But What If We’re Wrong? Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past — Chuck Klosterman

But What If We’re Wrong? is consistently delightful in both sentence and idea quality: the chapters are full of astute observations, like “Something becomes truly popular when it becomes interesting to those who don’t particularly care.” Klosterman’s example here is football and that is indeed a winning way to describe football in U.S. culture (though see here for one account of how football may decline); I don’t care about football and perhaps unsurprisingly I select for friends who don’t really care about it, yet in January I went to a friend’s apartment for he Superbowl anyway because other friends who also didn’t care about football were going. On some level this makes no sense yet we did it anyway.

but what if were wrongReality TV has that quality too, and Klosterman discusses it in another chapter. I don’t care about it either, though it has spawned one amazing TV show (UnREAL), at least one excellent novel (Arts & Entertainments), along with lots and lots of good articles. Reality TV producers probably have a better grasp of human psychology than most psychologists. It’s also arguably affected the way people use Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, and the plethora of other tools we have to broadcast our fabulous, highly edited lives in the sun and exotic locales and so forth. The Real World got to the unreality of living in front of cameras before the rest of us did.

Speaking of the unreal world, the most striking thing to me is the gap between the Facebook faces of the people I know well and the private conversations with those same people, since the former is inevitably sunny and the latter contains the usual set of human challenges and feelings, which are repressed or distorted by reality TV. For good reason, I might add: the makers of those programs are building specific media properties for entertainment purposes. They know their business well, and their job is to present a specific kind of information system that may or may not be “real,” much the way my job is to write a specific kind of information system that may or may not be real.

The preceding two paragraphs are mostly digression, but they are digression that may feel somewhat like a Klosterman digression. Klosterman makes one think and makes one want to have a beer with him. He makes me want to write more and better. Not all of the chapters are equally strong—the one that starts out with comments about the role of dreaming particularly stands out in this respect, and I also have found discussions about the simulation hypothesis boring since I first heard them. But the overall effect is to make one think and to make one think something apart from the usual battle lines and lines of thought one hears, and that is valuable in itself.

There are many other excellent facets to the book, which feels like the cleverest conversation you’ve ever had rather than a slog through tedious ideas. There are some predecessors—”What You Can’t Say” also wonders what the present will look like centuries from now, and it asks:

It seems to be a constant throughout history: In every period, people believed things that were just ridiculous, and believed them so strongly that you would have gotten in terrible trouble for saying otherwise.

Is our time any different? To anyone who has read any amount of history, the answer is almost certainly no. It would be a remarkable coincidence if ours were the first era to get everything just right.

So if you believe everything you’re “supposed” to believe, you’re probably doing something wrong (if you believe nothing that you’re “supposed” to believe, you’re probably also doing something wrong, or simply cannot operate in a society that depends on some level of order and coordination). I think Klosterman would agree, although if he said so explicitly I missed it. He does set up the book this way:

What about ideas that are so accepted and internalized that we’re not even in a position to question their fallibility? These ideas are so ingrained in the collective consciousness that it seems fool-hardy to even wonder if they’re potentially untrue.

The ideas that are so accepted are of course the ones we need to question.

Klosterman also recalls the history of failed predictions; my favorite is Paul Ehrlich, who, in 1968, wrote a book called The Population Bomb, about how over-population would annihilate the world; in Klosterman’s words, summarizing Ehrlich, “we should currently be experiencing a dystopian dreamscape where ‘survivors envy the dead,’ which seem true only when I look at Twitter” (that last clause is a good sample of Klosterman’s humor). As most of outside of Syria know, the living do not for the most part envy the dead, growth has continued, and on an inflation-adjusted basis commodities are cheaper than they’ve ever been. We’re on the verge of an energy revolution in which a combination of solar, wind, and nuclear energy will reduce our carbon footprint, while electric cars should dramatically reduce the flow of oil money that is currently propping up despotic regimes like those in Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Iran.

