroughly explore every nuance of Lee’s interaction with her parents, thus experience the pain and anguish they feel at the growing rift between them.    

 

“‘I don’t know what’s happened to you Lee, but I can tell you this much. You’re a disappointment. You’re selfish and you’re shallow and you have no respect for your mother and I, and I’m ashamed of you … When you started at Ault,’ my father continued, ‘I said to myself, I’ll bet there are a lot of kids who’d think really highly of themselves going to a place. And I thought, but I’m glad Lee has a good head on her shoulders. Well, I was wrong’ … And then – I don’t remember any anticipation or foreknowledge of this, only a stunned awareness that it had already happened – he raised his right hand and slapped me across the face (Sittenfeld, pp. 202 – 203).”   

 

Many readers will complain that this novel is pointless and that it wastes chances to make clear statements about life, but those who do, miss that that may, in fact, be the point. We’ve come to expect coming of age stories to be profound, for every element of their plot to propel the protagonist towards some life-affirming revelation. Stories like this are fun to read, but they can also be pandering and unrealistic. Our lives don’t come with built-in lessons, we have experiences, sometimes those experiences teach us things, and sometimes they don’t. As the novel’s narrator, Lee makes many insightful observations about being a teenager, but she does so as an adult, years after the events of the novel occur. This quieter, more cerebral brand of insight doesn’t make the story boring, it makes it realistic, and I find that realism refreshing.    

 

One frequent complaint regarding Lee’s character I have read in other reviews is that she lacks any discernible talents or ambition, and while I agree with this observation, I don’t see it as a discredit to the novel, but rather, as another reason why Lee is so relatable as a character. Not everyone is a superstar in high school: we can’t all be head cheerleaders, get elected Prom Queen, and get full scholarships to Yale where we graduate Summa Cum Laude – the overwhelming majority of us don’t, we just do what we can to get through, then move on to the next stage in our lives. One area in which I feel “Prep” excels is in how it portrays disappointment with life. Lee goes to Ault expecting it to be her gateway to a brighter world, only to discover that her difficulties do not leave her, they just change form: once she was a star pupil, Lee struggles just to catch up with the knowledge her more privileged classmates take for granted, eventually having to resort to cheating just to avoid being expelled. Prior to applying to Ault, Lee was seduced by fantasies of being romanced by handsome young boys in sweaters, but those fantasies are quickly shattered, and while she does eventually stumble into a relationship, Lee finds him indifferent, and his interest in her to be purely physical. Lee’s slow and begrudging realization that reality is not compatible with fantasy, draws a heartbreakingly honest parallel with to the emotional journey upon which we all find ourselves at that age. It is possible to find happiness and fulfillment in life, but they usually come from different sources than those we imagined. At some point, we have to accept the fact that life isn’t always going to turn out the way we hope it will.

 

Literature and popular culture have ingrained in our collective imagination the image of high school (and college) is an idyllic period in our lives, packed with beautiful friendships that last a lifetime, transformative adventures we remember fondly years later, and tremendous spiritual and intellectual growth. In writing “Prep,” Sittenfeld demonstrates a clear understanding that this candy-coated image of our teenage years is nothing more than a fantasy. Most of us forget how nerve-wracking our teenage years can be, Sittenfeld hasn’t.

 

 

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Book Review: “American Gods,” by Neil Gaiman

There is a spectrum of respectability in contemporary literature: on one end are what one would call “author’s authors,” or authors of literary fiction, such as George Saunders, Ian McEwan, and Junot Diaz, writers who are deemed “more serious,” and whose work tends to emphasize style and intellectual merit over enjoyability – these writers are often accused of pretentiousness, as-well-as having weak instincts for storytelling. On the opposite end of the respectability spectrum are authors of genre fiction – horror, sci-fi, and fantasy – such as Stephen King, Victoria Schwabe, and Sarah J. Maas, authors who display admirable skill in world-building and crafting entertaining, well-structured stories, but whose works can be lacking in psychological or philosophical heft. Somewhere in the middle of this spectrum, however, is Neil Gaiman, an author who consistently displays a sharp ear for both craft and reader appeal. Gaiman not only crafts well-structured, entertaining stories, but he uses exquisite prose to both build captivating, fantastical worlds, and unpretentiously communicate profound and complex ideas. Without question, no other work of his is a better display of his immense skill than his magnum opus “American Gods,” in which Gaiman draws from a huge wealth of knowledge, blending the great myths of dozens of cultures to create what is both a tale of inexhaustible entertainment value and a thought-provoking social critique of the highest intellectual calibre.

