Thursday, September 29, 2022

Everything Bad is Good For You by Steven Johnson

Source of book: Borrowed from the library


Tell me if you have heard this before:


“Pop culture keeps getting more and more stupid.”

“It’s a race to the bottom.”

“Things were so much better in the past.”


Yeah, me too. 


The thing is, that is completely wrong.


I have read a few books that touch on this theme over the years. Steven Pinker’s outstanding deep look at historical violence, The Better Angels of Our Nature, examined the evidence that violence has dramatically declined over time. Frank Kermode examined why human nature tends to believe in a golden past and a decadent present (as well as a future apocalypse and return of the golden age) in The Sense of An Ending. You can see it in many other areas too. While history isn’t a straight line, we are living in a far more humane present than the supposedly glorious past. 


But, even among those who believe in a notion of progress, it seems to be taken as unquestionably true that pop culture is more stupid than it used to be. 


This too, however, does not stand up to the actual evidence. 


What has happened is that culture has changed. Which it always has done. And along with change, there has always been whining about cultural decline. Always, as in “from the first time people wrote stuff down, they whined about the next generation and its trash culture.” 


Kermode has a pretty good take on some of the issues, but I think that an easy way to understand the phenomenon is that when we remember the past, we remember the good and great stuff. There are two ways this works. First is the way we remember things from our childhood as wonderful and amazing and super. Many of those things - movies or shows we loved - haven’t aged as well as we thought they would. I can think of a few that were a lot of fun at age 5, but are unwatchable now. 


The other way this works, though, is that we remember the good stuff, and forget the dreck. Most English-speakers are familiar with Charles Dickens, for example. Great writer (although flawed), had a fairly large following for his time (although by percentages, it was still a really elitist phenomenon - by modern standards, he would have a very niche audience), wrote arguably the best story of all time. But how many remember the “penny dreadfuls,” or the preachy dreck that passed for children’s literature in the Victorian Era? And let’s not think too much about Elsie Dinsmore. And so it has been for any era. Most of the trash exists in its moment, then disappears from memory. And thus we forget it, and remember only the best of what was. 


The end result of this is that usually, when someone talks about how bad culture is compared to the past, they compare the best of the past to the worst of the present. Naturally, the present doesn’t come off too well. As Johnson puts it, the relevant comparison is not between Joe Millionaire and M*A*S*H; it is between Joe Millionaire and The Price is Right. 


I learned a new name from this book: Marshall McLuhan. Apparently, he was popular among the intelligentsia back in the day. He gets a quote at the beginning of the first part, and, I think he nails it. 


“The student of media soon comes to expect the new media of any period whatever to be classed as pseudo by those who acquired the patterns of earlier media, whatever they may happen to be.”


That is the phenomenon I mentioned at the start of this post. The way each generation looks down on the next generation’s form of culture and media. 


Steven Johnson takes an interesting approach to this idea, and starts looking at empirical evidence. In the first half of the book, he examines pop culture - television, video games, movies, the internet, etc. - and looks for signifiers of complexity. He makes a great case that in all of these areas, the complexity level has gone way up - and “difficult” media are more popular than ever. In the second, he looks at specific measures of intelligence that appear to be affected by this increased complexity, and shows that it has been increasing over time. 


Whether or not you find Johnson’s argument convincing as to his claim that pop culture has actually made humans measurably smarter, he makes a solid case that the claim that culture has gotten stupider is just straight up balderdash. 


Johnson starts the book with a story that I found intriguing. He describes a complex baseball simulation game he used to play - the American Professional Baseball Association. This game was played using cards with conversions of stats to represent every skill level for every player. It was incredibly complex, and sounds like a real slog to play. 


Except that my brother and I kind of did, as kids. Not exactly - we didn’t have a commercial game, and what we played wasn’t that complex. Instead, we ourselves invented a simpler version that used dice and stats. We were, I believe, in 5th and 7th grade at the time. And yes, it was a slog to play, yet we enjoyed it and spent hours at it. 


This sets up one of Johnson’s key assertions - and I think that he is 100 percent correct:


Human nature is NOT to seek the lowest common denominator for entertainment. Rather, humans seek challenges and new experiences. 


This book is, ultimately, the story of how the kind of thinking I was doing on my bedroom floor became an everyday component of mass entertainment. It is the story of how systems analysis, probability theory, pattern recognition, and - amazingly enough - old-fashioned patience became indispensable tools for anyone trying to make sense of modern pop culture. Because the truth is my solitary obsession with modeling complex simulations is now ordinary behavior for most consumers of digital age entertainment. 


For decades, we’ve worked under the assumption that mass culture follows a steadily declining path toward lowest-common-denominator standards, presumably because the “masses” want dumb, simple pleasures and big media companies want to give the masses what they want. But in fact, the opposite is happening: the culture is getting more intellectually demanding, not less.


Watching my kids and their friends in action over the last two decades, I understand what Johnson means. The kids can keep complex worlds in their heads, solve pattern problems quickly, and are able to think at a level of nuance that I have only rarely found among my parents’ generation. (And I think this is directly related to the way their era of television demanded little thought, and reduced everything to black-and-white thinking.) 


