Smile by Roddy Doyle

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My review of Roddy Doyle’s new novel, Smile (Jonathan Cape), appears in today’s Sunday Business Post Magazine. Paywall etc, but here’s an excerpt:

Victor Forde, the narrator of Roddy Doyle’s tenth novel, appears, at first glance, to be a familiar sort of character in a familiar sort of predicament: he’s a middle-aged man, estranged from his family, haunted by his past, and morosely adrift in a changed and changing Dublin. Separated from his wife, the wealthy and glamourous Rachel (she hosts an entrepreneurial reality show on RTE called Hit the Ground Running), alienated from his son (they haven’t spoken in three years), and largely friendless, Victor has, when the novel begins, moved into an anonymous block of Celtic Tiger flats in the Northside neighbourhood where he grew up.

Nursing a pint – and brooding on his wounds – in Donnelly’s pub one evening, Victor is accosted by Eddie Fitzpatrick, who claims to be an old school friend […] Under Eddie’s hostile questioning, Victor is compelled to revisit his past – in particular, his experiences as a pupil at the (fictional) St Martin’s CBS in the 1970s, when he was groped by the Head Brother, Father McIntyre, under the pretext of a lesson in wrestling.  

 If you’re worrying, at this point, that Smile is yet another Irish novel about the traumas of clerical sexual abuse – well, in one sense, you’d be absolutely right. But you’d also be underestimating Roddy Doyle, who remains the outstanding fictional chronicler of his generation – of the private lives of the men and women who experienced first-hand Ireland’s transition from Catholic garrison-state to globalised republic. 

Submission by Michel Houellebecq

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This review first appeared in the Sunday Business Post on 27th September 2015.


In Arabic, “Islam” means “submission” – “voluntary submission to God,” with added connotations of wholeness, safety, and peace. Translated into English (or French), the word resonates rather differently. When, in 2004, the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh and the Somali dissident Ayaan Hirsi Ali released a short polemical film about Muslims’ treatment of women, they called it Submission. Their intention was clear: “submission,” in English, is a posture of defeat. Van Gogh was murdered for his satirical effrontery: stabbed to death on an Amsterdam street in November 2004 by an Islamist fanatic named Mohammed Bouyeri. Hirsi Ali was forced to go into hiding.

Now the word “submission,” with all its attendant unwelcome ironies, has returned to haunt us once again. Michel Houellebecq’s sixth novel appeared in France on 7th January, 2015. This was the day on which two masked men carrying assault rifles walked into the offices of Charlie Hebdo in the Marais and shot 11 people, in revenge – they said – for the paper’s publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. Houellebecq was Charlie Hebdo’s cover story that week, for his novel about the peaceful rise to power of an Islamic government in a near-future France – a novel called Submission.

The Anglophone press has painted Submission as a kind of Dreadful Warning – France must not capitulate to Islamist terror! – and Houellebecq as a kind of reactionary prankster, a dolled-up purveyor of highbrow porn whose pronunciations on Islam mark him out as basically unserious. But in France, Houellebecq’s novels are taken very seriously (after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, even Francois Hollande made sure to announce that Submission had jumped to the top of his reading list), and Houellebecq himself is taken for what he is: a subtle and profound critic of both Islam and the West.

The narrator of Submission, Francois, is a 43-year-old lecturer at the University of Paris III-Sorbonne. He teaches 19th century literature, even though “the academic study of literature leads basically nowhere.” He lives alone in a high-rise apartment in Chinatown and subsists on a diet of microwaveable Indian curries. His sex life is limited to brief, inconclusive affairs with his female students. He no longer speaks to his parents and he has no other family. “Should I just die?” he wonders. But: “The decision struck me as premature.”

Meanwhile, it’s 2022: a Presidential election year in France. The two most popular candidates are Marine le Pen of the National Front, and the charismatic Muhammad Ben Abbes, leader of the moderate Muslim Brotherhood. After some initial tremors – shootings, stolen ballot boxes – Ben Abbes smoothly accedes to the Presidency. The star and crescent rise over Paris’s public buildings. Women are no longer allowed to work. France submits to Sharia law. Will Francois, too, submit?