Those predictions are off. So are many predictions about who and what will matter in literature, music, and art. The cultural world of 2016 looks wildly different than the cultural world of 1950, 1900, or 1850, and all of those periods had artistic priorities and worlds vastly different from today’s. As we look backwards from today, the things we find valuable then are different than many of the things that people found valuable at the time. That implies that the cultural world of 2050 or 2100 will probably be different than the world of today, rendering many of our present values and works moot, but in ways that we probably can’t predict, and, “In fact, it often seems like our collective ability to recognize electrifying genius as it occurs paradoxically limits the likelihood of future populations certifying that genius as timeless.”

Wow.

So far this essay has only discussed a small part of But What If We’re Wrong. There’s much much more. It’s one of the best books I’ve read recently.

Briefly noted: The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind of the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia — Michael Booth

The Almost Nearly Perfect People is fun and not too doctrinaire, which is part of what makes it fun; I also have a weakness for cross-cultural books in which person from country A shows up in country B and talks about whatever.

almost_nearly_perfectBooth tells us that at one point at least Scandinavia was not the land of almost nearly perfect people, because “At one point in the 1860s, a tenth of all immigrants arriving in the United States were from Scandinavia.” It is hard to say what that says about this point, however. I would’ve liked more discussions about immigration and emigration, because revealed preferences are more interesting than what people say (and it turns out that the same Scandinavians who vote for high taxes will evade them when possible).

Unusual facts abound in the book, although I haven’t checked the truthfulness of those facts, like “More than 754,000 Danes aged between fifteen and sixty-four—over 20 percent of the working population—do not work whatsoever and are supported by generous unemployment or disability benefits.” From this, we can maybe conclude that perhaps one good reason to try to concentrate disability and related benefits at the state level in the U.S. is to let people vote with their feet (and their votes) more easily than they might elsewhere.

Still, despite paragraphs like the above, we also find that

there is little doubt, Denmark is becoming a two-tier country. More and more Danes who can afford it are turning to private health care—850,000 at the latest count—and poll after poll shows that, though they have the largest per capita public sector in the world, the Danes’ satisfaction levels with their welfare state are in rapid decline.

There appear to be few ways of correcting problems with public-sector satisfaction. Still, Booth says few Danes complain about taxes. We also find sections about “elves” in Iceland, drinking throughout the countries, a passion for historical re-enactment,

In some ways Scandinavian countries are more like the U.S. than is commonly portrayed. For example, Norway has its own, equally intellectually incoherent Donald Trump-like party:

[The Progress Party] started out in the early seventies as an anti-tax movement. Today, it is run on a hybrid right-win/welfare-state platform of a type which can seem quite odd from a UK or US perspective, blending as it does calls for increased public spending, with emphasis on care for the elderly, together with more conventionally right-wing fear-mongering about non-Western immigrants.

Old people vote, want to take working people’s money, and fear change (immigrants are one manifestation of change). Parties that want to stay in power must appeal to the elderly, and the average age of the population is creeping upwards in virtually every developed country. We’ll see more Progress Parties and Trumps. In Norway, the Progress Party is particularly vituperative about Muslims; in the U.S., Trump is particularly vituperative about Hispanics. Presumably hysterical fear mongering works best when the Other is close enough to get riled up about. Yet, as Booth points out, Muslims identify as perhaps three percent of the Norwegian population.

There is probably too much generalization from stories, sensational, or the mundane in The Almost Nearly Perfect People, but that can be forgiven.

It’s not a book I can imagine wanting to re-read.

Here is a review about “The Nordic Theory of Everything” by Anu Partanen, and I suspect the review is better than the book. Here is my essay “People vote with their feet, and also the U.S. is not Sweden.” Here is “Denmark’s Nice, Yes, But Danes Live Better in U.S.,” which hits related ideas.

Moving On — Larry McMurtry

Moving On is at least twice as long as it ought to be and probably longer. Which is a shame, because there’s a pretty good book waiting, even wanting to get out, but it’s hidden. Even its author seems to be aware of its flaws. In the introduction he writes:

A rather puzzling thing to me, as I look through the book today, is that it contains so many rodeo scenes. Few novels, then or ever, have attempted to merge the radically incongruent worlds of graduate school and rodeo. I am now completely at a loss to explain why I wished to attempt this.

