Drugs Unlimited: The Web Revolution That’s Changing How the World Gets High — Mike Power

Drugs Unlimited is an excellent companion to Daniel Okrent’s Last Call, since both are about the madness of the laws that forbid or restrict mind-altering substances. But Drugs Unlimited shares a flaw and strength with Last Call, too: both books are repetitive, with tons of minute historical detail that feels easy to skip. Unless you wish to become an expert in the subject both are better checked out of libraries than bought.

Drugs Unlimited follows a pattern and cites many, many examples of that pattern: Chemist or enthusiast comes up with a novel drug or drug variation; people try and like it; governments eventually ban it (there are chapters devoted to “LSD in the 1960s, heroin in the 1980s and Ecstasy in the 1980s and 1990s”). The process then repeats, though we’re now in a stage in which it’s difficult for governments to ban or regulate every conceivable substance, leading to an online free-for-all.

Drugs_unlimitedShould you wish to enter the free-for-all Drugs Unlimited provides an introduction and useful guidance. Drugs have become more widely available than ever in the last ten years, and perhaps the most interesting thing about their availability has been their lack of impact on society, which continues to function. Nonetheless we get a chronicle of the new drug world: “Widely available and hugely popular, mephedrone was the first mass-market ‘downloadable’ drug, in the sense that it was, uniquely for the mass market, originally only available online.” That I’ve never heard of mephedrone makes me feel uncool.

It’s appropriate that I’m discussing this book on a blog, since Power writes:

Conventional academic research and government-sponsored investigations into attitudes and use patterns are being supplanted in their authority by the unmediated voices of users themselves, as social networks become central to the daily experience of a new generation of drug users.

He doesn’t cite Scott Rosenberg’s Say Everything: How Blogging Began, What It’s Becoming, and Why It Matters but he might as well: one could take out the word “drug” and replace it with “readers” or “listeners” or any number of other verbs. Still, there is a persistent feeling that “the unmediated voices of users” are better informed than the highly mediated voices of the media, or of academics.

Drugs Unlimited is also a media critique: “Saunders also detailed [Ecstasy's] darker, more negative sides in an honest appraisal that was sorely lacking in mainstream coverage.” Or: “My responses to [Ecstasy] and its surrounding culture, and those of everyone I knew, were markedly different from the media’s representation of them.” Or: “hysterical media coverage of the perceive threats of new drugs and corresponding knee-jerk government action seem to be [. . .] guaranteed.”

Power likes drugs: he’s taken them, and he writes sensuously of the way “drugs can send users into bizarre internal spaces, imaginary realms where mind and body are dissociated from each other, and where the only limits to the experience are those of the imagination.” He should perhaps more strongly emphasize the dangers of mixing different drugs, since that along with poorly manufactured drugs is how people die. The extent to which schools, the “responsible” media, and other authority figures systematically lie about drugs is shocking. Although “Most People With Addiction Simply Grow Out of It. Why Is This Widely Denied?” came out after Drugs Unlimited, it would fit into Power’s narrative.

Drugs Unlimited is lightly technical, and you’ll find sentences like these: “PIHKAL reveals in practical detail the chemical synthesis and human dosage of hundreds of psychoactive substances, each of which are in the phenethylamine class.” The book is neither well nor poorly written. It would not surprise me, however, were copies to travel to many unexpected places and inspired many unexpected people. Perhaps you’re one.

Zero to One — Peter Thiel and Blake Masters

Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future is out and you, like everyone, should read it; the book is of course about startups but its deeper themes are philosophical in nature: how we should think about and relate to the world. The writing is elegant and clear without having a distinctive style that can be easily labeled by calling attention to itself. It is Robertson Davies’s plain style, used well here.

