From shocking to tame in a generation: Roth and Updike

Claudia Roth Pierpont’s “The Book of Laughter: Philip Roth and his friends” is unfortunately hidden behind a paywall, but one section stood out to me: she writes that Philip Roth and John Updike met around 1959, when both were getting their first publishing successes, and, “A decade later, they profitably scandalized the country with ‘Couples’ (1968) and ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’ (1969).” Times change: I saw them not as scandalous but as slightly tedious in their obsession with the transgressions of their era. Is the three-way in Portnoy really so shocking?

I thought not. In the context of the novel I understand the Monkey’s fuss, which is primarily a play for power over Portnoy, and one that she sort of wins because he lets her, or doesn’t know any better (the Monkey: “What do I care what happens to her? . . . She’s the whore! And all you really wanted to do was to fuck her! You couldn’t even wait until I was out of the john to do it!”, and then the Monkey threatens to leave. I heard lots of conversations like this in college, when melodrama ran high). Portnoy does have the sense to start disentangling himself: “Then in Athens she threatens to jump from the balcony unless I marry her. So I leave.”

In Portnoy, however, the voice persists even though what seems to have been a shocking scandal has gone away. In Couples I found it merely hard to care about who sleeps with who and why. There were numerous beautiful sentences put to little good use. Updike makes me want to write better sentences but also to construct more interesting plots. I lack his and his characters’s religious sense, which often makes me feel like he’s writing about a foreign culture. Battles over religious feelings are like battles over Communism: important in their day but long-since decided.

Life: Envy edition

“Envy is the religion of the mediocre. It comforts them, it soothes their worries, and finally it rots their souls, allowing them to justify their meanness and their greed until they believe these to be virtues. Such people are convinced that the doors of heaven will be opened only to poor wretches like themselves who go through life without leaving any trace but their threadbare attempts to belittle others and to exclude—and destroy if possible—those who, by the simple fact of their existence, show up their own poorness of spirit, mind, and guts.”

—Carlos Ruiz Zafón, The Angel’s Game

Links: Sprawl, short stories, climate, schools, suicide, and more

* The Nefarious Ways Sprawl Begets Sprawl.

* The short story survives because of its utility to the MFA.

* We are in denial about catastrophic risks.

* “Why Haven’t Humanities Ph.D. Programs Collapsed? The job prospects for new Ph.D.’s in fields like history and English are miserable, yet students keep signing up for their shot at the ivory tower. Readers, tell us what you think is going on.”

* A follow-up to the previous link: “Why Haven’t Humanities Ph.D. Programs Collapsed? 21 Answers From Readers,” including one from yours truly.

* “Sexting, Shame and Suicide: A shocking tale of sexual assault in the Digital Age.”

* NASA’s Plutonium Problem Could End Deep-Space Exploration.

* A geek’s tour of Sigma’s Aizu lens factory: Precision production from the inside out.

* Why It’s Never Mattered That America’s Schools ‘Lag’ Behind Other Countries.

* Magical thinking about death.

* Ocean acidification, the lesser-known twin of climate change, threatens to scramble marine life on a scale almost too big to fathom.

Tampa — Alissa Nutting

Tampa starts with a bang, so to speak—the first line says, “I spent the night before my first day of teaching in an excited loop of hushed masturbation”—and also explains the narrator’s curious, never-resolved marital predicament: “I find it hilarious that people think Ford and I are the perfect couple based solely on our looks.” I find it curious that the narrator, who is obsessed with teenage boys, wanted to marry Ford or stay married to him. Her marriage exists for no reason outside of the needs of plot mechanics; there are occasional references to Ford’s money, but based on the novel Celeste has a single overriding focus on sex.

That focus doesn’t take a lot of money to maintain, and indeed it would be greatly enhanced by her divorcing Ford, or never marrying him. The closest we get to some kind of rationale, emotional or otherwise, is that “I hoped his wealth might provide me with a distraction, but this backfired—it left me with no unfulfilled urges but the sexual.” In 1900, it might have been very hard to “fulfill” sexual urges, but today that is not the case, and someone so single-mindedly focused on sex doesn’t need to be and shouldn’t be married. The “wealth” doesn’t seem to matter to her: other than name-checking one or two luxury items, money doesn’t seem to matter for Celeste. Explaining her husband to her teenage lover, she “didn’t have to feign indifference” and tells him “He’s just a husband.” Why bother? When Humbert Humbert married, he at least had a reason.

To be sure people are rarely fully rational and most of us are riven by conflicting desires, by Celeste’s desire to marry or stay marry makes little sense at the beginning of the novel and less as it goes on. Ford’s presence offers useful plot mechanic friction.