That “puzzling thing” remains to this reader. In that introduction he also says something odd:

In the late fifties, with no war on, the romance of journalism tarnished, the romance of investment banking yet to flower, graduate school was where many of the liveliest people chose to tarry while deciding what to do next.

moving_onI take McMurtry’s word that “many of the liveliest people” chose grad school at that time, but by the time I started that time had long since vanished and no memory or residue of it remained.

So why read it, or more importantly, why finish it? The novel’s dialogue is often excellent and a a keen sense of humor runs through. In the grad school section we get incongruity like this:

There was a keen look of concentration on [Clara’s] face as she considered William Duffin. Hank had seen the same look on her face the day before when she was trying to decide whether to do her Chaucer paper on the “Knight’s Tale” or the “Prioress’s Tale.” She reached out and held his genitals, still thinking.

That shift in moods from cerebral to carnal is characteristic, as the novel likes to juxtapose mind and body, high and low, love and indifference.

Moving On is also a time capsule. It was published in 1970 and is set in the ’50s or early ’60s. Some problems that seem contemporary have a long pedigree; for example, “vacations” have been awful for children for a long time:

Every other year her parents would decide to go west and would bundle her and her sister Miri into a Cadillac and spend two or three weeks hurrying between scenic spots while the girls read comic books or Nancy Drew mysteries and waited irritably for the Grand Canyon or some other redeeming wonder to appear.

Or, to take another example, Patsy narrates, “She had read a lot about loneliness and knew it was one of the great problems of modern life, but it had never been very real to her” (393). That ought to sound familiar to anyone who’s read 2000’s Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Or anyone who’s read the New York Times, which is filled with stories about loneliness and the loss of community and so forth.* The interesting thing to me is not the stories about loneliness but the technologies that we often blame for loneliness. I wonder if instead the loneliness comes from within us.

The narrative of ceaseless social and technological change is attractive, but it’s also less true than is commonly assumed.

Moving On is also unusual in that it portrays the boring, discontented parts of marriage and long-term relationships. At one moment Patsy is stuck out on the road with her boring husband Jim, and “She felt cramped and sat with her back against her door, her legs on the seat, the soles of her feet pressed against Jim’s leg. There was nothing to do but watch the distances, gray and wavery with heat, and so endless.” She’s talking about the car trip, but she’s talking about more than that, too. Outside of Mating in Captivity I’ve rarely read those kinds of stories in Patsy’s tone.

Unfortunately, the novel comes to seem “gray and wavery” and “so endless,” at almost 800 reasonably dense pages. It’s like a guest that outstays his welcome. A pity. Much of it is acutely felt and observed. Its length, though, makes it a curiosity more than a must-read.


* Search for the string “loneliness site:nytimes.com” and you’ll find many, many examples. Like: “How Loneliness Can Make You Sick — and Might Even Kill You,” which could have a few dates and words changed and still be the sort of thing Patsy read decades ago.

Briefly noted: Undone — John Colapinto

Undone is okay and “John Colapinto Revives the Male-Centric Literary Sex Novel” got me to read it, but the novel is not particularly literary, not particularly sex-obsessed or even interested, and not even all that male-centric. So be prepared to be underwhelmed. I hate to recommend my own work, but if Undone seems remotely appealing to you try The Hook instead.

Undone is not really a page-turner like Gone Girl (and like the blurbs promise). Except among a small crowd of social justice warriors and English professors, it is not really scandalous. Still, like Gone Girl it does challenge the oddly dominant cultural narrative that women are pure and don’t do awful things and don’t manipulate others (including the media) by pandering to victimhood, and in this sense the novel does unsettle slightly contemporary New York Times and NPR thinking. That—not the sex itself, or the desire itself—is what the publishing machinery is talking about when it’s talking about the supposed scandal in Undone. The real discomfort is the challenging of the relentless victimhood narrative; that’s also how it’s like Francine Prose’s Blue Angel functions. Except Blue Angel is narratively more interesting and less obsessed with self loathing. Both do have writer-protagonists. Here’s Jasper, in Undone:

Typing fast, he began to sketch in the villain’s background, tracing his motivations to a childhood of deprivation and cruelty in an orphanage; he started to write notes on the grieving family, conceiving of them as a wealthy clan with deep New England roots. Freed from the agonizing writer’s block that had stalled him for weeks, Jasper wrote rapturously, without pause, stopping only when he heard the ringing of the doorbell.

