Reading Highlights from 2014: Fiction

Reading Highlights from 2014: Fiction

Meg Wolitzer The Interestings

Meg Wolitzer. The Interestings. (2013).

Wolitzer’s novel focuses on a circle of friends who meet during their teens at a summer camp for artistically gifted youth called Spirit in the Woods. Told mainly from the point of view of Julie Jacobsen, the narrative follows this close-knit and variously talented group from the age of fifteen through to their mid-fifties. The narrative starts against the backdrop of Nixon’s resignation (1974) as the teens gather nightly in the wooden tepee sleep-out of the charismatic Wolf siblings, Ash and Goodman, who come from a cultured, privileged background that assures them a sense of belonging at a camp such as this. The group declare themselves ‘the Interestings’ for the level of intensity, complexity and talent that they possess singly and as a group. Intended perhaps as a satire on adolescent hopefulness and egotism, The Interestings nonetheless suggests that at least one member of the group, Ethan Figman, a plain-looking boy of unremarkable background, is in fact insanely, incandescently talented. Already, at fifteen, he is filling notebooks with the comic strip of his creation, a world called Figland that converts the banal horrors of his bleak suburban upbringing into mordant tales. Julie, renamed Jules by her hip camp friends, is invited by Ethan to a private showing of his animated versions of Figland and has a sudden insight: despite his plainness, here was real talent, “He was a genius … His cartoon was mesmerizing …”

Jules, also from an unremarkable background, with a home back in New Jersey, is attending Spirit in the Woods on a scholarship. Her story makes a parallel to Ethan’s as each starts from a similar back-story, only to experience very different outcomes. While Ethan’s work goes on to be wildly successful, both commercially and artistically, growing to become a Matt Groening style Simpsons-esque empire, Jules’s early years as a budding comic actor lead nowhere. Eventually conceding that a little talent that shines its small light among one’s peers is not enough to light up anything beyond that circle, Jules becomes a clinical social worker who runs a modest practice. The remainder of the narrative explores how Jules’s feelings of intense camaraderie and loyalty towards her more successful friends, are rendered more complex and ambiguous by disappointment and poisonous social comparison.

As The Interestings ploughs through the early adulthood, adulthood, and middle years of this group, Wolitzer uses the various backgrounds and personalities of each member to explore questions of success and envy, privilege and chance, and the saving role of friendship as each deals with the flux of fortune. In addition to Jules and Ethan, there are the Wolf siblings, the diabolical Goodman and the likeable Ash, Cathy, a dancer whose artistic career seems doomed from the beginning by her statuesque build, and Jonah, the under-parented son of a Joan Baez type folk singer. Much of Jules’s story is taken up with her envy and frustration at being so proximate, through Ethan, and Ash, to phenomenal financial and artistic success, while she is forced, as are most of us, to make other, more imperfect choices.

The Interestings explores similar territory to Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections and Freedom, as, by considering talent and its fate, Wolitzer locates the individual story in a deeply textured social and economic milieu. This is brought into sharp focus when Jules’s best friend, Ash Wolf, develops a promising career as a New York theatre director, and Wolitzer gives Jules a painful epiphany:

“…it had never just been about talent; it had also always been about money. Ethan was brilliant at what he did, and he might well have made it even if Ash’s father hadn’t encouraged and advised him, but it really helped that Ethan had grown up in a sophisticated city … Ash was talented, but not all that talented. This was the thing that no one had said, not once. But of course it was fortunate that Ash didn’t have to worry about money while trying to think about art. […] ‘I love her and she’s my best friend and she’s very dedicated, and she does the reading and puts in the time, and she’s legitimately interested in the feminist aspect. But isn’t it true that there are a lot of other people who are talented at the same exact level, and they’re all slaving away? She’s got some good ideas. But is she great at directing? Is she the theatrical equivalent of Ethan? No! Oh, God will strike me dead right now.’”

Wolitzer shows how the novel form itself is uniquely well-suited to explore the central dynamism of human life in modernity – how we struggle to make good on our given resources and talents; how relationships form and shape us; how we aim to make something of our lives, but always do so within the opportunities and limits of our circumstances and society. There is the myth, especially in America, but also in every culture touched by the American narrative, that the individual carves out their life from the raw material of circumstance and that the virtuous individual will triumph over odds. Wolitzer shows, through the fortunes and struggles of her characters, that it is never that straightforward, even for those born to advantage and even those whose lives seem, on the surface, to encompass every kind of success.

Ultimately, The Interestings is a meditation on the mystery of talent – whether or not it exists, and the many factors that play into its being expressed or not, “Talent could go in so many directions, depending on the forces that were applied to it, and depending on economics and disposition, and on the most daunting and most determining force of all, luck.” The author chooses to portray a small coterie of New York friends who attempt artistic careers, or make deliberate choices not to, using their story to prompt our thinking about the interaction of self and circumstance, and the relationship between the narrow range of personal experience, and the wide angle lens of social history. If anything, the novel invites speculation into just how useful the contemporary obsession with talent and fame and success really is, and what happens to how we experience our lives if we only value what of them reaps wealth and publicised rewards. By developing the narrative through the parallel lives of these friends, Wolitzer also shows how our long-standing relationships help us make sense of the passing of time. Through the story of Jules and her friends, I felt like I was satisfyingly involved in some of life’s great questions.

KnausgaardBoyhoodIsland

Karl Ove Knausgaard. Boyhood Island. (English translation: 2014).

“… event after event is dispersed in the air above the little meadow of one’s own history, only to fall between the blades of grass and vanish …”

This is the third instalment of the English translation (from the Norwegian) of Knausgaard’s epic experiment in fictionalised autobiography My Struggle. In this volume, ‘Karl Ove’ relives his primary school years living with his father, mother and older brother on the island of Tromøya. Setting up in a new house in a new estate, Knausgaard’s family are part of a post-war generation who hope to be part of a new, better-educated, more socially just Norway. The class heterogeneity, optimism, and easy neighbourly intermingling of different kinds of families that Knausgaard portrays, held together by common schooling and community sporting clubs, was extremely nostalgic for me, having grown up, on the other side of the world, in a very similar community on the outer suburban fringe of 1970s Melbourne. This was a time in Australia, too, where there was a popular hope that socialised health care, free, accessible, high-quality education for all, worker protections, and a welfare safety net were going to usher in a golden era of social as well as material prosperity. Such were the days.

Of the three My Struggle volumes I have read thus far, this had the most traditional, straightforward narrative structure. Knausgaard portrays his struggles for self-acceptance as well as inclusion with his peers. The strained and ominous atmosphere that permeates his adolescent and early-adulthood memories of his father in Volume 1: A Death in the Family, is explained further in this volume. A primary-school pedagogue by trade, Knausgaard’s father is shown, in a cruel irony, to have no insight into how to relate to his own sons. ‘Control Freak’ does not even begin to cover the tyrannical perfectionism and glowering threat posed by this man. However, a young Knausgaard does find some relief elsewhere during unsupervised hours roaming the beaches, docks and forests that surround his home, sometimes getting into peril during the explorations and adventures he undertakes with his boyhood friends. Soccer and music, and, a little later, reading, also offer escape hatches from the unbearably oppressive atmosphere at home.

Of the three volumes translated thus far, this was the least striking, stylistically, perhaps because the story arc and the attention given to portraying childhood within a suburban-fringe or small-town setting are stock-in-trade for autobiographical novelists. However, the quality of Knausgaard’s writing, and the searching, self-critical way in which he narrates his novel-memoir, lifts this work above the usual Bildungsroman.

Knausgaard recounts experiences that are so specific and weird that they simply cannot be made up and they certainly disrupt any containment by a simple bucolic narrative. Discovering an undeclared tip and scouring it for disposed of pornography magazines, and having pooing competitions with his friend off the sides of fallen trees certainly fit this bill, as does the painfully meticulous attention given to the many ways in which the child Knausgaard was overly keen to please adult authority figures. The clarity and attention to detail, the felt heft and haptic specificity of Knausgaard’s writing, work like a magic portal to another time. I am looking forward to Volume 4 of this incredible project.

olive-kitteridge

Elizabeth Strout. Olive Kitteridge.(2008).

