Friday, August 30, 2013

Miley Cyrus is the Least of Her Own Problems

The Fourth Horseface of the Apocalypse
With all the ink spilled over Miley Cyrus’ strange, disheartening VMA performance this week, you’d think Cyrus personally despoiled a generation of girls, normalized rape, and bombed Pearl Harbor. The coverage has been both piously moralistic and unimaginative. Whether Cyrus pimped America’s daughters or Robin Thicke stage-raped Hannah Montana, the details blur. We’re left with Miley’s protruding tongue as the emblem of modern moral rot.

Talking heads have largely elided how utterly predictable this outcome really was. We’ve seen this arc with too many girls who underwent adolescent turmoil under public scrutiny. When our cherubic foster daughter outgrows her cute stage and demands her autonomy, especially in sexual terms, fans balk. Professional handlers shanghai the developmental stage where a girl gets to know herself. And she hits adulthood with a woman’s libido and a girl’s self-image.

Though details vary, the path never ends well for the girl. Modern society’s mix of celebrity acclaim and resistance to change create an unholy stew that inhibits normal development. Sometimes the results are tragic, as when Dana Plato descended from TV stardom to porn videos to an early, drug-induced death. Sometimes it’s more lachrymose, like Jodie Sweetin’s slow public self-destruction. But it’s always trite, and always wholly preventable.

Preventable, because we understand the stages of youth. We understand that, as our daughters approach adulthood, they resist our influence and experiment with identities like they formerly tried on hats. Brief ventures into emo culture or skater punk turn countless dads grey, but we recognize these youthful stages for the personal exploration they are. Sure, we try to keep girls young forever; but we revel when they find the women they’re meant to become.

Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. 'Nuff said.
Celebrity youth have no such transitions. When ordinary rebellion, like picking inappropriate dates or getting lascivious tattoos, becomes international tabloid fodder, girls never have the opportunity to blaze their own trail. Some, like Paris Hilton, become addicted to attention, living in a state of permanent adolescence. Others, like Lindsay Lohan, flee into a suicidal loop of induced numbness. What they don’t do, is become grown women.

In fairness, we’re not always offended by teenage sexuality. Take Britney Spears or Amanda Bynes, who both went from coltish child stars to sexual goddesses with whiplash speed. But both stars’ subsequent public freakouts bespeak why hastening adulthood does as much harm as postponing it. These girls had identities handed to them by parents, managers, and focus groups. They never had any chance to become themselves.

Some girls go to the opposite extreme—or, more likely, get pushed there by adults who should know better. Leann Rimes’ first music video featured her lounging like a poolside temptress, at an age when most girls still have a favorite stuffed bear. Early album covers highlighted her precocious figure, presenting her as a grown woman and casual tease. Her handlers forced her to become a woman when she was still a girl.

I cringed at Rimes’ early appearances, warning friends that Tanya Tucker started similarly. By age twenty, Tucker had multiple substance abuse problems, and after her comeback, became more famous for her liaisons and out-of-wedlock pregnancies than her music. Friends assured me that Rimes need not follow Tucker’s dark path, and I relented. Then Rimes celebrated turning eighteen by posing for magazine covers with her blouse off. Very mature.

Sadly, many girls—actresses, mainly—think appearing topless equals coming of age. Elizabeth Berkley’s high-profile burnout in Showgirls did not stop other former child stars, like Anne Hathaway, Reese Witherspoon, and Mischa Barton, from equating nudity with adulthood. Some, like Natalie Portman and Denise Richards, combined nudity with taboo sex. Most have seen their star power suffer; Barton, Richards, and Berkley haven’t gotten star billing for years.

Maxim Blender splashed this image of
Leann Rimes on their cover, with the appalling
caption: "ALL GROWN UP!"
Miley Cyrus’s much-propounded struggle against her Hannah Montana identity manifested this week in a strange confluence of girlishness and misplaced sexuality. Even before she disrobed and ground up against Robin Thicke, Cyrus attempted lewd moves on backup dancers dressed as teddy bears. Essentially, she attempted to vicariously deflower images of childhood innocence. This isn’t the behavior of somebody thinking about sex like a grown-up.

Cyrus need not follow the familiar path of rehab, divorce, and reality TV. Many former child stars avoid this trap: the Lennon Sisters, Danica McKellar, and Kirsten Dunst come to mind. These girls received sound personal and professional advice, even when, like the Lennons, they endured protracted public childhood. Good guidance could steer Cyrus to a fulfilling adult career. But she will have to stop submarining herself first.

Monday, August 26, 2013

The New Chinese Skyline

Xuefei Ren, Urban China (China Today)

Within living memory, the People’s Republic of China was a struggling, underdeveloped nation ruled by strange ideologues who impeded their own nation’s progress. But since 2000, China has overtaken France, Germany, and Japan to become Earth’s second largest economy; it stands poised to challenge America’s longstanding primacy. Michigan State’s Xuefei Ren says we cannot understand that mighty surge apart from China’s rapid urbanization.

Westerners feel a reasonable temptation to compare Chinese cities with our Euro-American conurbations. But Professor Ren asserts that Chinese cities have their own distinct character, molded as they are by different historical forces. Chinese leadership once took an explicitly hostile attitude to cities. Confucian philosophy discouraged urbanization by its disdain for commerce. Chairman Mao kept cities small, even forbidding farmers to follow work into town.

But after 1978, Deng Xiaoping’s market reforms created a climate where tightly packed industry, which flourishes in cities, became the norm. Instead of ideological goals like the Soviets, the Chinese Communist Party began tying career advancement to GDP growth, which discouraged eager Party loyalists from investing in slow-moving enterprises like agriculture. From the early 1990s, the state spent its development funds in cities, letting the countryside fend for itself.

Chinese cities are thus substantially different from Western cities. Despite Party leadership’s fondness for soaring Internationalist-style skyscrapers and vast concrete flatlands, these cities were essentially willed into existence. Where Euro-American cities arose almost unexpectedly, molded by Fordism and entrepreneurial vigor, urban China represents the triumph of centralized state ownership and authoritarian ideology.

Yet Professor Ren also exposes remarkable features of China that defy Cold War ordering. Because China’s government system is compartmentalized and appallingly improvisational, city-level administrators have impressive authority to challenge Beijing’s leadership, ramrodding land-use decisions that serve local interest, even over state objections. This creates a competitive environment that, to outsiders, seems almost… well… capitalist.

