Briefly noted: The Word Exchange — Alena Graedon

The best criticism of this novel is “Human, All Too Inhuman,” in which James Wood, among other things, defines hysterical realism. “Human, All Too Inhuman” was written before The Word Exchange but still applies to it. The novel is good on a sentence-by-sentence level but is poorly and tediously plotted; malformations on the macro level are hard to describe but easily noticeable. I’ll happily start the next Graedon novel because this one shows much promise. The Word Exchange concerns a near-future world in which Anana works with her father, Doug, on the world’s last paper dictionary. Her father disappears, the Dictionary as a product and institution are attacked, and Anana needs to find out why. Yet on page 75 she writes:

But this was no ordinary book burning. Our digital corpus was also being dismantled, by pale, nimble hands. Who, I wondered, would want to destroy the Dictionary? Did Doug know? Was that why he’d vanished?

Word_Exchange_cover this point something more should have happened than random thoughts, discussions about Hegel, Anana’s time in college, her relationship with pseudo-friend Max, and many other threads so random that one has to wonder if or when they’ll cohere.

The novel channels many others: Stephenson, Gibson, even Carlos Ruiz Zafón, all of whose complete works you should try first, especially Snow Crash and Pattern Recognition.

There are echoes, maybe unintentionally, of The Name of the Rose (think of the moment when Ubertino and William are speaking together and William says, “I like also to listen to words, and then I think about them,” which one could say also of Anana and the other characters in The Word Exchange, though they lack Williams’s rigor.) Yet that novel, for all its abstruse Catholic metaphysics, is bound by a murder; people like murder stories because the stakes are plain: Death is bad, preventing it is good, and murderers need to be subjected to justice. In The Word Exchange no stakes are clear. By page 130 the narrative is still wandering and navel gazing; it’s only in the 130 – 140 range that things start to cohere, slightly.

Writers are fond of murder for a reason; if not murder, then comedy, and though there is a disappearance in The Word Exchange there is no murder. John Updike’s novelistic alter ego Bech knows the draw of murder:

Murdering critics is something most writers, I suspect, have wanted to do. The device of poisoning an envelope flap was used, I discovered later, in an episode of Seinfeld, but by then it was too late, my die was cast.

Art imitates other art even unintentionally. Murder and mystery are good too to emulate, and The Word Exchange is conscious, maybe too conscious, of its emulations. It is not consciousness enough of the pleasures of narrative, of structure, of figuring out the “why” and not just the “how.”

In The Word Exchange I want less… Brooklyn? It’s hard to choose an adjective. The novel feels written or narrated by a bright and precocious but ultimately annoying student who has not yet learned how to be in the world. Even the acknowledgements page is annoying, beginning as it does with “I have a real community of minds to thank.” As opposed to a false community of minds? Why not just say, “Group of people?” The sheer number of people thanked may be indicative of the problems with the story: Too many people said too many things and no central person adequately controlled the outcome.

The praise for The Word Exchange indicates why one can’t trust critics.

Enlightenment 2.0: Restoring sanity to our politics, our economy, and our lives — Joseph Heath

There is something futile about this otherwise consistently interesting book, and Heath says as much towards the end:

It should go without saying that writing books about the decline of reason is not the sort of thing that is likely to slow the decline of reason. It is simply preaching to the choir. Anyone who makes it to the end of a three-hundred-page book on the subject is obviously not part of the problem. Furthermore, the project of reversing the trend is too big and too complicated for any one person to accomplish much.

Enlightenment_heathNonetheless I enjoyed and recommend Enlightenment 2.0; here is Alex Tabarrok’s review, which introduced me to the book. Its subjects and sources seem eclectic at first: Hollywood movies, Fox News, politics, 18th Century writers, philosophers, economists. Not all its examples are plausible. But the single golden braid of what rationality means runs through the book, and Heath identifies patterns I’ve inchoately felt but never quite described. Readers who are familiar with the extensive irrationality literature—Thinking, Fast and Slow is perhaps the best, though not the only, example—may find sections repetitive. Yet the overall impact is strong.

Reading the irrationality shows how rational, logical people are proving that people are irrational and illogical. Yet it takes rationality to demonstrate how we aren’t, and that alone may justify rationality (the existence of the contemporary world shows that it is possible for rationality to flourish). In most domains, too, individuals suffer most of the consequences of irrationality: If you spend more than you make, you suffer more than me; if you sleep with people you shouldn’t, you suffer more than me. The exception comes from voting; I don’t see Bryan Caplan cited in the index but Heath points to many of the themes Caplan does in The Myth of the Rational Voter, another recommended and yet depressing book because it posits a problem to which there is no good solution. Comedy is one partial solution, as Heath says about liberal comedians attacking conservative lunatic initiatives, and so is setting up the right systems, or right sort of systems:

To the extent we are able to achieve something resembling rationality, it is usually because we have good kludges. As productivity expert David Allen put it, ‘To a great degree, the highest-performing people I know are those who have installed the best tricks in their lives. I know that’s true of me. The smart part of us sets things for us to do that the non-so-smart [sic] part responds to almost automatically, creating behavior that produces high-performance results. We trick ourselves into doing what we ought to be doing.’

