True Things About Me is disturbing and compelling, especially because it doesn’t want to explain. Its unnamed protagonist doesn’t want to explain. She just wants to act and in acting without explanation she may in some ways be truer to life, in which we so often act and then come up with rationalizations about why we acted after the fact. The disturbing implication of the novel may be that our reasons for doing things are opaque even to us and always will be. Like markets, we just can’t predict our own behavior.
In the novel the unnamed narrator has unplanned, unexpected sex with a man just out of prison who is registering for benefits. It is unexpected, a disjunction, a call to action in a mythic sense, and beyond the initial bang, so to speak, True Things About Me is at most loosely plotted. The scary thing about the story is not that it may be sick but that it may be normal, or at least more common than is commonly supposed, despite the evidence in fiction and art that few of us, Paglia aside, want to face. Much of the online commentary mentions “mental illness,” which is a comforting but wrong misreading. Desire can be neither legislated nor medicalized away. It will reemerge in different forms, and its verbal component is weak or nonexistent. When Alison, the narrator’s boring foil friend, wants to know what’s happening with the narrator, the narrator says “Somehow I couldn’t be bothered to explain it all.” “Somehow:” why bother analyzing what can’t be fully analyzed?
Her parents are either delusional or right; when the narrator invents a boyfriend for her parents’ benefit her mother says, “I just hope he’s a nice boy.” The irony is obvious. Her mother describes Alison as “so sensible,” which may read here as a synonym for boring. There may be no greater modern relationship sin than being boring or needy.* When madness intrudes in normal life we don’t know how to react, unless perhaps we live a continually mad life, like a different Alison, the protagonist in Story of My Life. For the narrator of True Things About Me everything is permitted and nothing matters, which may be the nature of modern adulthood for many nulliparous people.
For the narrator internal changes inspire external changes. After her encounter she thinks that “It seemed to me that I hadn’t looked at clothes properly before.” The clothes she buys says things other than what her old clothes presumably said: “a pair of low-slung cream linen trouser, and a scarlet and cream striped bustier” are new to her, and make one see fashion as part of the story. Silence is power, which is strange in a book composed of words; at one point she says that “He didn’t say much.” What and how he does counts.
Alison and her coworkers are twits. At one moment “They were talking about a television programme. Everyone was really into it. Alison was the most knowledgable.” There is nothing wrong with being into a TV show but in this context the TV show is a stand-in for a life the coworkers are too scared to live. The narrator becomes an outsider by dint of secret knowledge. She drifts away or is separated from from Alison’s world and that is arguably an improvement. Halfway through the novel she considers getting “back into the real world,” raising the usual question of what constitutes reality beyond knowing it when you see it.
In Nine and a Half Weeks one gets many sentences like “His face is blank. The gray pupils on which mine are focused reflect two miniature faces.” There are many descriptions of movement (same page: “I walk slowly across the carpet”) but few of feeling or context. Here is one extended, reasonably representative passage from True Things About Me, and it’s representative in both style and in raising questions about whether one should trust this narrator:
I began to see how it was, how it had always been. Alison was one of those types who loved to sit on the sidelines of someone else’s fascinating life and shout advice at them. She fed off me, and I let her. It made people like that feel even more smug about themselves when they could observe another human being struggling. Unravelling, if they were lucky. . . . She sounded like a second-rate actress in a daytime soap.
Who does the narrator sound like?
True Things About Me may be obliquely related to Susan Minot’s Rapture. Both could be construed as arguments that things don’t matter—people and experiences do. True Things About Me is also a commentary on soulless bureaucratic jobs and their deadening effects on the human condition.
At one point an old woman says, “That girl is on the game [. . .] living off immoral earnings. It’s disgusting. Someone ought to come round and investigate.” The contemporary term “hater” describes her well. The old woman hates the player because she is “living like she doesn’t have a care in the world. It shouldn’t be allowed.” Why not? The narrator doesn’t ask and the old woman doesn’t volunteer. The narrator is about to live without a seeming care in the world either. She leaves her work as an anonymous, Houellebecq-esque bureaucrat processing welfare claims forms to meet a dissolute but presumably sexy man. She blows off her friend, Alison, who is the voice of boredom, restraint, wisdom, and creation, to go “underground.”
There are numerous references to going underground, with connotations that go back to Persephone if not earlier. While there her mind “had stretched and blanked, like a washed sheet on a clothes line.” Is that how the best sexual encounters always happen? Maybe. But the metaphor can be extended through the novel, in which her mind is never really not “blank.”
