Stuff I’ve Been Reading: May 2011
- A Visit from the Goon Squad—Jennifer Egan
- Norwood—Charles Portis
- Out Stealing Horses—Per Petterson
- The Harvard Psychedelic Club: How Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Huston Smith, and Andrew Weil Killed the Fifties and Ushered in a New Age for America—Don Lattin
- Ball of Fire: The Tumultuous Life and Comic Art of Lucille Ball—Stefan Kanfer
- Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty—Tony Hoagland
- Marry Me: A Romance—John Updike
- The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry—Jon Ronson
- Friday Night Lights—H. G. Bissinger
- My Name Is Mina—David Almond
I first and last read John Updike when I was in my twenties: I devoured all the Rabbit books that had been published at that point, and looked forward to a time in my life when I would be old enough to understand them. All that adultery and misery and ambition and guilt looked completely thrilling back then, but mystifying, too. Where did it all come from? And why, aged twenty-five, was I not grown up enough to be experiencing any of it? What was wrong with me? I suspect I didn’t read any more of Updike’s novels after that point simply because they made me feel inadequate, in ways that I hadn’t previously considered. New forms of inadequacy I could live without, seeing as I didn’t know what to do with the ones I was already aware of.
I’m not quite sure why an unread copy of Marry Me winked at me from my bookshelves just before I flew to the U.S. for a work trip recently. On the cover of the book, Paul Theroux promises us that “Updike has never written better of the woe that is marriage,” but I can assure you (and my wife) that it wasn’t the cheery blurb that lured me in. Perhaps I wanted to test myself again, a quarter of a century after the last time: Had I got any closer to adulthood? Would I now, finally, be able to see a reflection of my own domestic circumstances?
“‘You dumb cunt,’ he said, and bounced her into the mattress again and again, ‘you get a fucking grip on yourself. You got what you wanted, didn’t you? This is it. Married bliss.’
“She spat in his face, ptuh, like a cat, a jump ahead of thought; saliva sprayed back down upon her own face and as it were awakened her.…”
I am embarrassed to say that life is only very rarely like this chez nous. There’s the holiday season, obviously, and the occasional Saturday night, especially during January and May, when, typically, my football team Arsenal crash out of the major competitions. But, hand on heart, I could not claim that we scale these particular giddy heights of seriousness with the kind of frequency that would allow me to gasp with recognition. I was even more cowed by the way this scene concludes, half a page and fourteen lines of dialogue later:
“‘You’re a nice man.’ She hugged him, having suppressed a declaration of love.
“Wary, he wanted to sleep. ‘Good night, sweetie.’”
I don’t like to point the finger, and in any case my wife is generally a pacific and forgiving person. But the truth is that whenever I do call her the c-word and bounce her into the mattress again and again, she has never once told me that I’m “a nice man”—she tends to remain cross with me for hours. This means, in turn, that I have never been able to find it in myself to say “Good night, sweetie,” and put the whole unfortunate episode behind us. In other words, it’s her fault that we are not yet Updikean. She’s a forty-five-year-old child.
It wasn’t just the rows I found hard to comprehend; some of the sex was beyond me, too. “Though Sally had been married ten years, and furthermore had had lovers before Jerry, her lovemaking was wonderfully virginal, simple, and quick.” Ah, yes. That’s what we gentlemen want: women who are both sexually experienced and alive to the touch, while at the same time not too, you know, trampy. “Wonderfully virginal”? My therapist would have more fun in fifty minutes than he’d ever had in his whole professional life were I to use that particular combination of adverb and adjective in a session.
Marry Me was, as you can probably imagine, totally compelling, if extraordinarily dispiriting in its conviction that trying to extract the misery out of monogamy is like trying to extract grapes from wine. We worry a lot about how technology will date fiction; it had previously occurred to me that books written in the last quarter of the twentieth century would lead me to wonder whether something fundamental has changed in the relationships between men and women. I’m not sure we do feel that husbands and wives are doomed to suspicion, enmity, and contempt any longer, do we? Or am I making a twit of myself again? I suppose it’s the latter. It usually is.
Worryingly—and this must remain completely between us—I recognized myself more frequently in the checklist Jon Ronson refers to in the title of his book than I did in Marry Me. (I’m not going to repeat the title. You’ll have to go to the trouble of glancing up at the top of the previous page, and maybe you won’t bother, and then you’ll think better of me.) “Glibness/superficial charm”? Well, I have my moments, even if I do say so myself. And have you lost some weight? “Lack of realistic long-term goals”? I wouldn’t call literary immortality unrealistic, exactly. It’s more or less happened to Chaucer and Shakespeare, and I’m miles better than either of those. “Grandiose sense of self-worth”? Ah, now there at least I can plead not guilty. “Need for stimulation/proneness to boredom”? I literally stopped in the middle of typing out that last sentence in order to play Plants vs. Zombies, although I did get bored of that after a couple of hours, so perhaps there is hope for me. “Poor behavioral controls”? Again, there is a glimmer of light, because I have just put out my last cigarette, and eaten my last biscuit.
Jon Ronson, as those of you who have read Them or The Men Who Stare at Goats will know, is a fearless nonfiction writer, so familiar with, and curious about, the deranged and the fanatical that he probably asks for his hair to be cut with a lunatic fringe. Them dealt with extremists of all hues, and The Men Who Stare at Goats was about that section of the American military who believe that one day wars might be won using mind-control and gloop. The Psychopath Test, as the title suggests, cuts straight to the chase.
