Monday, February 27, 2006

Alzheimer's and Mind Games

I read a story in the Washington Post about the link between mental and physical activity and Alzheimer's. The subtitle was "Can Exercise and Mind Games Help?" The article quoted various studies which encourage the elderly to engage in "mentally stimulating activities." Examples? "These may involve doing logic puzzles like Sudoku, reading an entire newspaper daily or going to a museum." I've read several articles like this, and whenever they prescribe mental activity for the elderly, the first items on the list are always games and reading: "Brain-stimulating activities such as newspaper-reading, card games, puzzles and draughts."

It's astonishing what casual contempt this betrays for the elderly, as well as how little we seem to expect from our own later years. The assumption is that, after retiring, older people have absolutely no purposeful activity that they might want to engage in. The mind, therefore, must be fooled into exerting itself, like a hamster running on a wheel. Further, the intellect is not supposed to be used in service of an engagement with life -- the articles never recommend using what one hopes is accumulated wisdom to interact with society, to create something, to work on any of the problems that a younger person might tackle; instead, the old are advised to manipulate numbers and letters with the sole purpose of warding off dementia.

In the second page of the Washington Post article, there is a passage about "hybrid" activities (a combination of the "mental and the social"), by which I gathered that the author meant actual living as opposed to doing the jumble. Apparently, actual living has a very positive impact on quality of life -- who knew? "Activities that seemed to confer more protection included political and cultural involvement, attending courses, going to the theater or concerts, traveling, being engaged in charity or church activities, and playing music with others." Intriguing. So they're saying that an elderly person who decides to act like her life might still be worth using -- to enjoy beauty, affect society, or learn something -- is conferring "more protection" on herself than someone nudging her brain with the daily Sudoku? Quite the bonus.

The mind game suggestion is all part of modern society's habit of addressing serious problems purely by treating the symptoms. The central problem is always ignored, or dismissed as unfixable. A lifestyle that includes virtually no purposeful physical exertion, with all of the attendant problems? Suggestion: go the gym, lift weights, play games, take vitamins.

The serious problem in this case is that our society, unlike most of its predecessors, has no real vital place for the old; we admit as much when we imply that a puzzle is the only mental activity they are likely to have on a daily basis. And although I'm sure there are plenty of complicated factors at work (some person, who has caused me a great deal of inconvenience, told me that Alzheimer's is caused mainly by aluminum pots and pans) I think it is basically true that when a person feels that he is pretty much done with life, his mind and body will follow. And I can't imagine that our society is doing anything but encouraging this capitulation in the elderly when its suggestions for better living focus largely on the diligent pursuit of the pointless.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Hillary Frey's review of The Best People in the World, by Justin Tussing

I have not actually read Justin Tussing's book. I did, however, read Hillary Frey's review of this book in Salon, and would like to quote a part of it, just to demonstrate the kind of writing that seems to impress reviewers nowadays. In a gushing review, Frey declares that the real reason to read this book is its prose:
It is very rare to find a novel so lovingly, deliberately and perfectly written that you want to read passages out loud to anyone who will listen, but this is that book. A raging fire "was like a beautiful television." As Thomas and Alice waste away, with little food, sex between them is "a collision of bones. The horns of our pelvises rasped." Describing Sonya, Thomas says, "her gaze was all boudoir, as if she believed that she would be forced to gift those minor fortunes of youth and prettiness to hungry, inexpressive men, for them to squander." On a cloudless day, "the sun was like a photograph of the sun." Even a grocery list is gorgeous: "A flour sack as big as a pillow ... A bucket of shortening ... Ricotta cheese. Cottage cheese. Cheddar from up the lake in Shelbourne."

There you have it. This is apparently prose that "glows." I would dismiss this as the work of an individual reviewer with bizarre taste, but there is just too much praise of this sort to be ignored.