I would call myself a “high-performing person” and would not call myself a productivity expert, but one of my most-used programs prevents me from using other programs effectively: Mac Freedom. For ten dollars, this program will turn off your Internet access for a specified period of time (you can get it back by rebooting, should you really need it). The Internet is amazing but can also be noxious and distracting. Freedom reminds me that I should pursue my long-term goals and that most “news” is total garbage and that my life (and the world) is not going to get better based on whether I inhale someone else’s intellectual garbage. I’d argue Facebook is even worse than news in this respect, and, now that everyone is on Facebook, the quality of Facebook has declined further: people are worried about what their moms and bosses and employers will think, so they shunt the real parts of their lives to pseudonymous services.

Still, much news is superficially attractive and has that dangerous quality of feeling like learning even when it isn’t. I’m susceptible to it and, even before reading about Allen, I’d developed some strategies for resisting. Those strategies aren’t perfect and depending on what I’m working on I may genuinely need the Internet, but most of the time concentration is the scarcest resource, rather than information. And well-structured information is scarcer than “information,” which makes books more valuable than many articles. Still, I need to trick myself into remembering this.

Heath notes that some concepts are not intuitive, don’t make us “feel” correctly, and yet are essential for the workings of modern life. But it’s easy for demagogues or just plainly ignorant politicians to appeal to feelings that are popular but simplistic and wrong. Heath says that liberals have a harder time with this, as their preferred policies require coordination and complex understanding of multiple moving parts.

I like the observation in “I can tolerate anything except the outgroup,” in which Scott Alexander observes that Team Red and Team Blue seem more often to decide on issues based on opposing whatever the other one wants, rather than initial dispassionate analysis followed by decision.

My favorite issue that works along these lines is housing policy, which is especially interesting because both Team Red and Team Blue tend to oppose sensible, affordable housing policies, but for slightly different reasons. As I wrote here (and have written elsewhere), housing affects everything from schools to the real power of money (which may be different from “income”) to the environment to intellectual growth and development. Yet housing policy has devolved in the last forty or so years and is barely on most people’s radar. Markets are dysfunctional due to land-control uses. Team Blue is concerned about incomes, and sometimes even real incomes, and housing policy is hugely important in this domain. Team red is concerned about markets, at least superficially, and yet housing and land development is widely distorted. (Team Red often opposes markets when markets don’t produce their desired social outcomes, which is a topic for another time.)

As a side note regarding the subtitle, I’ll say that I don’t feel my life to be insane or not sane. I’ll also say that this is not true only of politics, but also some weirdly large swaths of the humanities:

[Harry] Frankfurt’s important contribution [via the book On Bullshit] was to have distinguished between lying and bullshitting. What characterizes the bullshitter is that, unlike the liar, who at least maintains the pretense of telling the truth, the bullshitter has simply opted out of the truth-telling game. There is no pretense with the bullshitter. Although producing ordinary declarative sentences that would normally be evaluated under the categories of truth and falsity, the bullshitter is not even trying to say something that sounds true.

When someone has opted out of the truth-telling game there is almost no reason to talk to them.

Much of Enlightenment 2.0 is distressing to those of us who like to imagine ourselves as rationalists. Yet the world is still by many metrics improving. I’m tempted to start a new series in which every December I post “Good news in review,” since most news is biased towards problems, deaths, fuck-ups, and the like. Yet overall by most metrics people are living longer, healthier, and more productive lives. That’s a huge but under-emphasized point. Many of the big, preventable killers in the United States—like cars and guns—could be better dealt with through policy, as long as people understand just how many other people die from those causes. Most of us don’t attend to them, however, and prefer salient deaths like shark attacks and terrorism.

Briefly noted: The Festival of Insignificance — Milan Kundera

The Festival of Insignificance is out and I don’t know what to make of it. It’s nice enough I suppose but it feels . . . Insubstantial? Disconnected? Do I not get it? Hard to say. Characters or figures appear, are observed or make a speech, then leave. Consider this, from page 110, just 5 pages from the end:

In the broad walk that stretches into the park from l’avenue de l’Obsesrvatoire, a man of about fifty with a mustache, wearing an old worn parka with a long hunting rifle slung from his shoulder, runs toward the circle of the great marble ladies of France. He is shouting and waving his arms. All around, people stop and watch, startled and sympathetic. Yes, sympathetic, for that mustachioed face has an easy quality that freshens the atmosphere in the garden with an idyllic breath of times gone by. It calls up the image of a ladies’ man, a village rake, an adventurer who’s more likable for already being a little older and seasoned. Won over by his country charm, his virile goodness, his folkloric look, the crowd sends him smiles and he responds, pleasing and ingratiating.

