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Archive for April, 2010

The Authenticity Hoax: How We Get Lost Finding Ourselves (2010)
by Andrew Potter
296 pages
McClelland & Stewart

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It’s probably a bad sign when you’re halfway through reading a book, especially a non-fiction book, and you realize that you don’t have any idea of what the book is really about, in which direction the author is going, or what the body of the text has to do with the subject referred to in the title and opening segment.

Andrew Potter co-authored a book a few years ago called The Rebel Sell, which, for all its drawbacks, made a good point about how the ‘anti-mainstream’ counter-culture, in its veiled and overt demands to buy certain products, appear a certain way, and live a certain lifestyle, was actually the driving force behind consumer culture, and perpetuating many of the things it snobbishly pretended to rebel against.

This particular book is much less clear in its position, and the problem begins with failing to really define what it is about. Though Potter says he’s taking aim at all concepts of authenticity, he quickly glosses over the quest to cure some of the alienation modern people tend to feel with regards to friends and family, their work, or their society. His only comment on these ills consists mainly of ‘they’re paying you, so get over it’.

You’re really not going to stun anybody basing a book on the not-exactly-shocking statements that ‘authentic jeans’ are still designed by someone, that an ‘authentic ethnic restaurant’ might be more marketing than actuality, and that touring the cultural artifacts of a former dictatorship isn’t the same as living under one.  But in this book Potter does mostly take aim at what a very small portion of society is looking for in their quest for authenticity – the urban, white, wealthy, over-educated, wasp-y post-moderns with whom the author apparently spends most of his time. If you have any kind of broader experience of what society consists of, you’ll have trouble when he generalizes about what ‘everybody’ is doing these days.

It’s a really scattered, unfocused, poorly argued book, and the fact that the acknowledgments at the end credit several editors for doing a lot of work to make it sound better, and that Potter admits it took far too long to complete, it all just reinforces the impression of undercooked thoughts. Chapters which detail the recent US presidential race, or that consist of highlights of the author’s Eastern European vacation, seem to be just be re-purposed content the author had on hand, rather than tying into the core argument in any strong way.

Put simply, many of the conclusions Potter jumps to are unsupported by the material he presents. Survivalist extremism leads directly into apocalyptic fiction, as if everyone who goes to see an adventure movie wishes for those things to happen to them.  Potter tries to make a seldom-heard argument about the suburbs being a triumph of liberal markets instead of a blight, but no statistics are presented about things that might illuminate the discussion,  like cost of infrastructure, crime rates, or people’s satisfaction.  And I’m pretty sure nobody at the mall is thinking about Jean-Jacques Rousseau, so if you’re going to spend a lot of time on him as central to modern society’s ideas, it’s going to need to be tied in a little better. As an example of the poor reasoning, “In short, the desire for authenticity is the cause of virtually all the major problems with our politics today.” (pg.175) Really? The problem with all of politics? I mean, the more you read and repeat that, the more pulled-out-of-your-ass it sounds.

In the end, Potter’s main viewpoint takes on the incredible hubris and delusion of saying current liberal democracy, with its free-market capitalism, is basically the end of history, and once the rest of the world is absorbed into it, no other political structures will ever threaten it, nor will there be any other kind of life to strive for. He also asserts, without even entertaining any arguments to the contrary, that life is meaningless and nothing can be learned from the world, and someone who thinks differently is a terrorist-in-waiting.

Obviously, I found this a very disappointing read, not only because its conclusions, weak as they are, are completely ludicrous, but because it’s so poorly organized and presented.  I still didn’t find any answer to what I think most people are talking about when they look for authenticity. The alienation from family and friends, work, or society at large, has a real human cost, in terms of psychological distress, substance abuse, violence, and decreased productivity and efficiency. It’s simply not true to say “In the end, authenticity is a positional good, which is valuable precisely because not everyone can have it” (pg.267) unless you’re using a definition of authenticity that is far outside what the general use of the word is. A more authentic relationship to oneself, close relations, and the world at large, precludes no one else from the same. Just because there’s no easy answer to questions about authenticity does not mean it doesn’t exist at all. To say that people should continue living in modes in which they are experiencing psychological, spiritual, or even physical distress because there are no perfect solutions and these people have more material comforts than ever, is not only unsupported by this book’s flimsy arguments but borders on the sociopathic.