Thus baldly summarized, Submission does indeed sound like a Dreadful Warning. But Houellebecq is a sly and sinuous operator, and his satire is always Janus-faced: he wants us to see not just our ideological opponents but ourselves, and his message to the West is a grim one. Francois is haunted by the life and work of the 19th century Decadent writer Joris-Karl Huysmans, whose most famous novel, À rebours (1884), described a European civilisation dying, as the critic Arthur Symons phrased it, of too much civilisation – the very predicament in which Francois finds himself, as the Muslim Brotherhood overturns an exhausted and nihilistic democracy and replaces it with the sinister vigour of revealed religion. Huysmans’s solution to the problem of nihilism was to become a Catholic; and so Francois finds himself tempted to convert to Islam, simply to join – as it were – the winning team.

Submission is a deeply literary novel, but it is also a deeply satisfying entertainment – quite aside from all the heavy stuff about the decline of the West, there’s also a good helping of Houellebecq’s signature sex and existential comedy, as well as some good jokes about the enduring stubbornness of male chauvinism. His prose is brisk and perceptive and, in Lorin Stein’s translation, sublimely readable. To write a novel that is both a cunningly-fashioned literary artefact and a suggestive intervention in a bloodily pertinent public debate is no small thing; with Submission, Houellebecq proves that he is still one of the most interesting novelists alive.

Borne by Jeff Vandermeer

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My review of Jeff Vandermeer’s Borne (Fourth Estate) appears in today’s Sunday Business Post Magazine. Here’s an excerpt:

If the Southern Reach trilogy was a sly, sinuous, allusive riff on the anxieties of the West in the 21st century, then Borne is a frontal assault on those anxieties: a haunting, and haunted, vision of a self-harming world brought to the brink of collapse. It also features a giant flying bear (but, perhaps surprisingly, no mushrooms).

The bear’s name is Mord. He is Godzilla-sized; he crushes buildings wherever he lies down to sleep. He is the de facto ruler of Borne’s unnamed post-apocalyptic city – a place in which unregulated genetic engineering has led to a biotech apocalypse. Feral children with mutant wasps for eyes prowl the remains of burnt-out buildings; red salamanders rain from the sky and melt into a poisonous mush; rivers roil and bubble with a stew of fatal toxins. The organisation responsible for creating Mord – as well as sundry other monstrosities – is known simply as the Company. Daily, from the ruins of its HQ, the Company sends out more biotech abominations. Civil order is a wistful dream. […] This should be ridiculous – a giant flying bear? A shapeshifting blob who acts like a stroppy teenager (“I need my space”)? But it works. Freely mingling horror and absurdity, Vandermeer channels the darkest nightmares of the West – its terror of the other, its terror of itself. In its dark beauty, in the sombre extremity of its vision, Borne bypasses the higher reaches of consciousness and shows us not what we fear, but what we are: “We cared but we didn’t do.”

Midwinter Break by Bernard MacLaverty

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My review of Bernard MacLaverty’s new novel appears in today’s Sunday Business Post Magazine. The Iron Paywall supervenes, as usual, but here’s a wee excerpt:

“The novel,” said the poet and critic Randall Jarrell, “is a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it.” And almost all novels do have something wrong with them: dead patches, boring bits, lapses of talent or taste. Readers, as a rule, don’t mind this: it’s part of the unspoken contract that pertains whenever you open a novel (I’ll put up with the dull parts, you say to yourself, if the good parts are sufficiently good). But some writers have minded it very much. The quest to perfect the novel – to write a novel with no bad bits – begins with Flaubert, who spent five years labouring to make Madame Bovary letter-perfect. Flaubert’s 20th century heirs include James Joyce (who spent seven years on Ulysses) and Truman Capote (six years on In Cold Blood). Even in our age of laxities, the Flaubertian standard lingers as an ideal, pursued by writers who believe that the novel can – indeed should – be as formally exact as a lyric poem.

I don’t know how long Bernard MacLaverty spent composing Midwinter Break. But it is sixteen years since his last novel, The Anatomy School, appeared, and the new book is evidently the product of a fanatical scrupulousness. As a result, Midwinter Break is that rarest of things: a near-perfect novel. It is Flaubertian (or Joycean) in the sense that it conjures a luminous universality from the sensuous details of two purely ordinary lives. And it is a masterpiece in the traditional sense: a work that establishes beyond all doubt its author’s credentials as a master.


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This piece first appeared in The Sunday Business Post in 2013 (the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination) as a review of two books: JFK’s Last Hundred Days by Thurston Clarke (Penguin) and To Move the World: JFK’s Quest for Peace by Jeffrey D. Sachs (Bodley Head).


