I Will be Voting Yes to Repeal. You Should, Too.

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I’ve been reluctant to write anything about the upcoming referendum on the Eighth Amendment, mainly because I don’t think I have anything original to say about it. I also didn’t particularly want to waste a lot of time explaining why I’m entitled to an opinion on this subject (we live in a liberal democracy. Everyone is entitled to an opinion on matters affecting the common weal). I also didn’t want to add another polemic to the endless vitriolic culture-war bullshit that now defines so much of our public discourse – No campaigners are liars! Yes campaigners are smug liberals! – et cetera.

But this is important. So here are my two cents.

Because of the nature of our constitution and the nature of our history, almost every referendum we hold in Ireland is a referendum on what kind of country we want to live in. In 2015 we said, very clearly, that we wanted a country that was pluralistic and tolerant: we extended the right to marry to everyone, regardless of gender or sexual orientation. Like many people, I found this an extraordinarily moving moment. I found it so for complex reasons.

On the day of the marriage referendum, I found myself thinking about a story my mother once told me. My mother grew up in Inchicore, near the Goldenbridge orphanage – an industrial school run by the Sisters of Mercy. (You can read about the appalling history of Goldenbridge here and here.) Walking past the gates of the orphanage – this was in the mid-1960s – my mother would sometimes find handwritten notes tucked into cracks in the stone – notes from the children who lived there. “We are hungry,” these notes said. “We are beaten. We are frightened. Please help us.”

Thinking about this on the day of the marriage referendum, I wept. Because it seemed to me that the Yes result had demonstrated that Ireland was no longer the kind of country in which such things could happen.

The picture, above, shows the gates of the now-defunct Goldenbridge industrial school.

The Catholic Church campaigned for a No vote in the marriage referendum. As it has campaigned against all forms of liberalism and enlightenment for the last half-century of Irish history. As it has campaigned to repair its putrid reputation in the wake of the Ryan and Murphy Reports, the discovery of the Tuam babies, the revelation of abuses at the Magdalene laundries and at industrial schools.

The referendum on the Eighth Amendment offers us another chance to say that the Catholic Church, long a malign parasite on the Irish body politic, has no place here any more.

It isn’t the only reason to vote Yes. It isn’t even the best reason to vote Yes. (The best reason to vote Yes is to say, powerfully and unignorably: We are a country that will never punish anyone, ever, for an accidental or unwanted pregnancy; we are a country that will never, ever let a woman die rather than abort an unviable foetus.) But it’s one of my reasons.

I’ve heard it said that some Irish men feel they have no right to vote in this referendum, or that they have no right to an opinion. (A popular argument goes: Only women should be allowed to vote, since this issue only affects them!) This is absurd, and misunderstands the nature of a liberal democracy. Ireland is ours – it is everyone’s. We all live here. What kind of country do we want it to be?

 

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Hey, Read My Manuscript!

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This piece first appeared in The Sunday Business Post in June 2016.

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All writers start out bad. This is one of those immutable laws against which there can be no appeal. James Joyce, aged 18, wrote a dismal pastiche of Henrik Ibsen entitled A Brilliant Career, which – with a Dedalian flourish – he dedicated “to my own Soul.” Gustave Flaubert, before he embarked on Madame Bovary, devoted five years to the composition of a chaotic 800-page historical fantasia called The Temptation of St. Anthony. And – to descend, rather precipitously, the ladder of literary merit – I spent much of my twenty-second year writing a 400-page supernatural thriller set in a fictionalised version of my secondary school – a farrago blended of equal parts John Fowles, David Lynch, and my own naive incompetence. Everybody starts out bad. That’s just the way it is.

But there are always people who think of themselves as exceptions. Toby Litt, writing in The Guardian recently, asked “What makes bad writing bad?” and concluded that the culprit is often a naive exceptionalism. “Bad writers,” Litt reckons, “often believe they have very little left to learn, and that it is the literary world’s fault that they have not yet been recognised, published, lauded and laurelled. It is a very destructive thing to believe that you are very close to being a good writer, and that all you need to do is keep going as you are rather than completely reinvent what you are doing.”

As a sometime teacher of Creative Writing, I found this poignant. Broadly speaking, the good students in a Creative Writing workshop are the ones who realise, epiphanically, that they must junk every word they’ve ever written and start again, as if from scratch. The less good students – the sad majority – are the ones who endlessly resubmit the same piece of work, glancingly rehashed, secure in the knowledge that they’re getting better. (They’re not.)

More poignantly still (to me, at least), Litt complains about a quandary familiar to all professional writers. “It’s possible that you’ve never had to read 80,000 words of bad writing. The friend of a friend’s novel. I have. On numerous occasions. […] The friend of a friend’s novel may have some redeeming features – the odd nicely shaped sentence, the stray brilliant image. But it is still an agony to force oneself to keep going.”

