Thursday, December 24, 2009

American Psycho, by Bret Easton Ellis

Among books, American Psycho is something of a dirty celebrity, a work whose dribbling trail of sleazy reputation precedes it. The one-sentence summary is just too easy: Patrick Bateman, Harvard graduate and Wall Street shark, is a fashion-obsessed psychopath who flatly narrates his life as he proceeds to assault and gruesomely murder girlfriends and business associates, all the while unable to make his friends understand that he is, in fact, a serial killer (despite nearly constant confessions). A few years ago, a movie version came out with Christian Bale as a goofy, retro version of Pat Bateman, and nobody blinked. But in 1991, when the book first came out, it was a major item of debate. Despite a reported six-figure advance to Bret Easton Ellis, the hot-shot wunderkind with two successful novels under his belt, the original publisher Simon & Schuster noted the brewing controversy and dropped American Psycho, citing ‘aesthetic differences.’ Vintage Contemporaries picked it up, and the negative attention proved too compelling to resist, making it both a bestseller and a necessary discussion topic. In an oddly representative case of moral outrage, the New York Times refused to print the title on its bestseller list, lest the publicity drive more people to read it and (thus) to become raving, Armani-clad murderers. (If you’re interested, here is a more complete critical history.)

Even decades later, the book remains shocking, though it’s still hard to imagine that a novel—a what?—could provoke any kind of a public outcry. While reading it, I doubted that anyone could seriously believe that Ellis himself condoned the actions portrayed in his book, but there’s still the problem of ends and means to consider: does the audience really need to sit through graphic depictions of child murders, rape, necrophilia, cannibalism, etc., etc., to get the point? The contrary position was eloquently put forth by David Foster Wallace, a writer I admire very much, in this interview. Consider his opinion:

I think it’s a kind of black cynicism about today’s world that Ellis and certain others depend on for their readership. Look, if the contemporary condition is hopelessly shitty, insipid, materialistic, emotionally retarded, sadomasochistic, and stupid, then I (or any writer) can get away with slapping together stories with characters who are stupid, vapid, emotionally retarded, which is easy, because these sorts of characters require no development. With descriptions that are simply lists of brand-name consumer products. Where stupid people say insipid stuff to each other. If what’s always distinguished bad writing—flat characters, a narrative world that’s clich├ęd and not recognizably human, etc.—is also a description of today’s world, then bad writing becomes an ingenious mimesis of a bad world. If readers simply believe the world is stupid and shallow and mean, then Ellis can write a mean shallow stupid novel that becomes a mordant deadpan commentary on the badness of everything. Look man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is? In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it. You can defend "Psycho" as being a sort of performative digest of late-eighties social problems, but it’s no more than that.

If I didn’t think that this point was worth considering, I wouldn’t quote it at such length. But I also think that DFW’s commentary trivializes what American Psycho actually does. The heart of his criticism is that AP does little to “illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in [the world].” Certainly, Patrick Bateman gives us few hints about how people might positively live, but it seems to me that the character already understands how he should live and consciously decides to go against it. His secretary, Jean, exemplifies the un-ironic, earnest love that he understands is healthy. Early on, he says that he’ll “probably marry her.” In one of the few tender passages of the book, near the end, after all the perversions and aversions have already been performed, Jean directly expresses her love for him, and after this direct outpouring, Patrick experiences what he calls a “flood of reality”—an awareness that, would he allow it, yielding to an honest relationship might change everything. Listen:

I sense [Jean] wants to rearrange my life in a significant way—her eyes tell me this and though I see a truth in them, I also know that one day, sometime very soon, she too will be locked in the rhythm of my insanity. All I have to do is keep silent about this and not bring it up—yet she weakens me, it’s almost as if she’s making the decision about who I am, and in my own stubborn, willful way I can admit to feeling a pang, something tightening inside, and before I can stop it I find myself almost dazzled and moved that I might have the capacity to accept, though not return, her love (pg. 378-9 of the 1st edition).

Of course, this is easy to miss, coming as it does after a section describing the ripped-out vaginas kept in his gym locker.

This passage, however, suggests why American Psycho might not focus on what people ‘should’ be doing: it’s simply too damn obvious. People should, ya’ know, care about each other and treat each other with some common decency. This is not difficult to grasp. What’s less obvious is the extent to which the slickness of the 1980s yuppie culture refuted these basic tenets. Patrick Bateman’s relentless chasing of surfaces, of workouts and sex with ‘hardbodies,’ is a depiction of hell in Manhattan, as is suggested in the book’s borrowed opening line—the iconic “ABANDON HOPE ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE” from Dante’s Inferno, translated into a hip graffito. The extremity of this vision is relentless, a succession of smash cuts and videotapes depicting a world without restraint. It is the work of a moral diagnostician, and in that capacity, it is comparable to the work of the very different writer, Walker Percy, whose most famous novel, The Moviegoer, examined the beginnings of the unrestrained pursuit of passive pleasure. In this tradition, American Psycho represents the apocalyptic end of the line, with valuable criticism offered in the most jarring possible way.

Hopefully, we won’t need a reminder like this again.