The scene is very functional, but it’s hard to choose really evocative passages from the book.

I’ve heard guys say variations on the crude phrase, “No pussy is worth prison.” Undone maybe endorses this idea.

Should you read it? Maybe. As it is, reading about this wet rag flopping about is not quite satisfying, and the novel’s antagonists are not as brilliantly nasty as Amy in Gone Girl.

I want all the characters to be weirder and more obsessed and hazier and more like a fairy tale and more willing to go all the way. To be hard core. Being hard core is what’s admirable about a book like The Sexual Life of Catherine M. by Catherine Millet. That book has some flaws that numerous critics noted at the time it was released. But it remains essentially literary and essentially hard core in a way most smut isn’t, and that’s what keeps it in the front of the mind when weaker novels are forgotten.

Based on this one I’d read the next Colapinto novel.

Briefly Noted: Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything — Jennifer Keishin Armstrong

The book is charming and I’m glad I finished, but keep your expectations low. It never proves the assertion in its subtitle and has way too many sections of limited interest about how Seinfeld fared in this time slot or that one or how it competed with forgotten shows (What is Mad About You? again?). Don’t stop reading after the first five pages, which are oddly weak.

seinfeldiaStill, as a case study in creative organization and the risks of not taking risks it’s good. Jerry Seinfeld’s interest in comedy also extends deeply into the past (in college he “wrote a forty-page paper” on comics’ approaches and in his own practice he “tape-recorded his routines, then analyzed them to improve by the next night”). The practice of practice is still underrated. Armstrong writes that when Seinfeld was getting started, “NBC was finishing up its fifth season in first place among the four major networks. It could afford to gamble.” But every non-monopoly organization must gamble: If the last-place network is not doing well, it too must gamble on trying something different if it has already failed at doing the same thing. The worst gamble in virtually every domain except legalized gambling is not gambling.

The NBC line seems like a throwaway, and I wonder if Armstrong did not fully think about its implications and what it means. If she didn’t, that’s okay; neither did the TV executives who wanted to copy Seinfeld’s success without recognizing what went into it:

When [writer] Mehlman went out into the “real world” beyond Seinfeld’s office walls, he found that everyone in television wanted “the next Seinfeld, but they didn’t want to take any of the chances necessary to make such a thing.” They wanted Seinfeld money, but they seemed to resent Seinfeld itself for breaking the rules of television.

Being truly individual is hard. Real gambles are hard. The rhetoric of risk is more attractive than the practice of it. That’s why so many works exhort risk and individuality (like Zero to One) relative to people actually practicing it. I don’t exclude myself from this analysis.

Oh, and one other vital point about organizations: they suffer when their constituent parts seek status more than they do the things they need to do. Larry David eventually left Seinfeld. During the ninth season, “The writers were working most of their waking hours and jostling for power; Seinfeld was writing, producing, and starring; and the main cast members just barely got what they felt they deserved to be paid.” That phrase, “jostling for power” is key. It seems a symptom of organizations past their peak. Facebook tries to minimize office politics. Microsoft brutally encouraged it for many years via its ill-conceived “stack rank” system.

What people do around you matters. Peter Mehlman, Seinfeld’s most important writer apart from Seinfeld himself and Larry David, “moved to Los Angeles from New York in 1989 for a change of scenery,” and “he thought he should take a shot at scriptwriting, since everyone around him was doing it.” There is a propensity to do what everyone around you do does. If you’re in San Francisco you do startups. If you’re caught up among book people you write books. If you’re in L.A. and you write, you write scripts. This implies that you should choose your environment and peer group with greater care than many people (including me) do. People and place exert more influence than we commonly want to imagine. You are not a monad.

