Briefly noted: Inadvertent, Normal People, and Un-wifeable

* Inadvertent (Why I Write), by Karl Ove Knausgaard: Lots of subtle ideas in this one, and those ideas have been stated before, but they’re stated well here: “Literature is not primarily a place for truths, it is the space where truths play out. For the answer to the question —that I write because I am going to die – to have the intended effect, for it to strike one as truth, a space must first be created in which it can be said. That is what writing is: creating a space in which something can be said.” I’m not sure about the run-on in the first sentence, but the idea that literature not being about “truths” (plural), but about being “the space where truths play out” seems accurate: once you get away from the hard truths of math and physics, and get into the squishy contingent truths of jostling human societies, there isn’t “a” truth—there are a bunch of them, many rivalrous with one another, and part of art is the wrangling of those truths.

Finnegans Wake and Mallarmé are mentioned on one page (63), Game of Thrones (64) the next. Why does he keep watching? For emotional ideas, yes, but, also, “What we seek in art is meaning.” Are we seeking that in social media, too? Is Twitter art? Why or why not? The problem with talking about art is that it generates infinitely more talk about art. Or maybe that’s a solution. This book has lots of truths, or, if they’re not truths, idea-generating statements.

* Normal People, by Sally Rooney: It’s a much better book than the first one, Conversations with Friends

There’s much about social power in the novel—”If she wanted, she could make a big show of saying hello to Connell in school. See you this afternoon, she could say, in front of everyone. Undoubtedly it would put him in an awkward position, which is the kind of thing she usually seems to enjoy. But she has never done it,” but most of that social power goes unused. If the protagonists could care less about what other people, who they don’t care about, think of them, they’d get on quite well, but there’d also not be a novel. The bits observing adolescence are sharp, like “Marianne had the sense that her real life was happening somewhere very far away.” “Real life” gets mentioned four times. “Weird” gets used 32 times: there’s nothing worse in modern upwardly mobile life than being “weird,” it seems. I found myself drifting back to thoughts of Peter Thiel’s book Zero To One, where he speculates that part of the reason successful startup founders often are on or seem to be on the autism spectrum is because that enables them to ignore what other people think and pursue novel ideas other people make fun of. Learning to ignore other people might be a very useful skill in a massive, globally connected world where one can come into contacted with ignorant strangers constantly—including the ignorant strangers at school.

Normal People‘s climax—this is not giving anything substantial away—involves Connell getting into an MFA program, no doubt expensive, in New York. It’s like watching the student loan monster, holding a knife, creep up on the protagonist in a Stephen King: Connell is going to end up being 30, with a bunch of degrees but no assets or marketable skills, like many thousands of other “bright” people of his age and class. Somehow, I think this climax is supposed to be a triumph, rather than a tragedy. No one seems to understand that accumulating pricey degrees in one’s 20s is not necessarily a thing to aspire to. It was, maybe, 30 or 40 years ago, but the world has changed.

I read another novel, The Glass House, in which student loans are among the villains, and the student loans that plague so many people of my generation mirror the ponzi scheme propelling and perpetrated by Jonathan Alkaitis. That’s a more realistic depiction of the academic system. In The Glass House, Alkaitis’s job is fraud and Vincent’s job is sex work, although being a trophy wife is never quite described as such. They’re both good novels, but Normal People feels like a fairy tale—not because of love’s triumph, or maybe adulthood’s triumph but because of institutional arrangements, while The Glass House feels grittily real; student loans and attitudes towards schools are the key differentiators.

At the end of Normal People, Marianne is brushing the knots from her hair, but really she’s trying to brush the knots out of her life—which is probably impossible, but worth attempting.

* Un-wifeable by Mandy Stadtmiller: Being at the edges of the celebrity economy sounds really unpleasant—even being in the center doesn’t sound real pleasant. Lots of celebrities have said and written as much, but somehow it sinks in more here, when we’re seeing the sort of person who writes the pointlessly mean celebrity takedowns. The persons doing the takedowns have something poisonous in their own lives and souls, naturally, and Un-wifeable is, among other things, a chronicle of the poison. I have my problems, but next to Stadtmiller’s stories they seem minor.

Some of the lessons are obvious, like “getting drunk is also often bad, particularly around strangers who don’t wish you well.” And not only for Stadtmiller: “How many times have I said cruel things—including to my ex-husband—that I may not even remember because I was in a rage blackout? I need to turn everything around. I cannot continue this cycle of victimization.” One admirable part of this memoir is that Stadtmiller doesn’t primarily cast herself as a victim, which she could have; the temptation was probably there, but she resisted.