Endnote: Although I haven’t seen the movie, I don’t think American Psycho would translate very well to film. This movie review shares some of my worries.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Neal Stephenson's "In the Beginning...was the Command Line"

Tonight, I read Neal Stephenson’s book-length essay, In the Beginning…was the Command Line, which on one level is a meditation on computer operating systems, but which also contains some pretty brilliant discussion about the way that technology forces us toward mediated meta-involvements with our environment that ultimately take away as much power as they give. It’s printed as a book, but you can also find the full text available on the internet here.

As an example of the commentary contained therein, I offer up this short passage:

A few years ago I walked into a grocery store somewhere and was presented with the following tableau vivant : near the entrance a young couple were standing in front of a large cosmetics display. The man was stolidly holding a shopping basket between his hands while his mate raked blister-packs of makeup off the display and piled them in. Since then I've always thought of that man as the personification of an interesting human tendency: not only are we not offended to be dazzled by manufactured images, but we like it. We practically insist on it. We are eager to be complicit in our own dazzlement: to pay money for a theme park ride, vote for a guy who's obviously lying to us, or stand there holding the basket as it's filled up with cosmetics.

That sort of thing comprises the first ½ of the essay, whereupon it delves into the truly hard-core geekery (i.e., he actually discusses his personal history with operating systems, culminating with what amounts to a long, concentrated advert for Linux). Actually, I thought that this, too, was fascinating. But if you’re not of the persuasion that finds the nitty-gritty so very interesting, then maybe it’s best to stop reading as soon as he starts relating his spoilt love affair with Apple Corp.

In case this warning puts you off from reading any more than the first half, then I would be remiss not to give a taste of the essay’s bizarre ending. Maybe this sort of thing can be expected from a (literary) sci-fi writer:

I think that the message [of Lee Smolin’s book The Live of the Cosmos] is very clear here: somewhere outside of and beyond our universe is an operating system, coded up over incalculable spans of time by some kind of hacker-demiurge. The cosmic operating system uses a command-line interface. It runs on something like a teletype, with lots of noise and heat; punched-out bits flutter down into its hopper like drifting stars. The demiurge sits at his teletype, pounding out one command line after another, specifying the values of fundamental constants of physics:
universe -G 6.672e-11 -e 1.602e-19 -h 6.626e-34 -protonmass 1.673e-27....
and when he's finished typing out the command line, his right pinky hesitates above the ENTER key for an aeon or two, wondering what's going to happen; then down it comes--and the WHACK you hear is another Big Bang.

If one time through the essay leaves you hungry for more, here is an authorized version of the text that's heavily commented upon by a working computer coder.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Working Stiff, by Grant Stoddard

Working Stiff is an embarrassing book to carry around. The subtitle—The Misadventures of an Accidental Sexpert—is in a small enough font that I could hope people passing by my park bench might not be able to make in out in mid-stroll, but the image of a man in business suit sans pants, the name “Grant Stoddard” printed on a white circle covering that certain sensitive bit just south of the midsection…well, it makes it pretty obvious what the book is about. It’s about Grant Stoddard, that is, and about how often in the last few years he’s had sex. You can see another picture of him shirtless on the back cover, this time wearing a furry bomber cap.

Readers of this blog might hope that someday I will be able to wean myself away from books falling under the genre of “memoirs by the hideously self-absorbed,” but (as evinced by the post on How Sex Works posted below), I’m a sucker for any material that’ll make me angry about sex. And this book did make me angry—or, at least, disturbed. This reaction must show that I’m not an ideal member of the book’s target audience. Look at these inside cover blurbs: “Grant Stoddard’s debut is a sex-memoir with a heart: an inspirational true story of how to ‘make it’ in New York, in every sense of the word,” says Jessica Cutler (apparently an author); “Peek under the dirty sheets of Stoddard’s hilarious debut, and you’ll find a brave, moving, and, yes, seductive story of a young man’s struggle to find his way in a strange city, a foreign country, and an unforgettable age,” comments David Goodwille (another random author).

The book pretty much delivers on these blurbs, on one level. In the first few chapters, Stoddard pulls all the stops to convince you, the reader, that he’s just another nerdy bloke who, before his years in the media, had the same lack of success in getting lucky as anyone else. Even in the introduction, this annoying “jes’ folks” streak starts. He’s preparing for his last segment of “I Did It for Science,” the weekly column on for which he would go out to collect novel sexual experiences and write about them, and for this special closer, he’s chosen to literally ‘go fuck himself’—or, more precisely, to have a lady-friend peg him with a plaster-cast of his own penis. “Holding an accurate facsimile of my own member in my hands,” he writes, “it’s hard to believe how little action the thing actually saw over the course of its first twenty-four years. Since then, of course, it’s played a starring role in some of my greatest adventures.” When, a page later, he describes himself as “acutely aware that [he] was at the end of something big,” it feels like Mr. Stoddard (the groaner pun aside) is implying that after his years of randyness described in the text, he’s maybe back to his sweet-old self once again. No need to fear this guy. He’s a nice kid who got involved in some intercontinental oddities, who is none the worse for it.

Except, after the first few chapters, that nice kid starts to look pretty creepy indeed. Sure, until somewhere around pg. 60, we only hear about his working-class English background and his first American girlfriend and such associated adventures. But is it really so strange that the only person he bangs in this period of time is Becky, that American girlfriend? The Americans seem to think so. “You should be livin’ the life, balls-deep in strange ass every fuckin’ night of the week,” a friend tells him, pg. 58, in response to the astounding fact of his hitherto monogamy. Within a startlingly short period of time, this comes to pass. He wins an internet pop-culture quiz on (his future employer) that qualifies him for a night of intercourse w/ Lisa Carver, who had been blogging her sex life. Long story short, Grant’s oral skills (ugh), via Carver’s verbal depiction, get him a reputation in NYC, and before long, again on Carver’s word, he’s landed a job at the website as the manager of the student interns.