These appear to be the rules for writing reviewer-friendly prose:

a) throw in figurative language when none is necessary (like a painter heaping layers of paint on a canvas, anxious to create depth)

b) compare things that have rarely, if ever, been compared

c) pile bold, dark, soft, rasping adjectives on top of each other until a lyrical effect is achieved

d) try to make some of these adjectives really surprising, and remember: don't worry about accuracy! A reader (or, at least, a reviewer) will be impressed that you even came up with such an off-the-wall word to use.

Let's look at some of these rules at work in Tussing's work. I am not sure how a fire looks like a beautiful television, but then again I am not sure which televisions are especially beautiful -- does he mean like a plasma screen? Maybe he's talking about beautiful images on a television. But usually those are just smaller versions of things in the real world. He also might be talking about those premium channels that are scrambled, like the porn channel that I could sort of decipher when I was in middle school. Scrambled channels sort of look like a fire, if there's a lot of yellow on the screen. That's the best I can do with that one.

Next: unusual words. "Collision of bones" is fine - it tells me everything I need to know about two really skinny, hungry people having sex. This isn't enough, though; Tussing wants to get the horns of their pelvises to rasp. Now, I am pretty skinny -- my pelvis horns jut right out there -- but I have never succeeded in getting them to rasp with anyone, no matter how hard I've tried. Have I just been with the wrong women? Maybe Tussing can tell me how it's done, but I doubt it.

Next: the borderline baffling. I know what "bedroom eyes" are -- but apparently that's too commonplace a phrase: her gaze has to be all boudoir, and this must be a very special kind of boudoir, because it's like "she believed that she would be forced to gift those minor fortunes of youth and prettiness to hungry, inexpressive men, for them to squander." Man, and I just thought she wanted to have sex! Now, much of this barely makes sense -- I'm really not sure why this girl believes that she is forced to gift something, since gifts are usually voluntary -- but I can appreciate "minor fortunes of youth and prettiness." The men are hungry -- which sounds fairly expressive to me -- but also inexpressive. And they're going to squander what she's giving them. This is some pair of eyes. Does anybody really believe that a human being can look into someone's eyes and see this? Just try to imagine that boudoir look for yourself. Maybe the narrator is a serial bullshitter, and Tussing is creating character, but Frey's certainly not presenting it that way.

Now, the actually good: "The sun was like a photograph of the sun." This does it for me. Everyone has seen pictures with the rays of a bright sun whiting out part of a picture, and it makes the idea of a sun on a cloudless day much more alive -- while also capturing the sense of nostalgia that the review made it seem was central to the story.

And finally, the completely mundane. This is more about Hillary Frey than all reviewers, but the inclusion of the "gorgeous" grocery list is truly bizarre. "A flour sack as big as a pillow ... A bucket of shortening ... Ricotta cheese. Cottage cheese. Cheddar from up the lake in Shelbourne." It is true that shortening does come in a bucket (sometimes in smaller "tubs" as well). Those are indeed two different kinds of cheese (I've actually eaten both!). And, yes, cheese does come from various places.

Let me try my hand at some gorgeous writing: "A sausage link as big as a baseball bat ... two cans of tuna ... a box of cereal ... fresh rye bread from a bakery down the street."

Is Tussing's book good? Maybe. Frey might have picked out the overwritten bits, because they are the only ones that can be quoted independently to impress an easily convinced reader. And there are great books that are badly written: Sister Carrie, for example. The difference is that I get the sense that Dreiser is caught up in his story, and can't be bothered with making his sentences pretty. So there are examples of incompetence in every paragraph, but the scenes still spring to life, and the whole book works.

Tussing, on the other hand, seems to be trying very hard to write well -- he probably spent ages on some of these sentences -- and with every strange comparison and contorted bit of syntax, he gets farther away from his story and whatever truth might be in it. If the book works, it will be in spite of this kind of writing, not because of it. And Frey says that the prose is the novel's "greatest draw" just before she starts quoting! God help a writer if lovely sentences are the main reason to read her book.