Olive Kitteridge is a quiet, yet sharply observed series of stories that accumulate into a novel-in-episodes.  Set in the fictional small town of Crosby, Maine, Strout’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel revolves around the telling moments and saving graces of otherwise untold lives. Olive Kitteridge is a retired high school maths teacher. Gruff, vinegary, but ultimately a soul built to last, she does not suffer fools but, at the same time, saves a man planning suicide and shows a kind of all-round sturdiness that recommends her. Capable of fierce love, she is also hopelessly undemonstrative with her own son, Christopher, and, in a darkly funny story, works with discreet malice against her status-conscious daughter-in-law. Her rather worn husband, Henry, a pharmacist on the verge of retirement, is capable of great loyalty to his difficult wife, even as he contemplates a late-life affair.

Strout’s stories impart a luminosity and quiet humour to otherwise unremarkable lives in a way that reminds me of Alice Munro’s work. Olive Kitteridge has recently been adapted as a four-part HBO miniseries with Frances McDormand in the title role.

The Emperor's Children

Claire Messud. The Emperor’s Children. (2006).

Messud’s The Emperor’s Children is, like Wolitizer’s The Interestings, concerned with a New York circle of friends who represent a cultural milieu. Messud’s novel has a shorter time scale, set in the year leading up to, and some months after, the terrorist attacks on September 11th 2001. Reminiscent of Jay McInerny’s Brightness Falls (1997), The Emperor’s Children deals with expensively educated thirty-somethings flailing away at the verge of either solid careers or failure. Julius, a gay, part-Vietnamese freelance journalist, has worn his charming schtick threadbare. Unable to steel his nerves for the demands of a regular gig, he is reduced to face-saving manoeuvres, such as calling the only decent suit in his wardrobe, an Agnes B number, his ‘signature suit’. Meanwhile, Marina is eking out her preposterous advance for her book on how children’s fashions express the changing values and aspirations of their parents. Their mutual friend, Danielle, is the main point of focus for the novel. Also a graduate from Brown, where they all met, Danielle is an outsider by virtue of her mid-west, single-mother home background. A producer for a documentary unit that rarely takes up her ambitious, socially-aware ideas, she finds herself stuck working on yet more hackneyed documentaries about cosmetic surgery gone wrong. She is tempted to join a new venture in commercial magazine publishing by an Australian media iconoclast called Ludovic Seeley. Looming over them all is the figure of Murray Thwaite, Marina’s father, an entrenched opinion-maker for the liberal press, who garnered his reputation reporting on the Vietnam War and has been resting on it ever since. A classic ‘hollow man’ of the world of letters, Thwaite is the cause of Marina’s writer’s block and the target of Seeley’s anti-values campaign. Lastly, Thwaite’s nephew, Bootie, from an unremarkable small town, arrives in New York armed with Musil’s A Man Without Qualities and a searing, Emersonian ambition to be authentic and make it on his own. It is Bootie who ends up attempting to knock down the graven image of Murray Thwaite, only to bring exile on himself.

Messud’s novel is a comedy of manners about the artistic and liberal-democratic aspirations of New York’s cultural establishment and, more specifically, the generation of their children. It also casts a knowing eye over the hypocrisies and intellectual double-book-keeping of the entrenched liberal elite. Murray Thwaite, who espouses the values of rigor, honesty and keeping it real, is all the while recycling his hackneyed 1960s journalism and showing nothing but indifference to the troubled black teen his social justice lawyer wife is working to keep out of jail and whose mother perishes in the World Trade Center. Messud’s prose is at times too circuitous and there were many times when I sighed at the insularity of her characters; their assumption that something that happens to their kind of people in New York has happened to the world was just grating rather than satirical. But this was an unsentimental examination of a slice of American life and the character of Danielle in particular, felt trustworthy.

Further reading:

The New Republic review of The Interestings and another Messud novel The Woman Upstairs.

Kill Your Darlings interview with Meg Wolitzer about The Interestings for the 2014 Melbourne Writers’ Festival.

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An Uncanny Experience: Reading Gone Girl alongside Oliver James’ The Selfish Capitalist and Britain on the Couch.

In the ‘Staff Daily’ at the school where I work, a recent ‘Thought for the Day’ was something about what we do when we procrastinate being perhaps what we should do more of in our life. Clearly, with Year 11 exam scripts glaring at me from their pile and report deadlines looming, what I have chosen to do before all that is write about Gillian Flynn’s psychological thriller Gone Girl.

gone girl book cover

Gone Girl is narrated in the first person by Flynn’s two protagonists, unhappily-married Nick Dunne and Amy Elliot. Set against the backdrop of America’s post 2008 financial troubles, Flynn’s novel details the lives of Nick and Amy as they meet, fall in love, marry, move into the gorgeous New York brownstone that Amy’s parents buy for them (!!) and have what seems to be, on the surface, a couple of years of a reasonably good time … before both lose their jobs. From thenceforth, Nick moves them both back to his home town in Missouri once he hears that his mother, Maureen, has terminal cancer. From there, the reader is plunged into what can only be described as Midwest Noir. The physical and psychological landscape is somewhere between Capote’s In Cold Blood and David Lynch’s chilling portrayals of suburban menace.

Amy Dunne disappears from the protagonists’ characterless McMansion in a half-deserted housing estate. Her husband Nick is the main suspect. For the first half of the novel, the reader cannot decide whether or not Nick is the likely killer. He does not love Amy. He is having an affair. He is a heavy drinker. He is complacent and – crucially — dishonest, especially with himself. But is he capable of murder?

Gone Girl exhibits our current anxieties in spades: that the GFC and technology have conspired to put out of work whole swathes of the liberally-educated; that our media is a grotesque machine for churning our lurid stories that stoke insecurity and rage but leave us no sense of what the truth really is; that the promise of the post-WWII economic Dream has shrivelled to empty malls, stagnant real wages, high unemployment, vacated ex-urbs and rusting industrial sites.

At the heart of these social and economic fears is a very personal, intimate one: that no matter how much time you spend with your spouse, you may not ever really know them. The first half of the narrative draws on the female fear of male violence from those men closest to them. Most of all, once the plot enacts its ‘twist’, Flynn taps into a long narrative tradition about women and evil. Gone Girl is part of a recurrent idea that women remain essentially inscrutable to their flawed, but essentially ‘good guy’ husbands, and that behind the friendly smile and the offer to make a cooked breakfast lies a villainess plotting to kill you.

Flynn goes deep into the vein of patriarchal images of female villainy that link female violence with their sexuality and roles as mothers: Medea killing her children for vengeance; Lady Macbeth swearing she would “dash the brains” of a baby if she had given her word she would do so. And, yes, a baby makes an appearance in Flynn’s narrative. Beyond that, she contextualises her tale of female psycho-pathology in a landscape that is saturated with stories. Everything her protagonists Amy Elliot or Nick Dunne do is a reference to another narrative: the feminist one of rape victims; the social work one about middle-class domestic violence; the backlash one about men being turned into compliant “dancing monkeys” in their futile efforts to please demanding feminist wives; the other backlash one about the “surrendered wife”; and all of those narratives about crimes and how they are solved and how they play in the media. There is an ‘as-if-ness’ to everything in Nick and Amy’s lives, which seem as manufactured and bereft of context as their neighbourhood.

In setting up the cultural scene of her tale, Flynn piles on layer after layer of irony. Her entire narrative explores the impossibility of authenticity in an ultra-post-modern world where everything is mediated. This feature of the novel adds to the sensation of uncertainty and vertigo it induces in the reader. Nick Dunne and Amy Elliot work as writers at pop-culture magazines that promulgate the consumption ethic and comment on entertainment. When both are put out of work by the triple-whammy of online media, falling sales and the GFC, they are crushed by a sense of failure; they no longer measure up to the idealised image of ‘success’ their erstwhile employer-publications promote. They go from being cute thirty-somethings living in a New York brownstone, to out-of-work nobodies, living in an anonymous McMansion in Missouri. In other words, they go from players in a narrative of upward mobility and success, to victims of the very same values they once identified with.