From there, it’s a short jaunt to Grant the womanizer, responsible for two interns leaving after failed sexual experiments with him. Soon, he’s started his column, and in the city, things move fast. Flash forward to pg. 125:

“Up until now the “new things” I had tried included having sex with my girlfriend on the subway, product testing a cock ring, Frenching a guy, being an extra in a porn movie, and competing in an amateur stripping contest in front of two hundred drunk and very aggressive women. Six months earlier, I was the perennial virgin, a shy, inexperienced, terribly self-conscious immigrant nerd, destitute and a gnat’s eyelash from throwing in the towel on my American excursion and fleeing home with my tail between my legs. Now my name was synonymous with being a willing participant in perverse sex acts throughout the tristate area. Unbeknownst to me, it became my calling.”

Huh. There’s a lot to pick apart there. Note his “perennial virgin” comment, which is nutty, if only for the reason that during his entire time in America, he was consistently having sex. It seems to me that he doesn’t exactly have a lot to complain about. Can someone who is “terribly self-conscious” immediately switch over to become someone who is comfortable with his name being used in a sex column? Can we concede that there might be a subtle difference between the terms ‘destitute’ and ‘horny’?

The weirder part of all this, though, is that last comment about how the lifestyle of being a “willing participant in perverse sex acts” had “become [his] calling.” This sounds very much like something out of my undergraduate college viewbook, and the dissonance of the tone with the subject matter is striking. Nice people, when speaking of ‘discovering calling,’ will mention things like “helping underprivileged youth,” or, “performing needed services.” But what we’ve witnessed is how a young man has gone from moving to America specifically for his girlfriend, Becky, to being something of a roving deviant. There are attempts at ironic self-consciousness in all of this; he is willing to admit how strange a thing it is for him to have women wanting to experience him, merely by dint of his minor celebrity. By pg. 152, we are offered an awkward depiction of his perfunctory deflowering of a virgin who offers herself to him, just to get the old sex thing out of the way. He finishes the deed quickly and goes to sleep to avoid discussing his sub-par performance. “Not long ago,” he muses, “I had been in her position. But somewhere along the line, I’d allowed myself to feel deserving of the hype and become a menace to women everywhere.”

For the rest of the book, Grant dodders from place to place, wittily commenting on everything he sees. And he sees a lot—orgies, ‘Leather Camp’ with the bondage crowd, LA. Eventually, he gets fired by for infringing on his contract when he attempts to turn his column into a TV show. The book’s ending is rather weak, a depiction of his aimless days waiting for VH1 executives to turn him into a brand as he docilely complies. When that falls through, he’s excited to return to Manhattan to see what he might become, this time. Fin.

I suppose it’s hardly worth mentioning, but to me the strangest aspect of the book was its wan amorality. I could call it that, or cognitive dissonance on the part of the author, who too many times repeats that he has never had a one-night stand, despite copious quoted evidence to the contrary. After growing up in Sioux County, IA, where God is real and sexual actions are thought to be moral actions, I have an inbred inclination to think that any suffering that Stoddard has experienced is merely a natural outcome of his wrong actions. But then I shake my head and repeat to myself, “They’re different actions, Dave, not quite wrong,” a hundred times, still leaving myself deeply unconvinced. It’s weird, because even after my framework for condemnation has been stripped away, I still love to do it. Damn you, Grant Stoddard, and your liberal New Yorker-ness!

I guess Stoddard’s not the only one around here suffering from some brain frissures…

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Art of Tom Wolfe

On Friday, I had the chance to read two Tom Wolfe books: The Painted Word, from 1975, and In Our Time, from 1980. Both are short, right around 100-pages each, and In Our Time is mostly pictures, many of which were culled from the illustrations Wolfe had drawn for his other books (including some from The Painted Word). Of the two, The Painted Word is more characteristic of what one might expect from Tom Wolfe. It is written in his hyperventilated style, with exclamation points and ellipses all over the place, and it is a piece of non-fiction. Its subject is purportedly the history of American Art in the Twentieth Century up to the point of its publication, but, as usual, its main concern is the uneasy relationship of the ultra-rich to the rest of society. Wolfe is most successful in these types of outings—there is always a strain in his characterizations of the underprivileged, for he excels at tearing down and ripping up, not at lending sympathy—and he confidently skewers all the culturati he can get his hands on. In Our Time, on the other side, demonstrates that Wolfe is also a gifted graphic artist, able to draw in lines the hideous buffoons he has described often enough before. While The Painted Word allows Wolfe to poke fun at the theory-driven, self-contained art world, In Our Time allows him to show, via example, what interesting, socially-aware art might look like.

The Painted Word begins with a 1st-person description of Tom Wolfe reading the newspaper. Specifically, he is reading the New York Times art critic Hilton Kramer, and he hones in on a quote from Kramer’s review of a Yale exhibition of “Seven Realists”:

"Realism does not lack its partisans, but it does rather conspicuously lack a persuasive theory. And given the nature of our intellectual commerce with works of art, to lack a persuasive theory is to lack something crucial—the means by which our experience of individual works is joined to the values they signify."