Those who have already read Blake Masters’s CS 183 classnotes—I have—may be disappointed, since they form the core of the book. Nonetheless those notes have been cleaned up, organized, and updated with more recent examples. The thrust Zero to One is also beautiful and optimistic: the future is important, it can be shaped and improved, and individual choices matter. In believing those three things, and especially the second two, Thiel and Masters are swimming upstream against much of contemporary culture.

zero to oneOthers can no doubt comment on the technical aspects of the book, but I will note that much of what Thiel and Masters write sounds like an artists’ manifesto: “The act of creation is singular, as is the moment of creation, and the result is something fresh and strange.” I very rarely read about business as “strange,” and yet the word is apt: all things are strange before they become domesticated by time and ubiquity. Artists usually focus directly on creating new things, but Zero to One describes “how to build companies that create new things.” More people extend the reach of what a single individual can do, but though Thiel has “noticed many patterns [. . .] this book offers no formula for success.” There is none, because innovation is by definition strange and new. He is trying to “help my students see beyond the tracks laid down by academic specialties to the broader future that is theirs to create.”

Academia has many problems and he notices them; I don’t think he uses this as a specific example, but one issue is treating school like a job or primary occupation. It shouldn’t in most cases be. It should be a day job that enables and ideally complements the other things one does. Teachers and professors rarely inculcate this attitude, however, because they themselves have been selected by the school system and have bought into its prejudices and cultures. Charter schools are important for many reasons, one being that they give an opportunity to create new schooling cultures. Montessori is specifically attempting to do that, and it is striking how many successful tech guys went through Montessori schools.

They note that “The business version of our contrarian question is: what valuable company is nobody building?” This question is harder than it looks” (23). The novelists’ version is, “What valuable novel is nobody writing?” One challenge, of course, is that different people have different values for “valuable:” I find most “thrillers” to be boring and un-thrilling, and most thriller readers probably find literary fiction the same.

This could be a description of most narrative fiction: “Our ancestors lived in static, zero-sum societies where success meant seizing things from others. They created new sources of wealth only rarely, and in the long run they could never create enough to save the average person from an extremely hard life.” Romance, the driver of so much fiction, is usually zero-sum: if the protagonist wins the guy or girl, no one else can; if the rival wins the guy or girl, no one else can, while in the real world there are a de facto infinite number of good guys or girls, provided the protagonist—that is, you—are willing to find and attract them. There are an infinite number of jobs, too, and one person getting a job doesn’t prevent someone else from getting another, or making another. Much narrative fiction taps into the zero-sum dynamic. Maybe it shouldn’t, or should more often explicitly question that dynamic.

Thiel and Masters are writing about everything, though they write specifically about startups. They discuss the nature of mass delusion (“Usually, it’s considered weird to be a 40-year-old graduate student. Usually, it’s considered insane to start a half-dozen companies at once. But int he late ’90s, people could believe that this was a winning combination”) and the psychology of founders (“Of the six people who started PayPal, four had built bombs in high school” and “We alternately worship and despise technology founders just as we do celebrities”); there is a hint of a Paglian reading of myth here, and such readings are too rare in a de-mythologized, de-ritualized society. There is more of the journey of the mythic hero in tech startups than is commonly supposed.

Psychology and cultural criticism have a long border; Thiel and Masters write that “competition is an ideology—the ideology—that pervades our society and distorts our thinking” (35). The opposite of competition, which may be something like cooperation or stasis, could be even worse: static societies and companies do not appear to do well or even exist in a world of competitive societies. But I don’t think Thiel and Masters are going in this direction: they are rather reminding us that it is useful to remember that we don’t live in a zero-sum world, largely because of technology and specialization. Most of human existence probably was zero sum, however, and that may explain some psychological quirks that aren’t terribly adaptive in contemporary information and industrial societies.

Competitive ideology has another problem too: it encourages us to compete with everyone, all the time. Picking good competitors is probably almost as important as picking good friends. Most competitive arenas are pointless. People often fight for control, and against other people like them:

Consider the opening line from Romeo and Juliet: “Two houses, both alike in dignity.” The two houses are alike, yet they hate each other. They grow even more similar as the feud escalates. Eventually, they lose sight of why they started fighting in the first place.