I know that agony. Once the world starts thinking of you as “a writer,” they begin to arrive in your inbox: the manuscripts. The long-meditated, completely unreadable manuscripts. I might mention the retired gentleman who sent me his 120,000-word philosophical treatise on why young people today are so frightening and strange. Or the aspiring chronicler who forwarded me his novel about an Australian family in which everybody loved each other and the long-cherished dynastic secret was that the pater familias hadn’t been murdered, he’d just died by accident. These manuscripts vary widely in subject matter and tone, but they tend to have one thing in common: they are all, without exception, preternaturally boring – of interest only to the writer, if even then.

I never know what to do with these manuscripts. Clearly, an honest response (“This is terrible”) is out of the question. And I’m usually too busy to offer a nuanced critique (which would be a waste of time anyway). Sometimes, shamefully, I ignore them. Occasionally, I send along some vague words of encouragement – keep writing, keep reading! But either way, I experience a twinge of guilt. Because I’ve been there – I’ve done it, too: I’ve imposed my terrible manuscripts on professional writers and asked for their help. Writing has always been a kind of guild, in which the elders help their juniors, who then pass along the favour. Isn’t this what I should be doing? I reassure myself by saying that good writers will find their way with or without my help, such as it is, and that bad writers will get nowhere even if I move the pillars of heaven to help them. But the whole thing remains a discomfiting crux – a situation in which it is almost impossible to act in good faith.

So please, for the love of God, don’t send me your manuscript – unless, of course, you happen to think it’s really, really good.

On Book Reviewing

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This article first appeared in The Sunday Business Post in February 2015.

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One of the weird minor perks of being a book reviewer is that you sometimes find yourself quoted on the covers of paperbacks. It can make you feel powerful, in a completely powerless sort of way. I sometimes like to imagine growing so influential as a reviewer that cowed marketing teams, hysterically grateful for my attention, quote even my negative assessments: “Unbelievably bad […] Barely literate. Don’t even think about buying this” – Kevin Power, Sunday Business Post. A man can dream.

Browsing in Hodges Figgis the other day, I found myself excerpted on the inside covers of two novels newly paperbacked: Damon Galgut’s Arctic Summer and Zia Hadar Rahman’s In the Light of What We Know, both of which I reviewed in these pages when they were first published last year. I enjoyed, as one does in such moments, a small thrill of complacency. But what was this? It seems that I had described both novels as “masterpieces.”

Now “masterpiece,” if we are to have any critical standards at all, shouldn’t really be the sort of word that just gets thrown around. How often does a novel appear that genuinely deserves to be called a masterpiece? But here I was, blithely acclaiming two recent novels using precisely that word. Arctic Summer and In the Light of What We Know are both very good books, no doubt about it. But are they really masterpieces? Wasn’t I, by recklessly employing this word, contributing to a general debasement of its currency?

I can tell you why I did it: writing the last paragraph of a book review is really hard. A short review of a novel needs to do several things. First, it needs to give a summary of the plot (this might seem like the easy bit, but actually describing a whole novel in a couple of sentences is a kind of minor discipline unto itself, like haiku). Second, it should provide some sense of the author’s background and general concerns. Third, there should be quotations that offer a reasonably accurate sense of the author’s prose style. Fourth, there’s the whole business of evaluation: is this novel any good? If not, why not? And if so, why? Then – and here’s where the trouble starts – you need a snappy final paragraph, to tie it all up.

And it’s here – in the final paragraph – that you find yourself reaching for words like “masterpiece.” Wrapping things up at the end of a review, you cast around for a climactic rhetorical flourish: what speechwriters call a peroration. And sometimes, in your hurry to get the damn thing filed, you slap down any old thing. If it’s a very good book – if reading it has left you with warm, fuzzy feelings of gratitude towards the author – you go big: you call it a masterpiece and click send. And in fact, “masterpiece” is the final word I used in my reviews of Arctic Summer and In the Light of What We Know. (Strangely, I find that in my review of what is almost certainly an actual masterpiece, Joseph O’Neill’s The Dog, I managed to refrain from using the word “masterpiece” altogether. Baffling.)

Mea culpa, I suppose: I didn’t try hard enough to avoid one of the most inflated of book-review clichés. (“Endings are hard” isn’t much of an excuse.) This is how evaluative criticism debases its own currency. Every time we read a good-but-not-great novel that some critic or other has called a masterpiece, our sense of the value of that word takes a hit. And lazy critics (including me) end up resembling the art teacher in The Simpsons, who sees a janitor painting the stairwell and cries, “Another triumph!”

Writing the last paragraph of this column, I find myself confronting precisely the difficulty I mentioned above – how do I go out with a bang? Maybe I shouldn’t bother. Or maybe I’ll take the lazy way out once again, and assure you that the column you’ve just read is its author’s finest work to date: almost certainly, in fact, a masterpiece.