Now what? The passage is on its own fine, and maybe it connects in obscure ways to other passages that I haven’t adequately noticed. The odd thing about this passage is that, like many of the scenes, it doesn’t really seem to connect with the rest of the novella. The adjective “Hegelian” appears, which is rarely a good sign. Some passages are witty and perhaps true:

When Ramon had described his theory about observation posts standing each on a different point in history, from which people talk together unable to understand one another, Alain had immediately thought of his girlfriend, because, thanks to her, he knew that even the dialogue between true lovers, if their birth dates are too far apart, is only the intertwining of two monologues, each holding for the other much that is not understood.

Kundera_FestivalThe observation posts are works of art or artists, with the people being the public or possibly other artists: no one understands anyone else because contextual changes make the art feel different to the observer. The lover faces a similar challenge, and it’s one that I know in a different context: teaching. In school I’d listen to out-of-it teachers casually reference TV shows or other phenomena from decades before my time and then watch them be bewildered that something so vital to them and their generation could be a void to ours. Now I’m on the other side of the desk and sense the same thing. Very little culture transcends the time it was produced, and what does transcend that time often does so only through great effort. Ramon senses this intellectually and Alain erotically. Maybe.

But, again, so what? And what of the first-person narrator who speaks as the or a writer? I don’t know, which may be the point of the novella, if there is one.

Art is of course insignificant and significant at the same time. Its role as insignificant is well known, and its significance can be inferred by the ceaseless efforts of religions, governments, and parents to censor it. If art weren’t significant, all that effort into controlling art wouldn’t occur. Political art may be legal in the U.S., but just try writing a political satire of the Chinese government in China. Perhaps the point is that in the West we’ve evolved to a stage where virtually all art is legal and none of it matters, leaving artists and art consumers / experiencers to ask, “What now?”

Maybe there is a stylistic quality to The Festival of Insignificance evident in French that didn’t make it to English. It is always dangerous to assume too much about a translated novel. Maybe too the only good criticism of art is other art, and little conventional criticism rises to the level of art.

Here is Jonathan Rosen writing about it, and ignore the stupid, cliché title, which probably wasn’t his. Too many reviewers are obsessed with the writer instead of the book.

On “50 Shades of Grey” and Alan Moore’s “Lost Girls”

There are good parts of 50 Shades but it feels like a luxury “lifestyle”* commercial, written and executed by people with no experience of actual rich people imagining what rich people might be like. It also feels like a bondage story by people with no experience of actual BDSM imagining what BDSM people might be like. Reality is of course often not the primary purpose in a given movie but reality can be bent in an intelligent way to make a significant point or in an unintelligent way that detracts from the point.

fifty-shades-of-grey_poster50 Shades of Dull” gets it right: boredom is the movie’s real enemy, and the movie is unwilling to go “all the way,” with “all the way” defined broadly. The male lead is like a walking piece of injection-molded plastic. The woman is better but both have an essentially impossible acting test. On the way out of the theater I mentioned that he seems more like a serial killer than lover, and someone else said that he’d actually played a serial killer before. Makes sense.

The real fairy tale or fantasy aspect is that a guy like Christian Grey would pick out and obsess over a girl with nothing special about her. This is an interesting reversal of many movies and TV shows, in which a pretty girl improbably picks the quirky, initially low-status guy (“Don’t follow Hollywood movie examples if you want to get laid” analyzes this well, though I don’t endorse everything in the post or indeed much of the site). Anastasia is annoying and generically pretty, without any personality, and yet this very high status guy chases her around—and in ways that, if he were low status, would elicit a restraining order. “Creepy” is a term most often used to describe someone sexually interested in someone who does not reciprocate that interest. Both of us agree that the roommate and brother seem like they’re having a better time and are much more fun than the protagonists.

Still, the lighting was astoundingly good, particularly compared to the movie’s likely relevant comparison pieces. An unrated DVD edition may be a better movie. Much analysis focuses on the audience / societal signals the movie’s popularity emits, rather than the qualities of the movie itself, because the latter are so weak and the former much richer and more interesting. Something is being said, but by the consumers much more than the producers.