After a brief, but intense stay in a state penitentiary, Shadow Moon is looking forward to finally regaining his freedom, and restarting his life with his wife Laura, but a few days before he is to be released, Shadow learns that Laura and his best friend have been killed in a car crash, with no other options, Shadow reluctantly leaves prison. On the plane ride to Laura’s funeral, Shadow finds himself seated next to the mysterious Mr. Wednesday, a self-proclaimed King of America, who offers Shadow a job as his right-hand man on a mission of supreme importance. Shadow accepts and finds himself accompanying Wednesday as he travels across the United States, communing with individuals as bizarre as him, all the while being pursued by mysterious goons. Shadow quickly learns the truth: Wednesday is an incarnation of the Norse god Odin, and that he, like the strange people with which he has been associating, is a manifestation of the belief immigrants to America had in their native gods. As Centuries roll by, and belief in them wanes, the old gods find themselves replaced by the new gods of media, industry, and technology, who, by the time Shadow finds himself involved, have set out to destroy the old gods once and for all.

In the hands of a less skilled artist, an idea such as “American Gods” would be reduced to mindless pulp entertainment, but Gaiman’s novel is able to transcend the tacky trappings of genre fiction, due to his subtle ability to inject profundity into the story, as well as his excellent characterization skills. The novel’s success is due in large part to how effectively the narrative  is grounded around people. Gaiman makes Shadow an easy character with which to empathize: he loses his freedom, then once his freedom has been restored, the one thing he has desired for years, his wife, is taken away from him, leaving him adrift, desperate, with no choice but to take Wednesday up on his offer. Shadow is an everyman, he’s certainly not what could be considered a hero, in that, he doesn’t feel himself guided by some higher purpose, but he’s not an evil person either – true, Shadow is a convicted felon, but the crime he committed was a result of poor judgement, and not a desire to cause harm – he is simply a person, doing the best he can with what life has dealt him, something to which we can all relate. It is through our identification with Shadow that we can best understand the novel’s premise, for he is, in a sense, a representation of how America is portrayed in the novel. As Mr. Wednesday says, “This is the one country in the world … that worries about what it is … the rest of them know what they are. No one ever needs to go searching for the heart of Norway. Or looks for the soul of Mozambique (Gaiman, p. 150).'” Unlike the countries from which immigrants originate, America has no national lore, no common mythology which unites her citizens and gives them grounding in the past, and it is because of this, Gaiman seems to be saying to us, that America has never been comfortable with itself. Shadow lost his mother when he was a teenager, and never knew his father, so for most of his life, he has no clear narrative about who he is, no notion of what his roots are, and nothing to bind him to any place of security. Shadow’s travels across America, therefore, become a spiritual journey for him: in experiencing an aspect of American life of which he was previously unaware, he gains a newly found appreciation for the complexity of his country and is better equipped to move forward in his life.    

Most of Gaiman’s works are, at their heart, stories about stories, and “American Gods” is the purest example of this sentiment. The novel understands that America is not a single story, but rather one synthesized from countless other stories, all intertwining, overlapping, and branching off of one another only to come crashing back together. Gaiman illustrates this beautifully in the short stories entitled “Coming to America,” which Gaiman places in between chapters, explaining how some of the deities which populate America came to the country. These are some of my favorite parts of the novel, as they add a delicious richness to the narrative; they make the world of the novel feel more complete, showing the reader that there is more to this story than what’s going on with Shadow. Such immersive and multi-dimensional storytelling is enlightening as well as entertaining, in that, it communicates the grander intellectual themes of the novel in a way that could not be done through Shadow’s travels with Wednesday. The relationship between the world in-which Shadow grew up, and the parallel world Wednesday introduces him to, is similar to that between the sanitized version of our history, and the oft-overlooked truth. One story begins: “The important thing to understand about American history … is that it is fictional, a charcoal-sketched simplicity for the children or the easily bored … the American colonies were as much a dumping ground as an escape, a forgetting place (Gaiman, p. 121)” This specific passage is taken from a story about a young Irish woman, who is credited for bringing Celtic legends about fairy folk to America, as she travels back and forth between the Old and New worlds, trying to outrun her criminal past. This tale is meant as a subversion of the traditional narrative of how the original British colonies evolved into the United States. We like to think that the first European settlers to our country were heroic explorers, godly, industrious people, bringing civilization to an uncivilized continent, and while many of them were, a large number of them came here because they had no choice: criminals seeking forgiveness for their crimes, refugees with nowhere else to call home, misfits who had been rejected by their home country. Then, of course, there are those who were brought here as property. In another, much more grim story, we learn of the journey of twin slaves, who, through a lifetime of suffering, reminds us that our nation, no matter how great it is, cost us an immense human price to build. In these tales and the larger narrative of the novel, we come to the startling realization, that the accepted version of our history is nothing but a watered down concoction we force ourselves to swallow, so as to spare ourselves from confronting the ugly truth about our country.