This November it will be fifty years since John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, bringing an era of seeming hope and promise to a horrifying end. Kennedy’s ghost haunts us like the ghost of no other twentieth century statesman: his death still marks, for many people, the shadow-line between American innocence and experience, between the bright stability of the postwar boom years and the chaos and confusion that followed.

When he accepted his party’s nomination for President in Los Angeles in 1960, Kennedy promised a “New Frontier – the frontier of the 1960s, a frontier of unknown opportunities and paths.” It was what America was ready to hear. Kennedy was young, he was handsome, he was rich, he was a gifted speaker. His beautiful wife had style in spades. He was a war hero: when his Navy torpedo boat, PT-109, was sunk by a Japanese destroyer in the Pacific, Kennedy swam for four hours with the life-jacket straps of a burned crewman clenched between his teeth. He was a voracious reader. His biography of eight maverick Senators, Profiles in Courage, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1957.  He was the saint of liberals, an American success story, confident and charismatic, born – it sometimes seemed – to be the leader of the free world.

Only one or two observers sensed the darkness underneath. “Kennedy’s most characteristic quality,” wrote Norman Mailer in 1960, “is the remote and private air of a man who has traversed some lonely terrain of experience, of loss and gain, of nearness to death, which leaves him isolated from the mass of others.”

Mailer was closer to the truth than he could possibly have known. Behind the suntan and the perfect orthodonture (Mailer remarked that Kennedy’s teeth were “clearly visible at a distance of fifty yards”) was a man driven by chronic illness and a rabid sexual appetite. The Kennedy White House was corroded by paranoia and by the young President’s obsessive hunger for risk.

The Kennedy countermyth is by now as familiar as its obverse. We now know that the 1960 Presidential Election – in which JFK triumphed by the narrowest of margins – was stolen for him by his father’s mob cronies and by the Democratic Party machine in Chicago. We also know that Kennedy installed auditory surveillance devices in the Oval Office and in various key meeting rooms, including the room in which his ad hoc crisis committee discussed the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. And we know that the deep bronzing of Kennedy’s skin was actually a symptom of Addison’s disease, an adrenal gland malfunction that doctors treated with steroids and amphetamines.

Young women – starlets, prostitutes, Washington staffers – were brought to the White House every day to serve as Kennedy’s sexual partners. There were dangerously high-profile affairs – with Marilyn Monroe, of course, but also with Ellen Rometsch, a prostitute suspected of being a Communist spy. Kennedy told one aide that unless he had sex with “a strange piece of ass” every single day, he developed crippling migraine. His administration was perpetually on the brink of scandal; only luck, and family connections, kept the public image clean.

The fascination of all this is easy to explain: behind the war stories and the garden parties at Hyannis Port, behind the thrilling oratory and the winsome smile, there was the grim reality of the Kennedys: a family committed to attaining wealth and power by any means necessary – hugely glamourous, hugely sordid.

There are, broadly speaking, two kinds of books that get written about the Kennedys: the hagiographical retelling of the myth, and the muckraking exposure of the countermyth. Two new books, timed to coincide with the anniversary of the assassination, tend towards the hagiographical end of the scale.

Thurston Clarke’s JFK’s Last Hundred Days is a sombre, respectful – at times too respectful – account of Kennedy’s last three months on the job. It was an eventful period, and included the death of Kennedy’s infant son Patrick, born prematurely in August 1963, as well as the passing of the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, ratified by the US and the Soviet Union, one of Kennedy’s greatest achievements.

Clarke’s pages contain a good deal of gossipy stuff about family holidays and so on – sample photo caption: “Jackie was not a keen golfer but gamely tagged along” – and his interpretations of JFK’s seamier antics err on the side of the generous: “His principle motive for taping selected conversations and meeting was probably to provide accurate and irrefutable material for his presidential memoirs.” Sure.

In comparison to Jeffrey Sach’s To Move the World, however, JFK’s Last Hundred Days is a model of unillusioned clarity. Sachs’s text stretches to 169 pages; the rest of his book is bulked out with reprints of Kennedy’s speeches. The prose is execrable: “hardliners on their own side who denied that the other side would abide,” goes one particularly abominable phrase. Worse, Sachs thinks Kennedy and Khrushchev “saved the world” during a Missile Crisis they started in the first place.

Balanced books about the Kennedys are hard to come by. Clarke’s effort goes some small way towards capturing the complexity of the man: it is particularly good on Kennedy’s lifetime of ill-health. Sachs – an academic and a UN Special Advisor – adds nothing to the familiar tale, beyond a reminder, useful in its way, that despite the squalor of his personal history, Kennedy did at least intend to make the world a better place. Which is something.