Nick and Amy acclimatise to their return to Nick’s Missouri hometown very differently. However, they are similar in their patronising assumption that ‘real’ lives and really interesting people are in their forfeited New York. That’s where the main story is – and the Midwest is just ‘flyover’. This is where my reading Gone Girl alongside Oliver James’ work analysing the ills of late-capitalism, The Selfish Capitalist: The Origins of Affluenza and Britain on the Couch: How Keeping up with the Joneses Has Depressed Us Since 1950 was so illuminating and uncanny. While commentators on the novel have pointed out its connection to feminism and the ills of married life, few seem to be prepared to link Amy’s pathology to the contemporary rise in unhealthy social comparison, particularly in its pathological manifestation as clinical narcissism. These are the cultural trends explored in James’s work that make a perfect gloss to Flynn’s text.

In Nick’s account, the move to Missouri disorients Amy because her carefully constructed and competitively maintained persona as “Amazing” (a word used with deadly drollery in Flynn’s novel) has no purchase in their new milieu:

“My wife had a brilliant, popping brain, a greedy curiosity. But her obsessions tended to be fuelled by competition: She needed to dazzle men and jealous-ify women: Of course Amy can cook French cuisine and speak fluent Spanish and garden and knit and run marathons and fly a plane and look like a runway model doing it. She needed to be Amazing Amy, all the time. Here in Missouri, the women shop at Target, they make diligent, comforting meals, they laugh about how little high school Spanish they remember. Competition doesn’t interest them. Amy’s relentless achieving is greeted with open-palmed acceptance and maybe a bit of pity. It was about the worst outcome possible for my competitive wife: A town of contended also-rans.”

Nick adjusts by taking the last of Amy’s trust fund (raided earlier by her feckless parents) to open a bar, knowingly called ‘The Bar’. Meanwhile, Amy tries playacting the role of ‘good wife’ and grateful daughter-in-law to Nick’s wonderful mother, and his misogynist, demented father, who regularly escapes from a comfortless nursing home.

Once Amy goes missing and Nick is a prime suspect, his side of the narrative is caught up in the pantomime of trying to appear ‘right’ to TV viewers. While Amy is relentlessly involved in constructing and maintaining a perfect self-image, Nick is castigated by various characters for failing to understand that one of his chief tasks is to successfully play a role. To the reader, Nick’s reaction to Amy’s disappearance is not quite right – we suspect him – but at the same time, we see how even an innocent man would be forced to play the role of “Innocent Man” under such circumstances.

Amy’s parents, child psychologists (but of course!) have made a mint over the years from a twee children’s book series called “Amazing Amy”. In the books, Amy-as-character does all the things that her parents evidently wishes she would do, too. While the real childhood Amy was a fledgling Queen Bee who ran a “Ponzi scheme” of intimidation among her school peers, the fictional Amy played fair and was reliable and generous. While the real thirty-something Amy is single, her fictional double gets married. Flynn creates a psychological backstory in which Amy has been trained, from early life, to construct a performed identity based on what her parents (and their publishers) want. Exterior perfection counts for all, and it is buffed to a high shine, while the inner life remains dusty and dim. Gone Girl’s sweetly vicious heroine is the embodiment of female empowerment crossed with rampant social competitiveness.

Gone Girl draws its power from several tensions and contradictions in contemporary liberal democracies. We invest in our romantic and marital relationships as a source of fulfilment and meaning in a cold, competitive world. Meanwhile, our rates of divorce and family dysfunction are sky-high. The promise of individual success is held up as more alluring than ever, but the economic realities make this a distant possibility for the majority. The novel paints a world of vanished hope for upward mobility and increased prosperity for all; Nick is a first-generation university graduate from his family, and winds up just where his forebears started.

Another issue, embodied in the eponymous ‘Girl’, is the way in which the hyper-mediated, consumption-driven culture we live in now encourages people to have extremely high expectations for their lifestyle and themselves. As James points out in Britain on the Couch, one of the effects of our living in a media-saturated world, is that the people with whom we compare our lives now includes celebrities, and a cornucopia of images of wealth, status, beauty and success. What’s more, psychological studies show that, at a deep unconscious level, we tend to blur the line between fantasy and reality. Hence, it does not matter that we ‘know’ that fashion images are photo-shopped and that our media give disproportionate time to the rich and beautiful. We still feel inadequate and that we ought to meet these ideals. Gone Girl explores how our quest for self-actualisation and success has grown more intense, just at the historical moment when ordinary people are increasingly exposed to economic ill-winds that make it more and more likely that they will fail. Flynn’s Amy is faced with a choice: either accept her downward mobility and adjust accordingly, or rig reality in such a way that her self-aggrandising image is maintained. Ultimately, the story of Amy Elliot and Nick Dunne is an exploration of how devotion to a particular kind of self-image and consumer-success can become, well, psychotic.

Oliver james selfish capitalist

Gone Girl delivers a satire on the pathological culture of self-regard that is so very evident in Flynn’s characterisation of both her protagonists. In the psychology of the fatally married narcissists that Flynn portrays, the pursuit of the life that they are each ‘entitled’ to, sweeps aside other people’s subjectivities and rights, and indeed, reality. This is the motivation that underwrites Gone Girl’s skewed and nauseating ending.

Both Amy Elliot and her husband, Nick Dunne, are unattractive characters; I did not warm to the self-satisfied husband. Nick seems to think that if he does not get what he wants out of life, then there is no reason why his wife should either, and he certainly could not be expected to exert himself to make her feel valued for herself. Indeed, Amy’s scathing account of his desire to marry a ‘Cool Girl’ was, like the ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’, clearly a male fantasy that does not serve women well. However, I found her creation in ‘Amazing Amy’ a tour de force perversion of feminist ideals. Amy’s ‘feminism’ is nothing less than the demand that she get everything someone as beautiful and accomplished as she clearly ‘deserves’.

Reading Gone Girl alongside the ostensibly unrelated texts by Oliver James, The Selfish Capitalist and Britain on the Couch allowed me to see these patterns in Flynn’s text. James contends that the neo-liberal market policies pursued in largely English-speaking countries since the late 1970s have produced a significant upswing in the rates of psychological distress in those countries. Fuelled by increased job insecurity, longer and more intense working hours, long commutes, increased housing costs, and constant bombardment by marketing messages, James argues that we are seeing higher-rates of emotional distress. These rates include serious mental illness such as schizophrenia and greater rates of anxiety and depression. Intriguingly, we are also seeing increased numbers of sociopaths and narcissists, particularly in the contemporary workplace. Using comparison data from capitalist counties that did not adopt neo-liberal policies (mostly Western Europe) that show lower rates of psychological distress, James argues that the higher rates could be caused by our political and economic environment. Large household debt to fund ever-larger expenses for housing, private schooling and ‘keeping up appearances’ are among the culprits in James’s account, while the lower rates of mental illness in Western Europe, he suggests, are because of structural protections such as welfare and industrial relations laws, as well as cultural tendencies that prioritise non-materialist values.

James draws on research by Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell, whose book The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement outlines evidence that younger Americans are more self-absorbed, but less happy, than previous generations. They, too, think this is a cultural effect (rather than genetic) that has a lot to do with the increased emphasis on success and self-presentation in our world. Their work makes an interesting counter-point to Gone Girl, including its portrayal of the realities of a post-GFC world:

“American culture’s focus on self-admiration has caused a flight from reality to the land of grandiose fantasy. We have phony rich people (with interest-only mortgages and piles of debt), phony beauty (with plastic surgery and cosmetic procedures), phony athletes (with performance-enhancing drugs), phony celebrities (via reality TV and YouTube), phony genius students (with grade inflation), a phony national economy (with 11 trillion dollars of government debt), phony feelings of being special among children (with parenting and education focused on self-esteem), and phony friends (with the social networking explosion). All this fantasy might feel good, but, unfortunately, reality always wins. The mortgage meltdown and the resulting financial crisis are just one demonstration of how inflated desires eventually crash to earth.”

Materialist values favour money, possessions, appearance and fame, and they are at the heart of “Amazing Amy’s” pathology. As Joshua Rothman, of The New Yorker, in his analysis of the Gone Girl phenomenon, writes

“ … our concepts of masculinity and femininity—and of personhood, success, and freedom—have grown less compatible with the compromises of coupled life. The men’s and women’s magazines for which Nick and Amy worked tell us that our ideal selves are urban, maximally attractive, and maximally single, with absolute career freedom, no children, and plenty of time for the gym.”