Neil Gaiman achieves the kind of balance that most authors can only dream of, his works are entertaining, but not pandering, thoughtful and intelligent, but not overly intellectual, experimental, but not inaccessible. “American Gods” is a masterpiece of modern popular literature, capable of enlightening us about the true nature of our country, and well deserving of its status as a modern classic.

reviews/analysis · writing

Book Review: ‘Station Eleven,’ by Emily St. John Mandel

image courtesy of: http://www.npr.org/2015/06/20/415782006/survival-is-insufficient-station-eleven-preserves-art-after-the-apocalypse

When a genre and the tropes associated with it has become so pervasive in popular culture, writers who choose to tackle it must either go along with what has been established by their predecessors or create something all-their-own. In ‘Station Eleven,’ Emily St. John Mandel not only accomplishes the former but injects new life into a genre that has been done to death. This is a post-apocalyptic novel that transcends pulpy conventions in favor of profound statements about the resilience of the human spirit in the face of sweeping change.

The book begins with a brutal snow storm in Toronto when aging actor Arthur Leander is trying to revive his career with a production of ‘King Lear.’ When Arthur suffers a heart attack in the middle of the production, Jeevan Chaudhary, a paramedic connected to Arthur in a way he doesn’t realize, tries and fails to save the actor. Watching back stage is Kirsten Raymonde, a child actor who will carry more from this night than bad memories. Unbeknownst to everyone, the world outside the theater is beginning a vociferous slide to oblivion, as the Georgia flu spreads across Earth, rapidly eating away at all the civilized world holds dear. From there the novel jumps back and forth in time: twenty years in the future,  Kirsten is a member of the ‘Traveling Symphony,’ a troupe of  Shakespearean actors moving from one encampment to another, using theatre to preserve the last remnants of civilized culture. When the plague is in its earliest stages, we see Jeevan trapped in the city, desperately trying to keep himself and his disabled brother alive. Meanwhile those closest to Arthur – his former wives, and best friend, Clark – deal with the after math of his untimely death, while flashbacks trace the evolution of Arthur’s career and love life.

The primary theme of Mandel’s novel is how events outside of our control can forge subtle bonds between us. As the events in the separate timelines unfold, one gets a sense that nothing they’re reading is random; that it was impossible for things to transpire in any other way, not out of any mystical sense of destiny, but rather due to laws of physics and probability. Through a series of disasters, the Symphony finds themselves splintered, with their only hope of finding one another resting in their cardinal rule: “The Symphony Always has a destination, if you get separated, go to the destination and wait.” That happens to be Severn City, home of the Museum of Civilization. Little does Kirsten know, that she and her companions are moving towards more than just hope of a reunion, but the source of something akin to logic in their chaotic world; something which may prove that order is a natural feature of life, and not a product of man’s gaudy inventions.

Rather than focusing on either the chaotic period in the beginning or years after, when the world has settled into its new state of being, Mandel takes a less conventional approach to apocalyptic fiction, alternating between both, as-well-as having key scenes take place when the world is still stable. By showing characters in the time of transition, and then after, Mandel makes us contemplate our relationship to the civilized world. The best example of this are the scenes in-which Clark curates objects for what will become The Museum of Civilization. While stranded in the airport, Clark gathers what would otherwise be junk: abandoned shoes, magazines, discarded credit cards, and puts them on display, seemingly aware that a day will come in which they will have value as proof of what once was. Some other interesting passages are interviews between Kirsten and Francois Diallo, the editor of a recently established newspaper. Francois asks Kirsten about her life with the symphony:

Perhaps the most interesting passages are interviews between Kirsten and Francois Diallo, the editor of a recently established newspaper. Francois asks Kirsten about her travels with the symphony:

“Some towns are like this one, where they want to talk about what happened, about the past. Other towns, discussion of the past is discouraged. We went to this one place where the children didn’t know the world had been different, although you’d think all the rusted out automobiles and telephone wires would give them a clue. “

These interviews serve a dual purpose: that a newspaper is able to not only exist, but conduct an interview with a Shakespearean actor, demonstrates humanity’s desire for something greater than mere survival. What’s more, they provide a raw, intimate perspective to the post-civilized world. Kirsten is fascinating as a protagonist, instead of plowing through life with resigned stoicism or bemoaning the loss of what she knew, she accepts that which cannot be reversed, and creates her own sense of purpose in a world where such things are no longer guaranteed. Her’s is a journey which is dark and quiet, and uniquely human.

 

 

 

reviews/analysis · writing

Book Review: ‘The Architect’s Apprentice,’ Elif Safak

image courtesy of https://lionkingstress.blog/2016/12/24/favourite-quotes-the-architects-apprentice-by-elif-shafak/

A rich and sumptuous historical novel that is both sweeping and intimate.

Authors who write historical fiction often have strike a balance between being accurate to their chosen period, and developing a distinctive style, between demonstrating proficient knowledge of history and crafting a compelling narrative. Fortunately for her readers, Elif Shafak has no such problems. In ‘The Architect’s Apprentice,’ she uses all of the best gifts a writer can utilize to present a celebration of knowledge and the human spirit, set against one of the most colorful periods in world history.

The story begins in 1540, at the height of the Ottoman Empire’s power.  Jahan, a young boy from Hindustan (India), travels to Istanbul to present a fabulous gift to the Sultan – a white elephant named Chota. Unbeknownst to everyone, Jahan has been coerced into thievery by a vicious pirate who desires a share of the Sultan’s wealth. Jahan finds himself in the royal menagerie, where he meets the beautiful Princess Mihramah, developing an infatuation with her which will prove transformative throughout his life. Jahan and Chota are soon thrust into war, where they meet Sinan, the royal architect, a man of endless brilliance and profound humility. Sinan takes Jahan under his tutelage, as the decades roll by Istanbul changes and Jahan along with it. As they construct one iconic building after another, Sinan imparts upon his pupil the secrets of worldly beauty and the keys to a living a meaningful existence.

There is no overarching plotline throughout the novel. Rather, Jahan’s journey is captured in several key episodes of his life, some spanning only a few pages, others take up multiple chapters. Following a single protagonist over the course of a lifetime can, in the wrong hands, result in a tedious, meandering narrative. Luckily for her readers, Safak is able to inject enough sensitivity and emotional flexibility into Jahan’s character to make his a compelling and uniquely human journey. Sinan takes Jahan in when he is at his most vulnerable, notices the cracks in his spirit and seeks to repair them. What makes Jahan a particularly relatable character is that he is neither a hero nor an anti hero; he does not quest for anything, nor does he seek to rebel against the world. Rather, his journey is about learning to accept his place in the universe. It has been said that when we reach our lowest point, we are open to the greatest change. ‘The Architect’s Apprentice’ understands this, and like many other stories which deal with spiritual growth features a protagonist who has seen the worst life has to offer. Over the course of the novel, Jahan is forced to watch his mother marry his torturous uncle, denied any opportunity to express his true feelings for the woman he loves, and thrown in jail for no crime but having ambition. Jahan’s passion for his work and studies acts as a salve against the lacerations on his spirit, healing him, and making him stronger as well. What is more, it is in the scenes where Jahan is working that Safak demonstrates herself to be a wise and well-educated person, expertly enlightening discussions of art, history, and philosophy into her dialogue.

The most fascinating way in which Safak explores Jahan’s spiritual development is through his relationship with Chota. In all the world’s mythologies, animals, being closer to nature, are viewed as bridges between the material and meta physical worlds. So intense is the love Jahan has for Chota, that the purity of the elephant’s soul enters his, awakening him to the beauty of life, and giving him the strength to persevere along the journey of life.