Don’t mistake that, though, to mean Chinese people have gained sudden freedoms in urban life. Science fiction skylines like Shanghai and Guangzhou have permitted China to create an unprecedented number of billionaires, but entrepreneurial autonomy remains a rural phenomenon. Those glass skyscrapers house transnational corporations and state-owned enterprises, but city workers have virtually no chance of upward mobility.

At least theoretically, China remains a command economy, in which the state owns all land, and every transaction requires state permission. Yet Beijing’s benign neglect of nominally agricultural areas has permitted “farmers” remarkable local autonomy. Many have responded by turning their patches into low-rent housing, essentially creating modern suburbs. If the Party notices such use, though, “farmers” risk land expropriation: don’t get too successful, or you’ll lose everything.

Urban China, in Ren’s telling, defies easy definition. The hasty, almost whimsical way cities arise, coupled with the lack of central standards, puts cities in bare-knuckle competition. Because citizens cannot follow work, and migrants retain second-tier status, one city never seems “normal,” like Detroit in the 1960s, or Seattle in the 1990s. With regular double-digit GDP growth and over 125 cities over one million population, China resembles an agglomeration of warring city-states.

Despite Professor Ren’s narrow stated focus, she cannot separate Chinese urbanization from other factors, particularly the (almost) one-party state. Communist parties nominally exist to serve the proletariat, yet repeatedly create a permanent underclass. Like the Soviet Union, China has created a patronage system that subdivides permanent peons from those who enjoy Party connections. Winners get rich and powerful; losers breathe bad air while they work.

This results in a Fritz Lang-ish cityscape where Party loyalists and international Daddy Warbucks types occupy society’s upper tier—literally, as the Party has flattened old farmsteads and historic low-rise buildings to erect its world-class skyscrapers. Rich foreigners and well-connected nationals move to cities to get rich(er). Regular Chinese move to cities because they’ve exhausted every other option.

Professor Ren spends some time on long-term history, but her primary interest lies in the present. We cannot fathom China’s present through misty Sumi-e paintings and “inscrutable Orient” mythology. Instead, Ren unpacks the “governance, landscape, migration, inequality, and cultural economy” or urban China right now, seldom venturing further back than about 1993. The society she exposes bears little resemblance to the sound bites beloved on cable news.

Whether China ever surpasses America in economic dominance, it’s already a top world player. And it has achieved that status in tandem with its rapid urbanization, creating unprecedented paper billionaires and massive poverty. If other nations hope to compete, we need to understand modern China on its own terms. Professor Ren provides a good start for further study.

On a related topic:

Friday, August 23, 2013

In Praise of America's "Unfair" Senate

Every few years, the conventional carp about America’s Senate arises anew, that its inflexible apportionment of two Senators per state, regardless of population, subverts American democracy. How can we claim small-d democratic principles when Wyoming, population barely half a million, has the same representation as California, numbering over thirty-eight million? Can two Jewish women from Frisco really represent all California interests?

Such complaints lack imagination, rehashing elderly ideas as they do. The Washington Post’s Dylan Matthews joined the chorus this week, whining that the Senate is “unfair.” What is this, Little League? Where is “fairness” ensconced in the Constitution? America’s founders considered the narrowly constructed Senate so important that it is one of only two Constitutional provisions specifically excluded from amendment. (The other is the “one man, one vote” principle.)

Matthews, in this, merely echoes his immediate boss, Ezra Klein, for whom this issue is a long-standing peeve. Klein, whom I frequently respect, was born in Irvine, California, educated at UCLA, and currently lives in Washington, DC. Not surprisingly, his pet issues tend to run very urban in nature. And the US Senate’s supposed unfairness has always irked urban-dominated states, since it puts them on equal footing with small, rural states like Idaho.

Yet the necessity for this very lopsided balance in America’s legislative body defines why the Founders created the Senate. Delegates from small, sparsely populated states like New Hampshire didn’t want large, wealthy, conservative Virginia dominating the federal government unopposed. The Senate was intended to impede population-based governance. This remains important, as demonstrated in this map by Neil Freeman, which Matthews cites approvingly:
Click to enlarge
Notice that this putatively “fair” map creates tiny city-states around New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, where running for Senate would be as strenuous as the morning commute. It also creates pocket states like Trinity, Orange, and Yerba Buena, easily dominated by one or two large cities. But what about massive states like Ogallala and Shiprock, where running for governor would require only slightly less travel than running for President?

This map may seem fair to Klein and Matthews, who live in the large coastal cities which would dominate both houses of Congress under this regime. But farm bills, Interstate Highway maintenance, or the Keystone XL pipeline, could have their most disastrous potential far from the centers of state power. In this environment, America’s breadbasket would have only paltry legislative protection from potentially destructive urban greed.

Moreover, by making each state homogenous in population, Freeman and Matthews make them homogenous in other ways, and thus vulnerable. These redrawn states would have few economic protections, because they’d have little economic diversity. Fluctuations in domestic tourism could completely derail the tax base in Canaveral or Adirondack, as could rollercoaster oil prices in the state of Houston. Rust Belt industrial states like Gary or Detroit would come into existence already broke.

America’s Founders specifically wanted to avoid the situation this map extols. Read the Constitution, and note that the word “democracy” never appears. That’s because our Founders, who knew their Classical history, feared the ancient Greek democracies, which were little better than street gangs. Though lauded for its intellectual accomplishments, Athens nearly destroyed itself because popular whims could shift literally overnight, and there was no check on votes.

At one time, Americans thought women and non-whites shouldn’t be allowed to vote. Recently, a narrow majority of Californians approved a ballot referendum circumscribing marriage rights. The deep and continuing divisions over Obamacare demonstrate that popular opinion can be both deeply split, and geographically localized. The Founders realized, as Matthews and Klein evidently do not, that democracy only works within rigorous civic safeguards.
Liberals and progressives like the idea of a proportional Senate, because a narrow but secure majority of Americans favor their policies. If not for astute midterm gerrymandering, Democrats would have retaken the House in 2012. Klein and Matthews think, if the Senate were “fair,” Democrats could notarize their favored legislation. If they consider rubber-stamp governance better than the current system, I have three words for them: USA PATRIOT Act.

Americans believe the admirable claim that all humans have equal worth. But our system is founded on federal principles: we are the United States, not the Identical States. Sparse rural populations should have protection from urban might. Nebraska shouldn’t have to speak California-ese just because there are more Californians than Canadians. Our system is unfair, because fairness is a phantom. And Ezra Klein’s campaign to rig national debate undermines the very small-d democratic principles he claims to espouse.