Age of Anger by Pankaj Mishra (full review)

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This piece – a review of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger (Allen Lane)  – originally appeared in The Sunday Business Post in February of this year. I previously posted a wee snippet, but here’s the whole thing, in its original form.


To quote Howard Beale – the alcoholic anchorman and “mad prophet of the airwaves” who streaks like a meteor through Paddy Chayevsky’s great film Network (1976) – “I don’t have to tell you things are bad. We know things are bad.” Oh, things are bad, alright: Trump, Brexit, ISIS, North Korea’s nuclear programme, the US Muslim ban, Steve Bannon, the return of white nationalism, “fake news,” worldwide protests and demonstrations, Putin, war in Syria, secret dossiers…  As Saul Bellow wrote, presciently, in 1976: “For the first time in history, the human species as a whole has gone into politics […] What is going on will not let us alone. Neither the facts nor the deformations.”

Well, the deformations are clear. But the facts are perhaps less so. How did we get here? In his dense, gripping, and sinuously brilliant new book, Pankaj Mishra offers a powerful alternative history of the modern world – a vade mecum for our frightening times. Mishra is Indian-born, a regular contributor to The New Yorker, and the author of works of fiction, travel, and historical analysis. He is formidably learned – a brief list of major sources for his new book might include Rousseau, Nietzsche, Gabriele D’Annunzio, Francis Fukuyama, Raymond Aron, Hannah Arendt, Max Weber, Herbert Spencer, Theodor Herzl, Dostoyevsky, Marx, Alexander Herzen, Voltaire, Emile Zola, and Stendhal. There are many more.

To skip to the upshot, let me say it at once: Age of Anger is a profoundly important book and everyone should read it immediately. As Mishra notes in a preface, his text “went to the printers in the week that Donald Trump was elected president of the United States.” In the years to come, we are sure to be deluged with hot takes on the Trump catastrophe – blaming the Democrats, the white working class, what have you. But Mishra’s assessment, which barely mentions Trump, already feels definitive. Mishra sees clearly. He has read everything.

Mishra is one of a small number of contemporary thinkers – his closest peer is perhaps the English political philosopher John Gray, author of Straw Dogs (2002) and The Soul of the Marionette (2015) – who reject the idea of historical progress. “There is no deep logic to the unfolding of time,” Mishra observes, demolishing centuries of Western utopian complacency. Mishra’s targets are those Western thinkers – from Voltaire to the editors of The Economist – who believe, baselessly, that history is leading to the triumph of free-market liberal democracy. It is this “malign illusion,” Mishra says, that has brought us to our present state of woe, and that has left us utterly unprepared to cope with the barbarous forces now returning to power across the globe.

After the Berlin Wall toppled in November, 1989, optimistic Western thinkers calmly awaited a worldwide “convergence on the Western model” – as The Economist put it in 1992, “there is no serious alternative to free-market capitalism as the way to organise economic life.” But in the West, as Mishra points out, “the Western model” had already led to genocide and tyranny. For Mishra – as for a handful of other clear thinkers – “the history of modernisation is largely one of carnage and bedlam rather than peaceful convergence.”

Mishra locates the roots of our present crisis in the much larger, and ongoing, crisis of modernity itself. The violent advent of the modern – heralded by the Enlightenment philosophes and their Jacobin offspring – led inescapably to what the German sociologist Max Weber called “the disenchantment of the world,” and the birth of revolutionary terror. For as well as “cosmopolitan liberalism,” individualism, and religious and economic freedom, the modern world brought with it a dangerous new idea: that “human beings can radically alter their social conditions.”

In the maelstrom of the modern – in which, as Marx observed, “all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned” – everything is theoretically permitted. But freedom is a dangerous gift, and the idea of progress is impossible to sustain without the corollary idea of winners and losers. Undermining the West’s “gaudy cult of progress,” a new class of people began to appear – “those who saw themselves as wholly dispensable in a society where economic growth enriched only a minority and democracy appeared to be a game rigged by the powerful.” Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man is one such “superfluous” citizen of the West. Adolf Hitler was another. These “frustrated men,” Mishra says, have “defined whole new modes of politics, from nationalism to terrorism, since the French Revolution.”

As Nietzsche put it, the disruptive forces of the modern world awakened a powerful ressentiment: a deep emulative rage that drove such barbarisms as Nazism, Soviet Communism, and religious fundamentalism – all of them attempts to roll back the clock on modernity. Ressentiment, Mishra points out, cuts across all ideological divisions. It is the underlying force beneath all attempts to combat the forces of modernity. It is the rage that festers at the heart of the modern world.