New York has no glamor in Un-wifeable, unless perhaps you recognize the various celebrities named. Stadtmiller finishes her decade or so in the city with tons of credit card debt and no family, although she doesn’t seem to want the former and does seem to want the latter. I don’t understand how Stadtmiller drinks as much as she does and writes, though, to be fair I don’t understand how Fitzgerald or Hemingway did either. Drinking and writing are incompatible for me.

A lot of Stadtmiller’s stories are about the downsides of no boundaries. People, and especially children, need boundaries and connections. Stadtmiller lacks the former and that impedes the latter. Her parents are unconventional, to the point that they’ve “studied at the Esalen Institute, birthplace of the human potential movement,” like characters in a Houellebecq novel. Did you read “A Bellow From France” carefully? Have you read Houellebecq? Stadtmiller is a female Houellebecq character, except that instead of giving up and shrugging, she still cares and is struggling against herself (“The column affords me the perfect way to superficially seek love while never exploring the more difficult questions about what true love for oneself and others really takes.”) As a culture, I don’t think we want to explore “the more difficult questions.” I don’t, mostly.

One takeaway might be, “Don’t move to New York if marriage and family are important to you.” Obviously people in New York get married and have families, but the city is not geared for that, and Stadtmiller is pushing against the hardest gear to get herself uphill. Ideally one chooses to do a hard thing the easiest one way can, rather than attempting to do a hard thing made harder by environment.

What’s happening in the hospitals?

And not just in the emergency rooms and intensive care units:

Doctors learn the business of the body, not the business of medicine. But modern health care is an industry with a bottom line measured in dollars, not wellness. As we train, we’re told to “stay in our lane”—an important lane, to be sure—and just worry about being good healers. The rest, the pesky business of how the wheel turns, can be managed by the rapidly expanding pool of administrators. In “staying in our lane,” we don’t feel the insidious ways the business of medicine has eroded the value of the doctor-patient relationship. Instead, patients have become a commodity and physicians a cog. We’re blind to the chaos and danger around us. We might note how focused administrators are on metrics of efficiency and patient satisfaction scores, even if efficiency doesn’t mean quality, and higher patient satisfaction scores are linked to higher overall mortality rate. But we’re hired to provide the services approved by the hospital, and insurers, which is frequently not to our own standards of patient care.

I see this dynamic continuing in the midst of the COVID crisis. As hospitals and politicians continue calling for help in public, the rhetoric has been that there are too few doctors to manage the crisis. They said this even as doctors were fired or told to leave midshift for wearing their own protective equipment. Colleagues who were pointing out dangerous practices for both employees and patients were asked or pressured into leaving. Colleagues who were lower risk and looking for fairly paid work were passed over because other health care workers—who were made to believe there were no other doctors available to work—were being brought in as unpaid labor. They were told there was no money to be found, despite high reported revenues and administrative salaries in the multimillions.

Much more at the link; look for the April 17 entry, which is the most substantive part.

Links: History of computing companies, marginalia, Orwell, demographics, computers, and more!

* Compaq and coronavirus.

* On writing in books, which has a great opening: “If a new book is a monologue, a used book is a conversation. Underline a passage or write a note in the margin and you have left a message for future readers, or for future versions of yourself.”

* Orwell: The cant hunter. Genuinely independent thought seems to have been rare then and still seems to be rare today.

* The trials of Sarah Longwell, a never-Trump Republican. I admire her tenacity. See also the link immediately above about the rarity of independent thought.

* Everything you wear is athleisure?

* Aging and the Demographic Transition. Underpopulation is likely the real challenge going forward, not overpopulation.

* New Macbook Air is a fine, good, and boring update. The price drop is nice.

* “The endless hunt for the perfect flu vaccine: We’ve seen off smallpox, polio and measles – so why does a truly reliable flu jab still elude us?” Most of us probably imagined a flu pandemic, not a coronavirus pandemic, and, if we are lucky, one legacy of the pandemic will be that we take vaccine research far more seriously—and fund it far better.

* “Trump Has Broken the Republican Party—and Conservatism—for Good. There is no going back.” I hope not: I am so old that I can remember the days when “Republic intellectual” was not an oxymoron.

* The Precipice. I ordered a copy. Looks good and reminds me of The Ends of the World, an excellent book you should read if you’ve not already.

* Why the US will outcompete China.

* The erosion of deep literacy, found in an unexpected place.

* “‘Scared to Death’ by Arbitration: Companies Drowning in Their Own System.”

* On novelist Robert Stone. I read one of his late novels and didn’t love but will give some of the earlier ones a shot. Late Elmore Leonard is not his best and some of his late books are ridiculous.

* On the movie Chinatown and the larger culture around it.

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