A novel like Dare Me works more effectively than Tampa because its protagonists are supposed to be vacuous twits. A twenty-six-year old with a classics degree, even a very horny one, should have more going on between her ears than Celeste does, and what’s between her ears shouldn’t harm what’s going on between her legs. She says, for example, that “At university I began throwing myself into classics studies, finding brief solace from my sexual frustrations in texts depicting ancient battles of fervent bloodshed.” But for someone interested in classics, she references them very rarely; her studies seem to have left no mark in her mind. Contrast that with a novel like Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, where Greek appears and an obsession with the past fuels the characters’ actions in the present. Those are characters whose thought is fully colored by classics. Here, classics get mentioned as empty window dressing, like material objects.

Toni Bentley deals with the money issue in The Surrender, her memoir of anal sex, where she says:

You let a man into your bowels—your deepest space, the space that all your life you are taught to ignore, hide, keep quiet about—and consciousness is born. Who needs diamonds, pearls, and furs? Those who’ve never been where I have been. The promised land, the Kingdom.

In asking “Who needs diamonds, pearls, and furs?”, she could be speaking for Celeste, who is also indifferent-seeming to possessions because she has her own “promised land,” albeit of a different though even more forbidden sort than Bentley’s (I say “even more forbidden” because while Bentley’s favorite act used to be illegal, it now mostly isn’t; while Celeste’s used to be not prosecuted, these days it is, thanks to feminists seeking equality in an instance where many teenage boys would probably be happy without it).

There are bizarrely hilarious moments in Tampa, as when Celeste narrates:

Sex struck me as a seafood with the shortest imaginable shelf life, needing to be peeled and eaten the moment the urge ripened. Even by sixteen, seventeen, it seemed that people became too comfortable with their desires to have any objectivity over their vulgar moments. They closed their eyes to avoid awkward orgasm faces, slipped lingerie made for models and mannequins onto wholly imperfect bodies.

Actually, sex is not at all like sea food in the sense Celeste describes, but we do see how Celeste totally misconceptualizes the world and thus a lot about her own, non-universal, proclivities. She also asks rhetorically, “Why did anyone pretend human relationships had value?”, when the better question is why she pretends they do, since most of us who aren’t sociopaths have obvious, readily available answers. Yet the metaphor is compelling, like enough of the writing in Tampa to make the book writing about. There are interesting questions about the extent to which desire clouds judgment, but that assumes the characters have any kinds of judgment in the first place, and the ones in Tampa mostly don’t.

Like Humbert Humbert, her obvious antecedent and another character with desire problems, Celeste is obsessed with guys on the cusp of manhood, and her chosen crush gets described in ways similar to Humbert’s nymphets: “I loved the lanky-limbed smoothness, the plasticity of his limbs, the way his frame shunned both fat and muscle.” The alliteration is there, but that kind of poetic style isn’t sustained. There is room in literature for a female Humbert, but she is not Celeste, and Jack is not Dolly. It is a novel with no animating soul beyond the purely carnal. I can appreciate the purely carnal but Celeste doesn’t even both arranging her life in ways that make sense (which may be why carnality is so often depicted in adolescents, who are still faced with strictures of schools and parents).

It is painful reading a book in which there is an obvious solution to an obvious problem that the protagonist doesn’t notice; Celeste’s situation in Tampa doesn’t rise to the TV trope “Too Dumb to Live,” but there should be a lesser term for characters who fail to perceive simple ways of dramatically improving their lots. In addition, Ford appears happy not having sex with—or having bad sex with—his wife. Marrying someone hot but sexually uninteresting doesn’t seem like a great deal, but we see little of him either.

I wanted Tampa to be a better novel; it wasn’t bad yet it feels wrong. I’m writing at length about the book because it’s not badly written and has a lot of promise. Tampa is not bad but should be better than it is. Books like that often generate the most response in me, because truly bad books aren’t worth bothering about and one runs out of empty superlatives with the good ones. There is so much promise, but Tampa isn’t quite executed in a way that makes sense. The supposed shock of what Celeste wants is a good premise that doesn’t go anywhere useful.

If you don’t have a purpose, pick one for yourself

The New Yorker‘s “Briefly Noted” book review section (behind a paywall, but check here if you’re curious) has a review Very Recent History that displays all the telltale signs of pointlessly plotless modern novels: adrift protagonists; problems with few or no important stakes; expecting the world to be automatically interesting, instead of you being interesting to the world; consumption for its own sake rather than for the sake of pleasure. Even the language of the review is stupid, saying that Very Recent History “serves to underscore the sense of trauma that is daily life in a late-capitalist moment.”