Wolfe credits this statement as the one that allowed him to understand the New York art scene for what it really is—at least, as what it had been for the previous thirty years. By Wolfe’s estimation, bolstered by the comments of artists themselves, the production of art had been driven by the writings of theorists dictating what art should do rather than the experience of art itself.

The theorist-villians of the narrative are Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg. In Wolfe’s caricature, Greenberg is the prophet of artistic Flatness, whereas Rosenberg wanted to synthesize Greenberg’s Flatness with the “emotional wallop” of pre-Modern art. Flatness is Wolfe’s term for the idea that art should not refer to anything outside its own frame—the idea that it is intellectually dishonest to create illusions of people and places residing within a frame, when only shapes and colors are truly there. This sort of theory began with cubism, but continuing theoretical discussions stretched the idea to its logical, if absurd, conclusion. Wolfe, clearly, thinks that this is ridiculous, comparing the endless art-theory debates to that Scholastic dispute involving angels and the head of a pin. When Greenberg cries for more emotional resonance, the messianic figure becomes Jackson Pollock, whose ‘action paintings,’ with their splats of paint thrown across canvases, denote nothing other than the mad lunges of their creator. In these works, the viewer is not invited to imagine that the shapes and colors on the canvas evoke the outside world; all that’s there is paint and canvas—and that’s the point.

The problem, however, is that the uptown folk couldn’t honestly like the stuff. Wolfe’s disdain for the cliquishness of art is evident throughout the passages where he describes how artists become ‘great.’ Artists flock to centers of culture (read, New York) and live downtrodden and abused, honing their craft and creating their works; once a year, the Guggnehiem/Metropolitan crowd comes over to see what’ll be big in the next year’s expo; the artists feign disinterest, not wanting to cave in to bourgeois ways, while the capitalists eagerly lap up the contributions of the hottest new artists, hoping to cast themselves as persons interested in something other than money; and finally, after much arty hemming and hawing, the artist will learn to interact with his worshippers, if disdainfully. This last step of acquiescence is not without its roadblocks. Wolfe relates an anecdote in which Pollock, disgusted at the fripperies of the rich, removes all his clothing mid-party and pisses in Peggy Guggenheim’s fireplace. Whether he was fed up or not, though, Pollock never stopped going to the parties.

From this backdrop of confused earnestness, Wolfe describes two parallel movements that emerged from the Abstract Expressionism. On one side, there was Pop Art, trashy and wildly popular, and on the other side was Minimalism, which pushed Flatness to its extreme limit. Wolfe marvels that both were able to inherit the former art theory with ease, as an act of creative reinterpretation. Although Greenberg, the original theorist of Flatness, hated Pop, another critic named Leo Steinberg came to the rescue. He decided that if the objects of an originally flat nature (like Warhol’s photos, Jasper John’s flags, and Roy Lichtenstien’s comics) were subjected to the decontextualization of art, then they would too be absorbed into the growing hyper-theory. Whatever. As Warhol nicely put it, “There’s nothing more bourgeois than not wanting to appear bourgeois.” The collectors loved it (they always love representational art, says Wolfe—especially when they think it’s non-representational), and art was once again something to buy, not just something to praise.

Carrying the old torch of abstraction were the Minimalists, who made art that was “fast, hard, flat and unevocative.” The frames were gone. So were the warm colors and rough evocations of an artist behind the gesture. All that was left was the Idea itself—which finally brought in Conceptual Art, wherein an artist would not create an art object at all, but would simply describe what the object might be, and how it might function in the light of the developed theories…

Which brings us to In Our Time. Wolfe’s own art is the opposite of non-representational. In his writing (as he has trumpeted in such articles as “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast”), he makes a proud point of pouring years of journalism into a single novel, and his drawings also seem to have a certain journalistic flair. In his introductory text he announces his desire in these pictures to briefly sum up the last two decades. He reiterates the thesis of his essay, “The Me Decade and the Third Great Awakening”— namely, that the 1970s were remarkable for two main reasons: 1. Self-obsession, born from their post-war prosperity and lack of pointed political sufferings, became the norm rather than the extreme, and 2. In the ensuing nihilism brought about by Vietnam and Watergate, people looked for spiritual awakening in extraordinarily diverse settings, e.g., orgasms for swingers, UFOs, drugs, health food, Jimmy Carter.

And we get pictures of this. The images are themselves are remarkable. They combine the repulsive flair of a Ralph Steadman with the detailed precision a Gustave Dore. We are treated to a heartwarming father/son hunting trip, where the father informs his son, “No, no, son, that’s not how it works. When you’re forty-five or fifty, you’ll get a new wife, a young one, a girl in her twenties.” A few pages later, we see a series entitled ‘The Evolution of the Species.” The first entry is entitled “Growing Old Gracefully,” and it contrasts a man in 1879 vs. a man in 1979; the difference is between “…as long as they don’t think I’m poor…” (the man wears a top-hat) and “…as long as they don’t think I’m old…” (the man swings a tennis racket). The pages of grotesques go on and on: the hip mommy, the forward-thinking, pederast priest, the tricked-out pimp, plus portraits of some of Wolfe’s old article subjects—Marshall McLuhan, the cultural theorist shown in a leopard leotard with antennae protruding from his forehead; stripper Carol Doda with her ‘twin peaks of San Fansisco’ jutting out frighteningly above an awed crowd; Andy Warhol, his hands folded, bored. Far from Flatness and Academic Nicety, in these works Wolfe grabs his subjects head on, with about as much subtle restraint as a bludgeon.

