Tuesday, 26 January 2016

I Have America Surrounded: The Life of Timothy Leary by John Higgs

It was flat out epic grandeur.
Now, I can claim no sincere, personal knowledge, no inspiration, or, in fact, any respect, grudging or otherwise, in, of, from or for Timothy Leary. Everyone knows of Tim Leary (even those of us who occasionally get him mixed up with foul-mouthed comic Denis Leary [whose comedy sadly now plays second fiddle to his roles as Diego in the Ice Age movies, an experience any recent parent might feel sympathy for]), and people cluck their tongues and stroke their beards and say, "Acid–what the fuck was that all about?" I haven't taken acid (that I've noticed, and I'm sure I would have done so), and my only flirtation with psilocybin ended in a fit of the giggles which, unsure as I am of the cause, may well have been because my friend thought he was high and was really very rude to our housemates, probably also because he decided his inhibitions were gone rather than because they were, and because he had a ready-made excuse for the morning after*. 

What I was delighted to find out, however, thanks to the hugely readable writing of John Higgs, was that Timothy Leary is directly responsible for Cardinal Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger becoming Pope Benedict XVI, and pretty much every other major cultural and sociological advance and breakthrough in American history post-1955.

What a guy!

I don't joke about these things [sarcasm klaxon], but as sarcasm is hard to detect in blog posts without a sarcasm klaxon to help, I want to make this abundantly clear. Higgs does actually make the connection between Leary and Benedict XVI. He states that because Ratzinger didn't take acid before, during or after the student uprisings in Germany in 1968, "...his understanding of [moral or metaphysical] relativism remained theoretical instead of empirical." Which meant that the church was able to dissuade a young doctoral student Ratzinger from pursuing the study of relativism, and instead become an advocate of absolutism, believing that there is one absolutely true version of the world, the universe and everything (and that is the way God made it) and not seven billion completely subjective worlds in existence at the same time, shaped by their creators's experiences and personal narratives. This was Leary's view, that each person inhabited his or her own 'reality tunnel'. Somehow, Higgs gets from this that because Leary was the LSD guy, Ratzinger became pope because of Leary. Up to this point, which is ridiculously far into the book, I had been on the cusp of buying into some of the Leary brain-washing, of going out and buying some God-awful German techno by Ash Ra Tempel, of tentatively seeking out someone with some 'good' acid and finding somewhere safe and warm to take a trip. But in retrospect, I should have noticed the very many times that Higgs lets his facade of objectivity and sociological curiosity slip and starts fawning over a man whose legend is clearly something of a graven image to the author. You want another one? Okay, he says that Republicans are represented as red and Democrats are blue on political maps because of Leary. Of course he prefaces this bombshell by using the passive "It has been suggested that..." but even then he goes on to say, "...there is no doubt that..." as if he has discovered incontrovertible evidence to support this hypothesis, but which he accidentally forgot to reference. 

So, can this sour apple really spoil the rest of this book? Yes, it can, but only for me and it shouldn't for anyone better read or more informed about the influence of the counter-culture on the development of American society after World War Two. I'm wilfully ignorant of most everything that I have not read in a novel, avoiding for the most part historical texts and anything resembling a factual television programme for dear life. Higgs might be right. Leary may have had the most profound of impact on our way of life, that psychedelia could have opened many doors for psychiatry, psychology, art, music and politics, but for me, this book is rendered another rock 'n' roll biography of one guy's hero, a man who, though intellectual, articulate and astute, and capable of great charisma, did fuck loads of drugs and fucked his way through the second half of the twentieth century. And all it took was the hint of hyperbole. You know what, maybe I should go find some acid.


*Not that, "Sorry, I'd taken a shit load of mushrooms I found growing in sheep crap," is really, in retrospect, much of an excuse for anything.

Friday, 15 January 2016

The Locktender's House by Steven Sherrill

When she felt brave enough, strong
enough, she'd name the mountain too.
Having now read three novels by Steven Sherrill, I'm beginning to suspect that he hit his zenith with The Minotaur Takes A Cigarette Break and it's all been a gentle wavy curve downwards thereafter. I don't recall much about Visits from the Drowned Girl other than I was disappointed, and sadly, I feel the same way about this one. 