Patrick McCabe Interview/The Problem with The Simpsons

Patrick McCabe

In today’s Sunday Business Post Magazine, I interview Patrick McCabe about his new novel, Heartland (New Island). Paywalled, I’m afraid, but here’s a short excerpt:

A certain bloody-mindedness about his work has served McCabe well, over the years. After graduating from St Patrick’s College Drumcondra, he tried to combine writing with raising a family and teaching full-time in a school in Longford. “Bit by bit I began to realise, this is very difficult. I stopped sleeping, wasn’t listening to people’s conversations. I’d about three years of that, producing nothing of any worth.” During those years he discovered that, for writers, emotional struggle is “part of the game. While everybody else is going out playing football, having a great time, here you are, gnawing away at your insides, getting paler and paler, losing weight.”

It’s easy, I suggest, for writers to get discouraged during the early years. But McCabe is having none of it. “I remember a young fella announcing to me, “I’ve writer’s block.” And I said, “I’ll give you such a kick up the arse if you don’t write.” It was the best thing for him. He was falling victim to the romance of disintegration.”

The Simpsons

Also in today’s Sunday Business Post Magazine, I’ve got a piece about The Simpsons and its response to Hari Kondabolu’s documentary The Problem With Apu. A wee excerpt:

When I was a teenager, in that long-ago age of innocence, the 1990s, the best thing on TV was a 23-minute animated comedy about a yellow-skinned, lower-middle-class American family who lived in a town called Springfield. It was broadcast once a week, on Sky One, at 6pm on Sunday. If you missed it, your life was over. If you were sensible, you videotaped each episode, so you could watch it again and again.

My devotion to The Simpsons, back in the ‘90s, was essentially cultic. I spoke fluent Simpsons. So did my brother. So did most of my friends. We could recite whole scenes from memory. We could recreate the precise inflections with which the actors delivered their lines. And this is true of a whole generation of Anglophone TV viewers. If you grew up in the ‘90s, you grew up with The Simpsons. It was one of the elements in which you lived.

I have, of course, written about The Simpsons before, in this blog post.

New Short Story in Banshee

A new short story of mine appears in Issue 6 of Banshee, a wonderful literary journal edited by three young Irish writers, Eimear Ryan, Claire Hennessy, and Laura Cassidy. My story is called “A Theft” and it is, as the editors perceptively note, about “consent in various forms.” Fun fact: the title is itself stolen, from Saul Bellow. Quite aside from the calibre of the work that appears in it, Banshee is a physically beautiful object – wonderfully designed & a pleasure to read. Issue 6 is available now from good bookshops in Ireland & from Banshee’s website. Go forth, and purchase!

On That Simpsons Blog Post [UPDATED]

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Since I posted it back in February, this piece on the decline of The Simpsons & the show’s hatred of Lisa has been attracting a fair amount of attention & commentary. In fact, as of today, it’s been viewed over 135,000 times, a datum that causes me to think to myself: There it is, Kev. The most popular thing you’ll ever write, and nobody paid you a cent for it. But – as Tony Soprano might say – whaddaya gonna do?

A sincere thank you to everyone who shared the piece and to everyone who took the time to comment on it. I’m thrilled and delighted that a piece I wrote mostly by accident (I didn’t really mean to watch all 629 episodes of The Simpsons in a month; it just sort of happened) has struck such a chord.

I should say at the outset that I think the piece’s popularity has much less to do with anything I contributed and much more to do with the fact that The Simpsons means so much to such a huge cohort of people. Anyone born in the 1980s or 1990s, after all, has pretty much absorbed The Simpsons the way 18th century aristocrats used to absorb the Roman poets. We speak Simpsons, we 80s and 90s kids. We use Simpsons quotes and allusions all the time – to make a point, to solidify a friendship, to make each other laugh. Often, we do this without even pausing to think about the specific derivation of what we’re saying. Case in point: my wife arrived home from work the other day, and as she was taking off her coat I said, “We found this one swimming naked in the Fermentarium.” “I AM THE LIZARD QUEEN!” she replied at once. This was what we said instead of, “Hi, how was your day?” I’d be willing to bet that there’s a million other couples out there who do the same thing.  So The Simpsons is deeply important to us. I didn’t set out to find fault with the show; I watched the whole thing because I love it (and I still love it, in spite of everything). All I did was turn around and look at something that had been a part of my life for as long as I could remember, and try to see it afresh. I’m amazed that so many of you found value in my doing that. So again, thank you.

I’m going to try to address a few of the points that have been made about the post in the comments and on social media. (If you commented on the post and your comment never appeared, this is because you are a troll, and while you may be a wonderful and empathetic person in your day-to-day life, your online behaviour lacks both wonderfulness and empathy, & I have responded accordingly.) Here, in no particular order, are a few of the major points that have come up.

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You say that Golden Age Simpsons wasn’t really about character. I couldn’t disagree more. What about Mr. Bergstrom? What about “Do It For Her”? 

