(As the English-speaking world eagerly awaits the translation of the newest Haruki Murakami novel, 1Q84, here's Meg Wise-Lawrence's appreciation of the Japanese author's full body of work. Meg teaches English at Hunter College in New York City.)
How often does literature truly transport you?I remember walking out of the theater after first seeing Mad Max in The Road Warrior in 1981. I was shocked to find a sunny day in New Jersey, and not post-apocalyptic outback. When I read Ray Bradbury’s “Rain,” I felt soaked. Usually the transformative effect is more prevalent in movies -- Terry Gilliam, David Lynch and Wim Wenders come to mind.
To read the novels and short stories of Haruki Murakami is to enter an alternate universe that is uncannily similar to your own, and yet different enough that it brilliantly illuminates your own life. To read Murakami -- to engage with art -- is to enter an altered state of consciousness, to experience a reader-writer mindmeld. You don’t want the trip to end, but when it does you know you’ve been transformed -- even if it was just for a few seconds in the bright sun after a good movie.
Murakami’s books pay off. They are the odd friend you can’t explain but you know your other friends will like. Pick any of his works, and you’ll be invited into a semi-familiar, alien world, where his characters are guides. In Sputnik Sweetheart, Sumire is going through a Jack Kerouac phase, carrying a “dog-eared copy of On the Road or Lonesome Traveler” in the pocket of her tattered, oversized herringbone coat. Her passions are literature and music; she’s working on crafting a “Total Novel” but the magic hasn’t happened yet. Murakami’s narrator says, “If she’d been able to grow a beard, I’m sure she would have.” She meets the lovely, older Miu who had “a vague sense that [Kerouac] was a novelist of some kind.” Wasn’t he a Sputnik? She asks.
I've been reading Barbara Oakley, a professor and social scientist with a unique theory about altruism. Far from being a boon to mankind, she believes, altruism is often our scourge, our instrument of self-destruction.
She cites the altruistic Chairman Mao (as we have too, in our discussions about altruism and ethics) and Adolf Hitler (who never stopped constantly reminding the German people how much he was helping them, up until the end when the entire country burned). These are both apt examples in the critique of "bad altruism". Her recent book, lengthily titled Cold-Blooded Kindness: Neuroquirks of a Codependent Killer, or Just Give Me a Shot at Loving You, Dear, and Other Reflections on Helping That Hurts offers the case study of a Utah woman named Carole Alden who liked to draw in men who needed help, devote her life to helping them ... and then kill them. Carole Alden's fatal self-victimization complex is an instructive illustration, and Barbara Oakley believes it points to a general truth about the meaning of altruism in our lives.
Well, I don't know. I admire the clarity and force of Barbara Oakley's convictions, which remind me of Ayn Rand's. But Cold-Blooded Kindness is a bumpy read, maybe because the style of writing veers between psychology textbook and Scott Turow thriller (a combination also often used by David Brooks). This breathless writing style can work if expertly handled, but it feels forced here. The idea that horrible Carole Alden (who resembles, roughly, evil nurse/fan Annie Wilkes from Stephen King's Misery) stands as a representative example of normal altruism also feels forced, and this is the more significant problem with the book.
Yes, this woman claimed to be an altruist and screwed up (or killed) every person or animal she tried to help. Yes, there are fringe cases. But the idea that we ought to avoid altruistic impulses in general because of these fringe cases takes it much too far.
When I talk with friends about the Buddhist position on desire -- that desire is illusion, that we must free ourselves from desire -- the conversation often becomes circular. How, someone may ask, can a person want to not want? And, if we free ourselves from desire in order to become happier, aren't we actually following our desire (the desire to be happy) by claiming to free ourselves from it?
These are the right questions to ask, and I'm not going to pretend to have the answers.
But I think we have much to be gained by reframing the question in a wider way, and placing this question at the very center of our philosophical thoughts. What is the object of our desire? Let's say I want a tray full of Taco Supremes from Taco Bell (this is a highly realistic scenario, since in fact I do want a tray full of Taco Supremes from Taco Bell). So, which of these sentences are true?
The remarkable novelist Katharine Weber has published her sixth book, her first work of non-fiction. The Memory of All That: George Gershwin, Kay Swift, and My Family's Legacy of Infidelities is a memoir with a subtitle that evokes the great Broadway composer George Gershwin, who played a key role in Weber's family past.
But Weber is a novelist, and her faithful readers will not approach this new book as a diversion but rather as the sixth entry in a series marked by creative and stylistic variation. None of her previous five novels resemble each other in terms of storytelling approach, tone or setting; she has reinvented her mission as a novelist with each work, and the memoir is clearly the latest step in this progression.
The notion of a Katharine Weber memoir raises immediate questions, because she has always played with real life and fiction in her novels. Her characters play with real life and fiction too. Her well-loved first novel Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear presents a young female narrator so full of verve, affection and enthusiasm that she has to constantly contain herself and rein in the power of her imagination. The tension between Harriet's beckoning sense of romantic possibility and her impulse to control herself and appear polished to others supplies the core of this character's voice. Weber's second novel The Music Lesson offers a heroine who willingly falls for a charming criminal's thin veneer of lies, preferring not to abstain from the great sex that accompanies the story. Her third novel The Little Women, a jaunty comic tableau, then presents an entire family of incorrigibly fanciful souls, spinning together in the whirlwinds of their half-composed psychological theories and illusions. Her powerful fourth novel Triangle also explores what it means to live a life defined more by fiction than by reality, and her fifth True Confections, her broadest comedy, takes the form of a legal affadavit by a woman who is obviously straining at the boundaries of truth.
Many of these works capture the voice of a child's mind, though the "child" may be in the body of an adult. Some writers eschew parent-child relationships (Charles M. Schulz of "Peanuts" comes to mind, since he never drew a parent or an adult in a "Peanuts" comic strip). Katharine Weber is his opposite, as far as subject matter is concerned. Without a parent or grandparent to defy, disappoint, become enraged by, look up to, accept gifts from or give help to, a Katharine Weber character wouldn't know how to live.
Stone Arabia is a new novel by Dana Spiotta, a writer from California. It's about a sister and brother, fast approaching middle age, both grappling with the failures of their once-bright artistic dreams. They are mutually supportive opposites. She's an earthbound, discouraged office worker (who narrates this story in a series of sardonic fits and starts), while he carries on a bizarre habit that provides the koan at the center of this strange book. Having failed as a rock star during the late 1970s, he began a lifelong construction of a fantasy career as a rock star, complete with homemade CDs, extensive bootlegs, memorabilia, fan mail, good and bad reviews. This is his life's work, even if nobody but his sister, his niece and a few assorted ex-girlfriends ever see it. As he nears his fiftieth birthday, impoverished and nearly friendless, he begins to face the fact that this made-up world has gone as far as it can go.
Alchemy, schizophrenia, witchcraft, and religious fanaticism, all leavened with a knowing wink of humor, Inferno, by Swedish author August Strindberg is an early example of the “unreliable narrator” literary device, in which the reader learns that the storyteller is seeing things from a distorted perspective. It is also deliciously macabre, if you like that sort of thing.
The Inferno is far from Strindberg’s most famous work. In 1879, he became famous in Northern Europe with the publication of what is often described as the first modern Swedish novel, The Red Room. Set in Stockholm, The Red Room is a satire dealing with compromise and corruption in politics, journalism, and business in general. Strindberg wrote over 60 plays and is probably best known for his 1888 play Miss Julie, which told a tale of power and sex within high and low social classes. Other plays include The Father, Creditors, and The Ghost Sonata. He was also an essayist, a painter (two of his friends were Edvard Munch and Paul Gauguin), and based on at least one photograph, a guitarist.
I never expected to find myself defending the work of David Brooks, a recently famous culture critic whose signature work (until now) was Bobos In Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There, a bland, predictable putdown of "the Starbucks lifestyle" designed for the bestseller list. I don't particularly like his hectic, pushy writing style, and I haven't even read his new book The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement. But I did read some articles about it, and noted that the book argues an intriguing proposition: we are constantly influenced by subconscious thoughts and needs that we do not understand well, and most of these subconscious thoughts and needs are group-oriented or collective in nature.
This idea reminds me very much of some of my own recent thoughts about why Carl Jung is more relevant to our times than Ayn Rand. The Social Animal does not sell itself as a Jungian work, but that's what it is (though Brooks's emphasis is scientific where Jung's was mystical). I certainly agree with the book's basic conclusion. It seems that David Brooks may have turned a corner and stumbled upon a truly important and valuable idea.
A video captured from Osama bin Laden's final home has just been released. It shows him watching news coverage of himself on TV, and I find this strangely satisfying to watch, because it underscores what I have always suspected about the basic motivation behind Bin Laden's acts of terror. Why did he do the things he did? These are the three explanations I hear most often:
- He was simply evil; he hated life and goodness itself.
- He was a nutjob.
- He was a religious fanatic.
I'm quite sure that all of these explanations are wrong. It's comforting to picture Bin Laden as a person simply wracked by hatred, and other horrible figures like Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin have been frequently described as vile and hateful by those who knew them. But the portrait that emerged of Osama bin Laden from books like Lawrence Wright's The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 did not show a generally hateful streak. He was liked and respected by those closest to him, and he only committed acts of violence against people far away, people who must have seemed like abstractions to him.
Was he a nutjob? This is just a brainless radio show talking point, a punchline. There is not the slightest evidence at all that Osama bin Laden ever suffered from any kind of mental illness.
A religious fanatic? This is what Bin Laden wanted others to believe, but I suspect he was barely religious at all. His calls for "jihad" were entirely based on nationalistic and ethnic rhetoric. Since Sunni Islam largely coincides with an ethnic identity, it was very convenient for him to be fighting for a "religion" when in fact all signs indicate that his goals were thoroughly political and earthbound. He was a rigid traditionalist, but showed no signs of a searching, spiritual mind. Anyone can put on robes and pray, but that doesn't mean we have to believe in their sincerity. There's plenty of reason to suspect that Osama bin Laden's devotion to Islam was shallow and opportunistic.
This is the first time and hopefully last time I'll ever review a true crime book in which I've met the victim. This unique viewing angle added a cutting edge to my reading experience, but Janet Malcolm's Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial needs no added edge; it's a crisp, tight little marvel of a courtroom drama, and a great demonstration of Malcolm's potent journalistic technique.
Janet Malcolm writes odd books with small narrative footprints, deliberately structured to deliver unexpected, even eccentric opinions. Her literary biography Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice scours the Gertrude Stein/Alice Tolkas love affair for signs of dysfunction, then examines the improbably friendly relationship the two Jewish-American women maintained with a vile French Nazi collaborator, Bernard Fay, who allowed them to remain in their idyllic French countryside home throughout the Second World War. Malcolm writes and argues with such skill and confidence that her conclusions often feel unimpeachable, though its not clear what we are supposed to do about them.
Iphigenia in Forest Hills follows a recent murder trial in central Queens, New York. A once-promising marriage between Daniel Malakov and Marina Borukhova, two attractive young ethnic New Yorkers (she a doctor, he an orthodontist, both members of the tight-knit Bukharian community in Forest Hills and Rego Park, Queens) took a wrong turn once they had a daughter. They fought over how to raise the child and caromed suddenly towards a nasty divorce and custody dispute. It got much worse when Marina accused Daniel of sexually molesting their toddler. Her accusation was highly unconvincing, a transparent effort at gaining an upper hand in the custody dispute, and a disgusted public official decided that the child should live with Daniel. Marina then hired an older family relative to shoot and kill Daniel. At the end of the trial observed in this book, both Marina and the hit-man Mikhail Mallayev are convicted and sentenced to life in jail.
I wrote Why Ayn Rand is Wrong (and Why It Matters), a new book now available for Kindle, to fill a vacuum. I'm pretty sure it represents a completely original approach to the works of Ayn Rand.
There are a lot of smart people in the world who value Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism, and there are also a lot of smart people who don't. This ought to be the making of a great public debate ... but the two sides don't debate.
Instead, they call each other names. Non-objectivists caricature Ayn Rand as a shrill proto-fascist and mock the enthusiasm of her fans. Her fans circle the wagons and remind each other that the world is full of cowards who can't handle Rand's clear thinking anyway. Both sides seem to just wish the other side would go away. This is how we treat a philosopher who dares to write with strength and originality?