It is, Mishra points out, modernity itself that “has everywhere weakened older forms of authority” and empowered “unpredictable” actors from Somali pirates to English nationalists to Boko Haram to ISIS to Donald Trump. In other words, emotionally speaking, there is no difference between a gun-toting Trump voter and a “bearded Islamist in Pakistan.” Both men are enraged by the rootless chaos of the modern world, with its parade of failed illusions. In this regard, Mishra says, “The modern West can no longer be distinguished from its apparent enemies.”

Mishra reminds us that the equilibrium of the post-1945 liberal democracies, in which the idea of progress thrived, was “precarious and rare.” That equilibrium is now profoundly threatened. A pulverised global middle class, an obscenely wealthy elite, an enraged and impotent underclass: these are the radioactive materials from which our immediate future will be woven. We are about to see what happens when Western governments junk their long-held liberal values in favour of a largely improvisatory politics of ressentiment. We have been dreaming. Now we are awake.



From the back cover of this – the 1976 Mayflower paperback edition of Michael Moorcock’s The Final Programme:


They really knew how to sell books, in the 1970s. What on earth is happening to that woman’s hair and breasts?

The Twin Peaks of Twin Peaks

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The first run of Twin Peaks (1989-1991) was obsessed with a certain kind of doubleness in American life – call it the doubleness within. The show was haunted by the idea that people are not what they appear to be  – that everybody hides a dark and damaging secret life. In the prehistory of the series (i.e. during the period dramatised in Fire Walk With Me [1992]), Laura Palmer veered between two lives: in her daylight life, she was the popular Homecoming Queen who delivered Meals on Wheels; in her nocturnal existence, she was  addicted to cocaine and worked as a prostitute for the small-time pimp and drug dealer Jacques Renault. At the end of most episodes of the original run, the credits rolled over the iconic picture of Laura in her Homecoming Queen dress and crown. Looking at this picture, we were meant to meditate on the secret darkness it concealed. A similar doubleness shaped almost every character in the show: the other key example is Laura’s father Leland. Superficially a successful businessman, Leland was actually possessed by an evil spirit named Bob, under whose influence he sexually abused Laura and eventually killed her.

Twin Peaks was therefore a show about how a secret doubleness persists beneath the official narrative of small-town America – and therefore beneath the official narrative of America itself. This is why it was called Twin Peaks: there were two Lauras, and two Lelands, and two of almost every other character – and there were also two versions of Twin Peaks itself. In one version, the town was so bucolic and banal that it presented as a kind of parody of soap-opera ordinariness; in the other, Twin Peaks was the site of supernatural horror and criminal depravity. The story of Twin Peaks was the story of how we – with Special Agent Dale Cooper as our proxy – gradually tunnelled beneath the official version of the town to find the dark truth within. This doubleness was codified in the mythology of the Black Lodge and its opposite number, the White Lodge, but really, the idea of doubleness runs right through every aspect of the original Twin Peaks: the show, in its first incarnation, is driven by a dialectic of the open and the hidden, and this dialectic was one of the things that made the show so distinctive and rich.

This obsession with a hidden doubleness in American life pops up in a lot of popular art from the late 1980s and early 1990s. It was, I think, a response to the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, who each propounded an upbeat national narrative (synecdochized in Reagan’s “Morning in America,” his “we shall be a city on a hill,” and in Bush’s “kindler, gentler nation“), beneath which lurked rising income inequality and a sense that America had become a dangerous imperial force on the world stage. 1989 – the year the first episode of Twin Peaks aired on ABC – was also the year Neil Young released “Rockin’ in the Free World,” with its savage lyrics about “a kindler, gentler machine-gun hand”; and in 1991, the year the last episode of the show’s original run went out, Bret Easton Ellis published American Psycho, which is, of course, a 400-page essay on the cruelty and indifference that hide behind the glossy facade of the American financial system.

The point of the original Twin Peaks was that doubleness is an interior phenomenon. Within the same individual, extreme contrarieties lurk; we all have our own “twin peaks” of personality and behaviour, and neither or both may tell the full truth about us. This reflected a sense that America contained within itself similar extremes. The sense of genuine tragedy generated by the stories of Laura and Leland Palmer – surely one of the most harrowing stories ever told on network television – derives from a sense that these terrible contrarieties can never be reconciled. (Both Leland and Laura die as a result of their double lives.) If Twin Peaks is a tragedy (and I think it is), it is because of the sense it conveys that doubleness is inescapable – that neither good nor evil can ever finally triumph, but that we must attempt to reconcile these opposed forces within ourselves nevertheless.