Auden said that “the proof that pornography has no literary value is that, if one attempts to read it in any other way than as a sexual stimulus, to read it, say, as a psychological case-history of the author’s sexual fantasies, one is bored to tears.” By this standard 50 Shades is porn but another book, commonly described as porn, is not: Lost Girls.

lost_girls_mooreLost Girls describes the way entire societies decided they hated each other much more than they loved themselves. The really horrific, shocking acts in the book are not threatened rape or young girls or incest; they’re wholescale industrialized death. Next to the latter the former may be serious and vile on an individual level but death is so final, and the delusions around war are even more powerful than the delusions around erotic life. Lost Girls is much weirder, scarier, and truer than 50 Shades and for that reason it will never be as popular, at least in its own time. But 50 years from now, I suspect people will still pick up Lost Girls and the rest of the Moore oeuvre. Like American Sniper, Lost Girls is vehemently anti-war, but it comes to an anti-war place from a much different direction and cannot be reliably read as a pro-war movie, as many have read American Sniper.

Lost Girls is also a novel or set of novels that bend reality in interesting ways that convey the characters’s psychological states, fears, desires, and lives. In this sense too it is not pornography. Sexuality is not automatically pornographic, and though this point is often made I don’t think most people act or interpret as if it’s been accepted.

Lost Girls is art and 50 Shades is commerce. Neither is really porn. Readers of either or watchers of 50 Shades should read Geoffrey Miller’s book Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior, in which Miller points out that most women judge men much less on their material possessions and much more on their health, bodies, and minds. Men tend to do the same. For most people most of the time it’s not about the money, though the money is nice. Men who say women only want money are usually covering for their own deficiencies (this embarrassing post may be relevant).

As usual, books can go deeper and have fewer restrictions on them than movies. Even today there is a freedom-to-depict in books that doesn’t extend into movies and TV, at least in the U.S. It’s also possible to turn a book that’s not very good on the level of the sentence into a movie (or TV show) that’s better.

50 Shades’s great antecedent is the Marquis de Sade; like de Sade, the movie is actually funny when read properly. But the movie is unlikely to be read properly (Tyler Cowen’s post “Two misunderstood movies, two Rorschach tests” is relevant here. Camille Paglia’s chapter on de Sade is excellent.

Despite the above I didn’t regret seeing 50 Shades and you probably won’t either. It’s a very popular movie but not a stupid one, unlike, say, Transformers, or many action movies. I wonder if (following link NSFW) is doing unusual business this weekend.

Here is the NYT on the movie’s director. Here is a characteristically elegant evisceration, from The New Yorker. The London Review of Books is also good: “When it comes to erotic writing, the more explicit it gets – the more heaving, the more panting – the more I want to laugh.” There was much laughter in my theater.

* The term “lifestyle” is so vague and yet so popular among marketers. If you hear a real person use it, be wary. She’s probably been  corrupted by marketers and marketing language. Despite saying this I feel like participating in modern life makes everyone who pays attention a connoisseur of marketing talk.

5K / “Retina” iMac and Mac OS X “Yosemite” thoughts

Note added Jan. 29:  Yosemite update 10.10.2, seems to have solved the software problems noted below. The hardware continues to be excellent. The next version of OS X, El Capitan (10.11), is said to be “a return to slow-but-steady improvement after Yosemite’s upheaval.” Let’s hope so.

I’ve had a Retina iMac with Yosemite installed for close to a month, which is long enough to form a mostly positive impression—except for the bad software situation. The iMac’s “Retina” screen is as beautiful as advertised and is a tangible reminder of progress. If you use it you won’t want to go back, any more than you’d want to go back to celibacy after losing your virginity. But Yosemite crashes about once a day for reasons mysterious to me and to Apple support. Yosemite is a step backwards.

5k retina imacLet’s start with the headline feature: the screen difference between the preceding iMac and this one is real, but it’s not nearly as great as the difference between the low-resolution Macbook Pro and the Retina MacBook Pro. Retina MacBook Pros are not just better but insanely, can’t-go-back better than their predecessors. The Retina iMac is an improvement, a real improvement, but not as startling. If you’re in the market for an iMac-like computer and can afford the price premium, the better display is worth the cost. As noted above, you won’t want to go back. Standalone versions of the screen aren’t even available as of this writing; when they become available, they’ll likely cost $2,000 in and of themselves.

People who bought iMacs in the last two to three years should probably wait for the next iteration because it should be cheaper than this one. My last iMac came from 2010 or thereabouts and I was due for an upgrade, especially because I now do more with video than I previously had. Fast computers are to video what oil is to transportation: It’s almost impossible to have enough.

This iMac is not as quiet as my previous iMac, though it also isn’t noisy enough to make the fuss that would be necessary to return mine and try again. It has an annoying, intermittent buzz that’s noticeable in quiet rooms. I can imagine myself standing in an Apple store, most of which sound like an airplane engine is prepping for takeoff, and trying to get the support person to do what I want them to do, while the support person looks at me like I’m crazy.