What? How do we know this is “a late capitalist moment?” Assuming capitalism as such dates to the 18th Century and, say, Adam Smith, and is the dominant organization of successful societies in 200 years, this is a “mid capitalist moment.” And there is little or no “sense of trauma” in “daily life” for most urban dwellers: If you want fucking trauma, try getting gassed in Syria, or AIDS in much of Africa, or live as one of hundreds of millions of people without electricity or running water in India. Get some fucking perspective people. Being laid off from a white-collar job is not the same as being shot by the regime’s uniformed thugs.

The other funny thing, as a friend mentioned in an e-mail, is that “no novelist who manages to write an entire book and get it mentioned in the major media is anything like those adrift protagonists; that’s someone with purpose.”

There’s a whole genre of these novels about people who behave stupidly in transparent ways. My favorite example is Adam Wilson’s Flatscreen, because it helped crystallize the problem for me, though there are many others examples. It’s also not a badly written book. These kinds of novels can actually be fabulously well-written, and have all sorts of brilliant micro observations. Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children fits this designation. All those wonderful sentences about a bunch of boring fools leading unimportantly literary lives in New York. I wanted one of them to get a job as a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan instead of debating about whether they should Follow Their Muse or sell out.

The Emperor’s Children is an example of the apparently growing number of people who have no direction or purpose in life and choose not to have one. Call it the Girls problem, which is not having real problems while simultaneously not trying anything and not knowing about anything.

About the TV show Girls: it has probably engendered more essays about it than viewers, but my fiancée and I watched the first couple episodes and the beginnings of a couple episodes after that, but it was too dumb to keep going: the characters were privileged morons. I wanted to climb in the TV and say, “Hey! There are real problems out there! People are starving in various places! Science is finding and doing all kinds of awesome stuff. Programs need to be written. There are sick people in hospitals and children who need education. Why don’t you all get real fucking jobs?”

I would love to see one of the girls on Girls get a job as an ER nurse or doctor. They’d learn a little about what’s fucking important. Or they could be working on democracy in Guinea. None of the characters in Girls appear to be learning how to paint, draw, write education grants, keep tropical fish, hack, solder, cook, sew… the list goes on. None seem to appreciate that SpaceX is sending rockets into space and is probably our best collective shot at visiting Mars in the next 40 years. Wow!

Whole industries are being shaken and rebuilt all around us (publishing, for example, by the colossus in Seattle).

Their collective response to this, however, is to continue to gaze lovingly at the lint gathered in their own navels, and to wonder why people aren’t beating a path to their door to offer them fame and fortune. Hell, they can’t even make the bad sex they’re sometimes having into a politically or intellectually interesting act, as someone like Catherine Millet or Toni Bentley can. They have no sense of the past. They have no sense beyond the most rudimentary knowledge of other cultures. They’re not trying to be an amazing novelist like Anne Patchett.

Thoughts on Tyler Cowen’s “Average Is Over”

You should read Average Is Over, which makes many subtle and unexpected (to me) points.

* This: “If you and your skills are a complement to the computer, your wage and labor market prospects are likely to be cheery. If your skills do not complement the computer, you may want to address that mismatch” is a useful way of thinking about things, but if you read books (like Average Is Over) you’re more likely to already know about skill changes and adjust appropriately based on new, incoming information. Yet I am fond of citing the fun fact that people watch an average of four to five hours of TV per day, and by some measures Americans are reading fewer books (or were in 2007) than at any time in the last century or so. Reading skills don’t appear to be high. Basic reading and reading skills may be the low-hanging fruit for many if not most people, especially since reading skills help develop writing skills.

In How to Win at the Sport of Business: If I Can Do It, You Can Do It, Mark Cuban describes how reading conferred on him an information advantage: “Everything I read was public. Anyone could buy the same books and magazines. The same information was available to anyone who wanted it. Turns out most people didn’t want it” (though he doesn’t like fiction, which may also speak to the fields in which he works).

* Cowen writes, “Adult males are seceding from the workforce—or being kicked out—in frightening numbers. Few of these individuals are wealthy playboys. It is no surprise that popular culture today has this image of the male slacker, a young man who lives at home, plays video games, is indifferent to holding down a job, and maybe doesn’t run after young women so hard.” That’s probably true, but a lot of guys have probably realized that marriage markets are stacked against them (see also “How DNA Testing Is Changing Fatherhood“), that relatively few women appear to value guys getting mid-level jobs relative to guys who are cool / fun / have strong game, and there are better alternatives to working for 50 hours a week in a not-that-interesting job. For many guys, learning game and guitar is a more viable route to romantic success than improving a career.