I’ve noticed this continually among professors, often specialists in the same area, who are from the outside identical and yet bash each other over minor differences. People more generally seem to seek fights for the sake of fighting, and without realizing that direct fighting is usually a terrible way to change minds—as has been known for decades. It’s often better to not respond to critics and instead to make something new. As Thiel and Masters write: “Rivalry causes us to overemphasize old opportunities and slavishly copy what has worked in the past.” One can see this at an individual level or even a national level: think of the petro-states that exist as they do primarily because they can sell oil to innovation states.

I mentioned psychology already; here is another passage on that theme that also applies to artists, who are often skilled at ignoring or repudiating group beliefs / delusions:

The hazards of imitative competition may partially explain why individuals with an Asperger’s-like social ineptitude seem to be at an advantage in Silicon Valley today. If you’re less sensitive to social cues, you’re less likely to do the same thing as everyone else around you. If you’re interested in making things or programming computers, you’ll be less afraid to pursue those activities single-mindedly and thereby become incredibly good at them. Then when you apply your skills, you’re a little less likely than others to give up your own convictions: this can save you from getting caught up in crowds competing for obvious prizes.

“Making things:” properly read, Zero to One is a recipe book for makers across disciplines. And “getting caught up in crowds competing for obvious prizes:” I remember talking about college sexual adventures with a friend who went to an Ivy-League school and who lamented that so many of the girls were, in his view though not in his words, neurotic achievement-obsessed basket cases. Maybe he misunderstood what those girls were seeking, but maybe he chose the wrong environment for that part of life.

Making things happens at large and small scales. Though we are still somewhat good at making things happen at small scales—as, say, the iPhone shows, or many Kickstarter projects show—we have become less ambitious and too obsessed with vetoes on large projects. Launching the Innovation Renaissance discusses this; so too does Thiel, in a cultural-political context: In the 1950s, people welcome big plans and asked whether they would work. Today, a grant plan coming from a schoolteacher would be dismissed as crankery, and a long-range vision coming from anyone more powerful would be derided as hubris.” We are collectively unable to even muster the political will to build denser cities and reasonable public transportation systems, let alone next-generation nuclear plants and systems for getting cheaply into space. This is a dark problem too rarely discussed by anyone.

It is also a tremendous and tremendously dangerous problem: “Without new technology to relieve competitive pressures, stagnation is likely to erupt into conflict. In case of conflict on a global scale, stagnation collapses into extinction.” There is a direct, underappreciated link between novelty, innovation, and survival. Artist and scientists are arguably at the forefront of ideas, though not always good ideas. Still, there is a brilliant statement at the end, which I’ve read more often in books targeted at novelists:

Only by seeing our world anew, as fresh and strange as it was to the ancients who saw it first, can we both re-create it and preserve it for the future.

This is not an ordinary book about “business.” It is a book about everything, as the best books always are.

Almost every human endeavor is also about relationships, whether we want it to be or not:

The lawyers I worked with ran a valuable business, and they were impressive individuals one by one. But the relationships between them were oddly thin. They spent all day together, but few of them seemed to have much to say to each other outside the office. Why work with a group of people who don’t even like each other? Many seem to think it’s a sacrifice necessary for making money. But taking a merely professional view of the workplace, in which free agents check in and out on a transactional basis, is worse than cold: it’s not even rational. Since time is your most valuable asset, it’s odd to spend it working with people who don’t envision any long-term future together. If you can’t count durable relationships among the fruits of your time at work, you haven’t invested your time well—even in purely financial terms.

This is again a good description of academia, and it’s also a restatement of the Coase theorem, which I wrote about in similar terms at the link. In most life domains a purely transactional model makes everyone poorer in the ways that count.

Thiel and Masters note that in school “Students who don’t learn best by sitting still at a desk are made to feel somehow inferior, while children who end up defining their identities in terms of this weirdly contrived academic parallel reality.” If you’re awake and paying attention to the school system, it’s hard not to notice its many bizarre perversities—and its problems harm not only the low achieving students but also the high achieving students. Although I spent years being a dumbass, I mostly got tracked to the high-achieving parts of school, and as an adult discussions with others who were stuck on the high-achieving track involve the ways the value system of that track warps those on it. But no one or almost no one tells students that at the time, and parents, teachers, and administrators are in on the conspiracy. Maybe that’s why so many Silicon Valley bigwigs want their kids in Montessori or similar schools.