Most of the Seinfeld principals justifiably disliked L.A. For Jason Alexander, “In L.A., a veneer of fake niceness covered everything, and it drove him crazy.” By the end of the show, Seinfeld says that he’s “had enough of Los Angeles” and that “I always say that Los Angeles is like Vegas, except the losers stay in town.”

People not intimately familiar Seinfeld should skip Seinfeldia. I wonder if we’ll get a similar treatment for Friends, since, allegedly, Friends is the 20-year-old show that 20-somethings love, according to the possibly bogus trend piece “Is ‘Friends’ Still the Most Popular Show on TV? Why so many 20-somethings want to stream a 20-year-old sitcom about a bunch of 20-somethings sitting around in a coffee shop.” As with most “What those darn kids are up to these days?” stories, it’s difficult or impossible to gauge its accuracy. Still, the appearance of streaming services “compresses” the historical timeline of TV and movies by making many more shows and movies available easily than was the case.

There are jokes, as you’d expect, like “Larry David was what’s known as a comic’s comic, an acquired taste, ‘which means I sucked,’ he often said.” But being funny, even about a funny show, is hard. That’s why Jerry Seinfeld spends his life studying funny.

Here is a decent interview with Armstrong.

Briefly noted: Sweetbitter — Stephanie Danler

You may have read about Sweetbitter, which is a resolutely okay novel that you should not even consider unless you’ve already read and liked Kitchen Confidential and Love Me Back, both of which cover kitchen and restaurant stories (from page 9 of Sweetbitter: “When I got there they told me a lot of stories” about restaurants, Union Square, and New York). Like many New York novels, it has a masturbatory, self-important, and inward-gazing feel. Many of New York’s structural problems can be traced back to Matt Yglesias’s excellent book The Rent Is Too Damn High, but of course none of the characters in literary fiction ever read or know anything beyond what they themselves immediately experience.

sweetbitterYou will find many ridiculous lines like, “in New York City there are absolutely no rules.” The sort of lines that, spoken on a reality TV show, the literati would condescend to, justifiably, but here, in this package, it’s literature, or the sort of novel that makes literary moves. Maybe I’m unfair and the things that are profound or profound-seeming at 22 are different than the things that are profound or profound-seeming later. But there is too much, “Do you know what it means to be a server?” too much concern about “totems of who I was.”

There is also oddly little sex in a novel with too little else to recommend it. The protagonist, Tess, chases her own personal Mr. Big (although his name is appealingly Jake), and the results can either be predictable or more fairy tale than gritty realism.

I didn’t consciously realize until reading this novel and talking to a friend in the restaurant industry that the industry only really works for its employees if or when the employees get pre-tax food subsidies from other restaurants. Let me explain. Many mid- and high-end restaurant workers have an implicit or explicit deal you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours in which they give other “industry” people free food / booze, the value of which can probably add up to thousands of dollars a year, all of it untaxed. Since restaurant industry profits are notoriously low (some estimates are as low as 1 – 4%), some of the pay that would otherwise need to go to servers who’d get taxed on that pay instead goes to them in the form of food. And they expect that favor returned: On Monday you go to Joe’s restaurant, and on Tuesday people from Joe’s go to yours.

Still, it’s not worth reading the novel for that insight. It’s dubiously worth reading a novel with disconnected ejaculations like this all over the page:

“Appetite is not a symptom,” Simone said when I complained of being hungry. “It cannot be cured. It’s a state of being, and like most, has its attendant moral consequences.”

Okay, that’s deep, but so what?

There are good sentences, but they don’t add up to much. I neither regretted finishing nor skimming the second half. When people complain about “MFA fiction,” Sweetbitter is what they’re talking about. I’ll read the next thing Danler writes.

The Voyeur’s Motel — Gay Talese

The real lesson of The Voyeur’s Motel is not how depraved most people are, but rather how boring they are. In the story, Gerald Foos gets his start as a teenage voyeur by watching his aunt Katheryn “for five or six years,” and while she spent much time nude most of that time was spent “at her dressing table arranging her collection of porcelain miniature dolls from Germany, or her valuable collection of thimbles.” Who knew there even was or is such thing as a “valuable collection of thimbles?”

voyeursmotelMost of the people Foos observes over decades in his hotel are little more interesting; the epigraph to The Voyeur’s Motel could be that famous quote from Walden, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Except that most of the individuals and couples Foos observes seem not to know enough to even feel desperation. Instead, to the extent they have or show feelings, they seem to be consumed with petty bickering and bullshit. The number who are luminously full seem small.