In software terms the OS jumped from 10.6 to 10.10. The only day-to-day difference I notice is the addition of Messages, which lets me text to phones from my keyboard. Phone keyboards have always bothered me—which may be a sign of age—and Messages is a significant enhancement. Obviously there are numerous differences in the APIs and libraries available, which developers have leveraged or are leveraging, but they’re not as salient to me as the “headline” features. Still, I think about how every version of OS X from 10.0 – 10.6 saw major feature improvements that immediately made my life way better in an immediate, tangible way. I’m not seeing that in the 10.6 – 10.10 jump.

The major OS X features I love and constantly use were introduced years ago: Spotlight, Time Machine, Exposé. Messages could probably have been backported to 10.6 but wasn’t. Some cool new programs like Pixelmator seem to have been enabled by the backend OS work, but those programs don’t have a huge effect on my day-to-day life. Spotlight is harder to use and doesn’t seem to work as well as it did. Boolean operators also still appear to be absent.

The migration process from old iMac to new was painful and manual; Migration Assistant is notoriously unreliable and works terribly if a person, like me, is moving from two hard drives to a single drive. Permissions problems appeared, as they so often do. I could solve them with time and patience, but they might have stymied less sophisticated users. The general reluctance to upgrade any working computer is reasonable based on my experiences.

Once I had the basic migration done, I spent a lot of time turning off various “features.” Threaded mail messages in don’t work very well for me, and the animations were annoying and slowed things down. Some pretty but non-functional could only be turned off through the command line. It would be nice to have a “fuck animations” checkbox in system preferences somewhere. Speed is of paramount importance.

Four years ago I wrote about my uninterest in upgrading from OS X 10.6 to 10.7, and recent experiences have borne out that reluctance. Most of the Apple operating systems since 10.6 appear to be less stable than 10.6. This Hacker News thread is full of stories about problems with Yosemite. Right now Yosemite is only on its .1 release, so the .2 release may solve some of the problems, but the stability issue should have been solved in beta. In addition to the WindowServer crashes linked to above, Flash crashes routinely in the browser. Final Cut Pro X is unusable because it crashes when attempting to import any new video. This will necessitate yet another call to Apple support. aFinder has crashed a couple times for mysterious reasons—despite the fact that the hardware in this machine is by every conceivable metric faster, better, and more tolerant than the hardware in the preceding machine.

What gives? I’m not the only one having these problems. In addition to the Hacker News thread, consider “AppleCore Rot,” another piece on Apple’s apparent quality problems. This in particular resonates: “Stuff that worked for years breaks, while new visual crapware is piled on endlessly.” I would like Apple to make it work first and make it pretty second.

In an email my Dad observed this about Yosemite and the linked Hacker news thread:

The first post [in the Hacker News thread] complains about the phone calling feature. About 22 years ago, I routinely made calls from the IBM PC 1 using Lotus Organizer 1.0 to dial from the address book with Windows 3.1 and the world’s slowest modem. But then again, Organizer was the best PIM [Personal Information Manager] ever and in some respects AmiPro and WordPro were better 20 years ago than Word is today.

I used to use Lotus WordPro too, and it was much stabler than Word today (although Word has been relatively stable in this version and the last version). Some software was better a decade ago than it is today.
That being said, many of the random waits that involved exporting photos from Lightroom or, to a lesser extent, videos from Final Cut Pro X have either disappeared altogether in the case of the former or shrunk dramatically in the case of the latter. That’s the few times FCP X has actually worked, however.  Some simple scripts run faster. Manipulating exifdata with Exiftool is faster. Web browsers no longer choke and sputter (that they did on a relatively modern machine could be the subject of another cranky post). Fast user switching is now genuinely fast. The advance of hardware, and what it enables, is not to be underestimated.

Still, there are other caveats. The larger hard drive is good, but Apple should really be offering four terabyte Fusion drives. I’m puzzled as to why it doesn’t, apart from simple cheapness. Large hard drives are one of the (dwindling number of) reasons people still use desktops.

My iMac had a 256 GB SSD and a 2 TB conventional drive; this one has 128 GB and 3 TB, respectively, which is anemic improvement in capacity terms (though the SSD is much faster and the interconnect between the SSD and CPU is also much faster). Still, 4 TB hard drives are widely available and there’s no good reason why Apple shouldn’t offer bigger hard drives. There are other nice-to-haves: USB 3 ports. Thunderbolt ports. External hard drive speeds are much faster. I’ve gone from having about 2 TB readily available to having 9 TB readily available, between a Drobo and the internal drives.