In the new episodes of Twin Peaks (Sky Atlantic), this sense of doubleness has been ratcheted up to hysterical levels. The original run of the show ended with Dale Cooper visiting the Black Lodge, where he is possessed by Bob, the very spirit who killed Laura Palmer. This meant that Cooper, the town’s avatar of decency and innocence, was now himself fatally enmeshed in the show’s dialectic of doubleness. The original series thus ended with yet another image of this dialectic, as Cooper/Bob smashed his face against the mirror of his hotel room in the Great Northern and cackled manically (“How’s Annie?”). It was easy to read this as one more statement of the show’s most basic theme.

In the show’s new incarnation, the preoccupation with doubleness has moved from an underlying preoccupation to a formal conceit. In other words, doubleness has moved from being an interior phenomenon to an exterior one. The secret doubleness that drove the original series is now out in the open. And this, I think, is Lynch’s way of mocking the crude way of thinking about doubleness that has taken over American life during the past twenty-five years, and that has become even more central to America’s conception of itself in the aftermath of the 2016 election.

The central thread of Twin Peaks: The Return involves, of course, Dale Cooper. Since the end of the original run, a version of Cooper – the version possessed by Bob – has been travelling the world doing Evil Things. (We know he’s evil because he wears a snakeskin jacket and never smiles; also because he continually murders people in cold blood.) Now, however, the “Good Dale” (as Annie calls him in Fire Walk With Me) has made a botched attempt to escape from the Black Lodge, and has wound up inhabiting the body of Dougie Jones, a loser insurance salesman from Las Vegas. The main thrust of Twin Peaks: The Return seems to be a long-delayed showdown between Good Cooper and Evil Cooper – though this is to radically simplify a preposterously elaborate and possibly even insane set of plotlines that may nor may not actually intersect in any meaningful way later in the season).

Lynch’s method is to go to parodic extremes with his doubling. Just as Evil Cooper is super-Evil, so Good Cooper (Dougie) is super-Good. Good Cooper is, in fact, basically an infant: all he can do is chug down coffee and repeat what people say to him. Despite this, everyone mistakes Dougie for a fully operative adult. Dougie is also guided by a kind of ignis fatuus, a dancing flame that guides him to slot machines that pay out, and that enable him to do such a good job on his insurance paperwork that he uncovers a scam his superiors had missed. Meanwhile, Evil Cooper schemes and plans and murders (in one of the show’s most bewilderingly unnerving moments, he shows a woman he is about to kill a playing card with a weird black lump drawn on it. “THIS IS WHAT I WANT,” he says. This should be stupid, but is actually terrifying).

Cooper has been literally doubled: there are two of him, one ridiculously good, the other ridiculously evil. This, I think, is a very Lynchian joke about how essentially limiting it is to see the world in purely binary terms. I think we can read the Evil Coop/Dougie Jones plotline as a satire of the crude binary valences of much American public discourse – an elaborate gag about polarised thinking. If we don’t negotiate our tragic doubleness internally, Lynch seems to be saying, then we are actually completely useless. Literal doubleness, for Lynch, is an unsustainable predicament; the tragic (because doomed) attempt to achieve internal wholeness is all.

I think Lynch is reflecting – and subverting – contemporary American experience here just as profoundly as he did in the original Twin Peaks. Twenty-five years after it last aired, Twin Peaks returns to an America more than ever riven by – and, crucially, conscious of – a sense of its own doubleness. The election contest between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump led everybody to decide that America is now a country viciously divided between liberal, educated, wealthy, mostly urban elites, and an underclass of reactionary, poor (and poorly educated), mostly rural workers. In other words, there are now two Americas, each seeing itself as purely good and the other as purely evil. The doubleness of American life is no longer hidden; it is, at least according to the conventional wisdom, now out there for all to see. And between these twin peaks, no one, it seems, can chart a course. America feels, to itself, irreparably split in two; the proper response, surely, is simply to scream.

So, this is to propose one way of reading Twin Peaks: The Return – as an elaborate joke about doubleness, played on a self-consciously doubled America. Of course there are nine episodes still to go, so this particular analysis may fall flat on its face before we’re through. Gotta light?