On a related topic:
When In the Course of Human Events... 

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

A Flying Demon With a Billboard Heart

Larry "Link" Linkogle, Mind of the Demon: A Memoir of Motocross, Madness, and the Metal Mulisha

A motocross prodigy, Larry Linkogle went pro at 15, stealing prestigious trophies from senior riders. He never loved competitive motocross, though, preferring trick riding and audience-pleasing theatrics. At one high-profile event, he poked the establishment in the eye with a high-profile, rebellious ride, and freestyle motocross was born. But when his sport got co-opted by the money mavens he despised, he began a defiant descent into brutal self-destruction.

Link’s narrative of a life in motorcycles seems both familiar and strange. Familiar, because we recognize his rapid rise and violent collapse from a million rock star biographies. Strange because sportsmen usually suffer this massive crack-up only after their careers end, not at their athletic peak. Link’s ability to balance an apparent death wish against record-setting accomplishments and remarkable business feats makes a harsh study in contrasts.

Pushed into competitive riding early, by a father whose own demons cast a long shadow, Link always balked at racing, speed trials, and other statistics that attracted big-money sponsors. He felt most comfortable performing the tricks and stunts that motocrossers shared when audiences weren’t looking. He sought ways to bring such showmanship onto the track, an effort that alienated sponsors but made him an anti-hero to audiences.

Time after time, Link snagged some sponsor that loved his muscular theatricality. But as his sponsors became more established, gambling ever-greater sums on his track prowess, they inevitably demanded Link tone it down. He lost representation by biting the hand that fed him, though such oppositional defiance repeatedly snagged him some new, aspiring sponsor. Then his new Daddy Warbucks got rich and conservative; the cycle never ends.

Finally, in 1996, Link and another rider snapped. They turned their sponsor-labeled shirts inside out, wrote “Metal Mulisha” on their chests, and flubbed a major race in the most histrionic way possible. Audiences, largely numbed on lap counts, ate it wholesale. In Link’s telling, freestyle motocross (FMX) was born on that day, as was Metal Mulisha, perhaps the most lucrative team and cross-marketing brand ever to emerge from sport motorcycling.

Readers familiar with FMX will recognize that Link somewhat oversells his influence. Long before he snubbed his sponsors, riders like Bob Kohl and Travis Pastrana were performing trick rides on dirt tracks. Many riders pilfered BMX stunts, though they reserved their theatrics for warm-ups and victory laps. Link didn’t so much invent FMX as demonstrate that freestyling, essentially motorcycle ballet, could revitalize jaded audiences and draw sponsors.

But this isn’t unvarnished history or the Encyclopedia Britannica. This is Link’s subjective story of how one of FMX’s most talented stars nearly destroyed himself. If Link looms large in his own legend, so what? It means he acknowledges how far he fell, and how much he needed to recover. Though I doubt he’d phrase it thus, in his telling, Link’s FMX career resembles the dramatic swings of Greek tragedy.

Link created (or helped create) FMX to escape the tyrannical influence of scorekeepers and sponsors. But inside three years, those same influences overtook FMX. He’d long used self-destruction to rebel against constraining authorities, like his father and his sponsors, but when those rebellious displays became part of a family-friendly commodity, Link could only amplify his high-profile seppuku, devolving into prescription drug abuse and naked thuggery.

Through it all, Link remains blind to the ways he creates the situation he deplores. By undermining himself, while vigorously courting audience approval, he unconsciously channels other infamous kamikaze celebrities, like GG Allin and John Belushi, who commodified their own death spirals. His implosion morphs into a billboard. Link’s prose suggests he still doesn’t realize the role he played. One wonders if his ghost writer, Joe Layden, perhaps enhances the dramatic irony behind Link’s back.

Yet even as he excoriates the money and stardom that warped his sport, and justified his implosion, Link demonstrates a remarkable natural talent for business. He and his partners parley their antics into free publicity for the Metal Mulisha, making themselves stars and their brand a mark of militant authenticity. One wonders whether Link realizes, behind the haze of Vicodin and guns, that he’s covertly become the thing he despises.

Link’s memoir brashly refuses to be touching, uplifting, or any other adjective reviewers indiscriminately apply to self-immolation accounts. Yet his macho posturing often cracks, revealing surprising corners even he probably hasn’t noticed. Link exists on two planes: the recovering abuser who reclaims his peak achievements, and an anti-hero blind to his own destructive wake. This makes his slow decay strangely appealing, if not sympathetic.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Love the Land That Gives Us Life

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 19
George Pyle, Raising Less Corn, More Hell: Why Our Economy, Ecology and Security Demand The Preservation of the Independent Farm

Journalist George Pyle, like many Plains residents, considered farmers a vestige of outdated ways. Working ag beats, he shared Kansans’ common assumption that farming was boring, and farm failures merely inevitable. But as former farms morphed into massive, smelly “protein factories” and subsidized sweatshops, Pyle began investigating agriculture, and was appalled. The product was this book, probably more important now than when it first appeared.

Farmers have suffered by the transition to a business model of agriculture. Where independent farmers with local markets have incentives to steward the soil and balance production with preservation, business models warp agricultural values until, Pyle says, farmers resemble miners. Movement away from community relationships with farmers has created a bottleneck where perilously few companies sell us food that isn’t tasty or nutritious.

Corporations like Tyson and Archer Daniels Midland create apparent customer benefits: plentiful food, cheap as it’s ever been. But this comes at the expense of diminished nutrition, unprecedented vulnerability, and depleted, chemically dependent soil. Even those farmers who own their own land, a dying breed, find themselves indentured to corporations who do not have their, or the soil’s, best interests at heart.

Individual farmers may reject this “vertical integration” model that distorts ordinary capitalist markets, but they face monolithic resistance. Government agencies and private advocacy groups throw their support behind corporations. When neighbors pre-sell their livestock or harvest to distant conglomerates, inevitably distorting eventual market prices, farmers face two stark, unpalatable choices: get big or get out.

Pyle demonstrates, using long-range comparative statistics, that current farm policies, based on pulling more food from America’s soil, have been counterproductive, particularly direct cash transfusions. Most farm subsidies go to corporations and absentee landlords, while workers who actually nurture the soil get dregs. Even when money goes directly to farmers, it barely pauses before moving on to agribusiness monopolies like Monsanto and John Deere.

