Saturday, July 21, 2012

For Pleasure: Summer

The pleasure of the summer so far is Nicholson Baker's novel The Anthologist (Simon & Schuster), which I picked up at--of all places--the Dollar Tree.  It helps that I'm interested in what a friend used to call "the poetry biz," although I haven't followed it since those days I was on the fringe of it, in the 1970s. (On the other hand one of the poets named, Ed Ochester, did hire me to teach a course in 1990 or so.)   Part of the book's charm for me is that while not a lot happens, Baker's novelistic skill makes a lot out of only a few dramatic questions: will our hero actually ever write his anthology's introduction?  Will he get back with his lady love, or find a new one (maybe next door)?   Baker is such a fine and funny writer that this book is delightful.  There is real human feeling in it, too (what writer can't identify with those tears at dreams unfulfilled) and his exegesis on the music of poetry makes a lot of sense. It probably also helps that I read part of it on a trip down the coast to Menlo Park, in sunny 80 degree afternoons and a morning outside at Cafe Borrone.  Pleasure doubled.

It seems summer wouldn't be the same without at least one 700 page book, and this year's is The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker (Continuum International Publishing Group, paperback.)  You would think a book of that title would be slim and handy, or at least of a length easily amenable to writing classes and groups.  Indeed, Booker does get through his basic discussion of his seven plots (Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy and Rebirth) in about 200 pages, which is about as far as I've read so far.  But I'm not worried--the book is so cogently written, without jargon or "theory," and with frequent revelations that I have full confidence in the author to continue making this an enjoyable and illuminating reading experience, regardless of where I might agree or differ with his points.  I am in fact in awe of his disciplined yet almost conversational writing.  It was 34 years in the making (1969-2003), and 34 years well spent.  I look forward to the remaining 500 pages.

Other books I've read or am reading this summer not for review or for a direct writing purpose: Working the Soul: Reflections on Jungian Psychology by Charles Ponce (North Atlantic Books), Your Favorite Seuss (a "baker's dozen by the one and only Dr. Seuss," published by Random House) and Bookless in Baghdad: Reflections on Writing and Writers by Shashi Tharoor (Arcade Publishing, and another Dollar Tree acquisition.)

Earler, in the spring, I read and very much enjoyed Chronic City, a novel by Jonathan Lethem (Faber & Faber.) 

Saturday, July 14, 2012

E. O. Wilson and Social Evolution

The Social Conquest of Earth
Edward O. Wilson

In examining the relationship of humans to the rest of nature as well as human nature itself, Edward O. Wilson has been a defining presence for some forty years. He created the field of sociobiology in the 1970s. He won the Pulitzer Prize for On Human Nature in 1979, and with later titles (Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, and Biofilia) he added concepts (and buzzwords) to scientific and popular discussion.

His work has always been controversial, and assertions in this new book similarly attracted criticism from major figures. His rejection of “kin selection” in human evolution (a concept used to explain altruism that he previously championed) and his adoption of a form of “group selection” have received lengthy rejoinders from psychologist Steven Pinker and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins (Dawkins also cites strong disagreement from scores of other scientists.)

  It’s not possible to even summarize these arguments briefly. But I can instead discuss what contending scientists largely do not: this book as a reading experience. Whatever the results of scientific debate, the central theme of this book is a bracing corrective to the run of evolutionary theory since Dawkin’s selfish gene thesis began to dominate. Wilson looks at human evolution, not as isolated every-individual-for-itself battles of one against all (let alone every gene for itself), but by recognizing the reality of humans as social beings. He has a word for natural selection that responds to the social context as well as the rest of the environment: eusociality.

In under 300 pages, Wilson discusses the latest of what’s known about biological and cultural human evolution, and focuses his theories on the origins of morality, religion and the creative arts. Lynn Margulis noted that previous evolutionary theorists failed to account for the role of symbiosis because they studied big animals, not the bacteria and tiny organisms she studied. Wilson uses his knowledge of social insects (his first area of expertise was ants) to challenge prevailing assumptions that might be equally blinkered. Recent science in animal intelligence as well as a more modest view of genes themselves argue for greater complexity than the previously dominant mechanistic theories allowed. So a different approach like Wilson’s fills a need.

Some of his scientific arguments get technical. Some chapters seem more cogent that others (I found “What is Human Nature?” disappointing.)  Clearly his assertions are debatable.  But mainly Wilson’s prose is clear, informative and at times provocative, though at times its directness risks sounding dogmatic. Readers might best approach it as expressing a scientific point of view that is not always as settled as the writing might indicate.

This can also be read as a kind of updated summary work, a set of big picture conclusions, by an elder scientist (similar for example to Jerome Kagan's latest in that regard.)  However controversial, he presents a refreshing and even hopeful synthesis, arguing that knowing our biological history is essential to saving our magnificently unlikely species at “the growing point of an unfinished epic,” as well as the rest of present life we have imperiled.

Monday, July 02, 2012

Frayn's Novel Farce

By Michael Frayn
Metropolitan Books

On the stage, farce is about running in and out of doors, concealment and revelation, expectation and illusion, pretence and persuasion, need and want. Michael Frayn, who wrote what many regard as the best stage farce of the age (Noises Off) wondered if he could write farce as a novel, and this book is the convincing—and consequently very funny—result.

How could a younger, handsomer and utterly feckless guy successfully impersonate a staid expert guest speaker at the annual gala of an international foundation dedicated to preserving western civilization, held on the private Greek island of Skios? A lot of coincidence helps, but much aid comes from very contemporary examples of human nature. Rich, powerful and educated, the gulled audience nevertheless is a willing accomplice. When the imposter suggests he could easily be someone else, they happily agree. “We’re all such fools!”

There are some slamming doors and bedroom misadventures as well as star-crossed suitcases and taxi rides, though the mechanics of this farce also involve cell phones as the modern gateways to confusion. The ambitions, emotions and pretensions of a number of other characters are exposed and involved, including the real guest speaker—an expert in the “scientific management of science” whose convictions as well as disposition make him peculiarly vulnerable to chaos.

  Another contemporary mechanism of farce working here is the space-erasing jet engine, which makes the difference between places (Skios or skiing in Switzerland) way too easy to miss. What the novel adds to stage farce is getting inside the characters’ heads to learn the precise nature of their delusions, and the yearnings and weaknesses that feed them. How they—and we—tend to interpret the world from a few tellingly misunderstood clues is deliciously described.

 This novel extends not only from Frayn’s plays, previous novels and journalism but from his philosophical work (The Human Touch) with its insight that: “The world plainly exists independently of us—and yet it equally plainly exists only through our consciousness of it.” When the two factors collide you may have drama and tragedy, or comedy and farce. In this book, much of the farcical humor as well as character revelation resides in what people believe (and why they believe it) as contrasted with how things really are--or at least, how others believe they are.

Even with satirical touches, Frayn creates a convincing world so endearingly vulnerable to this kind of mayhem that farce seems inevitable, yet you do find yourself rooting for the irredeemably irresponsible protagonist to get away with it. There are sweet reminders of Kosinski’s Being There (as well as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) as events wind and unwind in this fragile oasis of uncertain civility where bored but lionized experts speak to rich, dutiful but bored audiences. Not everything at the foundation is what it seems either, as the routines of greed undermine the supposed maintenance of civilization, in a fiendishly funny finish featuring a goddess.