In other words, not a lot of empathy, compassion, negotiation, or realism – ingredients for relationships. In Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn has written a psychologically sophisticated thriller that prompts a forensic analysis of the cult of personal success.

Reflection on seeing Maria Popova, the woman behind Brain Pickings.

My father is a radio ham. He uses Morse code, mainly, and designs and constructs various instruments for the generating and processing of radio signals. His shed is a classic “Men’s’ shed”, complete with a shadow board, with each tool in its place, soldering iron, work bench, and rows and rows of jars filled with resistors, capacitors, and the equipment of his hobby. It smells of old steel, oil, solder flux, and wood dust. As far as I can tell, one of the centrepieces of a radio ham’s life is an instrument called a transmitter-receiver. The best transmitter-receivers eliminate noise and boost the signal, making sure that whatever is being communicated can cross the globe, dancing on the rhythm of those dots and dashes.

A 1970s classic transmitter-receiver. Image credit: Henke Tobbe. https://www.flickr.com/photos/vk2gwk/4705522931/in/photolist-8aP32H-dMchC-9LSfmx-67rjM7-pD9KA-bzkkkF-7hSpv2-8a85GM-etBjL-7zMoA1-d6CYW5-9uRBSN-pj8wU-8a866T-7Mvye3-7MrzUc-7MrA3F-7MrzX4-7Mvya1-7MrA2g-7MvywG-7Mvycj-7MvyoS-7MvyuE-7MvyfQ-7MrzVF-8axZfm-4oiMrb-ds856S-4R5Lh7-4k5YKD-nfoeCB-cXJpZ1-7iZCUr-5Yv7mg-4meFxq-4mv1Dx-9WukAx-nHcec2-aqfNtu-5zsiFZ-7S3jq9-fuQDHZ-f6Uz3N-7UiUAe-5Cd6UB-aCFcXf-bnhmoj-26a8n-bnSy3C
A 1970s classic transmitter-receiver.
Image credit: Henke Tobbe. 

For a long time now, I have pondered the significance of that transmitter-receiver. In my father’s world, passing on a signal with the minimum of interference is the goal. But for me it is suggestive as a metaphor of the kind of subjectivity our culture and economy seems to prefer – – each of us just nodes on a grid, seamlessly passing on money, goods, services, messages, and received ideas in a well-oiled way with the minimum of interference, or input, from the individual. Meanings and money are fixed, known quantities. Learning and education is geared towards fitting each student with the skills to slide into this network, another node for the better functioning and flow of messages and money and productivity. Interpretation, questioning, or dissent are treated as ‘noise’ – interference that slows down the smooth transmission of the signal.

There are, of course, other, alternative models out there that see each of us as participants, co-creators of a world. This model welcomes ‘noise’ as creative dissent, interpretation, or individual and collaborative meaning-making. One of the proponents of these ideas is blogger Maria Popova, who spoke at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival on Thursday.

Popova’s blog, Brain Pickings, is a friend in your in-box – a weekly compendium of readings about thinking, reading, creating, and the process of making a meaningful life. Popova’s blog has more than 7 million readers, an indicator of the value people find in the weekly musings that she says are primarily a document of the evolution of her thinking. In our current secular age, the thirst for meaning and purpose has not gone away; instead, we look for other methods by which to explore and arrive at a core ethical stance on our experience and a language for constructing a story of what we are trying to do with our lives. Popova’s work points up an interesting paradox – by writing about her own personal journey of sense-making, she has addressed a felt need in millions of readers.

In this way, Brain Pickings can be seen as part of a cluster of developments. There is The School of Life, with its newsletter The Philosopher’s Mail. The work of Alain De Botton and John Armstrong similarly tries to ground philosophy in considerations of everyday life and its predicaments. De Botton’s writings and television series are well known and loved, while his collaborator, Armstrong, has transferred his work from a philosophy department to schools of business and civil society. Both Armstrong and De Botton also contribute to The School of Life. In a lighter way, the work of Gretchen Rubin also highlights the search for meaning in a late-capitalist world, what the psychologist Abraham Maslow called ‘self-actualisation’ that had a great deal to do with social contribution and higher purpose. Meanwhile, the biting work of Oliver James grapples with the darker sides of late capitalist meaninglessness and aimlessness. All of this and more indicates how the web is offering a home to many people’s attempts to bridge the gap between the recherché areas of academic philosophy and psychology and the ‘common reader’ – that person who is not necessarily working in an academic department, but who thirsts for reading and discussion and reflection about life in a way denied by much workplace culture and the culture of consumption. (Feeling depressed? Here, buy this car. Now work to pay it off.)

 

In her talk Popova explained how her blog got started: she was working in a design firm and noticed that her co-workers tended to get ideas only from other designers. She was dissatisfied with this and wanted to source ideas from beyond the boundaries of design. This laid the groundwork for her syncretic approach whereby writings about science, illustration, design, architecture, fine art, travel, and poetry sit side by side, often setting up conversations between the different disciplines and their ways of knowing. Apparently, once a week, she would send a little email out to a circle of friends with links to interesting and inspiring things to read. Little by little, this newsletter gained a second-hand following, as her friends forwarded it to more and more people. With the development of blogging, Popova had a platform to write and share her musings to whomever wanted to subscribe. Now she has a full-time job managing it and doing off-line work that emerges from it, such as judging at literary festivals and, of course, presenting at book and writers’ festivals.

So what were the main insights that Popova wanted to share with us that night? Many of them were close to my heart, as she emphasised, in various ways, the necessity for all of us to undertake the work of developing our knowledge and using that knowledge to develop an ethic and wisdom that is individual to us. As an educator, too, a lot of what she said chimed in to a constructivist approach to learning; even though she did not mention this philosophy by name, a great deal of her project relates to the learning theories of Jean Piaget and George Kelly that have heavily influenced contemporary education practice, but which, in their world view, are resistant to the ‘transmitter-receiver’ subject presumed by much reductive political discourse about the role of schools and universities.

Here are some of her insights that resonated with me:

  1. Information is not knowledge. Knowledge is not wisdom.

Popova spoke to our current tendency to think that we know more simply by virtue of having access to huge amounts of information. However, as anyone with a grandparent can tell you, there are types of knowledge and ways of knowing that are actually being lost. What’s more, just having access to information does not mean you know how to use it.

Using the analogy of Lego bricks, Popova argued that if we know very little, we have few Lego bricks with which to build our understanding of our life and the world. You can build something, but without a range of colours and shapes, and without very many bricks, you are very limited in what you can build. What’s more, you also need to develop a sense for yourself about what you are trying to build, how to select information and how to apply knowledge to the various situations and dilemmas of life. This accumulation, sifting, and application of knowledge, with reflection, develops wisdom.

This links to my ongoing thinking about why we teach imaginative and long-form literature to students, despite their increasing facility with accessing information on the web. Literature is ‘information’ but in a very specialised sense, and not in the same sense as a manual about how to operate some software, or a map of a city. Literature is information that must be interpreted by the reader by bringing with them all that they already know and their imagination. And, that active practice of interpretation, or making meaning from the text, is collaborative and reflective, adding a few more ‘Lego Bricks’ to the student’s collection. What’s more, the elaboration of ideas and versions of life that comes from studying literature provides the thoughtful individual with a wider range of reference and meaning with which to approach their own life. We have greater choice over the narratives we tell ourselves and each other and hence are less susceptible to uniform, standardised, limiting versions of who we are and who we should try to be.

This is why, in short, the current idea that we do not need to teach content, but just teach students how to find information does not quite add up. The greater the scope of our knowledge and the wider our horizons, the better able we are to assimilate and make use of new information. Content and information savvy go together. I can access a Chinese manuscript – but I cannot read and make sense of it. That is because I do not know Chinese. We need both knowledge and wisdom to make use of information deeply, ethically, and imaginatively.

  1. We need to be open to ideas beyond our specialisation, but also selective and discerning users of new ideas.

This was a less emphasised idea in Popova’s talk, that really only came through during the Q & A session. What she seemed to be getting at is, in a world of information deluge, we do need to be open and not close ourselves off into a disciplinary cul-de-sac. However, we are also charged with developing our own sense of what is meaningful to us, and attend to our own cultivation and ethic that helps us select and make sense of the new ideas we encounter. What Popova is talking about here is a kind of Web 2.0 version of the psychological concept of individuation – in order for us not to become mass-produced, standardised beings, we need to create our own unique constellation of meanings and reference points. These will still converse with those shared by the community and wider world, but they are our unique ‘playlist’.