‘The Architect’s Apprentice’ is – and I don’t use this term liberally – a rare gem, a piece of contemporary fiction which is both entertaining and profound; as heartbreaking as it is enlightening. Reading this novel is like being in the presence of a worldly sage, sitting and listening to them impart wisdom of the greatest truth. It has a certain energy running through it, a spiritual presence in its pages that makes readers feel connected to the soul of humanity itself.

 

 

 

 

 

reviews/analysis

Book Review: ‘The Girls’ by Emma Cline

image courtesy: http://www.vulture.com/2016/05/emma-clines-masterful-manson-family-novel-debut.html

The first question one might ask themselves about Emma Cline’s debut novel ‘The Girls,’ is, is this a historical novel? I would argue that for a book to be considered historical it must meet at least two criteria: first, its primary story arc must occur in a period of historical significance, and second, it must prominently feature aspects of cultural significance specific to that time. Taking place in the late 1960s, ‘The Girls’ meets the former, but not the latter,  as many defining features of that period, such as the Vietnam War,  the Civil Rights movement, and iconic artists such as Jimmy Hendrix and the Rolling Stones are mentioned either not at all, or only passing. ‘The Girls,’ therefore should not be considered historical. Instead, I would technically qualify this as a literary thriller, though its capacity to thrill, as-well-as its literary merits is a subject of debate.

Evie, the narrator, having squandered her grandmother’s estate over ten years ago, works as a live-in aide. Currently out of work, a friend invites her to stay in his home on the California coast while he is away. One night, Julian, her friend’s college dropout son, and his girlfriend Sasha show up. After Julian makes a few off-handed remarks about Evie’s involvement with a Mansonesque cult in her youth, she recalls the summer of 1969. Then fifteen, Evie’s parents have recently divorced after her father has an affair with a young employee at his company. Evie’s mother, now half-reluctantly clutching onto feminism, announces to Evie she will be sending her to boarding school in the autumn, thinking it will reign in the girl’s rambunctious behavior. Evie is voracious for a respite from suburban tedium, and through a series of convenient coincidences, finds herself in the company of three liberated young women who speak rapturously about their leader, Russell. While Evie soon assumes the guise of a cultist, growing her hair long and wearing dirty clothes, she never fully succumbs to Russell’s charms, only involving herself with the group so as to remain close to Suzanne, Russel’s apparent favorite.

While Cline’s premise is fascinating, she limits its potential by only exploring it through Evie’s eye. Evie never becomes fully immersed in the cult’s environment, her interest in it seems almost casual. Evie steals money from her mother’s purse to give to Suzanne, then later she and the girls break into her neighbor’s house – without stealing anything. These actions seem more mischevious than malicious. Evie makes frequent reference to the brutal murder which gave the cult its infamy, but while driving to the crime scene, Suzanne suddenly tells her to get out of the car and leaves her on the side of the road, thus ending Evie’s time with the cult. A short while later, she is attending boarding school, where her experiences do not appear to have any palpable effect on her personality, either then, or when Evie recalls them as an old woman. Because of this, one can’s help but wonder exactly what is so important about the cult. Had Cline provide an additional narrative voice – such as Suzanne’s – to provide a richer picture of the cult so as to make it a plot point and not just a backdrop.

While lacking in narrative heft, one area in-which ‘The Girls’ excels is in how it illustrates the traumas and disappointments intrinsic to coming of age as a girl.  The most thematically captivating scenes in the novel are the interactions between the male and female characters: Evie trying to impress her best friend’s older brother, one of the girls in the cult being struck in the face by Russell, Julian forcing Sasha to expose her breasts to his friend. At one point Russel sends Evie and Suzanne to the home of Mitch, a famous musician whom Russel is trying to coerce into giving him a record deal. Suzanne pressures Evie into group sex with Mitch, saying that he’ll be gentle, which causes Evie to think ‘As though that would make it better.”  Evie’s choice to involve herself with the cult is representative of how a girl her age will pursue relationships – romantic, sexual, or otherwise – with people who are not necessarily conducive to their well-being as an act of rebellion. Ironically, such attempted expressions of autonomy often result in states of subservience, where girls will forsake their own senses of individuality and self-preservation so as to better please their men in their lives; in these cases, girls attach themselves to male (or female) figures, because they represent an authority separate from their parents.

Despite its many flaws, ‘The Girls’ should be seen as the beginning of what will surely be an impressive career from an author of superb intelligence and creativity.  Her voice is both touchingly sensitive, and unflinchingly honest.