The above, and its absence from contemporary media discussions, may say much about actual power in contemporary society.

* “[M]any of these young earners are threshold earners, meaning earners who are content just to get by and who do not push ambitiously for a higher wage or stronger credentials at every step. Williamsburg, Brooklyn is full of young threshold earners, although rising rents are starting to push them out into other parts of the city, such as the further reaches of Brooklyn or the Bronx.” This goes back to the question above: what are we being productive for?

Stumbling on Happiness says that income above about $50,000 appears to do surprisingly little for the quality of one’s life. In your 20s, perhaps the best investment in happiness-per-dollar is the condom; condoms + an OKCupid account may be the most efficient use of turning resources into fun. Large incomes also expose earners to higher and higher marginal taxes. For someone making, say, $30,000 or $40,000 a year, it might make more sense to stay at a relatively low income OR try to make a very high income of say $200,000 a year. But the middle may be not worth much, especially if the job necessary to stay there is highly time consuming.

In Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, Geoff Dyer says that “I have also been able to live on very little money without any sense of sacrifice (a valuable skill, almost a privilege, for anyone wishing to become a writer). Going without things that most of my contemporaries took for granted never felt like hardship. I spent years living on the dole, more than happy with the trade-off: little money, lots of time.” The Dole provided a generation of artists with enough money for food. We may be heading towards or already at that sort of thing in the U.S. Being a Brooklyn writer is already a cliché. Some people living artists’s lifestyles are writing software instead of prose. Someone like Notch, creator of Minecraft, falls into this category, as do some open-source software writers.

* Early Facebook resembled an art project more than a business, and until recently a lot of people thought Facebook would never make substantial money. The same spirit that animated its creation animates the “threshold earners” in Brooklyn. Many contemporary programmers are closer to painters and writers than is commonly realized.

* I’ve heard friends discuss the benefits of gray economy living (though they don’t use the term “gray economy”), and they usually cite taxes—for good reason. Paying both sides of the Social Security tax eats 15% of a paycheck. Add in Medicare and Medicaid, and even low-wage earners can end up with 20 – 25% of their paychecks eaten by payroll taxes. Someone earning $10 in hard-to-trace cash babysitting in the gray economy is getting a de facto $12 – $12.50, which is a huge improvement, and I see the trends Cowen discusses pushing more people in that direction. When discussing these jobs, I have increasingly heard people ask a simple one-word question: “Cash?” The forecasts Cowen makes on page 236 probably increases the number of threshold earners, since it’s not worth making more if the state is going to take more.

Then there are the sex workers I’ve met; those who earn a lot usually report much but not all of their income, and they pay for pretty much everything they can in cash. They can earn surprisingly high real incomes by minimizing reported income and using a lot of untraceable cash to pay for goods and services.

* Learning discipline and conscientiousness are major themes in Average Is Over, and towards that end I expect pre-binding commitment software like Mac Freedom and Anti-Social to proliferate. While writing this post I reached a point that I didn’t know how to express, so I wandered over to Hacker News and then to a photography forum. I forgot the context, so it took five or ten minutes for me to get re-focused on the sentence—which I still needed to resolve. Micro attention problems may be growing for many people. It is easier and more fun to “waste” time on the Internet, and for most of us there are rapidly diminishing returns to random reading and browsing, although those activities may feel work-like.

* Software is becoming increasingly good at grading student essays and other written work, and Cowen says that “These programs still need to work out some bugs (a clever student can game them with coherent-sounding nonsense).” Some humanities journals can also be gamed with coherent sounding nonsense. Many corporate and government bureaucracies produce huge amounts of coherent-sounding nonsense, so gaming the system in this way may actually be a job skill.

* The restaurant industry soaks up a lot of low- to mid-skill labor, and I’m struck by the extent to which many chefs treat food as art. In New York there is a de facto infinite variety of interesting food, and even someone who restricts themselves to $10 – $20 meals will find innumerable interesting, tasty options. That being said, I see diminishing returns here for all but the most adventurous and exotic of eaters—how much more interesting chefs can get? (I would be happy to be proven wrong here.) Already a lot of menu items look more like differentiating gimmicks than dishes I really want to eat.

The world’s stock of new foods or consumable substances does not appear to be growing rapidly. Genetic engineering may change that, giving chefs a host of new, interesting ingredients to experiment with.

Food has the advantage in that it’s made and then gone; the chefs of today are not competing against the chefs of twenty years ago in the way that, say, writers or musicians are. At bars and clubs I still routinely hear Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Britney Spears.