Moreover, the prestige / rivalry system reinforces a zero-sum mindset, at least for those who buy in, as Thiel did (and only barley escaped):

Higher education is the place where people who had big plans in high school get stuck in fierce rivalries with equally smart peers over conventional careers like management consulting and investment banking. For the privilege of being turned into conformists, students (or their families) pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in skyrocketing tuition that continues to outpace inflation. Why are we doing this to ourselves?

I wonder if Thiel and Masters have read Excellent Sheep yet. Deresiewicz has similarly scalding views, though he comes from a different vantage point and throws some pointless, ill-formed bombs at startup culture. Thiel and Masters, however, ask the deep questions, and give major structural advice that one rarely hears from professors: “You should focus relentlessly on something you’re good at doing, but before that you must think hard about whether it will be valuable in the future.” I have focused relentlessly on writing better novels, but so far it has not proven valuable in a financial sense. If it weren’t for other ways of monetizing my skills, I would be doing something else, and probably not even writing this post.

Let me return, for a moment, to relationships, since your friends and surroundings count, as Tolkien knew and many others know: “it’s hard to develop new things in big organizations, and it’s even harder to do it by yourself. Bureaucratic hierarchies move slowly, and entrenched interests shy away from risks.” This is another, accurate, critique of academia, and a reminder to attend to our environment. Thiel does say that “a lone genius might create a classic work of art or literature, but he could never create an entire industry.” Even the lone-genius model appears less true than is often imagined: reaching into the biographies of famous artists tends to reveal an ecosystem of friends, rivals, mentors, and helpers. Hemingway famously derided creative writing classes, but he spent much of his early working life showing drafts of his work to Gertrude Stein and Sherwood Anderson. Few of us succeed fully in art or business without helpers along the way: hence, perhaps, the Joseph Campbell model that calls for such helpers in The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Even in myth the hero does not succeed alone: Frodo and Aragorn need Gandalf. Luke Skywalker needs Han and Obi-Wan. In His Dark Materials Lyra finds an array of helpers.

There are sections I think wrong, like the one on page 78 when Thiel and Masters criticize contemporary Silicon Valley buzzwords, which may reflect generations of learning about startups and the startup environment. Thiel and Masters say that “Secrets about people are relatively underappreciated,” while the opposite is true: we call secrets about people “gossip,” and most narrative art is relentlessly focused on personality, competitive, and “secrets” about people that almost always turn out to be about sex, money, and death. The supposed “secrets” that people hold tend to be more uniform than not. That pattern has persisted in Western art for millennia: the ultimate “secret” at the heart of Oedipus the King (first written circa 400 BC) and Game of Thrones is the same. The only human secret that matters is that one shouldn’t be surprised by human secrets.

These are quibbles about an otherwise great book. Great books do not have to be long. This one isn’t. They have to pack a lot of ideas in the space they h ave. This one does.

To reiterate the first paragraph of this post, you need to read this book. The less you think you need to read it, the more you do. It is in some ways similar to Rework, another anti-conventional-business business book written by nerds. Zero to One is a tremendously important book; although I admire and appreciate trivial books, particularly because most books including my own are, find one that is important—which does not mean “pompous” or “serious”—matters. You should read it. Your friends should read it. Its ideas should be common currency, readily known whether accepted or rejected. It is possible that the future of the world depends on Zero to One finding the right person at the right time, which is true of few other books.

The physical book is itself nicely made; though the binding appears to be glue rather than thread, the paper quality is high, and much higher than most books in its class and most contemporary books, period. The physical book reflects their emphasis on long-term thinking, as too few physical books do. One can read publishers’s opinions on their own works in the ways they choose to manufacture books. Those opinions do not appear to be high. If publishers have a low opinion of their own products, what should investors think?