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The Incredible Shrinking Man (1956, 1994 collection)
by Richard Matheson
351 pages
Tor

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The concept of this novel is really right there in the title and the cover image, not a lot more to say than that. The story alternates between the protagonist’s days in the cellar when he is smaller than a spider, and flashbacks from earlier days, when he started shrinking from his original six-foot-two height. The novel takes up about 2oo pages, and the rest of the book is filled out with a collection of nine stories, the most notable among them being Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, Duel, and Button, Button.

Richard Matheson is, in my opinion, an excellent second-tier writer. It may be a bit mean to say, but even at his best, it’s like there’s something slightly missing, or perhaps all of his events and plotlines are just a bit too transparent. He’s somehow much more suited for film and television adaptations, maybe because the visual element and the input of others adds flesh on the bone, and ambiguity to the simplistic.

I’ve read a couple of other Matheson novels, Hell House and  I Am Legend, and I think that this one is the best of them. There are some very poignant moments, especially when the protagonist shrinks down to the point where he can be victimized by adults and children alike. My favourite sequence is when he meets a female midget at a circus, and they find a lot in common between them, but of course there’s also the big difference in that she has always been and always will be that size, while he was tall and will continue to shrink.

I thought the stories were of hit-and-miss quality.

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The Last Summer

The Last Summer (1934)
by Boris Pasternak, translated by George Reavey
93 pages
Penguin Modern Classics

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This short book by the author of Doctor Zhivago is more of a prose-poem than a novel. It’s about a man who is on leave from the military who goes to visit his sister, and after his arrival he drifts into a tired half-sleep where he travels back to scattered thoughts of last summer, before the outbreak of the first World War.

This was an odd read because I’m sure it’s a better read in the original language. It just has to be, because frankly what’s there now comes across as just a pretentious mess. But it’s hard to know how much can be faulted on the translation. What is there in english just seems very scattered and self-absorbed. At the very least the translator could have tried to inject some rhythm into the prose, which comes off as very clunky.

I do like the cover art though, it’s a drawing of the author by his father, Leonid Pasternak.

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Maigret at the Coroner’s (1949)
by Georges Simenon, translated by Frances Keene
173 pages
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich

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Maigret finds himself on a tour of the USA, a guest of honour mostly meeting with other police officials and observing the way Americans conduct their police and justice work.  While he is in Tuscon, Arizona, he gets dumped off at a coroner’s inquest, and finds that the case captures his attention. Several men from the army base spend the night with one young woman, and in the morning she ends up being killed by a train, lying prone on the railroad tracks beside a highway.

There’s a big focus in this novel on the way things in the US are different from France, specifically in the American South-West.  Reading it more than fifty years after it was written, I found it more interesting not for what it says about that part of the US, but for how much I know it’s changed since then, even as an outside observer.  For example, it’s stated that in the US almost everyone is a member of a social club; obviously not true anymore. And the ubiquitous presence of Bromo Seltzer is odd, since that was apparently taken off the market sometime after this novel was written.  The Asian and black characters are also treated by the narrative in an odd way, sort of like exotic birds.

Unfortunately, the novel itself isn’t that strong. I found its main weakness to be that Maigret walks into the case partway through, and the book is half over before we find out if there is a body, and what might have happened to it.  There are also about five characters who are among the suspects who are all introduced together, and as they are all in the military and have similar generic names and few defining characteristics, they all blended together for me.  Information revealed in the last chapter didn’t have much impact, since I found the suspects were pretty much interchangeable. One of the weaker Simenon novels I’ve read.

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I Lock My Door Upon Myself (1990)
by Joyce Carol Oates
98 pages
Plume

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This novella tells the story, through the eyes of her granddaughter, of a woman of the early 20th century who didn’t fit into the rural upstate New York world she was born into. Edith, or “Calla” as she likes to call herself, is an odd child, red-haired and half-wild, and her family decides she needs to be married off as soon as possible. They find an older bachelor they hope will be a good fit, but there is little connection between the two, and Calla prefers to spend her days roaming the countryside rather than taking care of her children or socializing with her husband’s family. She finally makes a strong connection with someone when she gets to know a travelling black man who does work on their farm as a water dowser, but the affair is doomed.

This story has a very strong gothic-romantic-poetic feel to it, to the point where it was a bit too much for me personally. Though it would probably depend on the reader. The story is mostly ‘told’ rather than actually ‘shown’ through events, so you don’t feel that close to any of the characters. It reminded me a bit of Oates’s novella Black Water, which was also short, somewhat repetitive in narration, and which also didn’t really work for me.  I think I prefer Oates when her work has more of a spirit of realism.

The title of the novella is the main reason why I wanted to read this, since I just found the sound of it intriguing. It’s the title of the painting by Fernand Khnopff that appears on the cover:

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