Back in the 1980s, struggling farmers organized “tractorcades” to protest lopsided policies and rigged markets. Long lines of John Deere green blocked major cities, including Washington. Whether such displays did anything to inform public sentiment remains debatable, but farmers’ use of tractors to elicit sympathy reflects that they themselves miss what has had the greatest impact on American agriculture, the infusion of an unsustainable assembly-line ethic.

Massive investments in petroleum-burning equipment, genetically modified seed, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and other high-tech gadgetry massively multiply yield. Yet plentiful yields, like anything plentiful, fetch less money. To bolster prices, America ships excess crops overseas as “food aid,” undercutting prices in poor countries with primarily agrarian economies. We’ve globalized poverty among dirt farmers.

One especially telling example features Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). This toxin occurs naturally, making it useful for chemically untreated crops, but it’s deadly to European corn borers, which decimate crops silently. Organic farmers love it because it protects fields without harsh chemicals. But they use it sparingly, lest corn borers become immune. So naturally, since 1996, agribusiness has marketed genetically modified corn that produces its own Bt. Constantly.

Agronomists warned that constant Bt exposure would breed genetically resistant pests. But corporations blanketed the market with ads for supposedly low-maintenance, chemical-free seed, drowning naysayers in noise. Pyle wrote, in 2005, that overuse of genetically modified seed made Bt-resistant blight downright inevitable. The University of Nebraska in 2013 reports that such resistance is upon us. And responsible organic farmers have one less tool in their arsenal.

It sounds nostalgically naïve when organic farm advocates advertise “heirloom seed varieties.” But corporate conglomerates demand such vast harvests that their indentured farmers plant whatever seed yields most, regardless of nutrition, flavor, hardiness, or soil conservation. This causes appalling genetic homogeneity in America’s fields, which leaves us vulnerable to even small fluctuations. Or did we learn nothing from the Irish Potato Famine?

Agriculture, Pyle says, suffers the same fate now plaguing finance, commerce, and other industries: a microscopic minority has accrued such economic and political might that market forces no longer apply to them. Farmers live in fear of ConAgra, Tyson, and McDonalds, and lack the unity needed to resist them. Legislators feed at lobbyists’ money teats. The responsibility for resistance falls to ordinary citizens. Will we answer that call?

God said: “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food.” Big agribusiness said: “Just kidding. We’ll make food easy, plentiful, and cheap.” Between those two, the land has demonstrated whom it favors; now we, as customers and farmers and eaters, must decide which narrative we believe, before the food we eat dies on the stalk.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Why the Tea Party Gospel Makes Sense

Rand Paul
America’s Tea Party is losing momentum. Once ascendant in politics and media, even its chief presidential aspirant, Rand Paul, has started clothing his hyperconservative views in progressive rhetoric. Fox News, the former Miracle-Gro of the Tea Party’s roots, hesitates to say its name. Yet its ideas remain powerful, even if its structure is mainly depleted. We can understand its staying power if we consider it like a religion.

Outsiders often focus on the Tea Party’s ideological arguments, which are doctrinaire, contradictory, and often turn squishy when poked with facts. Yet “believers” join the Tea Party, just as they convert to Christianity, primarily behind strong personal experience rather than firm persuasion. If we postpone philosophical debate and focus on that “Road to Damascus” moment, we can understand the Tea Party’s remarkable appeal.

Imagine you, or someone you know, owns a local business. A diner, say. And you bring an old boombox from home to dig some tunes in the kitchen. So you and your assistant cook are getting down to some Top-40 grindage, when, SURPRISE, an OSHA inspector arrives. Turns out, a cracked stereo case is considered a workplace hazard, a risk of electrical shock. And OSHA, under Federal regulation, fines you $7000.

Really. A cracked stereo case nets a $7000 fine. Ford Motors probably spends $7000 daily on TP, so that fine is a nuisance. But Mom-n-Pop businesses cannot absorb such expenses. That’s $7000 that can’t go to rent, or payroll, or Junior’s college fund. Most likely, as an independent owner, that money won’t go to paying yourself. Such indiscriminate application of nickel-and-dime regulation naturally makes people resent government influence.

Such experiences linger in people’s memory. If someone you trust got pushed out of business, submarining the local economy, you’d resent the bureaucratic goat who tarnished your community. This especially explains anti-regulation sentiment in rural areas and small towns, more dependent on local businesses and vulnerable to indiscriminate regulation, versus cities, which rely on large corporations that can eat “petty” fines.

Michele Bachmann
Because anti-regulation belief thus acquired has visceral impact, it isn’t merely intellectual. It becomes a defining influence on the True Believer’s mentality: personal, sacred, and beyond question. People who believe in deregulation intellectually often adapt their thinking to changing situations, as when the first Bush Administration created the Resolution Trust Corporation to stem the bleeding from the Savings and Loan crisis of 1989.

Tea Partiers, however, didn’t acquire their beliefs by reading Ayn Rand or Milton Friedman. Adaptive ethics, to them, smacks of backsliding and apostasy. Especially for new converts, fervent in their faith but inexperienced in relating it to the larger world, absolute devotion to key principles becomes paramount. They experience a crisis of faith when (and if) they realize their rules have become an idolatrous substitute for God.

Sadly, for any new convert, personal experiences color their view of outside forces. The former drunk, saved by Christ, sees alcohol abuse everywhere, and becomes another Carrie Nation. The redeemed adulterer becomes so averse to sex that, like Brother Jed, he condemns perfect strangers for expressing ordinary sexuality. The convert forgets what Thomas Aquinas noted, that no created thing is sinful itself, but only our relationship to it.

Likewise, for the Tea Partier discouraged when his local diner folded under excessive regulation, the response becomes dogma. All regulations, taxes, and government influence become equally odious. The regulations that might have prevented the Deepwater Horizon blowout, or might stem global warming, or might have prevented the 2008 financial collapse, are all equally odious. Because doctrinal deviations are not intellectual decisions, they’re sin.

Responses that might prevent massive fallout defy discussion. Scaling fines according to transgressors’ ability to pay might make situations more just: our hypothetical diner owner might get, say, $500 or a warning, while BP’s systemic disregard for safety would merit fines in the billions. But if any fine, any regulation, is by definition sinful, then discussing amending the process admits to creating a permissible level of wickedness.

Unfortunately, like new religious converts, Tea Partiers are vulnerable to chicanery. Message manipulators like the Koch Brothers or Eric Erickson use money and repetition to warp the movement to self-serving ends. The demand for payoff creates an Inquisition against the insufficiently devout. Thus the Tea Party has moved from revelation to ecumenicalism to purgation of heretics with Life of Brian-like tragicomic haste.