Here is a good Fortune profile of Thiel. And

Briefly Noted: “The Fever” — Megan Abbott

I’ve already reviewed The Fever—it’s just under the title Dare Me, with its similar subject matter (high-school girls, transformation, darkness in women, sexuality) and style (half-knowing, unwilling to admit, chopped up narrative). This is not a criticism, Dare Me readers who want more of the same will find The Fever delivers. Like Dare Me the principle concern is female rivalry over high-status guys and female judgment of each other’s sexuality. I won’t say it’s a critique of those topics, though it could be read that way. It could also be seen as a commentary on the eternal conflict between children and parents.

Similarity is not always a bad thing—Elmore Leonard’s many caper novels consistently delivered similar characters, styles, and plots, and again that could be read as weakness or strength as he played with variations around a central concern or set of concerns (which I read as coolness and silence—subjects for an academic paper yet to be written).

the_feverThere is a Paglian tinge to Abbott’s last two novels (sample: “In the school’s hallways, Tom could see it: Gabby carried the glamour of experience, like a dark queen with a bloody train trailing behind.” Unlikely, but poetic, and it tells us about Tom’s overwrought perspective). They may be of less interest to those far from high school or offspring in high school. Abbot is willing to probe darkness in a way rarely seen in TV or movies, which tend to lag books by decades in terms of their willingness to portray what lurks within. Even the better TV stations like HBO and Showtime need to appeal to “Heads of Households,” which explains why the teen series tend to be on network TV or basic cable.

There are comparisons to be made with Caitlin Flanagan, and Abbott wins them; Flanagan’s book Girl Land was published in only 2012 and already the hardcover is justifiably available for $.01 from Amazon. I think I read a library copy. Both the Flanagan essays and the Abbott novels show how little we tend to know about things when we’re young and have no context or framework for understanding them. One could argue that the knowledge for understanding the world is out there, and most teenagers choose not to access it. This leads to confusion. That confusion is reproduced to good effect in the narrative voice and structure of The Fever:

I’m next, Deenie thinks, a few minutes and it’ll be me.
If only she’d gotten it over with a year ago. But she’d heard about how much it hurt and no one else had done it yet, at least not anyone she knew.
Now she’s one of the last one.

The tense moves from present to past back to present, with the “it” deliberately ambiguous in that it sounds like sexuality but may actually be the fever of the title. Naturally hypocrisy appears too, with slightly incestuous overtones, when Eli thinks that “Since then, he could only ever think about his sister, one wall away. And how he hoped Deenie never did things like this. With guys like him.” To be thinking about his sister in this context seems like a mistake of focus. About some things there is little to say; people are people and want what they want, as teenagers are probably taught not to know or admit. The characters are also mostly ignorant: Deenie thinks, “Why did everything have to be about sex, she wondered. Didn’t it make a lot more sense that it was something else?” She hasn’t read or probably even heard of evolutionary biology or Darwin’s The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. I hadn’t either in high school, and I don’t remember my first introduction, but I do know that a couple books on the subject made a lot of previously puzzling behavior fall into place. It’s true that not everything is about sex but so much is about it because we’ve evolved to pay close attention to matters relating to survival and reproduction.

Simple principles give rise to dizzyingly complex behaviors and patterns. Deenie doesn’t know that and in some ways her society conspires with her towards ignorance. One reading of Abbott’s last two novels could be as a move from utter ignorance to slightly greater knowledge. Jealousy is a perpetual companion because there are so few real status ladders to climb in high school (“Everything was so easy for Skye, with her older boyfriends, the way her aunt bought her cool old-time lingerie from vintage shops, the strip of birth control pills she once unfurled for them like candy.”) Skye, however, probably doesn’t think things are easy for Skye, but few high schoolers have the ability to get out of their own heads and into the heads of their companions. The last two paragraphs may be unfair, like saying that Faulkner is merely writing about the machinations of slack-jawed southern yokels who need education and functioning political infrastructure, but there is also some accuracy to them.

The question of whether the fever has supernatural, psychological, microbiological, or other origins does get resolved, but its mechanics are dubious.

Briefly noted: The Magician’s Land — Lev Grossman

(For background see this 2009 post on The Magicians and this less positive post on its sequel, The Magician King. Without those for context this post won’t make sense, and, as with most books towards the end of a series, the latest only matters to those who have read the earlier.)