Science in the Soul by Richard Dawkins

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My review of Richard Dawkins’s new collection of occasional pieces, Science in the Soul: Selected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist (Bantam Press) appears in today’s Sunday Business Post Magazine. Here’s an excerpt:

What Dawkins wants to do is depose religion and put science, narrowly construed, in its place. For Dawkins, science is a lovely, rational, clean, benevolent enterprise (“Science is both wonderful and necessary”) which “has many of religion’s virtues,” and “none of its vices.” If we all thought like scientists, Dawkins believes, then the world would naturally evolve into a rationalist utopia. “I suppose I am saying,” he remarks, in his 1997 Oxford Amnesty lecture, included here, “that scientists have a scale of values according to which there is something almost sacred about nature’s truth.”

“Almost sacred” is the giveaway, here […] Dawkins is exactly right when he describes himself as “a deeply religious non-believer.” He is persistently drawn to religious language: eulogising Christopher Hitchens, he writes, “maybe he has no immortal soul – none of us has. But in the only meaning of the words that makes any sense, the soul of Christopher Hitchens is among the immortals.” Dawkins is confident that our “spiritual” needs can be met by a proper understanding of science – an understanding mediated by ”literary” science writing, of the sort in which Dawkins himself specialises.

At one point, Dawkins tells us that he believes in evolution “with passionate conviction.” But why, we might legitimately wonder, is belief required? Evolution, as Dawkins insists, is as close as scientific enquiry can come to a proven fact; by Dawkins’s own lights, evolution is true whether you believe in it or not. “Conviction” is beside the point. “Science is actually one of the most moral, one of the most honest disciplines around,” says Dawkins. But this is to assert a value, not a fact (earlier in the collection, Dawkins remarks, perhaps not surprisingly, that “the fact-value distinction has been oversold”).

Get in the Ring

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Two days ago, Donald Trump (whom the editors of Spy magazine, back in the late 1980s, used to call “the short-fingered vulgarian”) tweeted a manipulated gif of himself at a WWE event – “throwing to the floor,” in the dignified words of a Guardian reporter, “a man with a CNN logo for a head.” “#FraudNewsCNN,” went the hashtag. Naturally, this cued an avalanche of left-liberal outrage. “Juvenile,” said CNN. “Undermines the media,” said the Committee to Protect Journalists. The horror! The shame!

In his new book, The Retreat of Western Liberalism (Little, Brown), Edward Luce writes about Trump and the WWE:

One of Donald Trump’s favourite activities is to watch pro-wrestling contests. Over the decades he has appeared multiple times as a star in his own right at World Wrestling Entertainment fights. Though America’s future president never fought, he often entered the ring to participate in its hammed-up scripts. His most recent appearance was in 2015, shortly before he launched his presidential candidacy, when he helped pin down a mock-struggling Vince McMahon, the chief executive of WWE. To whooping crowds, he then shaved McMahon’s head with an electric razor.

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This, by the by, was the fight that gave us Trump’s gif (which he apparently found on Reddit). Luce goes on to talk about what Trump’s WWE appearances might mean:

The WWE is to US popular culture what bear-baiting was to medieval Europe. The difference is that it is all a big pretence. The audience knows the drama is staged. But it happily allows itself to get sucked in. They are just as emotionally invested as diehard soap-opera fans. WWE gives you villains, heroes, antiheroes and victims. Tracking the WWE’s changing scripts is a barometer of middle America’s darker preoccupations. During the 1980s, the fights were about good versus evil. The latter would invariably have Russian, or perhaps Iranian, accents. They would eventually lose […] After the Cold War, the stories began to change. Good and evil were replaced with dramas based on nasty personal disputes. The foreign enemy was supplanted by those around us. Victims could take revenge on their abusers […] The most striking thing was the disappearance of heroes. Everyone has some tawdry angle. No one is trustworthy. “City after city, night after night, packed arena after packed arena, the wrestlers play out a new, broken social narrative,” writes Chris Hedges in Empire of Illusion. “It is about personal pain, vendettas, hedonism, and fantasies of revenge, while inflicting pain on others. It is the cult of victimhood.

In Luce’s reading, the WWE follows roughly the same ideological trajectory as big-budget Hollywood movies – telling clear Manichean fables of Good Vs. Evil during the Cold War, and sinking into ambiguity and distrust of the government as the millennium turned (compare the moral clarity of Red Dawn [1984] to the ambiguity of a movie like X-Men [2000] in which one of the chief villains is a US senator). What neither Luce nor Chris Hedges (whom he quotes) point out is that the audience for WWE events is overwhelmingly working class, white, and older than 35 – the very people who have come to think of themselves as the victims of failed neoliberal policies, and who therefore voted for Trump in large numbers.