True Things About Me is probably too uncomfortable to be of interest to most people; in this respect it resembles Never the Face, an underrated and under-known book. I imagine True Things About Me doing better in Europe than here, based solely on stereotype. The truth is out there, the book implies, and you will not like it.
See also Rebecca Barry’s NYT review, although she doesn’t get the novel and wants to throw around the word “abuse,” as if the novel is a cautionary, modern liberal, story about leading a sanitized life purged of dark impulses. Camille Paglia would be the ideal reviewer: she might not like the book—in some ways it may stick too close to the tradition—but she would get it.
* Reminder: Linking does not imply endorsement.
The history of innovation is replete with stories of good ideas that occurred to people while they were out on a stroll. (A similar phenomenon occurs with long showers or soaks in a tub; in fact, the original ‘eureka’ moment—Archimedes hitting upon a way of measuring the volume of irregular shapes—occurred in a bathtub.) The shower or stroll removes you from the task-based focus of modern life—paying bills, answering e-mail, helping kids with homework—and deposits you in a more associative state. Given enough time, your mind will often stumble across some old connection that it had long overlooked, and you experience that delightful feeling of private serendipity: Why didn’t I think of that before.
—Steven Berlin Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From
One danger of cell phones might be the way they keep you immersed in “the task-based focus of modern life,” at least if you let them; Johnson wrote Where Good Ideas Come From in 2010, and at the time smartphones weren’t ubiquitous.
I have been writing about Lev Grossman’s Magicians novels since 2009, not long after I started this blog, and enough time has passed to elicit nostalgia.
The actual publication date is Aug. 5.
“Political power is very much like market power in that it permits the powerholder to indulge either his brutality or his flaccidity.”
Arts & Entertainments is among other things very good, very New York, a comedy complement to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (mid book: “I don’t like living this way. I’ve barely been outside in a week. I want to come home”), a defense of privacy and explanation of its importance (see also “Solitude and Leadership“), a surprise critique of the NSA, a reminder to trust liars, and a reminder that attention is the scarcest commodity of all and becoming scarcer.
I want to write that the plot is absurd. But is it? The vast celebrity-industrial complex is so large and amorphous that it is difficult to judge the plausibility of the plot, or of Eddie’s fatal sex-tape miscalculation. Does he not read the news? Every week some teacher or other gets fired not for being a stripper but for becoming known as one. Digital life is rife with such stories. People as a whole (and the culture we create) are hypocritical, as the novel is aware; though this is taken out of context it reinforces the point:
People don’t want to go overboard with the sad stuff. Mostly, they want to be able to judge people, and they can’t judge a girl in a coma. If she was older and had some kids, they could judge her for being selfish and irresponsible. But she’s too young for that. Maybe they can judge her father for a little while, but that’s his daughter in the coma, so that will only last so long. They can judge, like, the culture at large, but that means judging themselves, so that gets tiresome too. And there’s another episode of Desperately Expecting Susan to watch on Tuesday. Everyone will want an excuse to return their attention to the usual entertainment. We give them a nice opportunity.
The judgment reflex and public morality lag behind reality and rarely moreso than in putative education. The joy of altruistic punishment is real and rarely more powerful than in sexual mattes, with financial matters probably coming in second.
Arts & Entertainments picks up a millennia-old conversation about the self and how much, if at all, we can really know another person. In “In its second season premiere, Masters of Sex takes on the hardest questions of love,” Todd VanDerWerff writes:
One reason so many have tried to repress their sexual desires or legislate them away throughout human history is because when it comes to sex, we’re reduced to our most basic selves. There’s a moment where we are uncontrolled, and our true face appears, even if only for a second. To “fix” this, we try to introduce a rigidity, a script to stick to. We try to set up carefully delineated divisions between that true self and the version of ourselves we present to the world. Yet the fear is always there that in a moment of weakness, that face will appear, and we’ll finally be seen for who we truly are, even if no one would blink for a second.
This may be one reason people like porn, especially of celebrities or other people they know: they imagine that they are getting a moment of the “true” self, and that one gets to see through the personality. But Masters of Sex undercuts that: think of the scene in which Masters is told by Jane Martin, a prostitute in the show, that virtually all women can fake it and have faked it. Masters is astonished, and his astonishment comes from a massive revision about human nature. Most people, I suspect, go through such revisions over and over again, their views on nature changing until they come to a realization like this paraphrase of Terence, by way of Montaigne: “Nothing human is foreign to me.”