5k retina imac side viewAesthetics are a wash. From the front, the new iMac is visually indistinguishable from the old, and photos don’t convey the screen’s beauty. The profile shots show a much slenderer machine. Also notable in the pictures in the Elevation Stand, which began as a Kickstarter Project that I backed. It’s by far the best iMac stand I’ve found, and I’ve tried various solutions ranging from wood blocks to books to an expensive stand festooned with screws sold discovered through the Apple store. The Elevation Stand is expensive but it works. The space between the top and bottom of the stand will also fit external hard drives.

My desk is somewhat ugly and I’m perpetually telling myself I’ll clean it off and make it very pure and functional seeming, but for whatever reason it rarely actually happens and as soon as it does I end up re-covering it with books and cameras and other crap. This is obviously not part of the iMac review.

The iMac itself is still beautiful. If you use a computer entirely too much, as I do, you’ll want one.

Here is Farhad Manjoo’s paean to the iMac. Most tech reviewers are ecstatic, perhaps disproportionately to how ecstatic they should be, but they also know computers well and know that the screen is amazing given how expensive 4K and 5K screens cost. I have a 23″ side monitor and no desire or need to upgrade it.

Here is a Reddit thread that hits many of the same points I’ve made about OS stability. Here is Geoff Wozniak on why he quit OS X. You’ll recognize the themes I hit.

Sharp Objects — Gillian Flynn

The first time through Sharp Objects I though it totally absurd, since the characters in it behave like fantastical morons perpetually rolling on ecstasy or akin to faeries from Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. The plausibility of the plot is so low that I almost gave up, exasperated.

But I kept reading the first time and was curious enough to reread the second time and realize that Sharp Objects is not about a realistic story of realistic detection; instead, it’s a mythic-Freudian* work about the anxiety that comes from two related phenomena: transitions to adulthood and the muddying of lines between the generations. Camille, the protagonist, is supposed to be an adult (she’s a reporter for paper, she covers murders, she pays the rent) but around her mother she acts like a child and around her 13-year-old sister she acts like a peer.

Sharp_ObjectsOnce this alternate reading became clear, Sharp Objects became pleasant. It’s not supposed to be realistic (or, if it is, it fails so badly at its purpose that it might as well be read my way). It’s a fairy tale with a bit of media critique thrown in, and it says that girls and women have the dark urges that are often absent from fiction and from the news. Camille needs to reconcile her family relationships and her family’s history in order to understand the murders she’s investigating. Conventional reportorial skills and abilities are of little use; at best one might say she employs some aspects of New or Gonzo Journalism, since she does in fact drop ecstasy at one point.

In the novel Camille is dispatched by her editor to her home town to investigate a murder that becomes a series of murders of girls. The novel signals its intentions early. Camille is describing the home town she came from, and she ends the first chapter with this:

When I was still in grammar school, maybe twelve, I wandered into a neighbor boy’s hunting shed, a wood-planked shack where animals were stripped and split. Ribbons of moist, pink flesh dangled from strings, waiting to be dried for jerky. The dirt floor was rusted with blood. The walls were covered with photographs of naked women. Some of the girls were spreading themselves wide, others were being held down and penetrated. One woman was tied up, her eyes glazed, her breasts stretched and veined like grapes, as a man took her from behind. I could smell them all in the thick, gory air.

At home that night, I slipped a finger under my panties and masturbated for the first time, panting and sick.

The blurred mental lines between sexuality, animals, reproduction, and early age remain a theme that runs through the novel.

Attention is also a scarce resource in the novel: Camille constantly seeks it from her mother, even at the risk of being dangerous, and also seeks it from men (at least at first). Her sister is repeating Camille’s experience. Parents are either absent (from page 21: “I wondered where their mother was”) or overwhelming. Family sexuality recurs; here is one early example, from Camille’s narration:

The Victorians, especially southern Victorians, needed a lot of room to stray away from each other, to duck tuberculosis and flu, to avoid rapacious lust, to wall themselves away from sticky emotions. Extra space is always good.

“Stray” is an exact quote. And if extra space is always good, why then does Camille go to her mother’s house? She returns to a point of danger in search of information, like Little Red Riding Hood entering the Wolf’s house. The novel itself keeps pointing to Fairy Tales. Amma, Camille’s sister, says:

now we’re reunited. You’re like poor Cinderella, and I’m the evil stepsister. Half sister.

A few pages later, Camille speaks with a boy who says that he saw a “woman” take the second girl, who turns up murdered. She thinks this of him:

What did James Capisi see? The boy left me uneasy. I didn’t think he was lying. But children digest terror differently. The boy saw a horror, and that horror became the wicked witch of fairy tales, the cruel snow queen.