(As an aside: the failed America that these white, working-class voters live in is no myth. The “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation” that Trump conjured in his inauguration speech really do exist. In January 2017 – a few days before Trump was sworn in as president – I got a train from New York to Washington, DC, and looked out as we passed through rust-belt Pennsylvania, where the air is red with iron oxides from rusted trucks and cars, and all you can see is mile after mile of peeling row houses, dead factories boarded up with corrugated tin, burnt-out tow-trucks, scrubland gone to seed, and empty shipping containers. Trump’s victory made a lot more sense to me, after that.)

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Luce’s point is clear: Trump has succeeded, at least in part, by manipulating the same “broken social narrative” of “personal pain, vendettas, hedonism, and fantasies of revenge” that drives the WWE. When Trump said, “I love the poorly educated,” he was speaking to his base: people who distrust educated elites because they think, correctly as it happens, that these elites hate them and have zero interest in doing anything for them. (It was the policies of these elites, after all, that moved manufacturing and mining jobs overseas, and that destroyed the social safety net for working-class people.) Trump sells a version of politics that makes complete sense to a WWE audience schooled in stories of victimhood and vendetta. He takes a complex, multivalent, ambiguous world and transforms it into a comprehensible story about personal pain, evil bullies, and revenge: “Drain the swamp!” “Make America Great Again!” “Lock her up!” Tweets like the CNN body-slam gif go straight past the intercessional analyses of “mainstream media” and connect directly with an audience who longs to understand the world in terms of the crude but powerful narratives of pro-wrestling. Even at the level of cabinet appointments, Trump is speaking directly to a WWE audience: Linda McMahon, Vince McMahon’s wife, is now head of the Small Business Administration.

What Luce also refrains from suggesting is that the WWE might tell us something about how Trump understands the world. For the current President of the United States, it seems fair to say, the world itself is a kind of faked wrestling match, in which he plays the role of bully-hero, enacting a popular revenge on the forces of darkness – construed, in this version of reality, as “the mainstream media” – and in which nothing is actually at stake because the whole thing is rigged. And for Trump, of course, the whole thing is rigged: he is rich, he has always been rich, and he will never not be rich, and so the real-world consequences of his executive orders and tweets (construed, by Trump, as pretty much the same thing) don’t actually matter, because they don’t actually matter to him: they’re just part of the show. For Trump, reality is essentially fake; and what is fake to begin with can be manipulated without harm.

This line of thought leads us back to Roland Barthes’s analysis of pro-wrestling, first published in book form in Mythologies (1957). In this essay, Barthes argues that, for its fans, the fakeness of pro-wrestling is beside the point:

The public is completely uninterested in knowing whether the contest is rigged or not, and rightly so; it abandons itself to the primary virtue of the spectacle, which is to abolish all motives and all consequences; what matters is not what it thinks but what it sees […] The spectator is not interested in the rise and fall of fortunes; he expects the transient image of certain passions […] wrestling is a sum of spectacles, of which no single one is a function: each moment imposes the total knowledge of a passion which rises erect and alone, without ever extending to the crowning moment of a result.

Isn’t this strongly reminiscent of Trump’s presidential style? The liberal left knocks itself out trying to make coherent sense of what Trump is doing. But what he’s actually doing is invoking “the transient image of certain passions.” He has no interest in “the crowning moment of a result.” He’s just putting on a show.

What this means, in practice, is that Trump will fail. The people who voted for him are evidently having a blast watching the Trump Show: applauding him as he body-slams CNN must, in the short term, be highly satisfying (CNN is, after all, a news channel that broadcasts endless propaganda for neoliberalism. Think about it: whenever you turn on CNN, you see a news segment about African people starting a business, or an ad explaining that Singapore or Dubai is a great place to invest). But the transient image of this passion is just that: transient. Eventually, the people who voted for Trump will expect “the crowning moment of a result.” They will expect him to actually do something, in the real world, to alleviate their suffering, or to appease their desire for revenge. But Donald Trump doesn’t really believe in the real world. He only believes in the spectacle. He is incapable of actually effecting change for the better; he doesn’t even want to effect change for the better. (He just wants to continue being rich and famous.) What happens when Trump’s fanbase realises this? What happens when it becomes clear that the fight really is rigged? Where does all the anger go then?