Charles Koch
As with religious fanaticism, resolution defies reason. We can wait for True Believers to mature in their faith, settling into a comfortable balance, but while we wait, they cultivate new converts. New believers enter the fold because core beliefs look reasonable from their experience. As long as True Believers posit a counter-narrative that makes sense to people discouraged and disgusted with worldly decline, fervent new converts will persevere.

The Tea Party may lack its former internal coherence, but like the John Birch Society or the Wobblies, it will survive for years beyond its peak influence for one reason: its key precepts make sense. Like Scientology or the Westboro Baptist Church, it applies its precepts outside their legitimate domain, and will eventually alienate its former base. But it won’t die as long as circumstances conspire to make it seem reasonable.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Slow Death as the Son Becomes the Father

Jonathan Gillman, My Father, Humming

Jonathan Gillman’s father, an acclaimed mathematician and pianist, suffered a long, slow, humiliating death as dementia incrementally consumed everything that made him unique. Gillman, an educator and dramatist, struggled with the ambiguous feelings: this was his father, sure, but this was the man who also made him feel the greatest shame and most persistent frustration. So, like any good teacher, he turned to writing.

Gillman’s verse chronicle of his father’s decline quickly becomes an autobiography: his father’s struggles with Beethoven colored how father and son communicated, and when that communication stops, Gillman must decide who he is separately. The answer proves harder than he anticipates. How do you stay angry, Gillman asks, at someone progressively losing everything? He must decide what a life full of music means when the music stops,
the silence emptier
for what it used to hold.
We never learn the father’s name. Gillman paints a world in which principles loom larger than personalities. Bach and Beethoven recur, presences so vast that they become like Gillman’s surrogate parents, as Dad spends decades trying to perfect the “Moonlight Sonata.” Dad is a man proud of his active and questing mind, too aware to miss his own slow decline:
All that
and your mind went too,
your pride and joy
that you lorded it over
everyone with,
how people spoke,
even your wife,
as if English was logical...
Gillman is not a poet’s poet. He avoids techniques that garner acclaim from Pulitzer committees, and his poems are light on metaphor, enjambment, and other tools taught in MFA programs. Gillman prefers to focus his linguistic ability on capturing moments that define his father’s struggles. Rather than “pure language” favored by self-conscious poets, Gillman crafts snapshots of moments that merge into an arc.

Not that Gillman’s verse is facile or that he writes something anybody could write. Nobody, not poets nor curious audiences, likes prose chopped haphazardly into lines. Rather, Gillman uses poetry to expunge everything unnecessary from his father’s story, exposing a taut, sinewy progress through his father’s disintegration. He has no patience for generalities and bromides, favoring the episodes that real people must experience:
My father’s going
downstairs to bed,
my mother helping.
It looks like a disaster
waiting to happen—
tied together by a rope
running from waist to waist—
like the invisible tether
which has bound them for so long...
Moments like these, mother helping father downstairs, mother changing father’s diaper, mother helping father eat soup—anyone who’s ever eased a loved one through dementia will recognize these moments. But Gillman keeps them personal. This isn’t about some woman helping some man; these are two people who, stripped of burdens like names, exist purely in each other’s light, becoming whole in how they relate to each other.

As his father’s learned identity progressively falls away, Gillman comes to acknowledge, as much to himself as us, that this stops being his father’s struggle. He must, he realizes, contend with the legacy his father has bequeathed him, a battle we will all face eventually if we live long enough. Fathers, like any other influences, want us to become whole, mature people, but they have strong ideas about what this means:
I’m at my father’s piano,
playing a piece
he used to play,
but not the way
he played it,
not, he’s sure, the way
Herr Beethoven intended.
He’s hearing it,
not sleeping as he often is,
and he’s not happy with it.
Before, he would have
yelled out “Stop!”
or booed, or yowled,
“You’re trying to kill me!”
He’s not playing much these days...

as I go on, I hear,
so faint at first
I’m not sure what I’m hearing:
mmm mmmm, mmm mmmm
he’s humming, tunelessly,
along with me,
the way he used to
when he was playing.
This stark and sudden reversal, this upheaval of roles, underpins Gillman’s entire book. Even when Gillman thinks he’s standing fast against his father’s disapproval, Dad’s influence remains pervasive. This becomes the lesson Gillman must learn, at great personal expense: he only becomes his true adult self, only becomes who he was meant to be, when he stops battling that influence, and acknowledges, embraces it.

Gillman has also recorded this book, available on CD or audio download. Read in the author’s sandy, subdued timbre, it gains a valuable added dimension, becoming a one-man verse drama of the struggles one man undertakes as his role stops being “son.” Though not necessary to enjoy the book, Gilman has crafted a touching multimedia introspection.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Godless Dogma

PZ Myers, The Happy Atheist

With this title, I expected perhaps somebody enjoying a half-drunken night of sacred cow-tipping, somebody more like Billy Connolly, Dave Barry, or John Cleese perhaps. But this guy isn’t remotely happy. He’s chastising everybody who ever raised his hackles, an apparently long list (though he’s squishy with actual names). I once sat beside a guy excoriating his ex-wives at a bar. Myers reminds me of that.

In his first chapter, Myers promises not to regurgitate “the common atheist line” and claims that, confronted with religious absurdities, he has only one reasonable reaction: “I have to laugh.” These pledges don’t even reach page thirty before he starts painting everybody with one broad brush, and reciting laundry lists of grievances. Even his grievances have a numbingly familiar timbre. C’mon, PZ, don’t just paraphrase Richard Dawkins!

Myers seemingly promises one book and delivers another. He offers an irreverent, playful critique of America’s facile religious discourse, something even many True Believers would welcome today. But once you start reading, Myers repeatedly works himself into demonstrative indignation and starts reciting predictable adjectives about how awful theists, particularly Christians, really are. He doesn’t distinguish moderate theists from outliers, nor respect his opposition enough to even lob new or innovative accusations.

Around the one-third mark, I realized Myers doesn’t have many proper nouns in most essays. Myers confronts a rolling panoply of opponents, mostly vague (“Christians say...” or “Some have accused me...”). Sometimes he names his opponent, like British religious writer Karen Armstrong or “burn-a-Koran” nut Terry Jones. But in most of his thirty-four short essays, he rails against abstract, nebulous foes making weird anti-intellectual statements.