The criticisms that one might level at In Our Time are much the same as the criticisms that could legitimately be raised about The Painted Word. Both deal in caricatures. Neither one is long on facts (although, to be fair, Wolfe supposedly is very careful about the accuracy of the material that could possibly be checked), and both are long on a sort of exuberant lampooning that could only come from a man of great talent and high privilege. In these works, his style works wonderfully; art criticism (in my opinion, at least) is a silly enough field that jokiness is called for. His art, similarly, describes America as a fool’s paradise, as a place of surfaces, a haven for clueless hypocrites and narcissistic snobs. Both books are cutting, sarcastic, and cruel.

At the same time, in his other works Tom Wolfe has shown himself to be an odd sort of idealist. The Right Stuff was a love song to the gustiness of American astronauts, and in Hooking Up, his latest collection of essays, Wolfe could not stop gushing about the ingenuity of our neuroscientists and electrical engineers. Perhaps Wolfe’s dual strain of cynicism and idealism can be no better encapsulated than by a quote from the last page of The Painted Word, where he describes the art students of the future:

“They will listen to art historians say, with the sort of smile now reserved for the study of Phrygian astrology: “That’s how it was then!”—as they describe how, on the one hand, the scientist of the mid-twentieth century proceeded by building upon the discoveries of their predecessors and thereby lit up the sky…while the artists proceeded by averting their eyes from whatever their predecessors, from da Vinci on, had discovered, shrinking from it, terrified, or disintegrating it with the universal solvent of the Word.”

Monday, August 17, 2009

How Sex Works: Why We Look, Smell, Taste, Feel, and Act the Way We Do

How Sex Works is a new book by Dr. Sharon Moalem, first released in April of this year. I should say up front that it’s pretty good. I’m putting that disclaimer at the beginning of the review, because, despite being consistently informative and entertaining, it’s the type of book that is also pretty vulnerable to dismissal and pooh-poohing by any number of people. As I read it, I tried to decide who might hate it more: humanities scholars of sexual history, or conservative cultural watchdogs? Camille Paglia, or William F. Buckley? my sister, or my father? At the same time, I had to entertain the possibility that it might offend none of them. After all, for a modern sex book, this is about as un-kinky as they come. All the content is delivered with the timbre of a doctor, not an entertainer. By which I mean, I’d feel okay if almost any of these paragraphs were spoken to me by a man readying himself to feel the lumps in my testicles. As a writer, Moalem is lucky to have a white-hot topic; his styling equilibrates everything it touches to an easygoing lukewarm.

The book begins, like most nonfiction bestsellers, with an introduction. It is worth skipping. It reads like an advertisement for the book, with question after question of exciting topics that will be answered in the following pages. A quote: “Can women, like men, ejaculate? What’s the point of having pubic hair, and what happens to pubic lice when you get a Brazilian wax? And why, unlike almost all other mammals to most other mammals, do most human women outlive their fertility by decades?” (pg. xi) Answers to these questions are not suggested until Chapters 1&2, 4, and 8, respectively. You need to buy this book to find out, is the not-so-sneaky implication.

After that, we get the biology textbook material about girl parts (Ch. 1) and boy parts (Ch. 2), along with Cosmo-level discussions of special topics, like tampon history and penile fractures. (Even Moalem can’t reduce the discomfort of the penile fracture discussion, by the way. “There can be a loud cracking or popping sound, and serious pain. […] I will never forget the first time I came across a penile fracture. The patient had tried to masturbate with a metal vacuum cleaner tube—while it was hooked up and turned on.”) In the section on Lady Bits, there were plenty of little factoids I found interesting, but when I called them over to Holly, my wife, she was usually unimpressed. I’ll assume that the astute readers of this blog already know most of that pertinent information. In the part concerning Man Bits—a topic I can more rightly claim basic competency—a similarly wide range of unknown facts were presented. Did you know that most mammals literally have a bone in their penis, the baculum? Did you know that the promiscuous queen bee mates with untold many male drones, whose penises pop off after ejaculation and are left for the next midair mounter to pull out before thrusting in? What about the UCSF study showing a 500% sperm count increase in men who stopped taking hot baths?

Well, I didn’t know these things. That’s the charm of such a book. Ch. 3 told me stuff I didn’t know about the biology of attraction (special topic: the role of scent); Ch. 4 about orgasms and ejaculation (ST: academic controversies over female ejaculation); Ch. 5 about gender development and differentiation (ST: gender identity disorder); Ch. 6 about biological theories on homosexuality (ST: homosexuality in animals—apparently rampant); Ch. 7 about sexually transmitted infections (ST: take your pick); Ch. 8 about birth control (ST: Casanova’s fancy condoms, made from rendered sheep gut); Ch. 9 about…not much (warm, fuzzy wrap-up material).