Speaking of which, there is a passage in the section on television that really made sense. In it, Johnson describes the use of “flashing arrows,” cues that tell the viewer things about what is going on. In the movie Student Bodies, a slasher parody, these are literally flashing arrows saying things like “door unlocked” or “bad guy.” This is an exaggeration for humor, of course, but Johnson notes that these cues are everywhere in the first few generations of television and movies. Things are spelled out for the viewer, and are usually not subtle. The label of “bad guy” and “good guy” are particularly in use at all times. (This still happens, of course - there is still terrible television like copaganda shows, for example, with oversimplistic thinking and lots of flashing arrows.) 


This got me thinking about the way that modern politics (particularly on the right) have manipulated those raised on this sort of television. A demagogue like Trump simply taps into the flashing arrows people already expect to see. These people are bad, these people are good. We are the good people. They are the bad people. See that flashing arrow? I think this is one element of the appeal to certain demographics - the techniques of my parents’ generation of television are so ingrained as to be useful tools for preventing careful thought and empathy. 


I should confess here that I am not much of a watcher of television or movies, and I never did get into any video games that required hand-eye coordination. I did, however, enjoy the brain games - particularly SimCity, which gets a few mentions here as one of the first games where learning complex systems in an open-ended way was the whole point of the game. (It also played a role in my eventual rejection of right-wing economic theories - clearly taxes and public infrastructure were necessary. And you couldn’t just build more police stations if you didn’t address the other causes of crime.) 


Because of my lack of TV watching, I didn’t have the background knowledge for some of his show discussions (although his summaries are excellent and helpful), but I was able to understand his analogies to other media. I liked his comparison of a Seinfeld plot where the scenes are played in a backwards chronology to a Harold Pinter play. 


Another thing Johnson says that makes sense is that past media tended to have fixed rules that everyone understood. Now, the rules aren’t clear, but are discovered as you play the game, so to speak. The difference between Pac Man and Myst, or between Wheel of Fortune and Chopped. I have noticed this with my kids too - as Johnson notes later in the book, they do not need a manual to figure out how to program the streaming device or other electronic stuff. They instinctively know how to learn a new set of rules, even unintuitive ones. They have been trained to figure the rules out as they go. 


Another fascinating observation is that modern media makes greater demands on emotional intelligence. Reality shows, for example, are not about solving puzzles so much as they are about navigating complex social situations. One of the ongoing arguments over homeschooling is “socialization” - and I think this is where the weakness can tend to be. It is one thing to exist in a family or small group, but learning how to navigate larger social systems is an important skill. I think that there is a genuine risk if children (or adults) exist in a small bubble of similar people. Which is what happens in some homeschooling subcultures. My own experience was different: we had neighborhood kids over all the time, and participated in extracurricular activities across a fairly broad range of groups. We were not sheltered in that sense, but had opportunities to see different group dynamics. I do like Johnson’s thoughts on emotion and intellect. 


Television turns out to be a brilliant medium for assessing other people’s emotional intelligence or AQ - a property that is too often ignored when critics evaluate the medium’s carrying capacity for thoughtful content. Part of this neglect stems from the age-old opposition between intelligence and emotion: intelligence is following a chess match or imparting a sophisticated rhetorical argument on a matter of public policy; emotions are the province of soap operas. But countless studies have demonstrated the pivotal role that emotional intelligence plays in seemingly high-minded areas: business, law, politics. Any profession that involves regular interaction with other people will place a high premium on mind reading and emotional IQ. 


And also this:


[L]ike many forms of emotional intelligence, the ability to analyze and recall the full range of social relationships in a large group is just as reliable a predictor of professional success as your SAT scores or your college grades. Thanks to our biological and cultural heritage, we live in large bands of interacting humans, and people whose minds are skilled at visualizing all the relationships in those bands are likely to thrive, while those whose minds have difficulty keeping track are invariably handicapped. 


I also liked Johnson’s discussion of IQ tests. He starts by dealing with the obvious issue: the tests are biased toward those with certain cultural and educational backgrounds. For Johnson, this means that tests are of little value in making comparisons between different demographic groups. There are differences in both genes and environments, so drawing conclusions about genes often ignores the environments. 


In contrast, Johnson believes that there is value in IQ tests when used for comparisons of the same population. The test scores are adjusted so that 100 represents average intelligence. In order to keep this the case, the scores have to be “scaled.” And over time, this means that raw scores have risen even as the numerical scores by definition remain the same. 


Or, simply put, scores are going up. People are getting smarter, at least the way the tests measure intelligence. (Johnson further notes that the big increase in scores is in areas that would seem to be related to the increased complexity in media - that discussion is too long for this post.) 


For Johnson, the key takeaway from this is that, since the gene pool has stayed the same, it isn’t the genes causing the increase - it is the environment. Furthermore, since academic test scores are not going up at that rate, it is unlikely that it is formal schooling which is getting better. More likely, it is something elsewhere in the culture. The education is occurring outside the classroom. 