  1. Writing is not ‘content’.

This was another issue that emerged only fully during the Q & A session. A question was posed about how Popova went about generating the ‘content’ for her site. She critiqued the idea of ‘content’, saying writing for the web is like writing for the page – – to think of the words you write as ‘content’ is to think of your work as just some inert stuff that fills up an empty or blank space. Thinking of writing as ‘content’ also does not pay respect to the reader, who is not just there to have inane, worthless verbal garbage dumped into their in-box, the habits of many media outlets notwithstanding. Popova pointed out that her research found that over time, some of the writers who have received the most high-prestige awards for their work were not necessarily the most productive, in terms of just churning out a lot of written verbiage. It was those who resisted the cult of productivity for its own sake that tended to their work with the most care and art.

  1. Most things that are worthwhile take a long time.

This was one of the main ‘learnings’ that Popova has taken away from seven years of working on Brain Pickings. She said that in our endless rush to be productive, we can forget the value of giving space and time to our thoughts – and “thoughts need space.” This is yet another voice in resistance to the cult of mindless busyness that seems to have taken root in almost every nook and cranny of our culture. Take time to reflect, wander, read purely for pleasure, read slowly, and go off the well-planned and programmed track.

Apart from a bit of TED-talk style walking to and fro, which had me watching the Auslan interpreter to prevent myself from becoming dizzy, I enjoyed Popova’s talk. She is not an literary artist in the traditional sense of the word, and, indeed, a great deal of what she does is summarising and curating (a word she bristled at when someone used it of her work). However, Popova’s project is nourishing and enabling in the style of a good teacher – – I walked out of her talk feeling more than ever energised to pursue my own work.

Image Credit: IDS Photos
Image Credit: IDS Photos

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Links:

The Philosophers’ Mail: http://thephilosophersmail.com/

Brain Pickings: http://www.brainpickings.org/

The School of Life: http://www.theschooloflife.com/

The School of Life Melbourne Campus: http://www.theschooloflife.com/melbourne/

John Armstrong: http://www.johnarmstrong.com.au/

John Armstrong at the University of Tasmania: http://www.utas.edu.au/provost/inglis-clark-centre/people/honorary-positions

Alain De Botton: http://alaindebotton.com/

Melbourne Writers’ Festival 2014: http://www.mwf.com.au/

Interview with Maria Popova for Dumbo Feather: http://www.dumbofeather.com/conversation/maria-popova-is-a-brain-picker/

Gretchen Rubin and The Happiness Project: http://www.gretchenrubin.com/

Oliver James: http://www.selfishcapitalist.com/

Abraham Maslow: http://psychology.about.com/od/theoriesofpersonality/tp/self-actualized-characteristic.htm

Piaget and schema theory: http://www.etsu.edu/fsi/learning/schematheory.aspx

George Kelly and Constructivist Psychology: http://www.goodtherapy.org/constructivism.html#

Constructivism in education: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constructivism_(psychological_school)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Review – The Price of Privilege: How parental pressure and material advantage are creating a generation of disconnected and unhappy kids. New York: Harper. 2008.

 

book cover price of privilegeMadeline Levine’s book The Price of Privilege gives the non-professional a good overview of the problems besetting affluent teens with some compassionate and practical alternatives to their current predicament.

 

It is tempting to dismiss the psychological ill-health that seems to be hitting adolescents from privileged homes. Like the issues dealt with in Overwhelmed, it would be easy to disregard the problems explored here as just the sort of thing that wealthy people inflict on themselves. However, Levine’s book persuades us that we should take these problems seriously. Her argument is that teens are teens, after all, no matter what their background, and need mentoring into adulthood from trusted adults. What’s more, these teens in particular, are more likely to become the surgeons, politicians, entrepreneurs, lawyers, and leaders of the future. So, we want them to be resilient, moral, compassionate, stable, and capable of making positive contributions to their community. Levine suggests that too many of them are ill-equipped for the expectations and roles that await them.

 

Levine commenced her project on a hunch that her practice was seeing ever-greater rates of depression, substance-abuse, eating disorders, bad behaviour, selfishness, fragility, self-destructive habits and all-round unhappiness in her wealthy Marin County community than in the previous quarter-century she had been a psychologist. Her initial calls to colleagues around the U.S. confirmed that her observations were not merely local, but seen in affluent communities around her country. Further research she has since carried out paints a disturbing and surprising picture – affluent teens now exhibit greater levels of psychological ill-health than their peers on the next tier down the social scale, in the middle classes. This was a mystery and counter-intuitive to Levine, as it would be for most of us. Surely, young people who have so many opportunities, who have the best education, extra-curricular activities, the nicest neighbourhoods, the most conscientious parents with the resources to support their every endeavour, would be far better off than any other group of teens in the country? These are not, after all, the kinds of teens that feature in the usual accounts of educational failure, dysfunctional families and chronic, entrenched disadvantage that, sadly, still tell a tale of wasted talent in our communities.

 

"Full Moon at Wildwood" -- Russ Seidel. https://www.flickr.com/photos/10159247@N04/
“Full Moon at Wildwood” — Russ Seidel. https://www.flickr.com/photos/10159247@N04/

Levine’s book points out that although we know the saying that money cannot buy happiness, we still act as if it does. Therefore, we think that more money always = more happiness. We also know that parental involvement in a child’s education is positively correlated to that child doing well. However, Levine argues, we have made a fundamental error here, too. Some parents have misread this to mean that over-involvement in a child’s education, in which a child is constantly coached and shaped, scheduled and pushed, is necessarily better than some involvement. Worse yet, the developmental “tasks” of adolescence, which include, crucially, the development of an independent, autonomous sense of self, and a growing ability to manage one’s own life and solve one’s own problems, are interfered with when parents prematurely solve problems for their children, particularly those of the child’s own making (like not studying for assessment and then not doing very well.) Levine argues that:

 

“Parents who persistently fall on the side of intervening for their child, as opposed to supporting their child’s attempts to problem-solve, interfere with the most important task of childhood and adolescence: the development of a sense of self. Autonomy, what we commonly call independence, along with competence and interpersonal relationships, are considered to be inborn human needs. Their development is central to psychological health. In a supportive, respectful family, children go about the business of forging a ‘sense of self’ by being exposed to, and learning to manage, increasingly complex personal and interpersonal challenges.”

 

Levine argues that over-involvement leaves her young clients feeling passive and empty, “the kind of anxious, overprotective, oversolicitous, intrusive parenting that has become commonplace in affluent communities actually diminishes a child’s sense of efficacy and autonomy.” In a neat analogy, Levine argues that while the parent of a three year old would never forbid their child from learning to climb small stairs, and then expect them to know how to climb seven flights, parents of adolescents, out of an instinct to protect their children from hardship or unpleasantness, can intervene at times when their children are making the mistakes that are necessary to learn about consequences and prepare for the steeper challenges later on as they take on full adulthood. Not having learned to climb the stairs, Levine’s teenage clients fall to pieces when they are expected to climb several floors up.

 

However, Levine is compassionate and attuned to the very real challenges and dilemmas of parenting in communities where adolescence seems so high-stakes and there is a relentless emphasis on the external signs of success and achievement.

Genuine involvement in learning emerges from an authentic sense of self. Image credit: Image credit: Jenna Carver: https://www.flickr.com/photos/babyowls/
Genuine involvement in learning emerges from an authentic sense of self.  Image credit: Jenna Carver: https://www.flickr.com/photos/babyowls/

Levine argues that while high grades and success at extra-curricular options are well and good, if they happen, they should happen as a natural outgrowth of a fundamentally more important task that faces young people – – to develop an authentic sense of self. Levine calls this an ‘internal home’: “the welcoming and restorative psychological structure that children need to construct in order to be at ease internally as well as out in the world. It is where kids – -where all of us – – retreat to when we need to ‘pull it together’, ‘think it over’, or just take care of ourselves.” It is the basis of moral action and the ability to respond to situations effectively and with integrity, as well as personal wellbeing. This is the result of children feeling like they “own” their lives, who have grown a sense of self-efficacy by having developmentally-appropriate experiences, thereby seeing that they can “have an impact on [their] world.” This is distinguished from ‘self-esteem’; Levine argues that self-efficacy is more important, as it stems from real experiences of the child acting “appropriately in [their] best interest”.