Any criticisms I might offer, then, are not for lack of content. The more pervasive problem is the lack of coherent vision. When he’s offering out facts and trivia, Moalem is in his element. He did his homework. In academic terms, he’s done a ‘literature search’—i.e., the preliminary background reading needed before he can delve into his a project of his own. But the book never adds up to any more than that. Maybe that’s for the best; when he tries to offer up some social commentary, the results are disconcerting. Look, for instance, at the passage concluding a discussion of modern plastic surgery (pg. 96):

Obviously, as with any cosmetic surgery, a well-informed adult ought to be able to opt for such a procedure in consultation with her doctor and others close to her, as she chooses. But the skyrocketing rate of cosmetic surgery does beg the question: when have we gone too far in pursuit of perceived physical ideals? Perhaps, when girls as young as ten years of age feel compelled to undergo labiaplasty to even out their labia minora.

This is an uncomfortable example of information-age rhetoric. The moral framework is firmly put in place with the first sentence—the use of the word ‘obviously’ is far from incidental. The second sentence then pretends to give a thoughtful little nugget, which is OK only for those who can’t see that this is the opposite of thoughtful; this is perhaps the most banal comment that could’ve been chosen, given the topic. But the real kicker is that last sentence. Is it ironic? An attempt at humor? It might make sense if it followed a story about such a narcissistic 10-year-old, but no such context is given. This looks instead like an attempt by a man innocent of philosophy to do simply what he has been trained to do: to give a prescription, following a diagnosis. The only problem is, there’s no paper from the medical literature to help him out on this one, so the effort to parrot thoughtfulness goes far awry. We quickly move to the next topic.

It's likely that the entire quoted text was just a throwaway attempting to make a fluid transition from one topic to the next. But I can’t help thinking that there’s something endemic of our era in this book. Science here is enshrined as the end, as the ultimate debate-settler. If you have a question, there will be an answer; it’s only a matter of time and study resources. I am reminded of Tom, the scientist from Updike’s Couples, to whom there are unknowns, but no unknowables. That’s more or less the attitude of this book, as well as of its probable target audience. After all, you only need to visit Google for quick, easy answers, with maybe a side-jaunt to Wikipedia. (The chapters of How Sex Works can be read in any order with very little strain, just like web pages.) The next day, around the water cooler, you’ll have something interesting to bring up to your colleagues. Isn’t it amazing what Science has found out now? Those honeybees are goddamn incredible!

I worry that after reading such a pretty good book, some people will be less imaginative and less curious than they were before reading it. We might be fooled into thinking that a succession of facts and trivia allows us to understand how sex works; when all the uncertainty and chaos are dismissed, the constructed world all too easily reduces to order. What you get in a scientific work on sex is necessarily a cartoon, a radically simplified caricature. This can be helpful and informative, as I claim How Sex Works is. But it’s far from the entire picture. It doesn’t fully explain “why we look, smell, taste, feel, and act the way we do,” as the book’s tagline claims. Literature hasn’t had all of its topics wrested away just yet.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Ravelstein, by Saul Bellow

I first heard of Ravelstein when it came out in the year 2000, back in my senior in high school. The term ‘roman a clef’ would have been unfamiliar to me then (I just learned it last month, actually, and feel pretty cool using it), but this book is a prototypical example: the title character is based on a real person, Allan Bloom, author of the controversial book The Closing of the American Mind. Although Saul Bellow is of course considered one of our Great American Writers, a prose genius, a wonderful confabulator of the high and the low, etc., etc., an interest in Allan Bloom was my reason for picking up this book. Reviews on show that I am not alone in this.

The Closing of the American Mind, for those who haven’t had the chance to experience it, is a strange sort of political touchstone. Published in 1987, it’s one of those books that is more cranky/snotty than it is conservative, but, due to its place in history, it became a text that conservatives could claim as their own during the culture wars. In it, Bloom railed against the modern university’s denigration of Great Books, modern students’ passivity, and rock music. (In the book’s argument, all three are interrelated; an example of its datedness can be seen in how Sir Mick Jagger, now an aged member of the establishment, is quoted as the one figure most often named by collegians as a person who they would like to be.) I suppose that the only reason this is of interest to me is that a paperback copy of Closing, bought by my sister Angela at a Sioux Falls Goodwill, floated around one of our family station wagons in high school, introducing me to guys like Rousseau, Nietzsche, and Heidegger for the first time. Reading it as an adolescent, you’d think that college is (or, at least, can be) a place of discovery where earnest students can discover the wisdom of the ages by reading and passionately acting out the works of the great dead whites.

The book was loved by many and hated by many, and in the process Bloom became an international academic celebrity. That’s where Ravelstein starts out: Bloom’s placeholder, Abe Ravelstein, is on a trip to Paris with Bellow’s placeholder, Chick. As Chick leisurely points out, “Nobody in the days before he struck it rich had ever questioned Ravelstein’s need for Armani suits or Vuitton luggage, for Cuban cigars, unobtainable in the U.S., for the Dunhill accessories, for solid-gold Mont Blanc pens or Baccarat or Lalique crystal to serve wine in—or to have it served.” And now that he has “struck it rich” in book sales, Ravelstein has the resources to live in the style in that he prefers; the opening conversation takes place in the posh Hotel Crillon, where Michael Jackson (‘Miekell Jack-sown’ to the French, Chick jokes) has simultaneously rented out the entire floor below them.