I should probably have clarified this point. For its first three seasons or so, The Simpsons was actually a pretty standard, warmhearted American sitcom, in which we’re meant to like the characters and be moved by their fairly trivial sufferings. And the show never fully abandoned this strain of warmhearted, mainstream sitcommery – in fact, it returned to it, in a weird, heartless, going-through-the-motions way, in its post-Golden Age period. But I would submit that if The Simpsons had never evolved past this stage in its development – if it had never become the surreal, absurdist comedy it became during its true Golden Age (let’s say from Season 5 to Season 10) – then I think it would never have become the show that we know and cherish, and we would not be having this conversation right now. At its purest – in “Itchy and Scratchy Land,” or in “Bart Vs. Australia,” or in “Homer Vs. the Eighteenth Amendment”, to take the first three examples that come to mind – The Simpsons  moved way beyond standard sitcom character arcs and “Awwww!” moments and started doing something far more nihilistic and preposterous. If you love The Simpsons, I would humbly suggest, it is these episodes that you love. That’s My Two Cents, anyway.

Charlie Brown Never Kicks the Football

A lot of people have raised the point that Peanuts embodies a similar dynamic of aspiration and disappointment to the one I discovered in The Simpsons, and that this dynamic is often at the heart of successful comedy. I’m afraid I can’t really say much specifically about Charlie Brown et. al.: I grew up in Ireland, where Peanuts isn’t really a thing. But I do grant that a dream-crushing dynamic is often at the heart of good comedy. However, I think that The Simpsons, taken as a 629-episode aggregate, starts to go beyond this standard comedic strategy into more sinister, even pathological territory. Lisa’s punishments are often not really funny at all, as when every cat she tries to love is killed, or when she’s genuinely heartbroken about not being able to attend Cloisters Academy, or when – in “Boy Meets Curl” (Season 21 Episode 12) – she becomes addicted to collecting Winter Olympics pins and suffers meaninglessly as a result. In fact, these examples indicate exactly what I mean: it isn’t funny that Lisa keeps experiencing grief and loss in “I, (Annoyed Grunt)-bot,” and it isn’t funny that she doesn’t get to go to the school she desperately needs to go to in “Lisa Simpson, This Isn’t Your Life,” and it isn’t funny that Lisa sells her dress to buy more Olympics pins and winds up weeping on the street. Lisa’s grieving face, at the end of “Lisa Simpson, This Isn’t Your Life,” isn’t a punchline; it’s meant to move us. But it doesn’t move us in the “Awwww!” sort of way – i.e. the way it’s supposed to. Instead, it makes us uncomfortable, because we’re watching a genuinely warm & hopeful character having her dream deferred for the hundredth time.

Stretched out over 29 years, Lisa’s suffering accrues a weird sort of extra-textual gravity that doesn’t really have anything to do with what the writers of the show might have consciously intended. Once or twice it might be funny to see a warmhearted character rejected when she tries to make a friend; if you show this happening two dozen times or more, over three decades of episodes, it starts to say something troubling about how you see that character, and about the society you live in. This is why I used the words “punish” and “cruel” about the show’s treatment of Lisa. Her suffering is so repetitive, and so meaningless, that after a while it stops making an overtly satirical point about the frustrations of being an intellectual in our society and starts making an unconsciously grim point about how we as a society treat intellectuals, women, and women intellectuals.

The Simpsons is a Satire. It Exposes the World As it Really Is; Lisa’s Suffering Makes a Satirical Point about the Society We Live In. 

Actually I think The Simpsons is only incidentally a satire. This is why I described it as an absurdist comedy in my original post. Individual episodes of The Simpsons are inarguably satirical – the key example might be “Homer Badman,” which satirises PC hysteria about sexual harassment and media overreaction to trivial news stories. And even in the post-Golden age period, individual jokes are unquestionably satirical (“You make a very adulterous point, Senator”). But generally speaking, The Simpsons – especially during the Golden Age – wasn’t really a satirical show. Satire typically exposes moral and intellectual faults to ridicule by exaggerating them to ludicrous extremes. It is generally more interested in making a programmatic moral point than it is in making you laugh. South Park is a satire – Trey Parker and Matt Stone have a set of clear political and moral values that enables them to discern what is wrong with certain trends and ideas. The Simpsons, which has cycled through many writers and many showrunners, has never had a coherent political and moral stance from which to satirise American culture. It seems to be broadly liberal – it dislikes Fox News, and so on. But to the extent that The Simpsons does have an implicit set of moral values, it is actually highly conservative: family is the most important thing; educated cosmopolitan types can’t be trusted; God punishes hubris; bullies are a part of the natural order; the stupid majority is always right; etc etc. To take one example: in “She of Little Faith” (Season 13 Episode 6), Lisa rejects Christianity. The rest of the family – and the rest of the town – are appalled, and try, rather cruelly, to manipulate Lisa into rejoining the church. Here is an opportunity for the show to suggest that people can live meaningful lives without religion – or, at the very least, to suggest that tolerance is preferable to unthinking zealotry. But instead, the show insists Lisa must have some kind of religion, so she becomes a Buddhist. The Simpsons can’t really imagine a life genuinely free of religious belief – because it thinks the majority is always right. Again and again, Marge’s narrow-minded, ill-informed, kneejerk religiosity is held up as the show’s idea of the proper path in life. Lisa’s independence must be carefully coralled. If The Simpsons owned up to this particular view of things, then it might qualify as a satire. But since it doesn’t, it remains a comedy that fails to acknowledge or understand its own reactionary assumptions. Or so I would suggest.

