On Monsters: Reviewing Coupland’s Player One.

Over the course of yesterday afternoon, I listened to Douglas Coupland’s speech he delivered at the 2010 Massey Lectures. Player One: What is to Become of Us is unlike other Massey Lectures. It is a novel, and was read aloud by its author over the course of five hours. It is available in audiobook and hard copy.

The novel follows five characters, Karen, Rick, Luke, and Rachel, as they arrive in the lounge of an airport bar, as they interact with one another, and as they cope with chaos that erupts as cataclysmic events occur. The story addresses their motivations and perceptions, as well as their thoughts on certain themes. There are several minor characters and a fifth main character, Player One, who retells the events that the four main characters experience but from the perspective of an outside observer, like someone exploring a video game environment.

The plot revolves around human perception in a time of horror and catastrophe and global change.

This is hard-hitting, at once cold and clinical, yet still, to use extremely overused book-reviewing phrasing, profoundly human. Very frequently I found myself pausing and rewinding the lecture to hear again Coupland’s message.

The cast of characters: Karen, a divorced mother and receptionist in a psychiatrist’s office; Rick, a recovering alcoholic, divorced father, and bartender at the airport cocktail lounge where the novel is set; Luke, a pastor who lost faith in religion and, hours prior to coming to the cocktail lounge, emptied his church’s construction fund of $20,000; Rachel, a nineteen year-old woman, extremely beautiful, but due to a number of neurological conditions–she’s on the Autism spectrum, has prosopagnosia, and is unable to understand humour, metaphors, irony, or social cues–has trouble understanding herself to be human; and Player One, Rachel’s Second Life avatar, who observes the proceedings from a disembodied and somewhat etherial position. Each character brings their own perceptions to bear on the developing environmental and economic disaster–precipitated by the bombing of an OPEC meeting–which caused oil to spike to $900 per barrel, before the power went out.

I don’t want to say I related to any of the characters–I’d never admit to that–but I found Rachel and Luke to be the most compelling. I can empathize with Rachel’s bewilderment at so much of humanity; only through the eyes of an autist can one appreciate just how bizarre we human beings are. But Luke is the one who spoke to me, not because I believe in sin, not for religious reasons, but because I believe in the human capacity to wreak massive, obliterating suffering on itself.

Even with his faith recently nullified, Luke believed in sin. He believes that what separates humanity from everything else in this world is that humanity has, at any moment, the capacity to commit all possible sins. Even those of us who try to live a good and true life remain as far away from grace as the Hillside Strangler, or any demon whoever tried to poison the village well. In Luke’s eyes, sin defined our lives in ways both pathetic and monstrous, and Luke knows that monsters exist.

Entities with human forms but no souls: Ronnie who set fire to his house with his two kids inside, Lacey who extinguished cigarettes on her baby’s forearms. In the face of such monsters, the idea of seven deadly sins seems almost charming, and certainly out of touch with the 21st century. He keeps a running list of things the Church might consider: the willingness to tolerate information overload, the neglect of the maintenance of democracy, the deliberate ignorance of history, the equation of shopping with creativity, the rejection of reflective thinking, and the belief that spectacles reality, vicarious living through celebrity, and more, so much more… “Man,” Luke thinks, “I am one judgmental prick.”

[Addressing the group in the cocktail lounge after the power goes] “You know, in the end, I just got so tired of hearing about the same old seven sins over and over and over again. You’d think that it would be interesting, but it’s not. Would somebody please invite an eighth sin, just to keep things lively? And why do people live so long? What could be the difference between death at 55 or 65 or 75 or 85. Those extra years, what benefit could they possibly have? Why do we go on living when nothing new happens, when nothing new is learned, and nothing new is transmittend? At 55, your story is pretty much over.

“You know, the people I think I feel saddest for are those who once knew what profoundness was, but now lost or became numb to the sensation of wonder, who felt their emotions floating away and just didn’t care, I guess that’s what’s scariest: not caring about that loss.”