The only opponent he quotes at any length is Albert Mohler, President of the Southern Baptist Conference. He cites Bible verses out of context, a technique beloved by atheists and evangelicals alike to make the Bible say something it doesn’t say. He offers artfully trimmed excerpts from blog comments and e-mails he received while trying to inflame controversy. (If you do something provocative to bait religious nuts, can you really claim victory because religious nuts act provoked?)

But overall, Myers doesn’t quote those he refutes. He presents straw-man arguments about some conveniently nameless theist, or he caricatures specific opponents’ beliefs. It’s like watching Fox News misrepresent the Democratic Party, or hearing Fred Phelps mock gays and secularists. Audiences wonder: why would anybody believe such claptrap? Reality replies, nobody really believes that burlesque. Nobody worth your energy, anyway.

Therein lies the trap. If you don’t know your opponents, you needn’t address them where they are now. Myers makes the same mistake as evangelists like Bob Larson and Brother Jed, drawing sweeping conclusions about people he hasn’t met and understands in only one context. These conclusions justify long, rambling invectives claiming that those who disagree with him are “irrational,” “infantile,” “smug,” or his particular favorite, “stupid.” After the first chapter, he makes no distinctions, applying his labels with giddy abandon.

I blame the format. These essays began life as entries on Myers’ blog, where intrepid readers can find many of them verbatim. But Internet writing rewards short attention spans, surface-level reading, and pat answers. Blogs, including this one, attract audiences that share the author’s core suppositions, and reward writing that whips ideological fellow-travelers into high dudgeon. They don’t much encourage deep investigation or intellectual diversity.

Myers repeatedly starts to address some important topic, something deserving of his time, that theists have historically elided or failed to explicate. Sometimes, he raises questions I’ve seen in authors as disparate as Albert Camus, Isaac Asimov, and Cynthia Ozick; other times, his questions come seemingly from nowhere and take me by surprise. I nod vigorously, thinking: yes, this will surely justify this entire book.

Then Myers consistently stops. Perhaps he gets tired. Perhaps he thinks his point proven by dint of having raised it. More likely, because he’s courting an Internet audience that already agrees with him, the topic requires no further unpacking. But I want more from a book! I want the ramifications, the caveats, the full extension of Myers’ argument. Myers makes intriguing promises, but I just feel ripped off.

Science and philosophy give us good reasons to treat atheism seriously. Christopher Hitchens, Bertrand Russell, and Sigmund Freud offer very good criticisms that theists have preponderantly failed to answer. They made fun, enlightening reading, too. But Myers resembles the Archie Bunker of atheist dogma, berating anybody who doesn’t agree and claiming victory when they stop fighting. This atheist isn’t happy, and he isn’t enlightening either.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Tonto Speaks Tonto-Speak. Deal With It.

Hollywood cast a Honky as Tonto; why act
surprised that he's played as a Stage Indian?
Much ink has gotten spilled in recent weeks by commentators distressed over Johnny Depp’s insensitive, broadly comedic portrayal of Tonto in Disney’s Lone Ranger reboot. Everything about the role, from Depp’s stone-faced slapstick to his costume to his Pidgin English has come in for criticism. But all these criticisms miss one important fact: nobody should have expected better from today’s creatively bankrupt film factories.

Director Gore Verbinski and producer Jerry Bruckheimer definitely imbued their story with good visuals. Armie Hammer’s black vest and matching duster look more plausible than Clayton Moore’s weird grey jumpsuit. The sweeping landscapes have a more unified look than the classic TV show’s set-bound appearance. Yet the creative team spent so much time and money on graphics that they forgot to care whether the characters made any damn sense.

When The Lone Ranger debuted on radio in 1922, a succession of white actors played Tonto. During the Depression, nobody flinched to hear white men grunting a supposedly Indian pidgin. But when the show graduated to TV, Native actor Jay Silverheels took especial pride in assuming the role. Silverheels represented not only a serious role model for the show’s child fans, but a step forward in how Hollywood treated Indians and Native concerns.

So when Disney announced a new Lone Ranger with a white actor as Tonto, audiences should have frankly expected blatant backsliding. This decision recalls years when studios trowelled “yellow” makeup on Anglo actors to create Charlie Chan. Studios love such characters, who require little thought or imagination. This blatant appeal to musty racial cliché, name-checking stereotypes as opposed to genuinely creating a character, signifies less racism than plain intellectual laziness.

Clayton Moore as the Lone Ranger;
Jay Silverheels as Tonto
Not that actors can’t play across races. Puerto Rican actor Raúl Juliá’s portrayal of Hamlet, which he nurtured and improved over thirty years, remains a benchmark of recent Shakespeare. Johnny Depp, who asserts distant Native ancestry, could have imbued gravitas to Tonto like he gave Edward Scissorhands or George Jung, had he shown the role appropriate respect. Instead, he selected the broad, stereotypical comedy of Captain Jack Sparrow.

Movies have suffered recently. Since The Sopranos lent panache to TV, visionary writers and directors have favored the small screen’s ability to build characters over an arc of years. Hardly the domain any longer of the priggish Standards and Practices prudes whose blue noses got bent if married couples slept in the same bed, TV now permits adventurous artists a chance to take bold risks on a years-long canvas.

This leaves the former Hollywood Dream Factories dominated by actors, whose bloated salary demands require studios to churn out blockbusters with factory regularity. No longer can Hollywood take risks on marginal properties like Casablanca or The Big Chill. Focus groups and market studies have incrementally neutered studios’ penchant for adventure. Anything lacking the requisite minimum share of explosions and CGI spectacles can’t justify its share of studios’ shrinking budget pie.

The audacious spirit that motivated movie entrepreneurs from Orson Welles to George Lucas has migrated to what filmmakers once called “the idiot box.” Thus, while TV nurtures smart, understated, psychologically diverse serial dramas like Orphan Black and True Blood, Hollywood mass-manufactures reboots, sequels, franchises, and adaptations. Comic books and discontinued TV properties rule. Disney openly speculates on Star Wars Episode VII, and true fans cringe.

Johnny Depp, once acknowledged for his constantly evolving range and emotional depth, has lapsed into a repetitive portrayal at least since 2005’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, if not earlier. The clownish mugging that characterizes his recent Tim Burton films pleases audiences and draws huge revenue, that justifies his obscene salaries. The quiet depth he once demonstrated just doesn’t pay as well, not for him or the studios.