Shut Up, Meg

I’ve read a fair number of comments suggesting that Family Guy‘s treatment of Meg echoes The Simpsons‘ treatment of Lisa. I think to conflate the two is something of a category error. Family Guy works by invoking racist, homophobic, misogynist, and anti-Semitic jokes in a frame of cheap irony, allowing it (on the one hand) to make crass and offensive jokes about women, minorities, Jews, and queer people, and (on the other) to frame those jokes as ironic parodies of the kind of jokes that horrible people tell in earnest. The show’s abuse of Meg is of a piece with this. Taken as a whole, Family Guy says less about how society treats women specifically and more about America’s deep unease about the fact that it is a mixed-race society. One way to cope with the fact of human variety is to laugh at it in a joyous spirit. Another way is to nervously make cruel jokes about minorities. Family Guy is a lowbrow show. It takes the second route while claiming to take the first. Even the most dismal Simpsons episode is warmer and more sophisticated. The two shows aren’t really doing the same thing at all.

Ted Cruz!

I did indeed catch reports of Ted “Toad of Toad Hall” Cruz’s remarks at CPAC back in February, to wit: “The Democrats are the party of Lisa Simpson and Republicans are happily the party of Homer, Bart, Maggie and Marge.” The thing is, I think he’s absolutely right. On some basic level, Cruz has intuited that post-Golden Age Simpsons consistently punishes excellence and rewards crassness, ignorance, and stupidity. In this, post-Golden Age Simpsons is exactly like the contemporary Republican Party. Let us not forget that the GOP in the 21st century has been able to field, as its lone “intellectual,” one Paul Davis Ryan, a man who once looked like merely the creepiest counselor at a summer camp for girls, but who now (after a year as Trump’s lickspittle) looks like the mortuary assistant at his own funeral. For attempting to appear “smart” (with his PowerPoint presentations and his thousand-page “tax plans”), Ryan has had the moral and intellectual shit beaten out of him by the rest of Trump’s GOP. You’d almost feel sorry for him. But not really.

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(Image credit: @isikbreen)

6000 Words?!? Are You Out of Your Mind?!

To the vocal minority who complained that the post is too long, I say: The internet has ruined your ability to concentrate, Sir or Madam, and you should direct your complaints to the man responsible for inventing the internet in the first place, former president Al Gore.

“That’s Just, Like, Your Opinion, Man”

Indeed it is, Sir or Madam! Indeed it is. In fact, some people might say that “presenting an informed individual opinion” is the whole point of criticism to begin with. It seems rather strange that I would need to explain this to you, an adult person who has presumably read works of criticism before. But it takes all sorts!

You Clearly Have a Feminist Bias. 

That’s one way of looking at it.

“Your Twitter bio is cringe, how can all your opinions be correct, you  smug liberal dolt”

I’m afraid I don’t have time to teach you the rudiments of irony, my friend, but I wish you every happiness in life – truly I do. Life isn’t easy for anyone, and I hope that abusing strangers on the internet has brought you some measure of peace.

“u should kill yourself”

No, I don’t think I will, actually. Thanks for reading, though!

[UPDATE] Hey, What About The Recent Controversy Over Apu Being a Racial Stereotype?

Yeah. I mean, Apu is a racial stereotype. There are plenty of racial stereotypes in The Simpsons. As an Irish person, I generally enjoy the show’s representations of Irish people (“Whacking Day was originally started in 1924 as an excuse to beat up the Irish!” “Aye, ’tis true. I took many a lick. But sure ’twas all in good fun!”). But Irish people are white Westerners. I completely understand Hari Kondabolu’s argument, in The Problem with Apu, that Apu has not served Indian people particularly well, over the years. The current debate is about the show’s response to Kondabolu’s critique. In the most recent episode, “No Good Read Goes Unpunished” (Season 29 Episode 15), Marge tries to rewrite an offensive book she loved as a child, and finds that she has destroyed its magic. I’ll let the New York Times describe the key scene:

At one point, Lisa turns to directly address the TV audience and says, “Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?” The shot then pans to a framed picture of Apu at the bedside with the line, “Don’t have a cow!” inscribed on it.

Just so we’re all on the same page, here’s what happens in this scene: Lisa, the show’s embodiment of progressive liberalism, is made to say “Fuck off” to a progressive/liberal critique of the show. The Simpsons may or may not be obliged to respond to Kondabolu’s argument about Apu (we can argue about that). But it’s incredibly depressing that it chose to respond in such a dismissive, reactionary way.

And that it should choose Lisa to deliver the key speech: that’s incredibly depressing, too.

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[UPDATED UPDATE] Early in “No Good Read Goes Unpunished,” Lisa is shown reading With No Apologies, the memoirs of Arizona Senator and 1964 presidential candidate Barry Goldwater. “He opposed the religious right,” Lisa notes, approvingly. Of course, Goldwater also believed that the US should drop nuclear weapons on the North Vietnamese and suggested that the only problem with the John Birch Society was nutty leadership. I’m starting to think we’re being trolled.