In the 1st act, Chick and Ravelstein hobnob about, allowing readers to observe the regular, lush habits of the book’s hero. Chick heaps endless praise on Ravelstein. Though he co-teaches a class with him at ‘the university’ (always unnamed, but a stand-in for the University of Chicago), Chick is consistently in awe of Ravelstein’s intellect, at one point commenting that although he is Ravelstein’s elder, Ravelstein is his teacher. Being a novel and not a strict biography, this could be a case of the unreliable narrator, but there don’t seem to be any of the conventional signs. The admiration seems to be genuine, backed up by the laudatory preface he churned out for Bloom’s real-life bestseller.

But what reason do we readers have to love Ravelstein? Is it the way that he berates his cleaning lady for not appreciating the cost of his deluxe wine glasses? (“You can’t help thinking these women are just as rough with men’s penises,” he comments to Chick.) Is it the way he heralds himself as the last bastion of the civilized culture, putting himself as one apart who can separate wheat from chaff? (All popular music, as mentioned, dismissed as vulgar, while Mel Brooks—that paragon of refinement—gets a free pass, as a fellow Jew.) Is it the way he separates out his students, pairing them, judging over their good or bad matches? (Indeed, he judges over Eros for all people. Chick’s wife at the novel’s beginning, a “chaos physicist,” is treated as a constant nuisance; Ravelstein is glad when she is replaced by a younger, more suitable candidate: one of his (Ravelstein’s) fawning graduate students.) Or is it just that charming way he has of dismissing scientific accomplishments as obviously secondary to the self knowledge of great-souled men like himself?

Well, no matter; Chick still loves him. Which is good, since Ravelstein needs companions during his struggle with AIDS that makes up the book’s 2nd act. To the surprise of all his conservative champions—they only found out when this novel was published—Ravelstein/Bloom was an openly gay man, with some kinky tastes. His companion is a much younger man here named Nikki, with whom he shares a taste for finely tailored clothing and not too much else. (With his disease, we are told that the relationship has become more paternal than romantic, for the obvious reasons.) Sickness makes any character more pitiable, which meanwhile rescues the book. Ravelstein’s extravagance, at least to me, was suddenly tinged by the heroic—a stubborn unwillingness to cede the things that he valued in life, no matter how unworthy those things might be.

This is all dealt with a light touch. Bellow manages to fill Act 2 with both the death of his title character and the dissolution of Chick and Vela’s marriage (Vela being the ‘chaos physicist’) but somehow renders it without becoming ponderous or pompous. This is something of a miracle. It is even more extraordinary when you consider that the other main themes of the section are just the decline of western culture and the exile of the Jews. No biggie.

Ravelstein’s death 2/3 of the way through might have paralyzed some novelists, but, to my mind, the last third is the best of the book. In it, the abstractions of the earlier sections are made concrete. Chick struggles for many years—which, in the novel’s plastic sense of time, are passed over in a few sentences—over the Ravelstein book that his late friend asked him to write. Rosamund, the ex-Ravelstinian graduate student and Chick’s current wife, is as sensitive and caring as Vela was bitchy and soulless (Bellow could be accused of stereotyping his women, an especially damning charge when you find out that, along with the rest, they’re based on his actual wives, too), so when she suggests a Caribbean holiday, he acquiesces. Once there, he is poisoned by undercooked fish and bumbles near death himself. Unlike Ravelstein, whose coming death is well-acknowledged and respected, Chick has a hard time admitting his sickness. To reflect this, the novel grows hallucinatory and figures of the past mingle with the present. Even at the edge of the abyss, he continues to observe the minutiae of life, continues to see comedy instead of drama. Recalling his late friend Ravelstein, he says, “Better Bizet and Carmen than Wagner and the Ring.”

Though I did not know it at the time of reading, this was Bellow’s last novel, written when he was 85 years old. If we consider literature as just another form of human communication, this fact lends extra poignancy to this already remarkable book. As a meditation on the experience of modern death, I’ve not seen a fiction so detailed and so authentic. As one of the underling, Midwestern schlubs, I sort of resent some of the book's characters—with the conditioning we get toward modesty and self-effacement around here, I have a hard time liking a group of guys who scoff at the entire world while they slap each other’s backs, proclaiming themselves alone to be brilliant and worthwhile—but through their books, both Saul Bellow’s and Allan Bloom’s attitudes continue to influence me.

Somewhere in Northwest Iowa, Angela’s old copy of The Closing of the American Mind probably still exists, though she might declaim it now. As Bellow puts it in the last line of his book, “You don’t easily give up a creature like Ravelstein to death.”

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable

Back in high school, before I found out that it was fashionable to categorize my reading style as Marxist, feminist, reader-response etc., I only had one way of reading—and it was a good one. Each book was treated as a potential vehicle that might illuminate the ecstatic secrets of the universe. This was an exciting way to approach texts. Potentially, the pages of each Goodwill paperback held the unknown clue that might finally help me to make sense of my moody adolescent reality. Of course, this meant that just about every book was a major letdown, and the ones that weren’t were filled with superstition and lies. But no matter. This unfounded faith in books was a helpful delusion, because it pushed me to explore beyond the dogmas of my formal Bible-belt education.