Anyway, it would not be worth going into this if the praise of bullshit was not so widespread, as B.R. Myers demonstrated pretty conclusively in "A Reader's Manifesto." This is the reason that even people who love to read will buy mediocre CDs and spend ten dollars on movies that they know in advance will be terrible before they will take a chance on a work of modern literary fiction. Well done, reviewers.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

What's the Matter With Kansas? by Thomas Frank

This is one of the many books that came out in the wake of President Bush’s second victory that told liberals why the country appearing to be going insane. Some of them comforted them that all of their opinions were perfect, but that they just needed to pitch them better; others were satisfied with insulting the people who voted for Bush.

The level of most liberal political discourse is extremely low at the moment—which is surprising, considering that the stakes seem so much higher than they have at any other point in my lifetime. This might be because this is a president who is not shitty in ways that require subtlety to detect; he is shitty right up front, and has managed to keep it up with impressive consistency.

Unfortunately, the people who would read a Bush-bashing book have already made up their minds, so they don’t really demand conclusive documentation or sober arguments — at this point, they just want to laugh a little, feel like they’re not alone, and possibly get some pleasure out of feeling smarter than the people that caused this mess.

Thomas Frank’s book falls pretty squarely between these two categories. The preaching-to-the-choir factor is extremely high. Then again, sometimes no one else is in the church. At their best, such books can give people a sense of why things might be going the way they’re going, and armed with knowledge they can hopefully plan the resurgence of their ideology. The bad ones just let them laugh at people and feel vindicated.

I’ve avoided the recent crop of political books (and movies) because they seem to fall exclusively in the latter category, but I read a lecture by Frank and became interested in his thesis. Basically, he said that America's conservative backlash has primarily been created by a series of cultural issues that have been selected essentially because they cannot actually be fixed by politicians, thereby allowing conservative politicians to continually stimulate the outrage of “ordinary Americans,” while not actually being forced to demonstrate achievements in the areas that they criticize.

He also points out the constant right-wing cries of victimization — things I often hear from my handful of conservative acquaintances — about the ubiquitous influence of the left-wing elite which, no matter how much power conservatives get, and how many branches of government they control, keeps trampling on the values of regular Americans.

He gives plenty of examples of politicians complaining about declining standards on television, rampant abortions, aggressive secularization, and liberal professors — all things that a Senator or Congressman absolutely cannot fix. (The President might be getting close on abortion, though.) All they can do is stir people up and make them angry that the country is going in the wrong direction. So middle and lower class voters keep electing the same people despite the fact that such politicians are usually bad for them economically: constantly favoring tax cuts on the wealthy, corporate deregulation, etc. etc.

This is unfortunately where the book fails to be satisfying for me. Frank mentions a lot of corporate corruption, layoffs, unsafe work conditions, and the destruction of small towns by places like WalMart. I’m with him on the corruption, but he absolutely fails to prove how the government could have saved the declining small towns that he talks about. Complaining (as usual) that WalMart has created sprawl and destroyed downtowns across the country, he never once puts forward a policy proposal: is the government supposed to ban WalMart from spreading to certain places? Does the simple fact that WalMart has created an America that is less aesthetically pleasing make it bad for people? Last time I checked, they were cheaper than most places.

Occasionally he’ll bother providing evidence — usually in the footnotes, by the way, which is a little annoying. For example, he illustrates how agribusiness, with the help of the government, forces down prices for the goods it buys, and then doesn’t bother passing the savings onto consumers, pretty much proving that it is an oligarchy. He demonstrates how often conservative politicians seem to think that “free-market” reforms are just doing whatever’s best for businesses, ignoring the fact that the market is only functioning freely when consumers pay the lowest viable price.

For the most part, though, he just assumes that any large corporation trying to keep costs down is in some way a criminal enterprise, and that policies that favor them are essentially robbing people. I am, by constitution, sympathetic to such positions — I would, really, love to believe this, but I need more than a guy walking through a ruined Kansas town to do it for me. (“Dixie Rising,” by the way, a largely forgotten book by Peter Applebome, was much better at describing both the pros and cons of type of jobs that industry brings to the South and Midwest. And it took the people in South a little more seriously than Frank takes these Kansans, as hard as he tries.)