Seven Types of Atheism by John Gray

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My review of John Gray’s superb new history of atheist thought (Allen Lane) appears in today’s Sunday Business Post MagazineHere’s a short excerpt:

There are no gods. There is no such thing as “humanity” – only human beings with disparate beliefs and desires. The soul and its modern analogue, the self, are illusions. There can be no such thing as a universal morality. Human beings are no different from animals. We may never be able to understand the universe in which we live. Science and technology will not deliver us from suffering or death. Human beings are not rational creatures. History is not leading anywhere in particular. Old evils, apparently stamped out, will return in new guises. There is no such thing as moral progress. 

This list of heresies is a crude distillation of the thought of John Gray, the author of Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (2002), Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia (2007), The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths (2013), and The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom (2015). For many years a right-leaning political philosopher – he taught at Oxford and at the London School of Economics – Gray has become, with these books, perhaps the one truly indispensable thinker of the 21st century. 

The Dawn of Man (A New Short Story)

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I’m teaching Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey next week, and while I was watching the “Dawn of Man” prologue to the movie  – in which the apes discover the idea of using tools under the influence of the humming monolith – I had an idea for a short story narrated by the ape who first discovers how to smash things with bones. And here it is!

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Look, I feel bad about the tapir. I do. But at the time, it wasn’t really a question of empathy, or of cross-species consciousness, or what have you. No, it was much more a question of discovery. Do you get me? The tapir was minding his own business, I accept that. He had as much right to graze the savannah as any of us. But once you get an idea into your head, that idea takes on a life of its own, you know? And then all of a sudden you find yourself clubbing a tapir to death and chowing down on raw tapir-meat and people are saying, What’s your problem with tapirs, Largest Ape in the Tribe? And I’m like, Hey the idea took me where it took me, all right? I think you can see where I’m coming from.

Or maybe you can’t. I mean the whole idea of “ideas” as such is still pretty new, right? In the sense that I’m the first hominid ever to actually have one – an idea, I mean. For a long time none of us had any idea about ideas. There we were, sleeping in caves, picking the nits out of each other’s fur, and generally going about our lives in a peaceable fashion – if you discount the occasional shrieking-match or skirmish with a rival tribe. (And can I just say while I’m on the subject, the Tribe from Under the Big Tree by the Next Watering-Hole Along? Those guys can go fuck themselves. Seriously. I’m still pretty pissed off about that fruit-stealing incident from several roughly equal periods of darkness and light ago, and I think Second-Largest Ape in the Tribe will support me on that.) My point is that before I picked up that bone and started whacking shit with it, the closest any of us had come to an idea was stuff like have sex now, or get away from my fruit. And to call stuff like that ideas is really – let’s be honest – pretty generous. Nope, I was the first real ideas-ape – that’s my claim to fame – and even though I really only managed to come up with one idea, I think you’ll agree it’s a doozy. It’s certainly made a big difference around here, I don’t have to tell you.

Let me recreate the moment. It’s your average day on the plains. Hot Bright Thing is doing its hot, bright thing up there above us all. Everyone’s just lazing around – we had a real issue with morale on those hot, bright days, a real lassitude problem. Nobody could even be bothered to get worked up about food, or fucking, or anything. I tried to get Third-Largest Ape and Sexual Partner of Third-Largest Ape to come for a bit of a forage with me, but they waved me away and scuttled off to hide in the shadow under a rock, the lazy bastards. So there I was, compelled to go off foraging on my own. And I had no luck. All I could find was a big pile of bones – the bleached bones of some poor tapir, lying there in the dust. I’ll say it again: I have no problem with tapirs, it’s not a tapir thing, it just so happened that it was a tapir bone that gave me the idea – the World’s First Idea, the thing that’s changed everything, if I do say so myself.

But I’m getting ahead of my story. The big thing back then – I’m sure you all remember – was Huge Grey Block. This was what most of my fellow hominids were doing with their time, back in the pre-ideas era: hanging around Huge Grey Block, which – as we all know – just appeared one morning outside our cave, sitting there and doing bugger-all. Yeah, Huge Grey Block had become a real hobby, a real pastime, around then. Second-Largest Ape in the Tribe and Smallest Ape in the Tribe were the real project leaders on this, to give credit where it’s due. Their thing was jumping around Huge Grey Block and screaming at it – maybe touching it a little bit, trying to see if it was edible, I guess.

Me, I was skeptical. Huge Grey Block had already been around for three or four roughly equal periods of light and darkness, and it still didn’t seem to be doing a whole lot with its time. “What about Humming Noise,” Smallest Ape in the Tribe would grunt, whenever I raised this point. Which, fair enough: Huge Grey Block did seem to have this humming noise thing going on. Got right into your inner ear, that noise. Seemed to mess around with the mush inside your head, in some strange way. It was getting to be kind of a drag, or so I felt.