Levine is not against high academic achievement and the self-discipline necessary to learn well. On the contrary, she is advocating for a shift in values and parenting that genuinely cultivates a commitment to deep learning. If high grades are the result of the young person pursuing learning out of increasing levels of engagement, curiosity, passion, and skill, if, in short, the young person wants to pursue this learning out of a genuine, internal motivation, then they have achieved an important milestone in their growth into competent adults. As she observes, “Ultimately, motivation for any venture needs to feel like it comes from inside. When it does, it feels ‘true’”. If, however, the achievement of high grades is pursued just for the status and to please others (usually anxious parents) and that there is no genuine love of learning, if, in fact, the teenager will take any shortcut they can to get the grade, even having their essays professionally written, hacking into the school’s grade database to change their marks, or having their parents apply pressure to their teachers, then something has gone seriously awry. In these cases, the grade, once taken as an indicator of learning, has come adrift of the activity it was meant to report on, and has become, instead, a kind of fetish.

Levine dissects the values of communities where this is happening and encourages her readers to resist unhealthy cultural pressures in their own parenting – something which she acknowledges is extremely hard to do. After all, adults are also encouraged to assess their self-worth according to a narrow range of materialistic and performance-based criteria.

Levine is clear that the task of parenting teenagers is daunting and complex. Her tone is never accusatory, judgemental or dismissive. Instead, she challenges her readers to examine their priorities and values, and to critically examine the toxic aspects of the “culture of affluence”. She also encourages her readers to put their own genuine self-development high on their list of priorities, so that they can model a reflective self who acts with integrity and kindness, and responds to life’s set-backs appropriately.

Read an excerpt from The Price of Privilege.

Read an overview of research into psychological ill-health in teens from affluent communities.

Image credit: Ian Sane: https://www.flickr.com/photos/31246066@N04/
Image credit: Ian Sane: https://www.flickr.com/photos/31246066@N04/

Review: Brigid Schulte. Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No-One Has the Time. Bloomsbury: 2014.

Image credit: http://www.npr.org/2014/03/11/289018821/for-working-moms-key-to-balance-may-lie-in-elusive-leisure-time
Image credit: http://www.npr.org/2014/03/11/289018821/for-working-moms-key-to-balance-may-lie-in-elusive-leisure-time

I saw mention of Shulte’s new book in an article about the plague of over-busyness that has taken over our lives. I wish I knew what that article was now, but of course, at the time, I was merely skimming it, while fielding incoming emails, and chomping down on instant couscous and tuna in the little window of ten minutes’ quiet I allowed myself before flinging myself at the next task on the enormous and endless pile. I did not take a moment to note it, save it, even clip it, but went right on to the next thing.

Something stuck, though, from that little mention; I downloaded the book to my Kindle that night. Reading in the hour before bed is my daily, sanity-saving luxury. Schulte’s work confirmed for me that it is just such ‘clearings’ in our daily round that is one of the keys to tackling what she calls ‘the overwhelm.’

‘The overwhelm’ is what Schulte calls the endless, crushing sensation that we will never be able to fulfil all our obligations at work and at home satisfactorily. It is the way that we feel the need to answer work emails while supervising our children, and then end up spending time at work making calls for their appointments at the dentist and paediatrician. It is the factor that turns our lives – and, disproportionately, working women’s lives – into what Schulte calls “crappy bits of time confetti”.

What it is like to live inside this fractured “time confetti” is captured on Schulte’s opening page: “It is just after 10 a.m. on a Tuesday and I am racing down Route 1 in College Park, Maryland. The Check Engine light is on. The car tax sticker on my windshield has expired. The cell phone I’d just been using to talk to one of my kids’ teachers has disappeared into the seat crack. And I’m late.” Schulte’s willingness to share with her readers the barely-controlled chaos that characterises so much of her days as a working journalist and mother was what engaged me straight away.

This shredded time rarely amounts to a good clean run at a task that requires space to concentrate and go into something deeply without interruptions. Even in moments of apparent leisure, Schulte argues, working mothers are running an endless ‘loop’ in their minds of all the other things they have to get done. This results in what time managements experts call “contaminated time” where the period of time ‘off’ is ruined by feelings of it being illegitimate, stolen from the obligations that are yet to be met. Contaminated time also describes how everything bleeds into everything else, so that work is disrupted by domestic concerns, home is interfered with by professional obligations, and contemporary technology facilities it all in an endless whirlwind of the work-anywhere-everywhere-all-the-time ethic.

Overwhelmed has garnered a lot of critical and media interest. It has keyed straight into one of the most pressing issues faced by working families – an issue that has so far remained a political sleeper. Who has not felt that endless whir of things that need to be done and the sinking feeling that there will never be a time clear for thinking, daydreaming, staring out a window, or doing something you really love? The mystery for many of us in the developed world is, for all the affluence that we enjoy, the real wealth that is wellbeing and common weal seems to have been lost. For many of us, it seems farther off than it was 30 years ago when material living standards were lower, but time for family, friends, neighbourhood and health was in greater abundance.

The promises of futurists of the early and mid- twentieth century were that by now we would be faced with a large population with surplus leisure time; what we have instead is a stratified population of the un – and under- employed, and the working poor, who have to net huge hours to make ends meet, and another population of a salaried workforce who are over-stretched and over-worked. This is especially true in the United States where Schulte lives, where there are no legal limits to the amount of overtime an employer can ask of professional, salaried staff. However, even in Australia, things are increasingly pressed and compressed as we have less paid leave and fewer limits on working hours than our peers in Europe. And that’s before we factor in the long hours of commuting many are compelled to do from affordable ‘bedroom’ suburbs on the fringes of our main cities as the price of housing relative to earnings continues to rise.

Since the second wave of feminism, women have made huge inroads into higher education and the professional workforce. The rhetoric around equality and blended roles has, however, not translated into an optimum reality for women. Despite the calls from the likes of Sheryl Sandburg to “lean in” the picture that emerges from Shulte’s research is a workplace culture that is blind to what raising a family actually entails:

“Nowhere is that disconnect between expectations and reality more apparent than when a woman has a child. Time studies find that a mother, especially one who works outside the home for pay, is among the most time-poor humans on the planet, especially single mothers, weighed down not only by role overload but what sociologists call ‘task density’ – – the intense responsibility she bears and the multitude of jobs she performs in each of those roles.”

Schulte quotes numerous studies that show that even in families that see themselves as having a mother and a father ‘sharing’ the care equitably, the father usually cares for the children when the mother is still actually around. The mother may be in another room, having ‘time off’, but she is still effectively ‘on-call’.  She is the ‘default’ partner for all matters related to children or the domestic realm.

To some degree, this is specialisation. For myself, I certainly have less patience playing with Lego for hours on end when compared to the infinite absorption of my husband as he plays with our son on the kitchen floor on a Saturday morning. However, it is also set by the patterns that take hold once the first child is born and someone – usually the mother – – takes time off work to care for the baby. While she is home, bit by bit, she starts taking care of everything else as well. ‘Childcare’ becomes childcare-kindergarten-school-homework-housework-grocery shopping-babysitters-tradespeople-grandparents-play-dates-doctors-holiday planning and remembering to put the garbage bins out. And when the woman goes back to work, that new pattern generally does not shift, leaving the working woman feeling strung-out and inefficient at everything and the father acting like what Schulte calls, “The Lion King.” This analogy does not quite work because actual male lions do not hunt; but what Shulte is getting at here is that the male breadwinner role to go out and bring home the money and then, job done, means that anything else he does around the home is constructed as ‘extra’, whereas a working mother is merely expected to hold down everything as a matter of course. In short, Schulte argues, a mother in the workforce is expected to live up to two entirely contradictory ideals – – that of the worker and that of the maternal caregiver and homemaker.

In my world, I would put it like this – how many times are women told they are “really lucky” if their male partner does cooking, or housework or childcare, as if it were out of the ordinary? Now try this one – how often do the male partners get congratulated for being “really lucky” to have a working partner, even after the first child is born, since she got a degree and qualified for a profession and she is not burdening him with the sole breadwinner role? I thought so.

