Stuff I’ve Been Reading: June 2013

Stuff I’ve Been Reading: June 2013

Nick Hornby
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  • Watergate—Thomas Mallon
  • Assholes: A Theory—Aaron James
  • The Summer of Naked Swim Parties—Jessica Anya Blau
  • Drinking Closer to Home—Jessica Anya Blau
  • Bedsit Disco Queen—Tracey Thorn


  • Assholes: A Theory—Aaron James
  • How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia—Mohsin Hamid
  • The Wonder Bread Summer—Jessica Anya Blau
  • Note to Self—Alina Simone

can tell you for a fact that when you pick up a book called Assholes: A Theory, and you notice that there is a chapter entitled Naming Names, your heart starts to beat a little faster—or it does if you fear you might have done something to bring yourself to the attention of the author of the book, philosopher Aaron James. You have never met Aaron James, you don’t think. (Except what if you did, somewhere, and didn’t afford him the respect he deserved and still deserves, and snubbed him, like an asshole? And, just to be clear, you the Snubber would be the asshole in this hypothetical situation, not James the Snubbed.) Nevertheless, could writing books and columns and scripts be enough for James to decide that you were worthy of inclusion? Not that the act of writing automatically makes you an asshole—although there is, of course, a compelling argument to be made that, actually, it kind of does—but writing things that Aaron James might have found objectionable in some way, or giving an unguarded and obnoxious interview when tired and/or drunk, could well earn an Asshole Academy Award nomination. And then you take a little peek, before buying the book, and you see the names of Noel Gallagher, Rush Limbaugh, Richard Dawkins, Henry VIII, Julian Assange, and Dick Cheney, and you think, What kind of asshole thinks he’s famous enough to be included in a list of famous assholes? You feel terrible. You notice a chapter entitled Newer Asshole Styles, and you check to see whether the mortifying solecism you have just committed is indeed an indicator of a newer asshole style. There is a section entitled Delusional Asshole. Is this you? Oh, god. Kanye West is in there. But maybe you should go in there with him, for daring to think that you’re as famously delusional as Kanye West…

You will notice two things about Aaron James’s little book. The first is that one cannot write about it without using the word asshole over and over again, just as James was unable to write the book itself without using the word over and over again. This relentlessness induces a mild hysteria: there are striking references to “cable news assholes,” “artist assholes,” “his own inner asshole,” “asshole avoidance,” and surprising phrases such as “a reliable system for dampening asshole profusion,” “Italy already qualifies as an asshole capitalist system,” “a spike in the asshole population,” and so on. One review of the book that I read decided for reasons of propriety to replace the word asshole with the word twit throughout, but, of course, a twit is something entirely different—one of the reasons this book works is that we intuitively know the defining features of an asshole, and no other word will do.

And the second thing to notice is that one reads it fearfully, through one’s fingers, or I did, anyway. Can any of this possibly describe me? Or my partner, my children, my group of friends? But both the fear and the hysteria eventually subside, James’s keen intelligence overwhelms you, and you realize that Assholes: A Theory is helpful, stimulating, and very timely: the banking crisis, social media, Fox News, and the internet have all combined to turn the early twenty-first century into the Golden Age of the Asshole.

An asshole is usefully defined as a person who “systematically allows himself to enjoy special advantages in interpersonal relations out of an entrenched sense of entitlement that immunizes him against the complaints of other people.” (James argues persuasively that assholes are invariably men, although surely one of the triumphs of feminism is that many more women now fit this description than would have been the case forty or fifty years ago, even if female assholes clearly account for only a small percentage of the asshole population.) The book is in part an attempt to explain why we find the asshole so upsetting, given that the advantages he gains through his behavior are usually minor—he jumps a queue, he shouts at a waiter, he cuts people off in traffic. James reckons this is because “one’s very status as a moral person goes unrecognized,” and our moral status is a big deal to us, an important part of our sense of self. There is a possibility, however, that the gains made by assholes are going to become much more consequential: the gripping, devastating chapter entitled Asshole Capitalism argues that the assholes are hastening the end of the world as we know it. Who will participate in the manifestly and increasingly unfair version of capitalism we are faced with now, wherein asshole bankers get richer at the expense of the societies that have to bail them out? Why should non-assholes pay taxes and stay in line if they can see only material disadvantage?