Kirby Sattler's I Am Crow,
the painting that inspired Tonto's new look
The Lone Ranger just looks like the product of floating market tests, and its naked appeal to others’ prior success leaves it dirty with artistic fingerprints. Combining low risk and high spectacle, it should have offered Disney a license to print money, if received industry wisdom had any foundation in reality. Sadly, it proves that audiences want something bold and reckless; filmgoers know when studios are speaking down to them.

We film buffs admire creative innovators, from Michael Curtiz to Kathryn Bigelow, who coax ensembles to achieve new, profound portrayals of complex situations. But Depp has joined the ranks of Hollywood personalities who must be appeased. Depp’s Tonto represents a studio system no longer interested in telling good stories for ambitious audiences. Disney’s Lone Ranger is the inevitable result of studios’ essential artistic exhaustion.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Living Girl on the Dying Earth

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 18
Moira Young, Blood Red Road

When armed horsemen kill her father and kidnap her brother, teenage Saba must abandon the only home she’s known to rescue her surviving kin from an unknown fate. But she quickly learns that Pa wasn’t keeping her isolated, he was protecting her from a world grown bleak and savage. Now, among the ruins of skyscrapers and demolished flying machines, Saba must seize her adult identity to reclaim her family.

Audiences can read Moira Young’s debut novel as an exciting, packed apocalyptic teen adventure where nothing is certain and adversity tests youth to their limits. Or we can unpack it like literature. Like Harry Potter or Katniss Everdeen, Young’s Saba gets adulthood thrust upon her, with the choices adults face: will she prefer the easy passivity of violence and power, or become truly human, with the sacrifices humanity entails?

Too often, grown-ups isolate their young ’uns from the real world, as Pa does, protecting his children from violence, while they grow increasingly antsy about independent, adult vocations. Childhood becomes an albatross on the cusp of adulthood. Only when real life intrudes—when representatives of adulthood ride in guns a-blazin, and (literally or figuratively) kill the parents—do youth have the opportunity to discover what they’re for.

Everything that happens to Saba thereafter embodies adulthood’s encroachment on the peace of youth. Eventually, we find we have to trust people, even when people don’t always prove themselves trustworthy. We have to fight our way out of situations, no matter how deeply we believe in peace and harmony. And people who would exercise power over us, people who would proclaim themselves King, somehow interrupt our common humanity.

Young forces Saba into an intriguing duality. Sold into the slavery of failing humanity’s glatiatorial bloodsports, she must have Nietzsche's “will to power,” and persevere when others will bring her down. Her willingness to fight, even when others will suffer for her victory, even when she knows her preservation inevitably means others’ downfall, makes her into a true dark antihero, a person of the modern age.

But modernity contains the seeds of its own downfall: it’s built on flimsy foundations that will burn bright when the right people strike the spark. As Saba becomes the leader she needs to be, she finds that power means setting aside her own prerogatives. Hostility gives way to trust, and trust paves the road to revolution. If Saba wants to free the slaves and challenge the King in his domain, she cannot do so alone.

So perhaps she’s not the true Nietzschean hero after all. Perhaps she really represents how chest-thumping modernists build a house predicated on rules and order, assuming they can shackle nature and control the elements. When Saba and her heroines overcome that false promise, when they assert the natural freedom of all people, they reclaim humanity’s true identity, with all the anarchic unpredictability that entails.

Mercifully, Young doesn’t attempt to resolve this duality. To become herself, Saba must confront the impediments and embrace the opportunities we all have, unshackled by religion or culture that have grown bloated in their seniority. She presents adulthood as an essentially agnostic domain, free from the author’s quasi-divine intervention. Not for nothing do Young’s supporting characters have pre-Christian names like Lugh, Epona, and Maev.

Saba also learns that she cannot fight her wars alone. Repeatedly, she dismisses others and tries to stand alone, an übermensch bestriding the earth, but others bring skills, vision and encouragement that she needs. She finds wholeness not as some lone beacon, immune to human influence; she becomes whole, becomes a leader, and has strength to rescue her brother only when she learns to integrate herself with the larger system.

Power, then, derives not from Saba’s will to dominate. She doesn’t lead so she can rule; she leads so she can accomplish something worthwhile. Whether that means rescuing her brother, or challenging the King whose means of rule have subjugated the land, she has the choice: she can dominate others, or she can lead them. She chooses to lead. And this book makes it clear that this isn’t the easy choice.

Hemingway wrote that we come of age not by our birthdays, but when we accept life’s challenges. In Saba, Young externalizes the struggles of adulthood. Unburdened and unguided, our heroine faces heightened versions of the provocations everyone endures, and must, like us, choose her mature identity. Whether we’re Young’s intended teen audience, or adults crushed by modernity, this book invites us to make our choices with her.

Monday, August 5, 2013

D.P. Lyle's Frenetic Forensic Roulette

D.P. Lyle, Run To Ground: a Dub Walker Thriller

Everyone knows Walter Whitiker killed young Steven Foster. But when an Alabama judge excludes damning evidence on a technicality, Whitiker gets three years on an ancillary charge, and gets out after nineteen months. When an assassin’s bullet fells Whitiker as he exits prison, forensic consultant Dub Walker knows he has a real whodunit. But he regrets taking the case when Steven’s grieving parents become prime suspects.

Doug Lyle’s third Dub Walker novel begins with an engaging reversal: an execrable victim and touchingly sympathetic suspects. Lyle quickly establishes Whitiker as a man of low character, bad associations, and revolting habits. Tim and Martha Foster, however, prove willing to bend conventions and break laws to see justice for their son. Frustratingly, that premise doesn’t translate into a plausible story.

Lyle creates interesting characters with sympathetic motivations. Dub Lyle has multiple specialties and boatloads of guilt. His closest allies are his best friend, homicide detective Thomas “T-Tommy” Tortelli, and his ex-wife, ace TV journalist Claire McBride. This trio brings their diverse skills and connections to bear on a case so emotionally loaded that nobody could possibly emerge unscathed.

But having created such worthwhile characters, Lyle forces them into a story of such surpassing silliness that I wonder if the author was perhaps sleepy. Lyle, a cardiologist and forensic consultant, has worked with police and Hollywood. Surely an author so skilled and experienced realizes his audience reads crime thrillers every day, and knows enough to call bullhockey when the story parts company with reality.

From page one, this book relies on readers’ willingness to believe that two suburban civilians with no criminal history could not only organize an assassination, but their own subsequent disappearance, without anyone noticing. They could somehow teach themselves sniper shooting from the Internet. They could launder $500,000 into cash without ringing bells at the FDIC, DEA, or the Fed. And they could do it in absolute secret.