– – –

I can’t really articulate what else about the lectures moved me. But it’s there. Like the interspersed definitions from the last chapter of the book, a glossary for the near future. The New York Times published some of Coupland’s terms:

DESELFING Willingly diluting one’s sense of self and ego by plastering the Internet with as much information as possible. (See also Omniscience Fatigue; Undeselfing)

DYSPHORIA Describes the extent to which modern travel strips the traveler of just enough sense of identity so as to create a need to purchase stickers and gift knick-knacks that bolster their sense of slightly eroded personhood: flags of the world, family crests, school and university merchandise.

IKEASIS The desire in daily life and consumer life to cling to “generically” designed objects. This need for clear, unconfusing forms is a means of simplifying life amid an onslaught of information.

PSEUDOALIENATION The inability of humans to create genuinely alienating situations. Anything made by humans is a de facto expression of humanity. Technology cannot be alienating because humans created it. Genuinely alien technologies can be created only by aliens. Technically, a situation one might describe as alienating is, in fact, “humanating.”

INTRAFFINITAL MELANCHOLY VS. EXTRAFFINITAL MELANCHOLY Which is lonelier: to be single and lonely, or to be lonely within a dead relationship?

STANDARD DEVIATION Feeling unique is no indication of uniqueness, and yet it is the feeling of uniqueness that convinces us we have souls.

– – –

But the counterpoint to what I said is also true: I know that people, at any given time, have the capacity to do enormous acts of good.

Shelf Space {Flash Fiction}

This story is missing something, just one paragraph. Something to put after “I showed you.” While I’m waiting for that paragraph to hit me, I’ll just let the piece camp out here.

– – –

Do you remember when we first met?

When you were lost in a city strange to you, where I helped you get your bearings, set a course by dead reckoning, that first week, when we flouted all norms, flouted the three day rule, is this now lost to you?

Remember exploring each other’s self: the time you whispered to me, when we were coming in from the rain, your hair all wet and mussed from running from the airport shuttle which delivered you to that little bistro down the block–where I had waited an hour for you that one time when you said Logan was grounded–that no word, in all its varied meanings, was more evocative than “crush”.

Remember how I smooshed you against the wall of my study, the both of us smelling of wet and tasting of our shared dinner of mussels and angel hair and wine, the acrid coffee that followed, after that summer of “seeing” each other. How I fumbled double entendre when I asked if you’d like to move in, remember? And you asked, “For the kill?” And I laughed, disoriented, and asked “How do you mean?”

And you stopped. I stepped back, and we ended up talking until three, both our backs to the wall, wrists resting on our knees, like I hadn’t done since college, about the curiosity of that question, “How do you mean?”

That moving guy, the Chicano, however improbably named Paul, remember how on the side of the glass boxes, instead of writing Fragile, he chose Delicate? This, after my comment about your delicacy, for which you chided me, because if you wanted to carry boxes you could. That he remembered “delicate”, two hours after that, the twittering between two nesting birds, it still boggles me.

Remember how, before we flattened the boxes, you placed each one’s contents in little mounds, in no particular order, on and before the couch. Sitting, spent, it was so quiet, and after such a long day of hauling your life across a city, being alone was good. Your decision, to let the mounds sit ’til morning, it was a winner.

I remember the emergency trip the next morning to the impossibly distant Ikea to buy a tall shelf named Billy, because we noticed, after merging our libraries, the crowded cloth-bound covers, ribs and spines, crushed together scandalously, suggestively—of what I still don’t know.

I remember that afternoon, you on your toes, sidling your favorite alongside mine on the top shelf, and how I ached at the sight of your calves: their firmness, no match for the book shelf’s fiberboard, its wood veneer and plastic gloss. I showed you.

Can you remember that magical year, or is it now dead to you, now that you’ve moved out, went upstate, chasing that trader (traitor?) who you met on a business trip, who promised you unimaginable riches, a life of charm and glowing magnetism, which yours truly, admittedly, could not.

I want you to know I kept a piece of you, one from a collection of fragile things.

“How do you mean?” I asked again, when you told me you were leaving, when I walked into our place, and found you half-packed, your hair again messy, your flush so lovely, chin trembling, lost again.

This as you packed the last of your books into the Delicate box.

An Excerpt from My Upcoming Kindle Release

Here’s an excerpt from a longish (~2500-3000 word) essay I’m writing for publication as a Kindle Book. It frames current belief in the college degree vis-a-vis traditional monotheistic religions’ value systems, and critiques it thusly. Do enjoy:

Other doctrines with similar promises of deliverance (from evil, which is defined by each organization) have since emerged alongside the political -isms. These doctrines, much like those of monotheistic religions, moralize participation. No neutral “other” category exists if a doctrine’s raison d’être is predicated on establishing the supremacy of the doctrine’s adherents with respect to unbelievers.

And this brings me to my absolute favorite organizational whipping boy: the university system. If we want to use Atran’s three factor framework, evaluating the university system as one promising salvation, defining itself in terms of good and evil, and defining aforesaid good based on subscription to, somewhat mechanistic participation in its doctrine, it becomes clear that in many ways our longstanding infatuation with the university, its straw-man promises of material prosperity and intellectual richness, deliverance from poverty and dullness, resembles the unquestioning religious fervor and generalized dogma of monotheistic traditions Atran warns against. Drinking the Kool Aid is what we’re programmed to do. I’m just here to make it sour.

As soon as I am out of school, it’s getting a good edit and going up for sale. It will be $2 or $3, and will be available free to those who want a .PDF copy emailed to them.

From Generosity, On Human Capability and Love

Here is a quote from Richard Powers’s novel, Generosity. After several months of off-and-on reading, I finished it today.

Saint Augustine, the old Berber, once wrote, Factus est Deus homo ut homo fieret Deus: God became man so that man might become God. He also said, even more popularly, Dilige et quod vis fac: Love, and do as you wish. But that was before our abilities so far outstripped our love. – pp. 252. Generosity, Richard Powers, FSG.

In Defense of Fiction: On Nuance

It is in that moment where muscles twitch slightly and a pang of synaptic excitement and that initial ineffable fraction of a fraction of a second before one articulates the “huh, I never noticed that before” that one experiences nuance.

I roll with a crowd that is somewhat slavishly devoted to reading. This is a good thing. With the exception of one of my friends, a man with whom I share my first name, the written matter they consume often takes the form of blog posts, magazine articles, and a preponderance of politics-, economics-, or entrepreneurially-focussed books. All of the above are categorized broadly as nonfiction.

A close friend of mine was reading some of my old blog posts and came upon a very brief treatise on the subject of “nuance” nested within a recent post, On the Hating of Haters.

He shot me an email asking me how one might gain a further appreciation of nuance, a question to which I responded with the following:

Short answer: read more fiction. Non-fiction writing is based on the premise of simplicity. The goal of a non-fiction book is to convey its thesis and supporting examples succinctly and efficiently. Nuance is often confused with extraneous detail, as being pertinent but largely insignificant to the larger argument; it is perceived to be a distraction from the larger “point” of the book/article.

Fiction, on the other hand, usually lacks a hard thesis and thus doesn’t need to convey information efficiently. A fiction writer may have a didactic message to convey, but the modus operandi of fiction for the past 200+ years is to “show, not tell.” Fiction writers show readers what they want to convey: adjectives are not the enemies.

As for some greater utility to fiction, I can only cite my personal growth in emotional intelligence and writing abilities. Both of which I’ve utilized in too many venues to mention here.

While it might be true that a certain critical mass of factual material must be mastered to be a functional adult. The real marker of intellect is not an increased volume of grey matter, the computational, repository bundles of nerve cells in the brain, but the volume of white matter, the neuronal connections that allow the brain to connect disparate ideas and concepts, to render juxtaposition and combination of ideas/things/messages in “contrapuntal” (to use a musical term) harmony.

That so many “young people” eschew the creative, integrative mental processes of reading fiction bothers me. They believe vehemently that consuming a media diet constituent of nonfiction, whether it is news or biography or pop-psych-sociology characteristic of Malcom Gladwell et al, makes them, in some material way, more intelligent. I counter this assertion by positing the following: functional intelligence has very little to do with the amount of factual information one crams into one’s brain; rather, intelligence can be measured by one’s competence with dealing with complexity, and the felicity with which one can deploy knowledge from disparate fields to address a given question or issue. From this integrative cerebral interconnectivity, not the mere aggregation and distillation of facts, “insight” is conjured.

Intelligence is gestalt, it is greater than the sum of its constituent parts; our knowledge is more than the words written and read, spoken and heard, created and consumed, respectively, throughout the course of our lives. The margin of error in our accounting here is the resultant cognitive gains of interconnectedness. Moreover, one cannot hard-wire methodologies for interconnectedness, only the potential for it. Why is it so hard to develop artificial intelligence? Resulting output is the product of false connections, the aforementioned insights are ersatz when uniqueness is attempted algorithmically.

The reading of nonfiction is an exercise in consumption, while reading, consuming, fiction is an exercise of creation. In the act of creation, which will be described below, the brain comes to play.

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A brief interpolation: have you ever noticed that on the bookshelves of the accomplished, one is likely to find a well-thumbed volume of Tolstoy or Austen or Huxley or Fitzgerald’s? These as opposed to Malcom Gladwell or any other member of the quasi-intellectual class who pass off cant and cleverness as meaning during their TED talks? Why is it that one might find, browsing the web histories of these same individuals, a link to one of the New Yorker’s blogs or to Slate, as opposed to a link to LifeHacker?

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Writing fiction is difficult. The writer is tasked with creating a world with a degree of comforting verisimilitude so that their readers might suspend disbelief for a moment and forget that what’s going on in the plot is, ultimately, fallacious. This is the objective world of the novel or short story. It is confined in its scope to the meanings of chains of well-chosen words. It is flat, its descriptions arid; it is a world nonetheless.

There is a world nested within that created by the author. When one reads fiction, one not only consumes its storyline; one is forced to imagine the characters, to form mental pictures of them, to perhaps ascribe quirks and ticks that the author failed to mention. Everything one pictures in this created world is highly personal. A beach umbrella mentioned in a story might evoke the one used on a seaside vacation as a child; in the mind’s eye, the brown bob of an old girlfriend’s hair might transpose itself onto the head of a particularly endearing female character. The world created by a reader is personal; the density of analysis one could do within the confines of a book can be virtually infinite. A book read well by a dozen people will offer a dozen interpretations; all are valid. All are subjective, and those who make claims to knowledge of an objective Truth divined from the text should be met with unflinching consternation. Their capital-T Truth is just as divined, as conjured, as pulled from the ether of their immemorial unconsciousness as the next person’s truth. Each person’s interpretation of a book is different, and one can interpret one’s interpretation as a reflection of themselves. The value of fiction as a tool for personal growth lies not in how the words on a particular page are articulated, or by the wild proclamations made by those in literary analysis courses, but by what occurs “between the lines” and over the infinitesimal space between synapses.

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A didactic question: If nuance–intricacy–in fiction didn’t really matter, would we never again, after viewing a film adaptation of a book, claim, “You know, man, I liked the movie, but the book… the book, like, had so much in it that the movie, you know, like, kinda leftout. I dunno, but the book was just so, I dunno, man, what’s the word…” phantasmagorical in its breadth, depth, and detail? Yeah, man: phantasmagorical. Try typing that out in a text message.

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Nicholas Carr, in his book-length rejoinder to his Atlantic article, [sic] “Is Google Making Us Stoopid?”, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, discusses the nature of the plasticity of the brain: that, with repetition, mental and physical activities, done repetitively, literally change the wiring of the brain. New neuron channels are formed, making behaviors that were once difficult easier over time. Recollect, for a moment, the monumental task before young children learning to dress themselves: the relative conceptual ease of snaps and elastic bands versus the enormous difficulty of buttoning a shirt. Tying shoes presents a problem that initially appears gordian in its intricacy. We learn. We don’t walk around naked. Not yet anyways.

The point being this: we live in a world driven by efficiency, we consume media that panders to the lowest common denominator of comprehension, and in a world so loaded with new information, new happenings, the new New New Thing (referring to the Michael Lewis book), Americans are using an ever-shrinking vocabulary to articulate what’s going on. (I don’t really want to say “we live in a world where…” anymore; it makes me sound cantankerous.) If one were to pull back from the goings on in the world, one would realize that ours is one of monodimensional blanket statements; things are articulated as black and white, righteous and “evil”, good and bad, immutable truth and rancorous bullshit. If it isn’t expressed plainly, elegantly, and matter-of-factly, it is taken as suspect. There are no freedom fighters, only terrorists; no moderate conservatives, only Randian, Bible-belting, free-market, ignorant, moose hunting, racist, xenophobic, quasi-populist Sarah Palin devotees. The monodimensional sells itself on its simplicity, and to mitigate the stultifying nature of the monodimensional, in lieu of another dimension, carefully-chosen language articulates itself in the spicy argot of over-dramatic extremism.

Ultimately, the point of Carr’s book, that the Internet affected our brains neuronally, that our neural pathways programmed for deep contemplation, concentration, creativity, and imagination have decayed in favor of those that allow us to consume and process huge quantities of information quickly (i.e. superficially), is “learned behavior.” People who think simplistically implicitly allow themselves to do so.

Authors’ worlds are recognizable and engaging not because of the nouns they choose, but the adjectives and verbs implemented. These paint a mental picture, the resolution of which is wholly dependent on the specificity of the chosen words. An author mentions tiny details that spark, if only for a brief second, within the reader a “huh, I never noticed that before” moment. It is in that moment where muscles twitch slightly and a pang of synaptic excitement and that initial ineffable fraction of a fraction of a second before one articulates the “huh” that one experiences nuance. It is for these brief moments of cerebral vivacity, where I identify and solve simultaneously the trick the author is playing, catching ex post facto he or she rendering connections from disparity, that I read fiction. Many of my friends see the world as one that offers incredible opportunity, a view which I share; but unlike some of them, through years of reading too many works of fiction to ever count, I believe I’ve gained the ability to live fully in the moment, to notice what is ignored, to engage the world actively, to find the needle of interest in the great musty haystacks of the mundane, and, ultimately, be able to articulate to you, the reader, what I wish to articulate with a degree of exactitude I defy another 20-year-old kid with a blog to surpass. An appreciation for variegation, of tiny variations, of minuscule vacillations, comes with one for vocabulary—said appreciation is my avocation. It is learned and adopted and eventually taken for granted. We are creatures of habit, after all.

My Favorite Books of the Summer Thus Far, pt. 1

For some, summer is a time to take on an internship, to travel, to spend time with friends and (if so inclined) family. For me, summer is about reading the books that the University of Chicago’s rather absurdly demanding curriculum precludes me from reading during the year. This is not to say that I don’t read during the academic year, it’s just that I’m not afforded the opportunity to read as voluminously as I’m otherwise inclined to.

Below is a list (complete with critical blurbs) of two of my favorites from the summer thus far:

Gain, by Richard Powers, 355 pp. Picador USA, 1998

Gain is the story of a woman and a company, it is one of growth and alienation. It is cold, corporate, and clinical. The novel traces the development of a fictitious company, Clare, from its humble beginnings as a soap and candle manufacturer and importer to its pervasive, expansive, Unilever-esque logical conclusion. Intertwined with this is the narrative of a woman, Laura Bodey, and her daily life in the bucolic exurban town of Lacewood, IL, which just so happens to be the home of a Clare manufacturing facility. As the twin plot lines unfold and spin themselves together, the reader notices that with the growth of one comes the decline of the other. Gain gives hints of genuine emotion, and there are moments of palpable nostalgia and sentimentality (especially in the development of Clare), but the reader is left with a feeling of corporate detachment. A poignant commentary on corporate personhood, the ethics of business development, and the alienating power of marketing, rural existence, and physical and psychological decline, Gain is a must read for those interested in ethics, entrepreneurship, or the lexical workings of the “Genius Grant” recipient, Powers.

This Side of Paradise, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. 248 pp. Library of America, 2000

An ebullient, skittering mess of a book, This Side of Paradise is the perfect novel for those that don’t read books (i.e. young people nowadays). Although most young people are first exposed to Fitzgerald in high school with the reading of The Great Gatsby, this novel, published when its author was just twenty three years old, provides a more applicable and personal meditation on the innocent pleasures of blasé youth, and the deep, adult pleasures of shedding that innocence piece by piece. The extent to which This Side of Paradise is thinly veiled memoir is unclear, though it must be said that the degree of verisimilitude between Fitzgerald and TSOP’s protagonist, Amory Blaine, is striking. Tracing Amory’s personal and intellectual growth from impetuous and pompous youth into literary snobbery during his first two years at Princeton into a real hurricane of a dalliance with a young debutanté into slow decay into post-college alcoholic turpitude and finally into what now might be referred to as indignant “adulthood,” TSOP sloshes about from one scene to another, mixing poetry, epistolary narrative, a peculiar quasi-drama in the form of a script, and careful reference to the dead white males that formed the backbone of the Jazz Age’s literary cannon. It left me with a sense of giddy self-recognition. I, like most young men, am, in whole or in part, Amory Blaine: restless, reluctantly realistic, wistful, and itching for success, the actualization of my closely-held overinflated notions of greatness. With this recognition comes the following fear: that I, like Amory, might eventually come upon realism, and, with it, resignation to the path more traveled.

On The Joys of Bookcases & Cleaning Thereof

I judge people based on their bookcases. Because I’m moving into student housing this academic year, I’ve had the unique pleasure of hauling a couple hundred books from my apartment to my home in the Chicago suburbs in the heat of late June and carrying them up to my room a month later.

They (i.e. the books) resided in temporary storage in my downstairs, where, on the floor, the bottom books of a half dozen stacks were damaged in the floods that afflicted the Chicago area last month. Lost were several marginal volumes of the Harvard Classics (e.g. Elizabethan Drama, et al.) and some fiction which I’d’ve gotten rid of eventually. What pained me most was the loss of a couple of John Updike anthologies, the massive tomes of bound book reviews, essays, articles, and self-referential flotsam and jetsam that A. A. Knopf released over the course of John’s prodigious writing career.

Sadly, I spent an evening meticulously separating pages from their spines and boards so that they (the pages and non-cloth-bound boards) may be recycled. It was a rather pitiful, sentimental experience. It was at this moment that I remembered that financial loss was limited to under one hundred fifty dollars, and that I could make an adventure of replacing three treasured volumes that are, alas, out of print. I have several reliable sources that tell me that Paris and London, where I’m headed in September, have exceptional used book stores; I’m a prodigal bibliomane, and something tells me I’ll be spending a lot of time in labyrinthine mazes of bookcases searching for a British first edition of Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies, among others.

The process of expiating my room of clutter yielded books and magazines I believed to be lost. Although I am an aggregator of bound printed matter, I’ve resigned myself to failure in certain respects. I came across a small stack (20 issues) of New Yorker magazines from 2005-7 (yes, I was already a somewhat jaded reader of the New Yorker when was fifteen). I read through the cartoons and James Surowiecki’s financial/economic commentary. There was hope in his pieces, and a strange feeling arose in me after reading a 2005 article that painted credit default swaps as the best thing to hit Wall Street since securitization of equity shares of companies into tradable “shares” of “stock.”

I realized then, after reading this article, that there are some ideas that, like credit default swaps and saving New Yorkers for future reading, seemed like great ideas at the time but are ultimately indefensible lost causes. It was a goal of mine to lean out my book collection such that it fit onto two eight-foot high shelves. I came close.

What isn’t pictured in these photos are another eighty or so softcover nonfiction books, my high school yearbooks, and a large box of letters sent to me over the years. I’ll pick through it all, and the people who rummage through books left for the taking outside of Powell’s on 57th Street will find their book collections richer for my efforts.