I should know better by now, but I sometimes still get sucked in by high hopes. My only excuse is the blurbs on the back covers of books. When I picked up the book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable at the library, the back cover screamed its greatness. “A masterpiece,” said Chris Anderson, the editor in chief of Wired magazine. “There’s more about the ways of the real world between the covers of The Black Swan than in the contents of a dozen libraries,” said Tom Peters, an author I’ve never heard of. Immediately, my high school hope returned. Maybe this book is finally the one! Finally, I’ll be able to understand the world!

I had some further justification for checking out this book; it’s the latest stand-in for my recent interest in Wall Street dynamics. (Really, who isn’t interested in those evildoers these days?) The author, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, was an active trader for many years, and in a recent interview he mentioned that during our current recession he made seven-figure annual gains. Interesting guy, I thought. He might be able to help me understand how the economic hit-men actually think. Additionally, I hoped to learn something about the economic theories themselves by reading his criticisms of them.

Just like always, the book was a slight disappointment. But that’s only because I expected to learn about modern economics (along with the ecstatic secrets of the universe). If I would have walked in expecting a guidebook on How To Be a N. N. Taleb, then I probably would have left more than satisfied.

The prologue and the first chapter should have showed me that this wasn’t the book I had signed on for. The prologue succinctly explains the book’s central metaphor. “Before the discovery of Australia,” writes Taleb in the book’s first words, “people in the Old World were convinced that all swans were white, an unassailable belief as it seemed completely confirmed by empirical evidence. The sighting of the first black swan might have been an interesting surprise for a few ornithologists […] but that is not where the significance of our story lies. It illustrates a severe limitation to our learning from observations or experience and the fragility of our knowledge. One single observation can invalidate a general statement derived from millennia of confirmatory sightings of millions of white swans.” (p. xvii)

Which gives you the book in a nutshell. Taleb’s main argument is that the really important events, the game-changers both for economics and for history in general, are those that are necessarily outside of current predictions—otherwise, they wouldn’t come as a shock. The central philosophical notion here is that the outlier is the central fact of human history, a thing to be pondered and not ignored. The book beats this idea into the reader’s head over and over and over and over and over. ‘Black Swans’ are the unpredictable (“epistemically unknowable”) events that constantly pop up in contradiction to ‘Platonic’ theories of the world, and by the end of the book so many things have been categorized as Black Swans that I began to wonder if this term is meaningful enough to be used by anyone other than Taleb himself.

But the whole book isn’t spent in pondering Black Swans. Just as much space is spent enumerating reasons why people can’t seem to understand that uncertainty is something that must be lived with. The main reason, it seems, is that most economists, sad to say, are nerds. That’s right: nerds. So in the first chapter, “The Apprenticeship of an Empirical Skeptic,” Taleb presents the intellectual biography—autobiography, in fact—of an exemplary non-nerd: N. N. Taleb. He discusses the unexpected downfall of Lebanon, where he grew up, labels it as a Black Swan (go figure), and uses it to illuminate his theory of history—which, as far as I can make it out, is that no one really understands root causes; justifications are only added afterwards, when people use narratives to reduce the amount of information they need to remember. In this chapter, we get our first glimpse of Taleb the rebel, who eventually will be the self-styled hero of the book.

The first of these ideas—that a single ‘Black Swan’ can knock out any number of White Swan theories—is a good one, but I had a hard time getting very excited about it. It’s not Taleb’s idea, after all. Not that he claims it as his own; Karl Popper is given credit where credit is due. (Then again, as a physics student, I might come upon this way of thinking more often than most people. It would probably be interesting to the business-minded target audience that hasn’t read much academic philosophy.) The book also nicely catalogues a lot the standard issues that rigorous data interpreters need to face: silent evidence, infinite possible curves that fit a finite number of data points, even some basic chaos theory. But when Taleb moves on to his rhetorical tack of attacking all others who do not act as he does, I found it less convincing.

Here, I need to be careful; philosophers are quick to spot an ad hominem attack. However, Taleb so thoroughly makes himself a part of the book that it is difficult to separate him from the ideas themselves. A basic template: 1. Taleb, our hero, goes to a group of philosophers and tries to tell them how fucked their predictions are, due to Black Swans (see, “Lunch at Lake Como,” p. 125); 2. The traders and military folk—those who deal in the ‘real world’—listen receptively to his message, while the academics wistfully continue to scratch themselves (see, “How Many Wittgensteins Can Dance on the Head of a Pin?”, p. 289); 3. Taleb makes fools out of all those silly mathematicians, who suffer from too much nerdiness (see, “To Be Wrong with Infinite Precision”, p. 74).

I suppose that most of this is true; certainly, most professors cannot play the market like a Taleb. And, undoubtedly, he’s a very smart dude—e.g., before reading this, I’d never thought of Pascal’s Wager as a good paradigm for stock risk management, but, then, look at Taleb’s seven-figure returns. But the thing that keeps nagging me as I think about this book is my excited, high school self, hoping that the next page will bring some ecstatic wisdom. This book doesn’t do that. It just gave me more evidence that no one knows what’s really going on, anywhere. With my utter lack of economic knowledge going in, my default belief was that it was all bull, making the book less revealing for me than it might be for others. As a follow-up, I’m reading a book on investing entitled Taking Stock. It gives advice on how the markets work in brief, pithy quotations. The introduction is called, “Why You Need This Book.” Even while I know that it’s probably filled with superstition and lies, it’ll probably be a little more comforting than continuing to stare at that grand old abyss of human ignorance.