It's basically another ghost story, one wherein the protagonist is haunted by her past in a generally tactile fashion. However, maybe she dreams, maybe she's remembering, or maybe she's remembering dreaming, or vice versa, and so on. Janice Witherspoon wakes up with a migraine to receive a call telling her that her boyfriend, the other half of a relationship of convenience and inertia, has been killed during his tour in the Middle East, and so she goes on the run from her life, winding up in a lock-keeper's house in Pennsylvania, miles, she thinks, from civilisation, a place to which she feels deep down in her bones she has some kind of connection. Cue disorientating dream/memory sequences, crows, goats, tiny bone armchairs and sleepwalking. Then she finds her closest neighbour is a handsome, recluse, stone-carving, older, naked-yoga-performing professor who is immeasurably kind and supportive up to the point where he thinks she's gone crazy when a ghost tries to drown her in the bathtub and she subsequently tries to rape him. 

When put like that it sounds like an entertaining read. At the end of the day it is what it is, and from reading the blurb and judging the content from the form, it's no more than what I expected, but as I say, I was gently disappointed that it wasn't something new and exciting from this tired old genre. He takes regular pot-shots at the military, there's paragraphs about banjoes and dulcimers, of interest to someone who can't play either but pretends he can; there are some passages of marked beauty, some sentences that are worth re-reading, but at the close of play, it's all pretty formulaic and predictable, and frankly it takes chuffing ages to get to the point. Day follows crushingly repetitive day. Janice wanders too and fro telling us she'll leave and deciding to stay. And she spends far too many nights in the shed having rough sex with a dead nursemaid. Plus, everyone dies including a crow and a dog. I found myself huffing and sighing in discomfiting boredom throughout.

In conclusion, I'm not sorry I read it, but I am sorry I was disappointed, and to be honest, it might be third-novel syndrome. However I shan't be shying away from novel four, Joy, PA,  which anyone with access to my Amazon Wishlist (ignore the mass-market movies...) might like to purchase for me (just saying). Anyway, just how do you follow on from a character like M? Oh, that's right, by writing another one...

Monday, 11 January 2016

So You've Been Publically Shamed by Jon Ronson

The snowflake never needs to
feel responsible for the avalanche.
I've a lot of time for Jon Ronson. I've followed him on and off through the years, and have fostered an illusory sense of connection going back to a book signing many years ago which, as I'm sure you're all aware, I mentioned previously.  His questioning mind and latent anxiety mix potently and humorously, and his writing plays off between the self-revelatory and the investigative, given he himself features in it so heavily. Nonetheless, the image I have of him is of a nice guy, doing a difficult job and putting himself in the line of fire. As such, this book starts with him realising there had been created a spam-bot (sorry, an infomorph) on Twitter which was, in the terms of it's creators, "repurposing social media data into an infomorphic aesthetic." When he asked for it to be shut, it led to a conversation about Brand Jon Ronson and key questions of identity and positioning in public fora. It also led to a very entertaining YouTube video, linked to below, of the conversation he had with its creators. I'll wait while you have a watch. Might get myself a cup of tea. See you in 12 minutes and 9 seconds, okay?



Lovely. Where was I? Oh yes, the faux-naif (thanks Wikipedia) Ronson, nervous and shrill, is very annoyed by it all until he starts reading the messages under the video. There are calls for various punishments and penances including some that go to extremes, and Ronson gets a little swept up in righteous fury, exalting as the trio of numpties finally do shut the infomorph down. He marvels at the power of social media to get the job done.

But then we head off into the curious cases of famous social media shaming–Jonah Lehrer and his plagiarism, Justine Sacco and her questionable sense of humour–and his assumption that social media has the power to right wrongs is seriously questioned. He goes back to consider public lynchings and pillorying, and asks whether shame, at least on this scale, is a good thing.

He talks to a judge who uses shame to combat recidivism in his state, visits a porn shoot to consider what is for all intents an purposes a shameless industry, tries to work out why some people escape a shaming intact (or as in Max Moseley's case, in even better shape than before) and why others are ruined almost beyond hope. He talks to the members of 4chan, a powerful underground bulletin board where young, disenfranchised web users seek to combat their own entrenched powerlessness by launching campaigns against people they consider to have escaped from justice, and he talks to psychologists whose pioneering approaches to prison reform had some startlingly positive results. He asks why shame is so powerful and what happens to turn good, kind, friendly people, himself included, into braying maniacs once they log-in to their Twitter accounts. 