At the beginning of The Magician’s Land we see a metaphor for post-2008, or maybe post-1973, diminished expectations, when things that are supposed to happen to other people happen to us (“It’s a recession when your neighbor loses his job and a depression when you lose yours”):

Stuff like this was for people on the fringes of the magical world, people scrabbling to get in, or who’d lost their footing somehow and slipped out of the bright warm center of things, all the way out to the cold margins of the real world. All the way out to a strip mall in Hackensack in the rain. Things like this weren’t for people like him.

But they are, as literature reminds us. It can always get worse and at times the only thing we change is our reaction. Quentin is getting better at changing his reactions to circumstances and one could read the trilogy as a commentary on his shifting ability to do precisely that. As an alternate reading, it could be seen as the latest in a long line of works asking what is real: “This all seemed a hell of a lot more real than it had half an hour ago.”

MagiciansLandWelcome to the desert of the real. One professor in grad school, who otherwise took many dubious positions to the point of seeming like a character in an academic novel, liked to say that the real is what hurts. It’s a good working definition. I’d add that the real is what hurts or what works. The latter explains much of what’s wrong with philosophy, and its literary studies branches.

Quentin has also taken on some of the dullness of middle age, and though in the process he has gained the loss of most of his early petulance. Many of the description, including descriptions of family and friends, still resonate and hurt:

When he thought of his parents it was almost like they were old lovers, so distant now that he couldn’t even remember why his link to them had once seemed to real and urgent. They’d managed the neat trick of bringing up a child with whom they had absolutely nothing in common, or if there was something none of them had risen to the challenge of finding it.

Friends are arguably the family you choose, but friends are also hard to sustain in world of growth, evolution, and changing circumstances: people must grow together or apart, and in many cases friendships do not survive circumstances. One could be sad or stoic about such things.

The book raises other questions. What do the many odd metaphors and pop-culture references mean (“He’d been a good person, or good enough, but mostly what he’d showed Quentin was how to move through the universe while disturbing it as little as possible, and how to compile and maintain the world’s most complete collection of Jeff Goldblum movies on Blu-ray, apart, presumably from Jeff Goldblum’s” or “fairies thought all this military stuff was pretty silly, but they went along with it for the same reason that fairies ever did anything, namely, for the lulz”)? They undercut fantasy tropes but also make the characters highly associative. Another sample: “It was like a box with a whole herd of Schrödinger’s cats in it. With a little magical know-how you could alter the order in which your cards came out; with a little more you could guess what your opponent was going to play before she played it” (note that this comes just a few pages after Quentin explains his poverty—why not just do this in Vegas?).

Other notes: There is a MacGuffin. The initial plot about Quentin needing money seems unlikely; he has long had the same problem as the girls on Girls: he needs to get a job, or find a purpose greater than himself. Leading a generative life is important and yet we often get little guidance in this regard. One purpose of novels could be to give us guidance to leading a generative life. Novels show both failure and success, and arguably occasional transcendence towards a quasi godhood rarely if ever achieved by those of us outside books.

I would argue that Quentin succeeds or seems to at the end of The Magician’s Land—attend to that language about bridges and other connectors—but the possibility of success is there from the beginning, when Quentin finds himself in a bookstore, and “he felt at home in a bookstore. [. . . ] It didn’t matter where you were, if you were in a room full of books you were at least halfway home.” Bookstores represent what is effectively infinite possibility: they are like the Neitherlands, the world between the worlds.

I can’t get excited enough about the book to write extensively about it, which may say something about the book or may say something about this writer. Nonetheless, here is an interview on Vox. Here is Slate. Here is The Atlantic. Here is Grossman explaining how not to write your first novel. I think he said in my interview with him that publishing as an industry is no fair and fairly random, which the linked essay perhaps supports.


Note: This is based on a review copy.

True Things About Me — Deborah Kay Davies

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.

True_things_about_meIn 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.

Arts & Entertainments — Christopher Beha

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.

Arts and entertainmentsI 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.