Consider the preceding two paragraphs in light of complaints about smart phones and laptops and the Internet relentlessly distracting us, or Internet dating making us flightier or more demanding of partners or more likely to break up. Maybe smartphone distraction is a big improvement on what on preceded it, on arranging porcelain miniature dolls or thimbles. In 1980 Talese goes into the attic and spies on people staying in the hotel:

As I looked through the slats, I saw mostly unhappy people watching television, complaining about minor physical ailments to one another, making unhappy references to the jobs they had, and constant complaints about money and the lack of it, the usual stuff that people say every day to one another, if they’re married or otherwise in cohabitation, but is never reported upon or thought about much beyond the one-on-one relationship. To me, without the Voyeur’s charged anticipation of erotic activity, it was tedium without end, the kind acted out in a motel room by normal couples every day of the year, for eternity.

The things that people consider to be pleasures are also sometimes odd, as Foos says:

My observations indicate that the majority of vacationers spend their time in misery. They fight about money; where to visit; where to eat; where to stay; all their aggressions are somehow immeasurably increased, and this is the time they discover they are not properly matched [. . .] Vacations produce all the anxieties within mankind to come forward during this time, and to perpetuate the worst of emotions.

That’s been my experience, and I wonder if people do them anyway to say they’ve done them, or imagine the best parts of them. Maybe many of us would be better off if, as Rebecca Shuman suggests, more people took her advice in “Alone, Together: To avoid travel stress and major arguments, more couples should vacation together but fly alone.”

Is it real? Hard to say. Talese notes:

Indeed, over the decades since we met, in 1980, I had noticed various inconsistencies in his story: for instance, the first entries in his Voyeur’s Journal are dated 1966,m but the deed of sale for the Manor House, which I obtained recently from the Arapahoe County Clerk and Recorder’s Office, shows that he purchased the place in 1969. And there are other dates in his notes and journals that don’t quite scan.

“Don’t quite scan” may be an understatement. On June 30, Talese actually “disavowed” The Voyeur’s Motel:

Talese overlooked a key fact in his book: Foos sold the motel, located in Aurora, Colo., in 1980 and didn’t reacquire it until eight years later, according to local property records. His absence from the motel raises doubt about some of the things Foos told Talese he saw.

Still: Talese did see the hotel. He later walked back his disavowal. I’m a great believer in the power of fiction and the power of people to make shit up, but even by that standard making up the shit that Foos writes seems unlikely. I guess it to be more real than not real. It seems likely that no one will know.

Given the volume of material, The Voyeur’s Motel is oddly short. This long New Yorker article gives you much of the content and flavor. Still, do not listen to the negative reviews so far, which have mostly been uselessly negative and/or focused on the perceived ethics of the book; almost all of those articles about mostly about the author’s need to perform signaling and status functions, rather than the book itself.

As with Thy Neighbor’s Wife, people expecting nonstop prurience will be disappointed. In some ways the book can productively be read in conjunction with The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, since Goffman’s book is about the social, public self and Talese’s book is about the private, supposedly unobserved and sexual self. To me and, I suspect, many readers and writers of novels the latter is more interesting and less likely to be foreseen.

The Voyeur’s Motel comes back over and over again to the need to reliever torpor. The first quotes are from the start of the book; around the midpoint we get this:

Ordinary life is boring, [Foos] concluded, not for the first time; no wonder that is always a big market for make believe: staged dramas, films, works of fiction, and also the legalized mayhem inherent in sports…

That most people do not try harder to alleviate boredom is an unsolved problem—perhaps most people don’t perceive boredom as Foos does, or they feel powerless, or both. Foos’ second wife is not immune. After retirement, she “devoted much of her free time to alphabetizing his millions of sports cards.” The sports cards are Foos’ thimbles.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,990 other followers

%d bloggers like this: