Book of the Month :: Traversing the Fringes

In my youth, I read a remarkable amount of science fiction, the majority of which was fairly safe and non-confrontational fare. In the summer of 1984, as an impressionable and naive 18-year-old, I was urged by a friend to read Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory and overnight my literary outlook shifted. I may yet choose this as a Book of the Month, but its mention here is to begin a dissection of literature as a mirror for how we as readers deal with the process of difficult subject matter. Considered as one of the top 100 books of the 21st Century in a 1997 poll, it left me with a profound sense of disquiet. I realised that I didn’t want to read about this kind of seemingly mindless violence, however popular or critically acclaimed it might be.

When urged to read The Comfort of Strangers by my English lecturer at College, I could not finish the book when it became apparent that Robert had broken his lover’s back and that Caroline had remained with him after the event. For me, what is a crucial dramatic device in the plot was a reach too far. Decades on, I have finally read the novella from end to end and find myself wondering why my younger self found this narrative such hard going, and that in turn has led to some rather revelatory understanding of how, as humans, our own experiences colour the lives we choose to experience through entertainment.

Ever since an eyeball was sliced open in Un Chien Andalou in 1929, outraging viewers using visual imagery has become a massive industry, but has always remained a product of the particular era within which those shocks were conceived within. Cinematic history is littered with movies that were banned for transgressing rules put in place often not to protect viewers, but to preserve what governments and academics considered as the boundaries of decent behaviour. Looking back on films such as The Devils (1971) and The Human Centipede (2009) it is easy to see why time will not remove the indignation from some works which, quite frankly, were probably only ever made to be controversial in the first place.

Fortunately for everybody, literature is a far more subtle beast, relying exclusively on an individual reader’s reaction and rarely on a group response, though the sensationalist works would rely on such reactions as a convenient means of selling more copies. It means that those most capable of writing the horrific as mundane and compelling as acceptable and normal can get away with a great deal inside the auspices of their own narratives. This is, in essence, Ian McEwan’s greatest strength: the ability to present the beauty of an unnamed city in The Comfort of Strangers and use it as the backdrop to use and then expound on a story of individual perversion and malice.

How much one can stomach in terms of horror is as unique as one’s own fingerprint, and will be dictated by the life led but also by the ability to rationalise what is real and imagined. For most, books are a means of escape but on very specific terms: when an author suggests contentious plot twists with which you may have had a measure of personal empathy, for instance, that may instantly colour a previously compelling narrative as far less attractive. It is why, when authors attempted to break barriers of decency or challenge religious sensibilities as has been the case with film-makers, their work has often been summarily banned. Famously Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses in 1988 caused such outrage that the author had a fatwā issued against him, calling for his death over a story which now seems tame in light of the state of world affairs.

The power of the written word can be traced back centuries, of course, and there are countless examples in modern history of the power that literature continues to wield, often by accident: even now, certain religious schools in the US will refuse to acknowledge the existence of key scientific figures such as Charles Darwin and effectively attempt to erase his observations on the nature of Evolution from history and their children’s textbooks. It does not matter whether you believe these theories or not: that is the choice of the individual to decide when reading the evidence, not the responsibility of others to impose.

Literary freedoms too have come to the fore in the last few years with the emergence of the post-truth movement in politics, which use their own versions of news and understanding of current affairs, science and education to effectively retool history as we know it unfolded. If it is necessary to take someone to court to prove that the Holocaust during World War Two took place (see the movie Denial for a decent potted history of Irving v Penguin Books Ltd and why Holocaust apologists became newsworthy) there are some worrying issues to address. It appears that many have reached a stage as educated human beings where the ability to understand the truth and separate it from our own perception thereof is becoming worryingly warped.

For me, McEwan’s work is a watershed, for several reasons: primarily it has pushed my own ability to dispassionately separate reality and fiction, and be able to accept both in mature, academic terms. This is undoubtedly a result of my own personal history, and events which mean that violence is something I often like to pretend simply doesn’t exist. However, in what has become a climate of increasing understanding and acceptance of the difficulties those of us with mental illness face, plus my own attempts to better communicate and explain the shortcomings I know are possessed, I can sit and grasp the issues and begin to find enlightenment in works that previously were simply too emotionally difficult to cope with.

Social media has a part to play in this personal renaissance: the willingness of people to not simply discuss their issues, but find people who will sympathise, support and offer advice is undoubtedly on the rise. In this regard, it is with renewed confidence that I am tackling subject matters that previously were intimidating, and actively pushing myself into the process of analysis. Undoubtedly, we learn best as human beings when able to control and dictate our own terms, and the more complex forms of literature give a perfect opportunity to challenge ourselves whilst at the same time offering a measure of distance between the issues and our own perception.

Where the limits of these challenges exist, of course, are often not solely regulated by individual taste. Sometimes, it requires a work of fiction to shine a light on areas where discussion of freedoms simply did not take place previously in order for seismic change to take place. When one looks at the public outcry (and subsequent court case) over D.H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover in the 1960’s and realise it took over thirty years to have an unexpurgated version of the book published in the UK, it is apparent that the climate for sexual practices being openly discussed had come a long way since original censorship took place.

McEwan’s work, like Iain Banks’ early novels, shows a writer playing with the fringes of acceptable human behaviour as not simply an attention seeking device to bring their early work to prominence. This is more than sensationalism at work, but a cracking open of the thoughts and feelings that many of us consider, or have flirted with at times during our lives. What separates humanity from those on the fringes of acceptable behaviour is often the unexpected, the unwarranted or simply the unavoidable: all have the opportunity to make wrong turns and never come back from those moments. If circumstances had dictated our own personal paths to run in a differing direction, how much else of our personalities might have altered along the way? In essence, that is all that The Comfort of Strangers becomes: a story about how the choices made lead us sometimes to dark spaces that were never previously illuminated.

Learning from our mistakes is the way to free ourselves from such perceived tyranny, to find the means to remove that which restricts us from truly becoming the people we wish to be. It is incredibly easy to say but often almost impossible to do, and the measure of us as human beings is often counted by such actions. For me at least, by reading this novel, a ghost has been exorcised and greater understanding of myself attained. As an author, that is all I hope happens when others read my work: to gain greater knowledge of self and to strive to be better as a result. The best literature is truly capable of producing such change if you are prepared to approach each work with an open mind.

Book of the Month :: The Hidden Side of Everything

Book of the Month

It is a truly brave commentator who’d consider comparing the Ku Klux Klan with a bunch of Estate Agents, but that is exactly what Levitt and Dubner decide to do in Chapter 2 of Freakonomics. This section of the 2005 book is particularly apposite in light of current events, with the alt-right very much front and centre in public consciousness. To understand why this juxtaposition works as well as it does, one must grasp a number of underpinning principles, the most significant of which is causality. This is how selling houses can be connected to lynch mobs without breaking stride: more significantly understanding the principle breaks down a lot of the mystery around what truly goes on in our World.

All of us are familiar with the concept of ‘things happen for a reason’ but the practicalities often depend on how much we think about these things to begin with. It is a basic human reaction to consider what is presented at face value when thrown into unfamiliar situations: two cars hit each other on a busy street, and the relative physical positioning of one to the other will allow us to make certain assumptions over the circumstances by which the accident occurred. However, only by digging deeper does the true nature of these series of events become apparent: who is to blame is often far more difficult to discern than at first appears.

The key to causality is grasping that more than one event can be responsible for an action: a man arrives in A&E with chest pains after our accident in the previous paragraph, and the assumption might be that the impact and pressure of seatbelt across the chest has caused an issue with his heart. However, on discussion with the patient these issues began months ago, without real awareness of cause, and it is only the accident which has highlighted a true risk to his longterm health. Only by making an intuition leap based on the available hospital data does it become apparent that a moment in time has exposed a long term set of relationships between disparate factors.

Once one grasps the fundamentals of causality, it becomes apparent that information also matters a very great deal in our understanding of the World around us:

Information is a beacon, a cudgel, an olive branch, a deterrent – all depending on who wields it and how. Information is so powerful that the assumption of information, even if the information does not actually exist, can have a sobering effect.’

Freakonomics, Chapter 2 Page 63.

If all one does in life is assume that what one sees and hears is all there is, there’s a blinkering of so many potential possibilities as to beggar belief. However, on the flip side, one can then easily invent circumstances and possibilities that simply don’t exist, and that is where the science of economics (in Freakonomics’ case) becomes the vital anchor. It doesn’t have to be economics either: history, biology, sociology all have parts to play in illuminating events and connecting the disparate.

In the case of the Ku Klux Clan—it was making private information public knowledge after the Second World war, by giving (of all fictional people) Superman a new force of evil to confront, that helped to contribute to the destruction of the organisation’s mystique. Understanding the market forces estate agents work under and how they use language to create the illusion of a saleable property, by altering information to present a different version of reality… both groups understand the significance of what happens when someone else exposes their ‘theatre’ and shows the truth behind communications used to sell services, or recruit followers.

However, there’s a more potent thread winding these two units together, and that’s fear. Information can be used for many things, after all: if you smoke too much you’re at greater risk of cancer is undoubtedly rooted in scientific fact, but plenty of heavy smokers outlive peers and carry on puffing away to the end. Yes, being overweight may expose you to multiple health risks, but it does not preclude you from physical fitness, or the ability to do anything a ‘thin’ person is capable of. How you use the tools at your disposal (language, information, argument) to either calm or create tension is as significant as the action itself: this transforms the simplest of statements into either a potent threat, or a persuasive admission.

Creating fear to fuel personal belief is corrupting: your way of life is being compromised by immigrants; you should sell the house because tomorrow, that offer may not exist… both play on basic human instinct to create first conflict, and then offer an obvious and easily provided resolution. They might seem a world apart, but causality tells us how much a roof over our heads matters. We grasp why xenophobia is a potent weapon simply by looking at current world events, and why keeping home safe matters, not simply because if there’s a Hurricane tomorrow everything could be taken away regardless. Challenging individuals by threatening what they stand for and what has allowed them to be happy will result more often than not in a predictable reaction. People can become incredibly susceptible to suggestion, if a canny orator knows the buttons to press.

It is why charismatic individuals such as Donald Trump can become President of the United States: many of you will undoubtedly call issue with the use of ‘charismatic’ in that last sentence, but for others that is what they see. It is the veneer of successful business, of a man who is happy to sacrifice his own desires and ambition (with the exception of golf) to, as he reminds us almost daily, ‘Make America Great Again.’ This is no different to the estate agent’s well-worn sales patter, after all. Trump’s allure to the alt-right comes with more complex baggage however, but they know full well the benefit of snaring the support of disaffected or unhappy white men and women who are also registered voters. In that regard at least, everyone can see how causality allowed the events of the 2016 Election to play out, even if many still fail to grasp the result as valid.

The reason why I urge people to consider Freakonomics as an important part of their cognitive arsenal begins with the acknowledgement of causality’s importance. It can take many years to understand the complexities of modern life, and I doubt there’s anyone who’d view themselves an expert, but these philosophical concepts begin to allow the individual a measure of freedom and autonomy. We may all feel helpless and trapped, but individual acts of rebellion can and do add up over time. Causality matters far more than many people might realise.

It is not simply the understanding of interrelation that is important: ideas such as metaphysics (which examines the fundamental nature of reality) are going to become increasingly significant as science itself reveals more to the Universe than has currently been visible via the naked eye. We will consider the significance of mathematics in the modern world in next week’s essay but for now, Freakonomics asks a basic question of any reader: how much information are you prepared to accept as possible explanation?

With the prevalence of ‘fake news’ and ‘post-truth’ in current society, it is becoming increasingly apparent that individuals would often simply pretend something is right if it allows them a measure of emotional security, even if that is not the case. Watching compassion fatigue on social media after months of disparate economic, political and environmental disaster is a reminder that after a while, everybody just stops caring and gives up wanting change. However, if more of us were able to escape the oppressive gravity of information overload, see beyond what is presented to us at face value, many circumstances could and would affect real progress.

In the case of the increase of natural disasters that are inevitable as a consequence of global warming, proactive donations to charities and organisations ought to become de rigeur, not money after the fact. Increased production of pointless material goods should be tempered against the economic impact of their manufacture. Refusing to listen to contrary viewpoints, turning your social media into an echo chamber should be balanced against allowing companies more and more personal data so they can sell items to you that really aren’t necessary.

Picking and choosing what to listen to and believe matter, but so does ignoring bigger pictures for the sake of a quiet life. The next part of the century will put personal security and information freedom front and centre, and at the heart of it all will remain the individual. There has never been a better time to learn, and to educate yourself on how the World is never as black and white as it might appear. Correlation is not causality, however, and that may be the most important lesson to take from the entire Freakonomics concept.

The only true means by which one is able to understand complexities around us comes from embracing the facts: often it can take time and effort to find them, or uncover the real truths behind circumstance. A solid grounding in scientific principle (whether they be pure, applied or social) is the best foundation anyone will find to truly understand our planet and the people on it. Freakonomics simply takes the building blocks of an accepted world, pulls them apart, then rebuilds the structures in another way. It is a life skill we can all learn from, with considerable and positive consequences long term.