“Some Hope” and “Bad News” — Edward St. Aubyn

Both Some Hope (the better or at least less gross novel, since it lacks the precise drug descriptions) and Bad News are novels about nothing, or self-destructiveness, or family, or themselves, or critiques of a lack of financial need that leads to a lack of financial discipline that leads to both snobbish and waste. But it is redeemed by humor, on almost every page, though of a nasty sort. There are clever descriptions everywhere:

‘It’s too bad your not being able to come,’ said David Windfall to his wife, slipping a couple of condoms into the inside pocket of his dinner jacket, just in case.

Is “come” a double entendre here, whether intentional or not? Maybe. Or consider this this, when a girl begs her father to read a story to her, and he eventually caves:

‘Of course I will. I’d be delighted,’ said Sonny with a little bow, as if he’d been asked to address an agricultural fair.

“An agricultural fair:” he is pompous, distant, and yet slightly pleased to oblige an inferior at the same time. As a father he will inspire therapy, an inability to form close relationship, cloying clinginess, or all three paradoxically at once. One can only hope that he will spend enough of “his” money—the scare quotes are warranted—to not perpetuate the next generation of vaguely aristocratic and worthless assholes of the sort that make one see why Europeans were more susceptible to the otherwise idiotic temptations of Marxism than Americans. The U.S. has plenty of rich, pointless heirs and heiresses, but few have been enshrined in ten or more generations of land-holding assholes.

Every work of fiction creates its own moral universe. That universe may be obscured and debatable, but it’s there. In Some Hope, the good guys recognize their own snobbishness, ridiculous beliefs, nastiness, pettiness, forbidden desire, awkward desire, and cruelty (petty or mortal). If they don’t recognize those aspects of themselves, they at least recognize the search for them. Patrick and Johnny may be the only good guys in the novel. The bad guys don’t recognize their own snobbishness, ridiculous beliefs, nastiness, pettiness, forbidden desire, awkward desire, and cruelty (petty or mortal). By this definition almost everyone in the novel is bad. Like Seinfeld, there is no hugging and no learning.

No one builds or makes anything except jokes (“[Bridget] ought to get on with the arrangements, which, in her case, meant worrying, since all the work had been delegated to somebody else”). There are only parties, art, aesthetics, and jockeying for status for its own sake, rather than based on some external measure of achievement. Social form without content is meaningless and spiritually deadening, a fun place to visit—which is why the Patrick Melrose novels work—but not a great place to live. The Patrick Melrose novels can be read as an argument against large hereditary transfers of wealth and against a basic or guaranteed annual income.

There are no social obligations aside from being witty and beautiful. “Witty” usually also means “self-aware,” as only Patrick and Johnny might be.

Their lives are works of art paid for by the industriousness of their ancestors, or by others in their society. Do most people who are doing or making interesting things have time to think, “The meaning of life was whatever meaning one could thrust down its reluctant throat”? That may be true; on the same page Patrick is thinking about Measure for Measure “while he bared his teeth to rip open a sachet of bath gel.” Is this a brilliant example of the profound and banal mixing, as they do in real life, or an example of the flight of ideas and intellectual incoherence?

At one point another rich dilettante named Kitty says:

So, you see, I know what I’m talking about. Children give off the most enormous sexual feeling; they set out to seduce their parents. It’s all in Freud, I’m told, although I haven’t read his books myself.

Some Hope is filled with people who have strong opinions despite or because of not having read the books themselves. Most haven’t cooked for themselves, cleaned for themselves, or other activities that might connect them with reality, and they don’t realize how much of life’s fabric they’re missing. Their regular complete missing the point—any point—makes them funny. Kitty in context is comedic, though out of it she may not show it. Almost everyone can, in the right context, be shown to be ridiculous, but the characters in the Patrick Melrose novels need even less removal than most.

Here is The New Yorker on Aubyn. Here is Tyler Cowen, and note his genre description (“Derelict” fiction?). Most reviews and interviews focus on his life’s relationship to his fiction, which I find an uninteresting and unedifying set of concerns, yet I appear to be almost alone in that regard.

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