No one believes that the killer is a woman because women don’t behave that way. But wicked and evil women are pronounced in fairy tales.

This details occurs in Camille’s mother’s house:

Walking past Amma’s room, I saw her sitting very properly on the edge of a rocking chair, reading a book called Greek Goddesses. Since I’d been here, she’d played at being Joan of Arc and Bluebeard’s wife and Princess Diana—all martyrs, I realized. She’d find even unhealthier role models among the goddesses. I left her to it.

There are more. These are enough.

Seemingly no one grows up in Sharp Objects. Nearly every woman in Wind Gap still gossips like she’s in high school. Growing up is hard and harder for some of us than others. Perhaps we never fully leave childhood behind. Camille can’t. Her sister Amma is in some ways eager to leave childhood (she behaves like a pro when it comes to the inciting the desires of men) but in other ways wants its protections. In our culture, she can legally at least get both,** and she behaves in both ways. At one moment Amma is behaving like an infant:

Amma lolled sleepy as a newborn in her blanket, smacking her lips occasionally. It was the first time I’d seen my mother since our trip to Woodberry. I hovered in front of her, but she wouldn’t take her eyes off Amma.

In others she doesn’t, as when she says that after her mother takes care of her, “I like to have sex.” Then:

She flipped up her skirt from behind, flashed me a hot pink thong.
“I don’t think you should let boys do things to you, Amma. Because that’s what it is. It’s not reciprocal at your age.”

Camille’s counsel is distinctly odd, coming from someone who did similar things at similar ages and, it would appear, for similar reasons. But she doesn’t at this moment have the power to break the familial cycle, with its hints and implications of incest. That waits until later.

Camille’s decision to enter this cauldron of weirdness reinforces the idea that Sharp Objects is more about family patterns and dynamics than detection. In one of the flimsier rationales in the book, Camille stays with her mother, her stepfather, and her adolescent sister, ostensibly for the sake of saving the paper money, but this decision is insane given her relationship to the family. That she continues to stay as events become more and more macabre and surreal are equally insane and implausible. Camille should leave, and that’s obvious to any sane reader and should be obvious to her. That she stays anyway indicates that the story has motives different than the ones I initially assumed.

* Freud has a much stronger mythic element to his work than is commonly supposed—and so I’m justified in using myth and Freud in this way. Much of his work is unfalsifiable, giving what is nominally a scientific body of work a distinctly literary quality, and the supposed universality of many of his concepts (the death drive, the Oedipus complex, etc.) are not supportable.

* Let me reproduce the footnote at the link:

As Judith Levine notes in Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex: “One striking pair of contradictory trends: as we raise the age of consent for sex, we lower the age at which a wrongdoing child may be tried and sentenced as an adult criminal. Both, needless to say, are ‘in the best interests’ of the child and society.” And, as Laurie Schaffner points out in a separate essay collection, “[…] in certain jurisdictions, young people may not purchase alcohol until their twenty-first birthday, or may be vulnerable plaintiffs in a statutory rape case at 17 years of age, yet may be sentenced to death for crimes committed at age 15 [….]”

Laws [. . .] reflect race and gender norms: white girls are the primary target of age-of-consent laws, while African American youth are the target of laws around crime and delinquency. The contradictory trends are readily explained by something rather unpleasant in society.

I didn’t elaborate on what the “unpleasant” thing may be and won’t here, either, but you’re welcome to take a shoot at your best interpretation in the comments.

Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto — Chuck Klosterman

Pop-culture essays age in dog years while retaining the occasional long-term insight that stays fresh by accident. I’m reading Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto and mostly noticed age spots but also saw a few prescient moments, like this:

But Junod claims that he [made up details about Michael Stripe of R.E.M. in an article] in order to make people reevaluate how the press covers celebrity, and that’s valid. It’s valid because conventional celebrity journalism is inevitably hounded by two problems: Either the subject is lying, or the writer is guessing. Junod just happened to embrace both of those obstacles simultaneously.

The relationship of the Klosterman essay to say John Jeremiah Sullivan’s more recent Real World essay, “Leaving Reality” essay is obvious, but I think Kloosterman is also forgetting—or doesn’t want to simply say—that people read celebrity profiles in part because they want to be lied to. There is more than a little complicity in the lie, which changes the relations of the liar to the person being lied to. Or perhaps people want to feel false intimacy, which can be achieved partially through lying.

klostermanThe “subject” of these profiles—like the Michael Stripe one, or others in its genre—is probably trying mostly not to say or do anything that will make him or her look like an asshole when taken out of context. This can be shockingly hard to do, since the subject can’t tell when the writer is “guessing” or what the writer is “guessing.” In this context “guessing” can be another word for “interpretation.” One reason to read the New Yorker, incidentally, is that its writers appear to attempt to be scrumptiously fair and to avoid gossip—yet those are the very qualities that can give rise to accusations of being “boring.” One person’s boring is another’s accurate.