Not only must readers believe this, so must the cops. Because they believe such unbelievable precepts, they permit their prime suspects one full day’s head start. When Dub and T-Tommy finally decide to pursue their real quarry, they grasp at straws so desperately that they lay themselves open to barefaced manipulation. Their investigation quickly devolves into a comedy of errors.

For instance, early in the investigation, Dub squanders valuable time interviewing Whitiker’s potential prison enemies while the real trail goes cold. Wait, they let an accused pedophile walk the yard openly? Maybe it’s different in Alabama, but in most states, “short eyes” go straight to Keepaway for their own protection. In GenPop, they’d have very short life expectancy.

Then, what PD would allow a consultant they haven’t formally hired yet to take point on a high-profile investigation, essentially using his cop buddy as armed muscle? Dub shows remarkable autonomy in opening doors, conducting semi-legal searches, directing interviews, and handling evidence. It almost looks like T-Tommy wants his case ejected on some technicality. Considering his open sympathy for his suspects, maybe he does.

I repeatedly wanted to grab Dub’s lapels and shout “Pull your head out!” He transcribes multiple circumstantial interviews in which people who knew the suspects say exactly the same things—exactly, sometimes verbatim. He could afford to paraphrase for us. Meanwhile, Dub and T-Tommy ignore a red herring campaign so blatant that I remember it from an episode of Law & Order: SVU. What academy did these guys graduate from?

If this weren’t bad enough, Lyle’s prejudices dribble through his prose. Police may follow false paths occasionally, he says, but they never arrest the innocent. Cops are justified in pushing, or covertly ignoring, the bounds of legality, because criminals have no rights. Defense attorneys deserve to be shot. Any judge who doesn’t carry water for the prosecution is “corrupt.”

This might have made me less squeamish before Edward Snowden pantsed the NSA.

Dub’s confluence of weird actions, amateurish oversights, and excessive narration make this book feel really, really long. Seasoned mystery readers will recognize what Dub misses and wonder why he appears so lackadaisical about a case that could inflame public sentiment. Sporadic readers will just wonder why he recounts every single interview, even the useless ones

I wanted to like this book. I continued despite its implausible story. I persevered even when lifting the book became a Sisyphean effort. Lyle crafted a narrator and ensemble who made me care about them. But that doesn’t offset a story so implausible that it would make me laugh if it didn’t make me cry.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Daniel Quinn on the Art of Waking Up

Daniel Quinn, Dreamer

Chicago freelance writer Greg Donner has chase dreams. Who doesn’t? But when he meets a beautiful, vivacious, terrified woman in his dreams, he wants more chase dreams. When he meets that real woman, Ginny Winters, in real life, he finds the boundary between wake and dream blurring. And when he awakens in a sanatorium, informed that Greg Donner was a dream, he can’t tell the difference any longer.

Daniel Quinn’s first novel appeared twenty-five years ago, won critics’ hearts, awakened buzz in science fiction circles—and vanished without a second printing. In the intervening years, it developed a simmering Internet following, and original paperbacks can fetch $300 on eBay, but no mainstream publisher would reprint it. So Quinn, now a guru to environmentalist and alternative spirituality circles, has brought his debut back himself.

Long before Inception or The Matrix, Quinn questioned reality’s frequently dreamlike qualities, and the frustratingly realistic nature of dreams. Greg Donner’s dreams are so realistic that parts of them become more desirable than his waking life. When the woman he knows in his dreams becomes appears in his workaday life, he has to wonder how effect could precede cause. Then a third reality intrudes, contradicting everything that came before.

Greg Donner is an iconic everyman, a workaday dude living one step removed from his aspirations. Writing has become an assembly line drudge, romance a trifling distraction. (It bears note that, in 1988, freelancing kept writers much more geographically chained: you can’t venture far from your most important tools, your landline phone and the public library.) His decent, undistinguished life offers security, but has long since lost its luster.

Ginny Winters, very beautiful and intensely passionate, offers to close the gap between Greg’s life and his ambitions. But when the initial whirlwind cools, Ginny’s passions prove to conceal truly epic baggage. You know how, in your dreams, every situation seems urgent, every choice carries world-shattering consequences, and everything turns on you? Ginny doesn’t have to fall asleep to visit that world. The Ginny Greg loves may not even exist.

Dreamer counts as science fiction only in the broadest possible sense, a speculation on the nature of comprehensible reality and the evidence of our senses. The contrast between the banality of Greg’s life and the excitement of his dreams, and the possibility that some outside force has upended this equilibrium, makes for darkly hypothetical philosophy. And Quinn dares ask: why do we just assume we’re awake?

Quinn’s protagonists occupy a twinned world, where dramatic dreams and banal reality quickly become fungible. Reality becomes a pass-through between two universes, and excessive autonomy in one earns harsh payback in the other, a dark karma of futility. As Greg and Ginny invest everything in increasingly precarious gambles, unsure which will pay off, readers become increasingly anxious to see how many layers of dream conceal reality.

Despite the science fiction veneer, Quinn raises very real questions. Greg passes between his freewheeling, freelancing life, and his imprisonment in a sanatorium, increasingly unable to tell which reality is “real.” In each state, he assumes the testimony of his senses has some external basis: that is, I know this world is real because I see it with my eyes. In each reality, he assumes the other is a dream.

Two years before Quinn published this, his first novel, American psychologist Charles Tart coined the term “consensus trance” in his book Waking Up. Each of us, Tart says, shuffles through live in a dreamlike state, little better than automatons programmed by society to behave in acceptable ways. Even when we are bodily awake, a dreaming fugue dominates our thoughts; we don’t question we’re awake because, fundamentally, we’re not.

Whether Quinn read Tart’s theories I cannot say. But this book embodies the fear that we cannot distinguish reality from a well-constructed simulacrum. Greg Donner’s spiral into powerlessness, and his struggle to pierce the façade and resist the forces blurring his reality, represent the struggle all of us should undertake, though too few do. We want Greg to defeat his rampaging dreams because, fundamentally, we want to wake up too.

Quinn offers a taut thriller questioning whether we truly know reality. He blends serious philosophy with a peculiar quest epic, a variant on Campbell’s heroic journey where the whole adventure occurs in one place. He successfully keeps readers guessing which reality owns Greg and Ginny, while asking whether we own our dreams, or they own us. He suggests no easy answers, but challenges us to ask better questions of ourselves.