Schulte attacks this double standard. However, while shoring up her argument with data and research, she also leavens her volume with a series of vignettes. There is one incredibly powerful scene in the book that may well have been the kernel of experience that set the author off on her search for what had gone wrong in her marriage and her life. As she was hauling a massive turkey out of the oven for basting one Thanksgiving, Shulte was also running that mental ‘loop’ about all the other little details she had to attend to and coordinate, meanwhile keeping an ear out for her two children who were playing in the house. Her husband slopes on by with a six pack under his arm saying he was on his way out to visit a friend’s house to watch him ‘smoke the turkey’ and that he would be back in time for the meal. Shulte blew up. Clearly, this was a watershed moment for Schulte in which she wondered how two well-educated, well-meaning, equality-committed partners could have ended up in such a place. I think it is a question that has been asked in lots and lots of similar households. As one of the women whom Schulte interviewed for her project said, “All HE has to do is go to work.”

It is inevitable that male readers will complain that they are once again being tarred with the same brush as their less with-it peers and that THEY bathe their children and mow the lawn and even cook dinner. But Shulte’s research is not about that. It is about the impact of social ideals on both men and women and how powerful they are, even when it is not in people’s interest to try to live up to those constructs. For men, it is the long-standing but ever-growing image of the ‘ideal worker’ that means that showing concern about how your career might affect your family is seen as tantamount to tainting your professional image. For women, it is the head-on collision between trying to live up to the image of the ‘ideal mother’ AND the ‘ideal worker’ at the same time.

Shulte presents persuasive experiential evidence and data that shows that the next frontier of new social movements — for both men and women– is acting on the collision between expectations at work and expectations on the home front.  Expectations in both domains have ramped up considerably since the 1970s.

For example, while working parents continuously worry that they do not spend enough time with their children, the evidence presented by Shulte suggests that parents nowadays spend significantly more time with their children than their counterparts did in the 1960s and 1970s, even in those days of shorter working hours. Expectations about housework and a presentable home are also subject to continual inflation. It is a question of perception. Time use studies from the 1970s, for example, show the gap between the idea that “American housewives, with all their time-saving appliances, would be freed from the drudgery of housework” and the reality that “they spent just as much time cleaning as did women without them, in Bulgaria.” Shulte challenges her female readers to really ask themselves what is important. Do they really need to do ‘it all’? Have they created a construct of ‘it all’ that is in fact a fantasy?

Thankfully, it sounds as if the marriage at Schulte’s household has survived, but the text of Overwhelmed is clearly a search for answers. How does the woman get back her time – and, as over-work pressures ratchet up for men as well – how does the man do more at home without imperilling his role and status at work?

Shulte attacks the problem on several fronts. First, she advises us to drop the competition that she calls the “busier than thou” attitude. Second, we can each of us challenge the “cultural imperatives” that pressure us to “not just have it all, but to fit it all on the fast track … until life feels … like an exhausting ‘everydayathon’”. Third, she analyses the cultural tyranny of the ‘ideal worker’ and ‘ideal mother’ constructs, and argues persuasively that they feed into the workaholic culture and that we internalise and then use to police ourselves to exhaustion. She also sketches out some strategies she used in her own life to rein in the overwhelm. She asked herself these crucial questions:

  • How much is enough?
  • When is it good enough?
  • How will I know?

She argues that we need to change “the narrative of success” to a broader picture of what a career looks like over the course of a lifetime and what wellbeing and wealth actually mean. This means we all check in with ourselves and see whether the priorities we are living by are ones that are genuinely important to us.

On a final note, Schulte’s cultural critique is persuasive and develops points made elsewhere by Alain De Botton’s work in Status Anxiety and The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. Overwhelmed is part of a growing theme in American writing about the impact of extreme work hours, ICTs, consumerist values, and economic pressures on the way we think, create, love, work, relate, and ultimately, find meaning. Books such as William Powers’ Hamlet’s Blackberry, Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, Maggie Jackson’s Distracted, and the Take Back Your Time movement all tap into various aspects of the feeling that much is not right about the direction our cultures are heading.

However, Schulte’s book shares something else with these titles – an odd reluctance to call for any systematic, policy-driven approaches to the problem. From an Australian perspective, this fear of government-driven solutions is a blind spot in American writing and positively Cold-War in its anxiety that any government funded and regulated approaches will be deemed ‘socialist’. Schulte’s heart-rending descriptions of the infant and child deaths that are the result of a refusal to fund and regulate child-care properly in the United States are a case in point. To be fair to Schulte, she uses these stories to argue for a more coordinated approach to child care and crèches in the United States, and her descriptions of the set-up in Denmark made me green with envy. But, as is too often the case, she pulls her punches when it comes to advocating legislation around work hours, worker entitlements and other industrial issues. These discussions still seem off limits to American writers. As such, they can only offer piece-meal and personal solutions to what is clearly a system-wide problem. The social movements around simple living, downshifting and work-life balance are as yet nascent; Schulte’s work contributes to this discussion, while also evidencing the silence about these issues in mainstream politics.

Further reading:

Interview with Brigid Schulte and book excerpt on NPR.

Review by Ann Crittenden in New York Times Review of Books.

Review by Helen Lewis in The Guardian.

Reading Highlights – 2013.

As I sit here eating just-one-more-Santa-shaped-chocolate I contemplate a good year in reading.

Here are some highlights from my reading in 2013:

Memoir:

Patti Smith (2010). Just Kids. London: Bloomsbury.

Patti Smith is perhaps best known for her ground-breaking 1975 album Horses and the work she has done as a poet and performer since. The famous and arresting album cover of Horses features a portrait of Smith by Robert Mapplethorpe, who went on to great fame as a photographer. This famous shot comes from the time in both Smith and Mapplethorpe’s lives that Just Kids documents.

Just Kids narrates the determination, grit, ambition and dreaminess of Smith’s years as a new arrival in New York and her intense relationship with Mapplethorpe. The two of them explore their way into their respective artistic vocations, meanwhile watching each other’s backs, stoking each other’s creative fires, and being a witness to each other’s emergence into viable artistic careers.

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Just Kids cover

Smith’s writing is intense, personal, confessional and intimate. She presents a luminous picture of a vanished world of the New York art scene and demi monde of the late 1960s – late 1970s. It is all here – Hotel Chelsea, where Smith and Mapplethorpe holed up during their romantic friendship; Warhol’s famous circle; seedy but vibrant neighbourhoods where up-and-coming artists mingled with junkies, psychiatric cases, and others marginal. I ended up reading this book with a notebook by my side where I would jot down the names of those I wanted to look up later. Her memoir is both a map to the New York avant-garde of the day, and an account of one woman’s decision to become the person she was meant to be. It is also, poignantly, an elegy for Smith’s lost friend, who died in 1989.

Novel:

Karl Ove Knausgaard. (English Translation 2013, Don Bartlett). A Man in Love. My Struggle: Book 2. London: Harvill Secker.

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Knausgaard’s project in his six volume My Struggle seems nothing less than the search for a new form. The result – called a “novel” but clearly based on daily events in the author’s own life – narrates the quest to find meaning and produce something new, despite living in this exhausted period a century after modernism.

A Man in Love is the second volume in Knausgaard’s project. In it he struggles with, among other things, the task of becoming a writer and writing something worthwhile amid a pressing reality that is in equal parts banal and fantastic. Calling the series My Struggle seems provocative, and I do not quite know what to make of the overt nod to Hitler’s autobiography. Perhaps it is a deliberate appropriation and reversal of the grandiose claims of a tyrant to title the humble and quotidian concerns of Knausgaard’s author-protagonist. In A Man in Love, the narrator’s main “struggle” seems to be balancing the demands of marriage and parenting small children with the demands of an artistic career. In this way, the ‘struggle’ appeals to the straightened, time-poor circumstances of any working parent trying to manage the competing commitments of love and work and art while trying to be something more than just a workhorse/consumer.