* I found the first and third sections of Average Is Over much more interesting and useful than the second, which uses games and especially chess to illustrate larger points about human-machine cooperation and the future of the labor market. It could have been shorter, and one (unstated, I think) takeaway is that it’s better to be the person making the machines than the person using them.

* “The ability to mix technical knowledge with solving real-world problems is the key [to new businesses and employability], not sheer number-crunching or programming for its own sake” sounds like something Paul Graham would say, or at least the first sentence does.

* “[W]hen income and wealth disparities are pronounced, everyone who isn’t at the very top will be scrambling for the attention of those who are” is an outcome I hadn’t considered and yet seems true, especially in light of how service industries cater to the very wealthy. Even something like “Pilates studios” may fit this criteria.

* Many things now considered to be “productive” used to be considered useless (like quantum mechanics when it was first discovered). It is also worth pondering what we are trying to be productive for. The long-run answers may be “for its own sake,” or for various kinds of sexual marketplace signaling or kids. Nonetheless, most people do not seem to be asking, or coherently trying to answer: “What are we being productive for?” Cowen writes that “When economists investigate human rationality, they are often too dependent on arbitrary stipulations about what is rational and what is not, expressed in the form of models.” Economist may also be too dependent on productivity and income as proxies for the quality of life (though I do not think this true of Cowen). For example, Philip Greenspun’s post “Danish happiness: bicycle infrastructure” notes that bikes don’t contribute nearly as much to measured GDP as cars, but for many people are a real improvement in terms of the quality of their life.

* Many people have not listened to labor market signals: “the slacker twenty-two-year old with a BA in English, even from a good school, no longer has such a clear path to an upper-middle-class lifestyle. At the same time, Facebook, Google, and Zynga are now so desperate for talent that they will buy out other companies, not for their products, but rather to keep their employees. It’s easier and cheaper to buy the companies than to try to replicate their recruiting or lure away their best employees.” Thinking about men, however, many of the slacker twenty-year olds with BAs in English do substantially better with women and get laid a lot more. There may be a correlation-is-not-causation issue here, however.

* Wow: “Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that a health insurance premium today for a family of four averages over $15,000 and within ten years’ time could be $32,000 or more. That’s more than a lot of workers are worth. Keep in mind that the 2010 median wage in the United States for an individual (not a household) was about $26,363.”

* “Just as Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek and Michael Polyani stressed that a market economy evolves to the point where it is very difficult to understand the overall interrelationships of production, so can the same be said for many branches of science.” This leaves space for Houellebecq novels and other works about modern alienation, since we often lack a sense of impact in an important way.

* This: “It will become increasingly apparent how much of current education is driven by human weakness, namely the inability of most students to simply sit down and try to learn something on their own” has long been apparent to me and probably to other teachers, and it is largely missing in a lot of the elite online technical discourse about education found on sites like Slashdot, Reddit, and Hacker News, where atypical, highly self-motivated people tend to congregate.

* I’m more skeptical of many conventional consulting firms than Cowen (discussed on page 42 – 44), and I see the proliferation of generic consulting firms employing 22 – 30 year olds with little industry experience as symptomatic of the problems in many very large employers—a symptom that may be cured by startups or other competitive means. Do large, well-run companies like Google hire consultants to present PowerPoints?

* “Some of what is going on in today’s global economy is a reorienting of economic activity toward where most of the people are, and obviously, most people live in Asia.” One way to make the U.S. stronger is to bring more people to the U.S., as Cowen says, but that is made difficult by political resentments, misunderstandings, and fears of the other. We are still a highly tribal species.

* “When it comes to technology, progress is usually good, but gradual progress is usually better.” That’s because gradual progress lets people adjust. I’d also ask where, and on what timescales, rapid progress ends and gradual process begins.

Links: Generational gaps, dating apps, writing and dreaming, tech intellectuals, and more

* “How Anthony Weiner Exposed the Insecurities of the 1960s Generation: A half-century after the sexual revolution, the make-your-own-rules folks are no longer quite so sold on free love.” This has Camille Paglia-esque overtones.

* Dating app Tinder catches fire.

* Conversations with John le Carré.

* “An Aspiring Scientist’s Frustration with Modern-Day Academia: A Resignation.”

* Margaret Atwood on books.

* “The Tech Intellectuals;” perhaps I am one?

* “The Patriarchy Is Dead Feminists, accept it.”

* More on the fight between science and philosophy, except that science wins so soundly that characterizing the debate as a “fight” is silly.

* ‘Think About Characters Like a Sphere’: How John Cheever Wrote Inner Turmoil.

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