As always with these things, the journey is what's important. Following him through the adventure of discovery is very entertaining, in parts shocking and in others frankly hilarious. His conclusion is cautionary - that while social media creates a new battleground in the pursuit of civil rights and the combatting of injustice, it also gives a platform for sickness and arbitrary rage to broadcast itself into your life. And he worries that the illness might overwhelm the patient, that in order to avoid the shame of having a contrary opinion, we will all whitewash our online personae until beige homogeny rules–no doubt hyperbole, but it does happen. Ronson invites the reader to draw their own personal conclusions from the evidence he presents, given he himself is conflicted about the value of public shaming, and also to consider standing up for someone in the full harsh beam of public shaming. Who knows, next time it might be you.


Sunday, 10 January 2016

The Palace of Dreams by Ismail Kadare

Anyone who ruled over the dark zones
of men's lives wielded enormous power.
In the heart of the Empire stands the Tabir Sarrail, terrifying and enigmatic, a threat, a curse, a blessing, a shadow, its only purpose to analyse the dreams of the millions of people living dispersed across the length and breadth of the land–The Palace of Dreams. Faceless, labyrinthian, shrouded in mystery, its veil is nonetheless pierced momentarily by young Mark-Alem, a member of a pugnacious and powerful old Albanian family by marriage, whose countenance and comportment 'suits' the ministry, and as a result he is offered a job in Selection. Thus begins his initiation into the art of reading the dreams of an Empire.

It's hard to miss the symbolism, given the long prominently placed quote on the front from Richard Eder, book critic for Newsday proudly noting the assertion that this is an allegory of power, and the unsettlingly, threateningly dark reproduction of Arnold B√∂cklin's Die Toteninsel on the cover. Yes, this is a book that deals with the state's desire to police the minds of its citizens, to weed out potential unrest and deal with insidious threats, to oppress and control those it should protect and serve. It is none too subtle either. But at the heart of the allegory is a young man whose days of drifting and day-dreaming must finally come to an end, that he must put away his childish things and hunker down in a proper job, one that is selected for him by the patriarchal elders of his family in an act that smacks of hidden agendas. As he joins the faceless ranks of the desk-jockeys, unsure of his role, ill-prepared for the mental strain and endless boredom of cold offices, hard chairs, long hours, short breaks, his life changes shape, his mind shifts to accept his fate and his old life loses the colours of happy freedom to be replaced by the intoxicating fogginess of routine, fumes from coal braziers and narrow, blinkered focus bordering on the myopic, literally, as he pores over page after page of recorded dreams. In that respect, it's an allegory of the futility of the pursuit of a career which leaves one no time for anything but work and sleep. It's modern life with a disturbing and Orwellian veneer, defamiliarized as only the Europeans like Ferenc Karinthy (Metropole) know how. Even as Mark-Alem works his way up the hierarchy, his colleagues and superiors, soon to be subordinates, are stricken with fear, paranoia and impotence, all of which find comfortable perches in Mark-Alem himself, particularly as the cultural philanthropy of his uncle Kurt backfires on the family and Kurt himself is arrested and summarily executed, all for having the temerity to bring in Albanian rhapsodists to sing an Albanian version of an oral epic that mentions the family name.

What I find Kadare does particularly well, compared to some others, is in the clothing of his characters, essentially mere allegorical devices, or rather receptacles of the arbitrariness of injustice, in the cloak of humanity. Mark-Alee, who considers the pride and problems he might face in adopting a name more in keeping with his great Albanian ancestry, is a pawn, and he suspects as much. He is tortured by his inability to know what to do, is one moment burning with shame and another crying with relief as he oscillates between extremes of indecision, and even in his final lofty position as Director of the Ministry, his powerlessness leaves him tearful as he rides through the city in his carriage imagining the day when men will come to arrest, imprison and execute him too. It is a masterfully crafted novel.