I read the first in the My Struggle series purely by chance. A Death in the Family was on a display shelf at the library at work. I liked the cover with its forlorn weatherboard house. The Scandinavian name caught my interest because I had recently enjoyed some fiction by fellow Norwegian Per Petterson. I went home and found the writer’s excruciating honesty about his awkward adolescence and his difficult relationship with his father mesmerising. A full third of the A Death in the Family dealt with Knausgaard and his brother cleaning his father’s home after he dies of alcoholism. That a writer would devote so much attention to the sheer labour of cleaning a house that was filthy, cluttered and destitute from neglect on one level seemed bizarre and a burden on the reader. On another level it was an audacious move and surprisingly cathartic as the reader follows the narrator’s efforts to exorcise the squalor of his father’s addiction and their disappointing relationship through the powers of bleach and cleaning fluids.

a death in the family

Overtly sourced from Knausgaard’s own daily grind, My Struggle: Book 2 details the author’s own labour to become a writer amidst the chaos and interruptions of marriage and raising small children.  Having left his native Norway for Sweden, Knausgaard struggles with the subtle linguistic, class and cultural nuances of a country that, for all its proximity, accentuates different values. Knausgaard’s narrative vacillates between the high registers of philosophical discussions between the author and his friend Geir about the nature of art, the creative life and efforts to write well, and the low registers of descriptions of smoking, drinking, cooking, and the rigors of looking after small children. The author’s yearning for the quiet and time necessary to create the writing most essential to his own sense of living a meaningful and effective life is pitted directly against the demands of family living. In particular, scenes of desperate parenting amid screaming toddlers and the rhythms of housekeeping are vivid in their unrelenting portrayal of the labours of everyday life. I, for one, heartily sympathised with Knausgaard’s moments of ambivalence when, no matter how much ‘in love’ one is with one’s family, there are times when the chief desire is to find a quiet place and be left alone. I read A Man in Love on the strength of the strange momentum Knausgaard seems able to generate from the most unpromising material – that, and the warm, complex voice that comes off the page. I look forward to Volume 3.

Australian novelist Richard Flanagan was also enthused by Knausgaard’s work.

Poetry

Seamus Heaney Field Work. (1976). New York: Farrar Straus Giroux.

field work heaney

By coincidence, Heaney died just as I was teaching his poetry to my Year 11 IB English class. This contact with his poetry reignited my interest in this frankly lyrical man who was so comfortable combining his own voice with the voices of mythology, past poets, and the bog-deep sources of the Irish and English languages themselves. His death heightened my sense of the preciousness of his work, given that it would no longer be elaborated on or added to. I have long enjoyed teaching the small selection we use in the course. I like Heaney’s attention to earthly details, to memory, to craft. He is an ‘approachable’ poet – rarely arch or ironic in that detached, distanced, urbane way. Instead, his work nourishes and feeds the reader even if his material is often hardship, squandered possibility, grief, violence and loss.

In Field Work, Heaney draws on all the sources of his experience, the loss of friends, the sectarian violence that was severing and ruining his country, his love of his wife, and the endless, fertilizing source of the landscape. Many of the poems synthesise these elements of Heaney’s life, as in “Polder” where a reunion with his wife is neatly conflated with a reunion with the land and origins that feed the poet’s identity and his art:

I have reclaimed my polder,

All its salty grass and mud-slick banks;

Under fathoms of air, like an old willow

I stir a little on my creel of roots

(“Polder”).

Many of the poems are elegies for those killed by sectarian violence, while others ponder Heaney’s role as poet in a land where words seem at times both useless and necessary, a “tentative art” (“Casualty”). I thoroughly enjoyed reading this work, its searching quality, its confession of not having any neat or grand solutions, and the unfinished love that animates so many of its poems.

So …those were some of the highlights. I will have to write up the next few titles anon.

Review — How I Live Now (novel and film)

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THE NOVEL:

Rosoff’s first novel, How I Live Now (2004) is a cracker of a read for adolescents and adults alike. Daisy, the hard-bitten-but-vulnerable female protagonist retells her experiences of a number of life firsts:

–       The first time she lives away from her New York City home, as she spends the summer with her cousins in the English countryside.

–       The first time she falls in love, completely and utterly with her cousin Edmond.

–       The first time she survives a hostile enemy occupation as World War III breaks out.

This seems like a rather unlikely and crowded premise for a novel that runs to just 224 pages. Rosoff pulls it off, largely through the mesmerising and at times very funny voice of Daisy herself. A typical snippet is her internal monologue sketching her impressions of her cousin Edmond:

Now let me tell you what he looks like before I forget because it’s not exactly what you’d expect from your average fourteen-year-old what with the CIGARETTE and hair that looked like he cut it himself with a hatchet in the dead of night …

The first-person narrative gives the reader the impression that Daisy is hastily confessing her thoughts, feelings and experiences directly to the reader, entrusting us with her most raw and important moments. Beneath the cynical exterior we glimpse the psychological reality of someone who is in fact deeply troubled but feels compelled to keep people at a safe distance:

… for a minute I was so glad I was 15 and from New York City because even though I haven’t actually Seen It All, I have in fact seen more than plenty, and I have one of the best Oh Yeah, This Is So Much What I Usually Do kind of faces of anyone in my crowd.

She is wise to the insincerity and pain of the adult world around her, but touchingly open to those adults who she can see have tenderness and good intentions, even if they are clearly unable to divert disaster. An example of this is her astute observations of Aunt Penn, whose role in international peace negotiations is about to leave the cousins to their own devices:

After looking at me for a few seconds more she put her hand up very gently and pushed the hair off my face in a way that for some reason made me feel incredibly sad and then she said in a regretful grave voice that she was sorry but she had to give a lecture in Oslo at the end of the week on the Imminent Threat of War and had work to do so would I please excuse her? She would only be gone a few days in Oslo and the children would take good care of me. And I thought there’s that old war again, popping up like a bad penny.

What follows is a brief idyll as Daisy and her cousins romp through the beautiful countryside fishing and picnicking and swimming, living off the land and the occasional trip to a local village for supplies. Daisy and Edmond develop feelings for each other without the restraining presence of adults. Meanwhile, Rosoff’s heroine slowly dismantles her hardened, New-York-Teen exterior, learning to enjoy life and perhaps even accept herself.

Then war intervenes. What follows is an intense tale of survival and responsibility and incredible faith.

You can read an extract at Meg Rosoff’s website.

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THE FILM:

Starring Saoirse Ronan (Atonement, The Lovely Bones) and George Mackay as Edmond, Kevin McDonald’s adaptation of Rosoff’s novel stays true to the spirit and the outline of the tale.

Ronan is very believable as a spoilt and self-absorbed New York teen who is pushed to use her determination for higher purposes than diet and appearance by the outbreak of World War III. Responsible for keeping her young cousin Piper alive and for finding her way back home, Daisy is a heroine who must keep her wits about her.

The film makes some changes to Rosoff’s original tale – as seems to happen in the transition from text to screen. Edmond is older. A brother who appears in the book is completely left out. Daisy’s seven-year-long tale is abridged to about a year. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the film’s rendering of Daisy’s harrowing journey. The English countryside is used to great effect and makes a strong contrast to the devastation of war as the tale unfolds. MacDonald’s adaptation kept Rosoff’s approach that allowed her heroine both a great love story and a good head on her shoulders.

Apparently, some reviewers have claimed that the love story in this film is ‘about incest’ and there has been some controversy about this aspect of the narrative.

Just for the record, folks, anyone who has read L.M. Montgomery’s classic novels for Young Adults, including the Anne of Green Gables series could tell you that there are PLENTY of cousins falling in love and marrying each other there. It was once not uncommon.

Meg Rosoff herself has been taken by surprise by this reading of the film. In an interview she says:

“I really take exception to the whole notion of incest when it comes to the book. Daisy and Edmond are cousins who’ve never met each other and who’ve grown up in separate parts of the world. Call me naïve, but it never even occurred to me when I was writing the book that it was going to be contentious. If an editor had said to me, ‘Ooh, that’s really going to affect your sales’, I’d have taken it out and made them second cousins or something. It wasn’t a big thing for me. And, as I said years ago when the book first came out, I come from thousands of years of Eastern European Jews, where everyone married their cousins. Plenty of people still do marry their cousins – it’s legal almost everywhere in America.”

Source: http://www.film4.com/special-features/interviews/meg-rosoff-on-how-i-live-now

 See a Film Preview

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