So I’d be lying if I said my foraging expedition that day didn’t have something to do with getting away from Huge Grey Block and Humming Noise. Mainly I just wanted some peace and quiet, plus maybe a snack if there was anything to be had. But as I mentioned, all I found was a bunch of tapir bones. It was depressing. No fruit trees, no small scurrying animals, no water. Just dry bones. It was a rough day to be a hungry hominid, and no mistake.

Anyway. There I am, sitting among the bones, feeling pretty blue. And I find my fingers have curled around one of the larger bones in the pile. Nothing remarkable there. Nothing that hasn’t happened a hundred times before. It’s quite nice, actually, the feel of clean bone on your skin. Smooth and warm, with little ridges and cracks under your fingertips. It passes the time, in any event.

But something was different that day. I know, I know – I’ve told this part of the story so often that it’s in danger of becoming a cliché. But to some of the younger apes it may still be fresh. Some of you young tool-users may want to know what it was like, discovering the concept of tool-use for the very first time. So I’m sitting there with my fingers curled around this bone. And without even really thinking about it, I find I’m touching the bone harder than usual – my fingers have curled around so that they’re actually touching the palm of my hand, with (and this is the crucial point) the bone sort of gripped or clasped in the middle. Of course now we know what a revolutionary concept this is – it has, after all, given us all sorts of other ideas, like “lifting” and “carrying,” et cetera – but at the time, I freely admit, I just sort of went, “Huh.”

So here’s this bone in my hand. And about five seconds later, I’m like: This bone is IN MY HAND. I was like, Wow. Okay. That’s new. And then I just did it: I used my arm to lift the bone up and put it above my head. And it stayed there.

It seems like nothing, now – like no big deal. But at the time, if you had told one of your fellow hominids: “Hey, I just used my hand to move a bone and now the bone is above my head and it’s staying there,” they would have been all like, “What the fuck are you talking about, Largest Ape in the Tribe? That’s impossible!” And when I did tell people, it absolutely blew their minds.

So I’m there, holding this bone aloft. And I asked myself the obvious question: What next? In the event, it was purely a matter of logic: I moved the bone back down again. And I want you to know, as you sit there listening to me, that I had absolutely no idea what would happen next. And this, I think, is really the essence of having an idea. You have an idea, and all bets are off. You just don’t know what you’re getting into, once you set an idea loose in the world. Superfically, I might have been waving a bone around out there on the savannah under the Hot Bright Thing, but really I was in the dark. But of course I was. This was cutting-edge stuff – the front line of technology. Completely unpredictable. It could have gone disastrously wrong. I could have been killed. There was just no way of knowing.

Three seconds later, I’m looking at a smashed tapir skull and thinking, Did I do that? Naturally, I was dubious. The skull could easily have smashed by itself – independently of the thing I was doing with my fingers and my arm and the bone. There was only one way to confirm my suspicions. I moved the bone up and down with my arm again. Boom! Another pile of smashed skull bits.

By this stage, I was starting to feel pretty good. We all know the feeling by now, of course – the good feeling that comes from smashing things with a bone. But at the time I was scared shitless. I was experiencing something no one had ever experienced before – and that’s always a mindfuck.

I’ll skip over the next few hours of experimental confirmation, which were mostly taken up with smashing more tapir bones and reassuring myself that the good feeling I had about doing this was normal. Since that morning, the conclusions I reached have been pretty thoroughly verified by real-world testing – if you smash something with a bone, it stays smashed, and all that. But there was more to come. Sure, I’d had a breakthrough. But there was still the question of practical application.

That’s when I saw the tapir. Now I’ll be the first to admit that one of the most serious consequences of the widespread adoption of my idea has been that the tapirs are now afraid of us and consequently much more difficult to hunt. I take full responsibility for that. I do. But I would argue, in counterpoint, that the bone-to-the-head method of killing tapirs has made the whole process about a million times more efficient. So what we’ve lost in tapir access, we’ve gained in tapir killability. Which I think is a real, undeniable improvement. But you all know my feelings on this and I won’t bore you with them once again.

Really I just want to remind everyone that it’s not a tapir thing specifically. I really do think that my idea has broader applications than just tapir-killing, and I’ve made the point many times that we need to look into experimenting with smashing other animals over the head with bones. The reason I started with a tapir is that a tapir happened to cross my path at the key moment. That was it. If we do nothing but kill tapirs, it really is going to seem like we’re just anti-tapir as a matter of policy, and that’s going to make us look bad.

But anyway. Sometimes people will ask me, “Hey, Largest Ape in the Tribe, now that you’ve come up with an idea – and, some would argue, with the very idea of ideas as such – where do you think we’re headed, as a society? What’s the next idea going to be?” And I don’t know if I have any good answers to this question. There are always rumours, of course. Just the other day, Not the Smallest Ape in the Tribe was talking about Tribe From the Other Side of the River, who have apparently diversified into using rocks instead of bones to smash things with. It seems crazy to me, but there you go. I will say that I have no time whatsoever for those rumourmongers who claim that certain apes in certain other tribes have used bones to smash other apes over the head in some sort of power-grab or war maneuvre. I think that’s a horrifying concept and I reject it completely. Smashing animals over the head with bones is a benevolent technology. It’s liberated us from what was – let’s face it – a pretty benighted phase in our history. If people are even thinking of using smashing animals over the head for destructive purposes, then I don’t know what kind of world we’re living in.

But I’ve gone on long enough. The Humming Noise from Huge Grey Block is starting to get to me, and Hot Bright Thing is about to be replaced by Cold, Less Bright Thing, which is my signal to retire for the evening. Thanks for listening, and remember: keep your eyes open. There are ideas everywhere. You just have to know where to look.

Farther Away by Jonathan Franzen

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This review first appeared in The Sunday Business Post in July 2012.

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Jonathan Franzen is a champion complainer. He complains about BlackBerrys – which may be “sexy,” but which are also “great allies and enablers of narcissism.” He complains about televisions in airports: “a small but apparently permanent diminution in the quality of the average traveller’s life.” He complains about planned obsolescence: “WordPerfect 5.0 for DOS won’t even run on any computer I can buy now.” He complains about people using their cellphones in public: “The world ten years ago was not yet fully conquered by yak.” He complains about writers who use “comma-then”: “If you use comma-then like this frequently in the early pages of your book, I won’t read any farther unless I’m forced to.”

But unlike the great complainers of literary history – Jonathan Swift, Mark Twain, H.L. Mencken, Gore Vidal, Dwight MacDonald – Franzen doesn’t really seem to get off on complaining. Instead, he seems pained by his own compulsion to grouse about our fallen world. He doesn’t want to be that guy – he doesn’t want to be the crusty old liberal humanist who thinks that people say “I love you” too cavalierly these days and who prefers to spend his spare time birdwatching.

Franzen’s anxiety about complaining manifests itself in the unseemly amount of time he spends, in his new collection of essays, worrying about whether or not his crotchets and obsessions seem “cool.” “Cellular technology was […] free to continue doing its damage without fear of further criticism, because further criticism would be unfresh and uncool. Grampaw,” he writes in “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” an unfocused (though satisfyingly cranky) jeremiad about mobile phones and the erosion of privacy. And: “It’s very uncool to be a birdwatcher,” he frets in the opening piece, a speech delivered to a presumably baffled Kenyon College graduating class in 2011.

Well, it is very uncool to be a birdwatcher, if your definition of “cool” is whatever a twenty-year-old in skinny jeans might think is “cool.” But why should Jonathan Franzen (who is, as of this writing, 52 years old) care whether or not people think he’s cool? He has written two of the best American novels of the last twenty years: The Corrections (2001) and Freedom (2010). Time called him a “Great American Novelist.” He’s Jonathan Franzen, for God’s sake: no one else is currently writing novels that run as deep or reach as far. As a novelist, he provides the classical satisfactions of great, traditional fiction: narrative sweep, human detail, social vision. His essays, alas, are another story.

Like almost every other American novelist forced to wrestle with the ghost of David Foster Wallace (the Crown Prince of American Intellectual Self-Consciousness, who appears as a central figure in two of the pieces collected here), Franzen the nonfiction writer has become helplessly trapped in a feedback loop of self-examination: he is nervous about appearing to worry about appearing uncool, all of which makes him feel very uncool indeed. He wants to complain, but he doesn’t want to enjoy complaining too much, lest he seem like the sort of person who enjoys complaining too much.

This sort of thing has become a standard set of anxieties for the practicing American novelist, and some writers have made interesting fiction out of their wanderings in the maze of self-absorption. But in Franzen’s case it is a pity that he has allowed this endemic self-consciousness to overwhelm his literary gifts. As a novelist, he is equipped with a rare synthesizing intelligence, a great and warm capacity for satirical observation, and deep resources of empathy and cunning. As a confessional essayist, he is as nervous as an early Woody Allen character, forever apologising for himself and obscuring his subjects behind his finely elaborated literary-theoretical scruples.

“I recognise that by talking about my own work,” he writes, in an essay called “On Autobiographical Fiction,” “and telling a story of progress from failure to success, I run the risk of seeming to congratulate myself or of seeming inordinately fascinated with myself.” And yet, when Franzen gets his apologies out of the way and just tells his story, the result is a fascinating account of how he came to write The Corrections.

By far the best piece in the collection is “The Ugly Mediterranean,” a vivid, angrily articulate account of the hunting of songbirds in Cyprus and Italy, in which Franzen sets aside his concerns about seeming “cool” and simply presents the evidence, using his formidable reportorial skills.

Farther Away is a patchy sort of book, even for a collection of miscellaneous pieces: fitfully illuminating, often beautiful, more often tortured and grumpily abstruse. Its contents should be understood as by-products of Franzen’s day-job: writing novels as gripping, empathetic, and lucid as Freedom and The Corrections.  

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Bonus content: I interviewed Jonathan Franzen in 2015. Read the transcript here.