There is much to engage with in Assholes: A Theory, and much to enjoy; one of the pleasures for me was the introduction it provided to the rich and extraordinary literature of moral philosophy. I found myself, for example, unexpectedly eager to read Bernard Williams’s Philosophical Papers, 1973–1980 (Cambridge University Press, 1981). It contains an essay entitled “Moral Luck,” which deals, as far as I can work out, with the problem of whether we can forgive Gauguin for abandoning his family in order to go to Tahiti and paint. The trip produced art that we still value to this day; if it hadn’t, Gauguin would presumably have been just another feckless asshole. But maybe he’s an asshole anyway, regardless of the work he produced? Your call, but maybe Bernard Williams can help you make it. Oh, and Jonathan Richman fans, take note: guess what Pablo Picasso gets called in this book? One of Richman’s most celebrated songs is thus neatly and, in my opinion, sadly rendered factually inaccurate.

It is, as you can see, only a short step from Assholes: A Theory to Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, although I suspect that Aaron James would focus on the rampant asshole capitalism that Hamid describes with such alarming brilliance, rather than on any individual assholes. Hamid, like Lorrie Moore in Self-Help, tells his story in the second person, as befits a how-to manual, but the genius of the book is that the second person who emerges is both richly individual and utterly authentic-seeming. Actually, there’s quite a lot of genius floating round in here: How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is also deeply moving, a marvel of economy, and tells you a lot of stuff you probably don’t know about a country very different from your own. Hamid’s hero is born into poverty in a country that isn’t named, but shares a lot of similarities with Pakistan, where Hamid grew up. He endures a crude education, gets himself a job delivering bootleg DVDs, falls in love with the local beauty, a woman he will play hide-and-seek with for his entire life. He starts to make money by selling tins of expired goods, the sell-by dates artfully changed, to retailers, before moving into the booming bottled-water trade; this involves bottling the water himself, although at least he boils it first. This business grows and grows, especially after he has made the necessarily corrupt political and military connections. He’s not an asshole, I promise; he’s just doing what he has to do to avoid being sucked down into the pit of poverty and disease that festers underneath him. He loses first one parent and then the other. He marries a woman whom the local beauty prevents him from ever properly loving. He grows older and poorer, and eventually he… Actually, I won’t tell you what happens at the end. That’s the story of existence itself, and hitherto you may somehow have avoided the bad news coming your way. If you can boil an entire life down to its essence, without losing any of the detail, shape, pain, or joy of that life, then it seems to me that you’ve done pretty much everything a novel is capable of doing.

I have been reading proofs and typescripts of novels by women writers previously unfamiliar to me, possibly because it’s spring here in the U.K., and the blizzards and the subzero temperatures have obliged me to look for sunshine, hope, and rebirth elsewhere. I didn’t find much of it in Alina Simone’s Note to Self, although it’s a very good first novel; Anna, Simone’s central character, is thirty-seven, lonely, overweight, unemployed, and addicted to the internet, and I should warn you in advance that Simone is not the kind of writer who is in a hurry to rescue her heroine from these predicaments. I don’t know whether it’s fair to think of Lena Dunham’s Hannah, but, whether it’s fair or not, it’s kind of unavoidable. Lena! Hannah! Alina! Anna! What’s a chap to do? Anyway, Anna could be Hannah in a decade’s time, if we didn’t know already that Hannah is eventually going to soar off into the stratosphere, surfing on the jetstream of her creator. Anna, who lives in Brooklyn, just surfs:

She ate straight from the plastic container while reading the Daily Beast’s “Cheat Sheet” on her laptop. When she finished eating, she clicked over to Culture Vulture, then Fishbowl NY, then back over to her e-mail, where there were no new messages in her in-box. She considered checking Newser (though she didn’t much trust Michael Wolff) or PopEater (even though it always made her feel guilty afterward). Then Anna wondered whether the Daily Beast’s “Cheat Sheet” had refreshed in the past half-hour…

Those of you who are gainfully employed might not recognize anything in that, may not even know what the hell Simone is talking about (and if this novel’s still being read in two hundred years’ time, the footnotes will be spectacular, as dense and tiny as the ones you see at the end of The Rape of the Lock). Those without a job—and that category includes writers—will burst into tears of recognition, and then go and hang themselves.

Anna does end up finding something to do, at least for the duration of the narrative. She hooks up with an asshole—and I know whereof I speak—called Taj, and gets involved in a video-art project that turns out to be unspeakably cruel. (Like Kevin Wilson’s wonderful The Family Fang, Note to Self is full of imaginative and well-imagined art projects.) The flavors of the book are sharp and sour, like a Chinese soup, and Alina Simone, a singer/songwriter, is clearly a novelist, too.

The book that made me happiest this month was Jessica Anya Blau’s picaresque, properly funny, unpredictable, and altogether irrepressible The Wonder Bread Summer; it made me so happy that after I’d read it, in two days flat, I bought everything I could find by the same author. Why can’t I ever find novels like this? The last time I can remember feeling quite as buoyed by a work of fiction, and as charmed by a writer, was when I discovered Charles Portis, who wrote True Grit and Norwood, and Blau reminds me of Portis in lots of ways. Her characters and her set pieces would seem too giddy in the hands of a less talented writer, and I certainly couldn’t synopsize thoroughly without doing her a grave disservice. But she has a steady nerve, as well as a wicked imagination, and she takes her craft seriously—her situations and her characters are real, to her and therefore to us, and it takes you a little while to realize that what you’re reading is top-notch comic writing, because you’re getting all the stuff you normally get in literary fiction as well: rites of passage, the complications of fractured family, the works.

The eponymous summer is the summer of 1983; the eponymous Wonder Bread is actually only a plastic bag; the bread has been removed, and in its place is a whole pile of cocaine belonging to a drug-dealing boutique owner called Jonas, who, as the novel opens, is exposing himself to one of his employees, twenty-year-old Allie, who’s working in the boutique during her summer break from college. Allie does not wish to see Jonas’s penis, particularly, and in any case is owed money; she grabs the Wonder Bread bag and disappears. That’s the setup. I’d been sent a proof, and only really intended to do the author the courtesy of reading the first couple of pages, but wherever Allie was going, I wanted to go with her. One of the remarkable things about Blau’s novel is that while she recognizes the vulnerability of attractive young girls, she doesn’t allow it to cripple them; they deal with the hand they’ve been played, and as a consequence, Blau writes about sex with a perspective that seems fresh to me.

There are many passages that I would like to read to you—Allie’s first hapless attempt to sell some of the cocaine she’s stolen, without scales, or bags, or any clue as to the street value of any drug, is a joy—but perhaps the most surprising moment is when Allie meets Billy Idol, offers him cocaine (he accepts the offer with enthusiasm), and then has sex with him. I can’t recall another novel in which a real living person turns up with quite such… aplomb. Mr. Idol, according to Ms. Blau, has “a dick… the size of two Babe Ruth candy bars, side by side,” a description that may be flattering enough to ward off any awkward lawyers’ letters. (Actually, what the hell do I know? We don’t have Babe Ruth bars here in the U.K.) This is Billy Idol’s only appearance in the books I read this month. There are, I can tell you, worse books to appear in, as Noel Gallagher and Henry VIII might tell you.

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