Imagine someone followed you around, all the time, for a couple of days and maybe for longer, and that the person has some bad will, or at least wants to make your life into a story. Could the person get some stuff that would make you look bad? Probably. I know that someone who could observe everything I wrote, and watch everything I do could make me look really bad. So smart celebrities avoid the real press, or only interact with the relatively small, non-jerk parts of the press—like The New Yorker.

Let’s take a specific example of an article about the world behind celebrity journalism: Sarah Miller’s hilarious “Anna Nicole Smith Kind of Made a Pass at Me.” I dramatically read parts of it to some friends the other night. This paragraph stands out in particular:

I wrote a first draft, in which, without spelling everything out, I attempted to give some real sense of that day. “I can’t publish this,” my editor said, and in her defense, I’m sure she was right. I wrote another version that made it sound like I’d had fun, which took hours and hours, because it was not real; writing something that is not real is not impossible, but it is very close to it. Through every long moment I worked on it I cursed myself for not taking that stupid trip to Magic Mountain, which would have made it all so much easier. Anyway, they published that version, and I got my money.

Miller describes what actually happened this way:

“Sarah Miller,” [Anna Nicole Smith] said, “You’ve got the prettiest blue eyes.” If we were in a movie, she’d have added, “I do declare.”

“Thank you,” I said formally.

“You ever had sex with a girl?”

It was none of her business, but I thought being honest might somehow give her back some of the dignity my mind had robbed her of, and I thought she might sense it, and that we might have a real conversation. “Yes, actually, Anna. I have.”

“Well, did you like it?” The word “like” lasted for several seconds.

“I actually did not,” I said. “It was a…misbegotten adventure.” I was pleased at how much I sounded like my father.

But that can’t be published, not at the time Miller was trying to get the story. Her editor, however, doesn’t want “real.” The number of readers who do is small. How many people watch PBS versus celebutainment shows? How many read The New Yorker versus US Weekly? The truth is hard and amusing fictions easy, so we choose the latter. In the introduction to Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs Klosterman writes that “accelerated culture [. . .] doesn’t speed things up as much as it jams everything into the same wall of sound. But that’s not necessarily tragic.” I’m not convinced there is such a thing as “accelerated culture,” but I am convinced that elements of what passes for low or contemporary or whatever culture do emerge from the collective decisions of millions of individuals.

But it is also worth stepping back and looking for larger patterns, which is what Klosterman almost but doesn’t quite do. He is a little too fond too of grand pronouncements. Like:

The main problem with mass media is that it makes it impossible to fall in love with any acumen of normalcy. There is no “normal,” because everybody is being twisted by the same forces simultaneously. You can’t compare your relationship with the playful couple who lives next door, because they’re probably modeling themselves after Chandler Bing and Monica Geller. Real people are actively trying to live like fake people, so real people are no less fake. Every comparison becomes impractical. This is why the impractical has become totally acceptable; impracticality almost seems cool.

What is an “acumen of normalcy?” I’m not sure either. I had to check Google for “Chandler Bing” and “Monica Geller.” And has it ever been the case that “real people” have not tried to model themselves on “fake people?” If you read major religious texts as fundamentally mythological, as I do, the answer is “no:” people have been trying to emulate the Christian Bible and the Old Testament for literally thousands of years. Early novels with melodramatic endings encouraged their readers to attempt to reenact those ending. We seek narrative fiction in order to learn how to live—and that isn’t at all new. I don’t think there has ever been as firm a normal as we’d like to project on the past.

Eventually, with paragraphs like the quoted section, one comes to the conclusion that either everything is “fake” or everything is “real”—which is the sort of conclusion high freshmen hit when they’re in their dorm rooms at 2:00 a.m. The next day they still get up for class and go to breakfast. What is one supposed to do differently if one decides that real people are fake?

Perhaps not surprisingly, the next essay in the Kloserman collection concerns the video game “The Sims.” Also not surprisingly, some SF writers have wondered what might happen if we get a wholly immersive and wholly fake world. One possible solution to the Fermi Paradox is that sufficiently advanced civilizations make video games that are so cool that they’d rather live in constructed worlds than explore the real universe.

That’s an interesting thought experiment, but like the high freshmen mentioned above no one does anything differently today based on it. Klosterman tells tales about meaningless arguments. Eventually, however, generative people come to realize that arguments that don’t lead to any sort of change or growth are pointless, and they get on with their lives. One sign of “low culture” may be that winning or losing the argument means nothing, and the participants should go build or make something instead.


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