It certainly is an interesting thought. I will end with this one, which I think is the most true assertion in the book, the one that debunks the myth of declining intelligence. 


The Brave New World critics like to talk a big game about the evils of media conglomerates, but their worldview also contains a strikingly pessimistic vision of the human mind. I think that dark assumption about our innate cravings for junk culture has it exactly backwards. We know from neuroscience that the brain has dedicated systems that respond to - and seek out - new challenges and experiences. We are a problem-solving species, and when we confront situations where information needs to be filled in, or where a puzzle needs to be untangled, our minds compulsively ruminate on the problem until we’ve figured it out. 


I should mention that this book was published in 2005, so it isn’t exactly up to the present on shows and movies and stuff, but I think the trends he describes have continued, even if the specifics are now different. And the kids are even better at the electronics than he expected. 




My teens and I have enjoyed a few other Steven Johnson books over the years. Here is the list:


The Ghost Map

How We Got to Now

Where Good Ideas Come From


Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Holes by Louis Sachar

Source of book: Audiobook from the library

I remember back when this book came out in 1998 because it caused a bit of an uproar, and became the target of book banners. Whatever the haters may have thought, the book won a Newbery and was made into a movie, so I think it did all right for itself. 


I also remember that within the Fundamentalist Evangelical Homeschool subculture, there was some controversy. Obviously, there were the book banning sorts, but I recall that World Magazine actually thought the book had its merits. In other words, the thoughtful sorts liked it, while the reactionary sorts hated it. 


I didn’t read it back then, though. Heck, I was in my early 20s, and wasn’t reading much in the way of kid books - I ended up catching up later with my own kids. I had this one on the list, but moved it up when my brother mentioned that he and his kids enjoyed it. That was a solid recommendation. 


We grabbed the audiobook for our most recent camping trip - the Dark Sky Festival at Sequoia National Park - which mostly worked out. The only issue we had was that the disks had been a bit beat up, and we had to fill in a few blanks in the last chapter where it skipped. Oh, and I thought the overall volume level for this one was too low, making it a bit difficult to hear Kerry Beyer’s otherwise excellent narration difficult to hear during quiet parts. 


Having listened to the book, I can say that it was different than I was expecting. Not in a bad way, to be sure, but it went a different direction. I can also see why Fundies would hate it: it treats juvenile offenders as humans, not subhuman criminal animals. And this includes those who are guilty of theft and other crimes. Horrors, of course - can’t have sympathy for “bad” people, no matter what that Jesus Christ dude said. Particularly if some of those “bad” people are black. Also predictable was that the Fundies would hate it’s portrayal of adult authority as unreliable and even sinister. (This was, in my opinion, the main problem Fundies had and have with Harry Potter - the “witchcraft” claim is the easy cover for their visceral reaction to the idea that [their kind of] authorities cannot be trusted.) 


One of the unexpected things about this book was that I expected it to be more or less realistic. It is very much not, and is not intended to be. Sure, there is a bit of the real world, but this is a book about generational curses, buried treasure, magic onions, fictional deadly lizards, and crazy Texas correctional camps that are run by abusers. Ooops, my bad. The last one is actually the most realistic part of the book. 


Young Stanley Yelnats is sent to Camp Green Lake after he is wrongfully accused of stealing celebrity sneakers from a fundraiser. As with many juveniles from impoverished backgrounds, he is railroaded through (before his parents are able to afford a lawyer who determines what actually happened.) 


The camp turns out to be in the middle of nowhere, where it hasn’t rained in over 100 years, and the boys are required to dig giant holes in the middle of the dry lake bed. (5 feet in diameter and 5 feet deep, one hole per day.) 


Before too long, though, Stanley realizes that things are not what they seem. The warden (a woman with some, um, interesting personality traits) seems to be searching for some sort of a treasure, using the free labor of her charges. 


Oh, but there is more! As we find out, Stanley’s family has a curse, which was placed on his “pig stealing great great grandfather” back in Lithuania after he welched out on a promise to carry a gypsy woman up a mountain. The bad luck has followed his family ever since - including that time his great grandfather was robbed of all his fortune by the notorious outlaw Kissing Kate. 


And, speaking of Kissing Kate, what was her story? As we find out in another parallel thread, it involves a forbidden interracial relationship, a lynching, and another curse. And it all started back when there actually was a lake at Camp Green Lake. 


So yeah, lots of connected, somewhat implausible threads. Think of it as a modern fairy tale. Complete with the deadly (and completely fictional) Yellow-spotted Lizards whose bite means sure death. And, those magic onions. 


We did find it to be an enjoyable book. It is pretty funny, but also serious in many ways, dealing as it does with racism and injustice, homelessness, and the role of luck and circumstance in outcomes. Many of the most thought-provoking moments are unexpected. For example, when Stanley agrees to help Hector Zeroni (aka “Zero”) learn to read, and Zero insists on making an exchange of labor, it ends up in a mess because of the historical/racial associations and the way they affect the other boys. Sachar doesn’t give an easy out here either. Everyone is, at some level, right. It does look bad, it seems unfair at some level. And yet Zero is right that he doesn’t want or need charity, and thus Stanley is right to accept the reciprocity rather than be a “white savior.” Rather than resolve this, Sachar instead pivots in a totally different direction with the plot, and Stanley and Zero are able to forge a lasting friendship on a different basis. 


I’d definitely give this book a try - it isn’t entirely like anything else, and draws you in like a good fantasy should. 




Thursday, September 22, 2022

My Ex-Life by Stephen McCauley

Source of book: Borrowed from the library


This book is one that I never expected I would read. I sure doesn’t sound like my sort of book, on the surface at least. Let’s look at the issues:


Social lives of upper-middle-class white people from New England? Eh, not really my cup of tea.

Relationship drama, involving an ex-wife, another divorce, and a teen going bad? I get that at work already. 

College application counselors? Eh. 

AirBNB drama? What even is that?

Gay culture in San Francisco? Maybe I guess? 

Lots of irony, detachment, and snark? It can get old pretty quickly.


But then, I discovered this book via NPR, when the author gave an interview, and he made his book sound actually interesting. I put it on my list, and gave it a try. 


And, despite the potential issues, I actually really liked this book. 


McCauley based the premise of the book on a series of conversations he had with other members of his gay men’s running group. While he himself came out in college, a number of his friends took a while to realize that what they felt for women wasn’t sexual or romantic. And, by this time, they had wives, and sometimes kids. This used to happen a lot, by the way. Back when even secular sorts tended to look at LGBTQ+ people with suspicion, coming out was a tough thing, tougher than it is now (although in some families, it is still unthinkable.) As McCauley notes, it isn’t that hard to mistake other positive attractions - friendship, admiration, affinity, emotional intimacy - for romantic love, particularly if you deeply want to be in a heterosexual family. It can even work for a while, but tends to fall apart. 


So, the setup: David and Julie were married years ago, briefly. She got pregnant, but lost the pregnancy. Soon afterward, David has a relationship with the husband of one of their friends, and both he and she have an epiphany about his true self. They divorce, and love on opposite coasts for two decades. Meanwhile, Julie remarries, and has a daughter, Mandie. But, things don’t work out there either. Julie is divorcing again, Mandie is struggling for motivation to apply for college, David is losing his lease in San Francisco, and, well, things take a turn nobody expected. 


Since David’s job is as a “college application counselor,” it is easy for Julie to call him up to help out. He flies out to New England, and, well, they kind of become a family again, in a way. 


So, can David also find a way to scrape together enough funds to cash Julie’s soon to be ex husband out of the house? Can David get through to Mandie? And what about the neighborhood feud over AirBNB rentals? 


Yeah, on paper, that sounds kind of boring. But it isn’t, at least the way McCauley writes it. 


A good part of the charm in this book is the self-deprecating humor. David is very much a stand-in for the author, with his OCD-level organizing, his dismay at his aging body, his weakness for Thai takeout, and his particular way of being gay. McCauley pokes fun at himself, I mean David, for a lot of the book, and David’s inner thought world is delightful. (The book switches points of view throughout, between David, Julie, and Mandie. It is in third-person throughout, though: just the perspective changes. Also, was this a linear narrative? How did that sneak past the editors?) 


The same applies to McCauley’s satirical look at a certain sort of bourgeois gay culture. It really is funny, but it doesn’t feel mean-spirited at all, unlike the sort of vicious anti-gay humor that is still all too prevalent. It is definitely the difference between outsiders laughing, and insiders giving a bit of a wink. 


Also in for a laugh is the world of competitive college entrance essay writing. David is good at what he does, but the occasional stories about his clients are wicked funny. For what it is worth, my kids are starting out at the local community college, rather than trying for status with a big-name school. It seems to all of us like a better investment, particularly since the majors they want are readily available from state schools. I also think that this would be a better destination for Mandie, given her lack of motivation and the tight funds, post-divorce. 


One of the things that struck me about the book was how ordinary everything was. Notwithstanding a bit of a deux ex machina at the end, everything that happens is just mundane and everyday. Not that much “happens,” in the dramatic sense. Both the conflicts and the resolutions are mild, and the sort that we can all imagine in our own lives. The drama level is almost surprisingly low - these are not high drama people generally. 


I wrote down quite a few lines, and I hope that these will work out of the context of the book. Other lines, I skipped, as much as I loved them, because context was everything. Despite the ironic tone, the writing is good in a simple and understated way. One might even call it “tasteful.” 


David wasn’t good at making money with money, and he was suspicious of people who were, especially when they did it with other people’s money, an activity equated with plagiarism. 


Or this one:


Men’s obsessions with their own masculinity were embarrassingly effeminate.


True that. If you have to obsess about it, maybe you are proving you don’t have it. Kind of like the enormous brodozer in our neighborhood a few years back, with a huge “size matters” sticker on the back window. Some people feel compelled to advertise their, um, shortcomings. 


There are certain things in life you must expect to pay for - electricity, dry cleaning, sushi. Past the age of fifty, a younger lover with a perfect ass must, realistically, be added to the list. 


Some of the comments on American culture are pretty witty too. This pretty much explains my difficulties in even making small talk with right wingers these days. 


Last winter had been mild, but complaining about New England winters was the only truly safe topic of conversation with guests. Accurate or not, it offended no one. Accuracy was beside the point lately anyway. Among a certain segment of the population, acknowledging the existence of scientific data was considered unpatriotic, akin to acknowledging the existence of gun violence unless perpetrated by Muslims or racism that didn’t involve a white person losing a job to a person of color.


I also loved the depiction of Julie’s narcissistic mother, and the decades of passive-aggressive letters. One particularly good line:


“I feel terrible your learning disability wasn’t diagnosed earlier,” her mother had written. “We took you to many specialists, but of course in those days, there was considerably less literature on the matter. If there had been, you might have been able to pursue the academic career your father and I had always planned for you instead of the roundelay of sad marriages and pointless drifting that your life has been. And just to reassure you, darling, we were always proud of the way we accepted the reality of who you are, even though it was so far from what we had hoped.” 


Ouch. The thing is, that is only a very slight bit over the top. That last line, in particular, hits a bit close to home. Kind of the thing that wasn’t entirely said, but still made clear, about how my mom felt about my wife. And about how she dealt with her own disappointment at who Amanda was, and how far she was from the dream. 


A truly fascinating discussion in the book is about the nature of David and Julie’s relationship. He is staying in a room of her home, and they seem in some ways still like a couple. The things that were good during their marriage still are. Sure, sex is off the table, but…


“They’ll probably assume we’re a couple. And by their standards, we are. Most of them brag about sleeping in different rooms and not having had sex since the nineties.”


That’s a zinger. And, I do tend to wonder, might it be true in certain circles particularly? There are plenty of reasons to stay married in such a situation, as long as both parties are okay with either celibacy or an open relationship. I’m no expert, but I suspect this goes on in upper-middle-class more than you think. There is another scene, later in the book, that muses on the idea that later in marriage, either you kept sex going on a weekly basis, or you stop. “The middle ground of fucking twice a year was grotesque.”  


There is a description of two women at this cocktail party they go to. They have husbands, but the friendship is longstanding and has its own relationship dynamic.  


Maureen and Sheila had an established routine of quips and mild insults, one more dominant, the other the more frequent butt of jokes. All couples start off as Romeo and Juliet and end up as Laurel and Hardy.


Speaking of snark, there is a couple staying at Julie’s (under the table) AirBNB, who take pictures of dishes at the local restaurants, and make snide comments about it. 


A mound of cottage cheese, a slab of steamed fish, a ball of mashed potatoes. “It’s all the same color,” Helene had said incredulously several times. “No color at all. Do you think they do it on purpose? Maybe it’s an art project?”


The people who drift through the AirBNB throughout the book are interesting, even if they only get a mention. Particularly sad is the old woman who is “visiting” her son and his family. Because they see each other only briefly and a few times over the week she is there, before she suffers a stroke. We never learn enough about her to know why there is a semi-estrangement, but whatever the cause, there is sadness in her loneliness. 


One of the pivotal scenes in the book - even though next to nothing happens - is when Julie and David have Julie’s ex and his new girlfriend over for dinner. In the run-up, David sorts through his impressions of Henry, including the question as to whether he is homophobic or not. This leads to a bit on David’s brother, who, while not openly homophobic, essentially considers heterosexual happiness as somehow more worthwhile than homosexual happiness. I think for a lot of pre-Trump conservatives, this was kind of the default. (Now, of course, open hostility is back on the table…) I thought this passage was interesting. 


He was familiar with this type of man, since many of the successful fathers who hired him fell into that category. It wasn’t that they believed he shouldn’t have the same civil rights as everyone else, it was just that their body language and mildly condescending gazes conveyed the impression that they considered themselves inherently superior. They didn’t want you to be unhappy, they were just convinced that in the grand scheme of things, your homosexual happiness counted for less than their heterosexual joy. David’s brother, Decker, was one of these: he was fine with the fact that David had the right to vote, he just thought David should have the decency not to exercise it.

It was a question of masculinity, of course, but this made no sense to David since he’d come to believe that the libidinous excesses of gay men expressed male desire in its purest form. This made them more genuinely masculine than their heterosexual counterparts, even if they sometimes went overboard with eyebrow-shaping and mid-century sofas.


And, in the same context:


Among the many hypocrisies of the “religious” was the fact that they viewed god as omnipotent, but treated him like a ventriloquist’s dummy by putting their words and crackpot beliefs, prejudices, and unfounded biases into His mouth whenever it suited their purposes.


Whether Henry is like this is an open question - he seems mostly like the sort of person he is - he works in investments. Yeah, fill in the blanks for yourself. McCauley gets a bit of a dig in at Henry’s new girl, Carol, who is one of those “fitness cult” sorts. 


In the living room, Carol was explaining to Julie the particulars of her Fitbit. It calculated steps and calories and heartbeats and other statistical information that was essentially meaningless to anyone, even Carol. Americans were increasingly addicted to information, especially when it could be used in support of opinions that were inaccurately described as facts. David supposed that the numbers spit out by the device on Carol’s wrist supported her obsessive need for exercise, a neurosis masked as a virtue. Julie was listening with rapt fascination, not, David knew, because she was interested in the details but because she was astonished that Carol was. 


Of the gay culture snark, here is my favorite:


Renata had also sent a photo of the couple renting the apartment, a dour pair that were a cross between an urban, homosexual American Gothic type and a couple of elderly priests impatiently waiting for cocktail hour.


That, and the scenes with Kenneth, the only other gay guy in town, apparently. The lovely thing about the book in this regard is its casual centering of the story around the gay protagonist in a way that brings out the ordinariness of gay existence. It is like the sort of book that just treats, say, African Americans as ordinary people in their own lives, rather than letting injustice be the center. (Nothing wrong with civil-rights oriented books, of course, but the normalization is important too, and wonderful to see more of these days.) 


Renata, the real estate agent, is pretty funny, although she wouldn’t see it that way. I do think this line is particularly good. 


“We didn’t have vegans when I was your age, dear. We had macrobiotics. I don’t know where they all went. We didn’t have gluten intolerance, either. We had hypoglycemia. I’ll bet you’ve never heard of that.”


Oh yes, I remember the 1980s and the health trends back then. One reason I never went for the whole “everyone is gluten intolerant” nonsense. Been there, done that, got the shits from enough diets over the years. 


The subplot of Mandie is interesting. She gets caught up in an an “OnlyFans” sort of thing, but much more dodgy. McCauley said he based the subplot on the experience of a daughter of a friend, which is why it seems quite plausible. The most important takeaway, of course, is that teens should absolutely avoid older men. This would be the most important sex advice I would give my kids. Date someone your own age or close. And a decade is not close. 


Before she leaves for her last year of high school (at a different school in a different town, after all the fallout from things), she slips her completed college essay under Julie’s pillow. The essay isn’t important, although it is interesting. What is important is this:


She imagined her mother reading it that night when she got into bed. She thought probably she should say all this to her face, but her mother was so hurt and disappointed, it was hard to say anything to her. And sometimes it was good to commit things to paper. 


And this is the thing, despite the snark and the irony and the satire, at the core, this is a bit of an old-fashioned positive book. It harkens back to a time of problems that could be solved with a bit of love and understanding, and the idea that family matters. The modern twist - if it even is modern - is that we aren’t talking about the 1950s nuclear suburban family. Instead, this is an extended family structure, with exes and new partners, with different sexualities and personality styles. But still, a shared commitment that everyone - David, Julie, Henry, and Carol - and also some neighbors and friends and…the village, one might say - that cares enough about each other and about Mandie to find ways to make things work. 


As I said at the outset, nothing about the surface of this book would have seemed like my kind of thing. But it actually worked, and I rather enjoyed it. 


Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Young Mungo by Douglas Stuart

Source of book: Borrowed from the library


This was this month’s selection for our “Literary Lush” book club. One of the things I enjoy about this club is that I end up reading interesting books that I never would have discovered on my own. This book was one I would never have picked up for myself, but one of our members liked it and others by the same author.


Douglas Stuart grew up in poverty in Glasgow, Scotland, in a situation very much like that presented in the book. He managed to escape, studying textiles (since is teacher discouraged “someone with his background” from majoring in English Literature), and eventually worked in fashion design for a number of well-known brands. Writing came to him later. His debut, Shuggie Bain, came out in 2020, when he was in his mid-40s. Young Mungo is his second novel.


Both books have autobiographical elements to them. Stuart was raised by an alcoholic single mother after his dad abandoned the family. His mom died of alcoholism when he was 16, and he ended up in a boarding house before managing to enroll in college. Like Mungo in this book, he was the youngest of three children, and struggled to survive as a young gay boy in a deeply homophobic and violent culture. 


At the risk of spoilers, the basic plot of the book - which is told non-linearly, like most books these days - is that Mungo’s mother abandons the family to go shack up with a man who doesn’t know she has children. The family is held together by the daughter (the middle child) who is working and planning to go to college. Mungo meets and falls in love with James, a slightly older boy who keeps doves. The problem is - okay, ONE of many problems - is that James is Catholic, while Mungo’s older brother Hamish, is the leader of a Protestant street gang. 


When Mungo and James are found out, Hamish tries to kill James, and Mungo is sent off by his mother on a “camping and fishing” trip with two questionable characters she just met at the AA meeting. Unsurprisingly, they turn out to be convicted child molesters who rape Mungo. He has to figure out how to escape, and how to hope for a better future than the one he sees before him. 


And yes, the book is mostly as dark as that sounds. It has a lot of violence, some disgusting (although not graphic) sex, the rapes, an abortion, and a painful level of individual, family, and social dysfunction. There is some humor too, but it is rare. There is also a wonderfully tender account of the budding relationship between Mungo and James. It feels so real and awkward and innocent: young love between two sensitive and badly hurt boys, whose love isn’t merely frowned upon, but still criminalized in the UK at that time. 


I have to wonder how much of the book connects directly to Stuart’s experiences, and how much was on just the emotional level. If he went through everything Mungo does in the book, that’s pretty horrifying, and it is astonishing that he survived at all, let alone found a way to thrive. (Even before the books became popular, he had a great career, and a life with his husband in New York - not too shabby.) 


I particularly wanted to comment on one circumstance of the book. It is easy to be shocked and horrified by the way that Mungo’s mom turns him over to strangers to “make a man of him.” And sure, a little vetting might have been nice. But I was thinking a lot about this, because of people I knew years ago, and I’m not at all sure that Mo-Ma’s actions are that unusual. 


It is so easy to forget now that back in the 1980s and 1990s, LGBTQ people were viewed with suspicion by a majority of people both in the UK and in the US. Hell, Matthew Shepard was born the same year I was, and was beaten to death for his sexual orientation in 1998. That event shocked the nation, and I believe was a turning point for gay rights. Decent people realized that this was just plain wrong, and we could no longer look the other way and pretend we couldn’t see what was happening, the evil being perpetrated against people for the “crime” of being different. But again, 1998! 


So many gay kids of my age were sent to various, um, situations, to “make men out of them” or “make women out of them.” Far too many were sent to various “conversion therapy” programs, where they endured psychological and often physical torture. How was this different from what happens to Mungo? Those running the programs were total strangers too. 


And others had experiences like this. Desperate parents, worried that their kid was displaying a lack of gender conformity, are approached by the youth pastor, who offers to spend some one-on-one time helping the child “become a man.” Except that the pastor is a sexual predator. And yes, this happened to a number of people I know. 


My parents were, by the standards of the 1980s, more accepting of LGBTQ people than most. Which meant, in that context, that we could believe they were going to hell, but not extrapolate that to permission to harm them ourselves. So, I remember gay people within our range of experiences - neighbors, co-workers, and especially musical colleagues one we got involved in the LA classical music scene. 


One of the ways this manifested is in the belief that homosexuality or “gender confusion” was near-universally caused by sexual abuse. Of course a kid who was raped might not have healthy sexuality. The positive of this was that, while not particularly accurate, it at least was halfway there to the idea that sexuality and gender identity are not choices (which was the prevailing belief of the time, even in secular circles.) The downside, of course, was the false sense of security that if you just kept your kids protected enough, then they wouldn’t ever be gay, right? 


On a deeper level, which this book really illustrates, the idea is profoundly backwards. It isn’t that molestation turns straight kids gay. But what happened pretty often was that predators could detect the gay kids, just like they could detect the kids who were vulnerable to attention because of their abusive or neglectful families. They could tell which victims were likely to be unable to fight back, unwilling to fight back, and vulnerable for a variety of reasons. 


In the book, Mungo was in many ways the perfect victim. A parent that was blasted out of her mind a lot of the time. A subculture that considered homosexuality to be religiously unforgiveable and a betrayal of manhood. A sensitive and slight young boy who didn’t like fighting. And who was already deeply embarrassed about who he was. The perfect victim, who would stay silent. 


Except Mungo was a lot tougher than anyone - himself included - thought when his back was really against the wall. 


So, for all those parents from my past who may have blamed themselves for their kids’ orientation: that part wasn’t your fault. The part that was your fault was not unconditionally loving and accepting your kid for who he or she was. 


The book was well written, I thought. Stuart has a real talent for making everything feel real in this book. The family dynamics are complicated - even the most abusive and neglectful families tend to have some good times, some degree of love, and cannot fit in to the “evil” box the way we usually wish. Adams clearly can see from his own experiences that dysfunction rarely has a single cause - it is always complicated. At the root of so much that is wrong with his family is poverty. The loss of jobs during the Thatcher era was brutal on cities like Glasgow. But people couldn’t just leave. When you are poor, moving to a different country (particularly now) is not often possible. Without job retraining, all that may be available will be welfare benefits. All that may be available for entertainment and a sense of belonging is drinking and fighting. There is nothing unique here, although every impoverished city has its own flavor. Stuart brings all this to life. It is horrifying, but compelling. And he lived it. 


I also want to mention a humorous and superb scene. Mungo goes looking for his mom’s lover, who runs a pawn shop. Their meeting goes about how you would expect, if you thought about a painfully shy young boy, and the sort of person who has survived in the pawn world. More is unsaid than said, but they understand each other. Awkward as hell, of course, and not much of a resolution. But very realistic. Oh, and this bit, from Jocko, the pawn dealer:


“Did ye know there is a vogue to weapons? Like an actual fashion trend? Some of these fighters carry on like they were lassies buying dresses in Paris. ‘Oh naw, ah don’t want a bowie knife - every cunt already has a bowie knife. I want somethin’ mair elegant. Somethin’ that screams me.’”


Plenty of good lines, of course. Because Mungo is a stand-in for the author, and the book is from his perspective, Stuart gets to comment on his own life from a close distance. For example, Mungo is a disappointment to everyone in his family. But why?


Mungo had been working hard at seeing what people really meant. Mo-Maw and his sister, Jodie, were always nagging him about that. Apparently, there could be some distance between what a person was saying and what you should be seeing. Jodie said he was gullible. Mo-maw said she wished she had raised him to be cannier, less of anybody’s fool. It was a funny thing to be a disappointment because you were honest and assumed others might be too.


Life is really tough on good people, but particularly on the gentle souls. While not exactly always gentle myself, I did tend to assume honesty in others, which is why losing my religious tribe and my extended family, in significant part because they were not who their words claimed they were, was traumatic for me. I feel like I was a disappointment because I couldn’t understand and embrace the casual cruelty to those outside the tribe. I felt for Mungo in this regard. I get why he doesn’t want to be a part of the fights between the gangs, and why he just wants to experience his love without the hate that comes his way. 


There is plenty of alcohol in the book, for obvious reasons. Mo-Maw prefers Buckfast, a fortified wine with a ton of caffeine. So it makes her staggeringly drunk but also meth-level hyper. There is a whole social history here of Buckfast being scapegoated for social problems in Scotland, much like crack is here. It makes a nice distraction from the deeper social issues, and allows a subtle way to express racial or class prejudice by deflecting to a substance. 


Mungo’s one positive alcohol experience is with James and a bottle of Famous Grouse. Among other things, they do not get drunk, but savor both the drink and the time together. (So, I brought some to our book club.) The sexual predators, “St. Christopher” and “Gallowgate” - not their real names, but their AA aliases - drink cheap whisky and cheaper lager beer. I like Mungo’s thoughts about the beer:


He had seen the awful sadness it contained, just beneath the happy foam. 


Jodie is the only (barely) functional person in the family, and by the time the story opens, she has essentially lost any last vestige of love and respect for Mo-Maw. When she briefly returns, Jodie tells her off. 


“You can stay until after you’ve spoken to the council and then you need to leave. Ah’ll come to the snack bar every Friday and collect money for the bills. You only need to pay until Mungo has his sixteenth birthday. Then you’re free to destroy yourself however you like. Try and take the fast road.” 


A minor character in the book is the local gay man, who is ruthlessly bullied by the neighbor teens. He is sad in a lot of ways, not least of which is because his life is just caring for his mother. As we find out later, his love as a young man left for Australia, and he didn’t follow, but has regretted it all his life. In the vernacular of the time, of course, nobody said “gay.” This man is a “bachelor.” And a few other euphemisms. And Mo-Maw is determined that she won’t raise a “bachelor.” 


Also of cultural interest is the clash between the working-class boys of Glasgow, and the posh students who come to study at the university. Hamish has made a side hustle of selling them poor quality drugs. Stuart’s description of the students is pretty hilarious. Here is my favorite line. 


Yet to Hamish, the worst of them were not the English. The worst were the chinless lambswool milksops from the West End or Perth or Edinburgh. These Scots spoke the Queen’s English with a snooty clarity that would embarrass even Etonians. They knew more than one Rabbie Burns poem by heart, and actually enjoyed ceilidhs and bagpipes without taking the piss. 


Midway through the book, Jodie gets pregnant. By one of her teachers. Ick. Mungo is the only person she can tell. They end up discussing John Donne, and specifically “The Flea,” a delightful bit of naughtiness and double entendres. 


“I like that poem,” said Jodie, mostly to herself. She wiped her face and tried to smile. “The poet is trying to con a woman into sleeping with him. They should teach every girl that poem the minute we get a chest.” 


The solution Jodie proposes is that Mungo pummel her lower abdomen until she miscarries. It doesn’t work (and Jodie later gets an under-the-table abortion), but it damages Mungo. 


In the end, it didn’t work, but Jodie didn’t tell Mungo that. It was better they didn’t talk about it again. She had asked for violence out of a gentle soul and it made her feel like she had trampled a patch of fresh snow.


Mungo also is traumatized by the seeming need for everyone around him to hate those of other religions. He simply cannot understand what about them he was supposed to hate. He has a great point, and one that has become a major reason I have left organized religion altogether. I cannot figure out what there is for me to hate. 


The book ends on a somewhat hopeful note, with Mungo poised between two futures. He can either follow his brother, knock a girl up to prove his manhood, and become a gang fighter. Or, he can follow James out of town, and seek a life where people like him can be safe. He and James cannot openly say goodbye, but they make a subtle connection that lets us imagine that Mungo - like the author - finds a better life. 


I imagine that this book would be harrowing but all too familiar for those who grew up as queer kids in 1980s and 90s. For those of us who are cis-het and grew up middle class, it can serve as a window in to an existence whose brutality and danger we can only imagine. And, I hope, purpose to thwart the fundamentalist bigots who deeply wish to return to that time, and take their own frustrations out in violence against LGBTQ kids and teens. 


This book will not be for everyone, but I thought it was a good read, if brutal at times.