Frank does have a prescription for the Democratic Party. He says that Clinton’s New Democrats reworked the party to make it more business-friendly, distancing it from the unions that had always been its base, and avoiding class-based rhetoric. Basically, this made them much less distinguishable from Republicans in the economic sphere, meaning that the main grounds for choosing one party or another became social issues and “values.” So basically, he wants the Democratic Party to return to its Social Democrat roots, but just assumes that the reader will agree with the Social Democrat platform.

So there is at least a new platform, allowing this book to fall in the higher end of the preaching-to-the-choir set of books. Usually well-written, although pretty much continuously sneering - which will annoy some people and gratify others - the book is good for a few laughs, a few shocks of recognition, and for all its flaws will at least force you to try to find some answers to the questions that Frank avoids.

Friday, February 17, 2006

The End of the Road, by John Barth

I read The Sot-Weed Factor in college and enjoyed it a great deal, but I don’t trust my taste from those days, and looking back it’s hard to see what I thought was so great: incessant clowning around with 18th century syntax, and a whole lot of dick jokes. Yeah, they’re both funny, but there didn’t seem to be much else holding the book up (and it’s 700 pages long), since most of the plot elements—I remember the scandalous hint of the brother-sister romance—seemed to be lifted from other places specifically for the purposes of parody. It was good, but there are plenty of things I would rather read for the third time before I pick that up again.

(There’s a hooker named Joan Toast, I remember. It thought that was a riot back when I read it.)

The End of the Road is better, I think, a lot better. The only other Barth I’ve read is some stories from Lost in the Funhouse, and I get the sense that he pretty much said everything he had to say about the human condition in his first couple of books, and then blasted off into his own little world of language games and baroque plots that exist for their own sake (that is, the way things work out doesn’t tell the reader anything about the way the artist looks at the world, where we’re headed, etc. It just whirls along, wringing a few laughs out of us, delighted with its own ingenuity, until finally it loses interest in itself and ends.)

This novel, however, is fairly short – just two-hundred pages long, a damn fine length. Its main character is Jacob Horner, who identifies himself as a “placid-depressive” – meaning that instead of having manic ecstasies alternating with deep gloom, he just has the gloom with “middle-register” highs. It’s a funny paragraph, but as far as I can tell it isn’t actually true; Horner doesn’t appear to be all that depressed in the book. Instead, he has crippling issues of inertia, where he finds no reason to do anything—move, eat, sleep—and remains motionless for hours at a time. (Something very similar to this happens in Mother Night, if I recall, but again, this is not he same as depression.)

Anyway, he is being treated by a doctor, whose advice includes getting a job. Horner gets a job at a university teaching grammar, befriends a professor and his wife there, and then sleeps with the wife for reasons that are pretty unclear to everyone, including the woman. Most of the novel deals with the fallout from this incident. The professor, Joe, wants to base his relationship on pure reason, and a large part of the novel consists of elaborate, hair-splitting discussions with Jacob about whether or not this is possible. I realize that this sounds incredible tedious, but they really are thrilling in their own way. They are much more interesting than the workings of the rather melodramatic plot.

The main reason I found the novel really interesting is that it introduced a conception of character that I have never seen before in a novel. Almost all novels, even fantastical ones, depend on a character’s actions having plausible motivations and causes. Don Quixote goes crazy for a reason, and from then on everything he does has a certain internal logic. Even Kafka, once he sets up an absurd premise, has every figure act in ways consistent with some sort of motivation or goal—and the person will usually know that this is why she’s doing what she’s doing.

The interesting thing about this is that it isn’t really true. Most of the time we have no idea why we do things. We’ll invent some reasons later, perhaps in an attempt at self-justification, why we broke up with someone, kicked that girl in third grade. In literature, the only way to sort of get at this is an unreliable narrator, where the reader is given enough information to see behind his fake reasons to his real reasons, which may even be unconscious to him. The reasons are always there, though. I have never read a novel where a narrator did something and had NO IDEA WHY, and didn’t even bother coming up with reasons.