Art is filled with moments that remind us of the liars we are. Can we accept an answer of “no,” we do not know and cannot really know another person? Take a moment at the end of Generation War, a fantastic German miniseries that follows five German friends through World War II, in which a Jewish survivor returns to Germany after the war only to discover that a highly-placed Nazi shifted allegiances after the war and continued to be part of the German government. The Nazi’s allegiance was to power itself, and the implication is that we don’t know what a person will do when the circumstances in which they live change.
That we may not be able to know another is not a new idea, but the jones for “reality” TV and celebrity gossip fuels it. There is also an old idea that only God can see our true selves, but the true self may be an outgrown idea, like that other somewhat outgrown idea. In “Scientists discover that atheists might not exist, and that’s not a joke,” Nury Vittachi writes that “a metaphysical outlook may be so deeply ingrained in human thought processes that it cannot be expunged.” I’m unconvinced but I do think most if not all people need an attachment to an idea greater than and outside themselves. Celebrity, Arts & Entertainments suggests, could be that idea, but it is ultimately a hollow one. The cameras lie as effectively as we lie to each other and ourselves. Eddie’s weakness as an actor and a character is his inability to lie effectively. Poor deception skills make him ironically unable to exist on reality TV. The book is filled with subtle ironies like this, and that’s one reason why I think it catches the attention of critics who might be otherwise inclined to write it off as basic, lightweight satire. It isn’t just that. It’s a book of pleasures and of depth.
People who truly live and die an ideology or belief are the real exceptions. Standing for something is the uncommon thing, which may be why it’s so valorized in proportion to the number of people who actually do it. It may also be one of the many reasons religion keeps sneaking into this book. Eddie went to a Catholic school at which he teaches, and he appears to want on some level to do the time without doing the crime, so to speak, but this comment will appear inscrutable without having read the book, but I don’t want to give it more context for fear of spoiling the surprisingly twisty plot. Nothing feels like it’s happening as everything does.
One character, a reality TV producer named Moody, describes how he spent time in “a retreat house in Minnesota, run by the Order of St. Clement” while studying to become a priest; but he left after contact with a film crew that had arrived to make a video that showed what happened. As he says
The crew had their own problems. The things that were really going on in that place couldn’t be captured on film, because they were meant for God, not for the audience. They happened inside people. I watched all this, and somehow I knew what the audience would want to see.
If what you’re doing, or thinking, or feeling can’t be seen, does it matter? Does it “exist?” Is the audience God? Moody also highlights a challenge in any sort of narrative fiction, which can’t effectively depict what happens during the having of an idea, or when someone is doing an intellectual activity. Intellectual effort is mostly invisible, though it may be represented by books or typing or the like. Biographies of many artists are boring because the artists don’t necessarily do that much with their lives. Unless they’re unusually social or unusually sexual, they draw, they pain, they write—none of which lend themselves to narrative. One can write about influences and encounters and so on, but many people have interesting influences and encounters but never go on to do important work, as the artist does.
Movies have an especially hard time with boring writers and thinkers. The Social Network needs a lot of tarted-up, amped up drama to make it compelling; in real life Mark Zuckerberg appears to have spent most of his life at a keyboard and to have been in a monogamous relationship since he was 19 or 20. A Beautiful Mind also dramatizes the discovery moments in math, but the bulk of the movie focuses on dramatizing schizophrenia instead. Novels have similar problems. Few works of narrative art have plots that are motivated by ideas or intellectual curiosity—instead they focus on the interwoven meanings of sex, money, social status, and death. All are fine topics but one wonders if there is more out there.
TV and film, even more than the novel, are about dramatizing the exterior. Anything inside that can’t be represented outside doesn’t exist, but it’s so often what’s inside that counts most. If the soul does not live outside the body, it must not exist at all. The camera reminds us that we do exist, and we live for the adulation of others. That is so hard to resist that we barely know the people who do resist it; for one thing, they aren’t on TV, are rarely in any media, and as such they are the dark matter of contemporary society, everywhere and nowhere simultaneously. Yet they may be the real-ist people of all. If there once was such a thing as natural existence, TV has taken that away, and those who actively cultivate the TV-social-media-Internet-gossip mindset may not have it all. They are faux people, pod people, and that scares because they cannot be relied on to produce a consistent set of behaviors over time, which we usually call personality. One purpose of religion is to enforce a set of behavior codes that allow reasonable forward planning and projection. Arts & Entertainments encourages us to think that maybe there are parts of religion that we think more seriously about, and that fame as a secular religion has its perils that are often not seen until after it has been achieved.