It begins with a mystery: why were a group of academics, mostly neurologists, all sent a book by “Joe K” that consisted entirely of cryptic messages and holes? The perplexed neurologists believed that Ronson was the man to solve the puzzle, and their instincts were sound, because he does so. On the way, he meets a man who pretended to be mad in order to escape a prison sentence, and now cannot convince anybody that he is sane; several Scientologists engaged in a war on psychiatry, as Scientologists tend to be; Bob Hare, the man who devised the eponymous test; and a top CEO whose legendary ruthlessness leads Ronson to suspect that he might tick a few too many boxes. (It is Bob Hare’s contention that psychopaths are all around us, in positions that allow them to exert and abuse their authority.) Like all Ronson’s work, The Psychopath Test is funny, frightening, and provocative: it had never occurred to me, for example, that Scientologists had any kind of an argument for their apparently absurd war on science, but Ronson’s account of the equally absurd experiments and treatments for which respected psychiatrists are responsible gives one pause for thought.
If you are a subscriber to this magazine, and a regular reader of this column, and you have very little going on in your life, and you’re kind of anal, you may be thinking to yourself, Hey! It’s eight weeks since he last wrote a column, and he’s read exactly four books! There are various explanations and excuses I could give you, but the two most pertinent are as follows:
(1) I have been cruelly tricked into cofounding a writing center for kids, with a weird shop at the front of it, here in London (and don’t even think about copying this idea in the U.S. unless you want to hear from our lawyers—although why you would want to spend a thousand hours and a million pounds a week doing so
I can’t imagine).
(2) I have spent way too much time watching the Dillon Panthers, the fictional football team at the heart of the brilliant drama series Friday Night Lights. (And yes, I know, I know—I have seen the fourth season. I am being respectful to those who are catching up.)
Reading time, in other words, has been in short supply, even during the day, and half the reading that has got done is directly related to the above. H. G. Bissinger’s terrific nonfiction book, the source for a movie and then the TV series, is about the Permian Panthers, who represent a high school in Odessa, Texas, and regularly play in front of crowds of twenty thousand—or did, when the book was published in the early ’90s. There is no equivalent of high-school or college football in Europe, for several reasons: There are no comparable sports scholarships, for a start, and, in a country the size of England, it’s quite hard to live more than fifty miles from a pro team. And in any case, because your major sports have turned out to be so uninteresting to the rest of the world, young talent in the U.S. is governable; the young soccer players of London and Manchester no longer compete with each other for a place in a top professional team, but with kids from Africa and Asia and Spain. Over the last several years, Arsenal has routinely played without a single English player in their starting eleven. Our best player is Spanish; one of our brightest hopes for the future is Japanese and currently on loan to a club in Holland. So the idea of an entire community’s aspirations being embodied in local teenage athletes is weird, but not unappealing.
The reality, as Bissinger presents it—and he went to live in Odessa for a year, hung out with players and coaching staff and fans, so he knows what he’s talking about—is a lot darker, however. It turns out that there are not as many liberals in small-town Texas as the TV series would have me believe: in Dillon, people are always speaking out against racism, or talking about art, or thinking about great literature. (The adorably nerdy Landry Clarke can quite clearly be seen reading High Fidelity, my first novel, in an episode of the third season. This is almost certainly the greatest achievement of my writing career. And I’m sorry to bring it up, but I had to tell somebody.) In Odessa, Dillon’s real-life counterpart… not so much racism gets confronted, or towering masterpieces of fiction consumed. Bissinger loves his football, and falls in love with the team, but is powerfully good on what the town’s obsession with football costs its kids. It’s not just the ones who don’t make it, or become damaged along the way, all of whom get chucked away like ribs stripped of their meat (and catastrophically uneducated before they’ve been rejected); the kids who can’t play football are almost worthless. The girls spend half their time cheerleading and cake-baking for the players, and the students with more cerebral interests are ignored. In the season that Bissinger followed the team, the cost of rush-delivered postgame videotapes that enabled the coaches to analyze what had gone right and wrong was $6,400. The budget for the entire English department was $5,040. And the team used private jets for away games on more than one occasion. Isn’t it great how little you need to spend to inculcate a passion for the arts? Perhaps I have drawn the wrong conclusion.
David Almond’s My Name Is Mina is an extraordinary children’s book by the author of Skellig, one of the best novels written for anyone published in the last fifteen years. And this new book is a companion piece to Skellig, a kind of prequel about the girl who lives next door. It’s also, as it turns out, a handbook for anyone who is interested in literacy and education as they have been, or are being, applied to them or their children or anybody else’s children:
Why should I write something so that somebody could say I was well below average, below average, average, above average, or well above average? What’s average? And what about the ones that find out they’re well below average? What’s the point of that and how’s that going to make them feel for the rest of their lives? And did William Blake do writing tasks just because somebody else told him to? And what Level would he have got anyway?
“Little Lamb, Who mad’st thee?
Dost thou know who mad’st thee?”
What level is that?
Almond’s wry disdain for the way we sift our children as if they were potatoes killed me, because I was once found to be below average, across the board, at a crucial early stage in my educational career, and I have just about recovered enough confidence to declare that this judgment was, if not wrong, then at least not worth making. I think that, like everybody, I’m above average at some things and well below at others.
My Name Is Mina is a literary novel for kids, a Blakean mystic’s view of the world, a fun-filled activity book for a rainy day (“EXTRAORDINARY ACTIVITY—Write a poem that repeats a word and repeats a word and repeats a word and repeats a word until it almost loses its meaning”), a study of loneliness and grief, and it made more sense to me than half the fiction I usually read. This can’t be right, and I won’t allow it to be right. For literary purposes only, I am off to call my wife obscenities and bounce her up and down on a mattress. As I write, she’s upstairs, helping my youngest son with his homework, so she’s in for a shock.