This may seem just like a lazy author coming up with an arbitrary plot. But the subject of the entire novel is really whether psychological causation can be determined, and what the limits of reason are; the plot is really an afterthought, and the book gets much less interesting when the plot starts takes over at the end. Anyway, it’s definitely worth reading; none of the people for a moment seem “real,” but the ideas they toss around do have real consequences, both for life and for art.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

The Way of All Flesh, by Samuel Butler

This is not a great novel. I don't regret reading it, but I can see why Butler didn't write much fiction. He has no aptitude for creating characters with any life. Part of this might be caused by the fact that he has no interest in any of his people; he has them figured out completely from the beginning, and the entire novel basically consists of them acting out the stunted personalities he has made for them. It is one of least lively, least surprising good books I have ever read.

Basically, the novel is about the education of a boy -- Ernest -- and his life in the dreary house of a clergyman. His father is a not really a bad man, but he is still a horrible man to have as a father. The usual petty tyrant stuff: occasional beatings, forced cheerless prayer sessions, a complete lack of affection. His mother is also sheer mediocrity from top to bottom: reasonably good natured, but a little vain, modestly ambitious, cheap, and a complete slave to the wishes of her husband.

So: a pretty lame couple. Why would anyone want to read about them? They remain this way from beginning to end. The central drama of the book is basically whether Ernest is going to escape the influence of this shitty household. I'm not giving much away when I tell you that, yes, he does. The entire book is narrated by a Mr. Overton, who becomes a sort of mentor to Ernest, and it is clear in the first forty pages that Ernest has already become an independent writer.

Ernest loses his faith in the literal truth of the Bible, and gradually realizes that most of what his father stands for is somehow opposed to life (when Theobald, the father, finally dies in his sleep, Overton says "This is not more than half dying, but then neither was his life more than half living." Man, harsh!) Maybe this was a big deal when it was published, because most middle-class Victorian parents were probably as bad as the Pontifexes (this is Ernest's family name) -- but it doesn't have much sting now, at least not for those of us who are reasonably sane or interested in reality.

(A digression: I also get the distinct sense that Butler was an asshole. It is very hard to put one's finger one exactly how you can tell this. I think I got this impression from the fact that Butler (or whatever, "the narrator") insists that the reader like a woman who seems like a silly, malicious woman (Althea, Ernest's aunt, and also his benefactor). This asshole, non-asshole divide is very hard to defend with text, but I think most people who are not assholes themselves can usually tell when an author is one. (There's actually an excellent passage in the book about how authors can't help reveal themselves in their books, no matter how much they want to conceal.) And it isn't about whether the writers behaved "well" or "badly" in their lives. I have no idea how Butler acted. Chekhov and Frank O'Connor certainly didn't act all that well, but every sentence that they wrote makes me feel like they were wonderful people. Katherine Mansfield, G.B. Shaw? Quite clearly terrible people. And this has nothing to do with the quality of the work. This train of thought can be continued later.)

Anyway, the book mainly seems to exist to get across some of the author's ideas on society and religion, and this is a terrible, terrible reason to write a novel. Nonetheless, this means that several passages can be plucked out and stand alone as rather profound and incisive. I'll provide some of my favorites, to save you the trouble of reading the book: "Then he saw also that it matters little what profession, whether of religion or irreligion, a man may make, provided only he follows it out with charitable inconsistency, and without insisting on it to the bitter end. It is in the uncompromisingness with which dogma is held and not in the dogma or want of dogma that the danger lies." (Here, here.)

And, finally, the passage that made reading the entire book worthwhile, and that I really, really hope is true.

"Everyone has a mass of bad work in him which he will have to work off and get rid of before he can do better -- and indeed, the more lasting a man's ultimate good work is, the more sure he is to pass through a time, and perhaps a very long one, in which seems very little hope for him at all."