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Interview: Philip Zimbardo

Philip Zimbardo photo
Professor Philip Zimbardo is a world-famous social psychologist, perhaps best known for his infamous Stanford Prison experiment of 1971. He is author of over 50 books and 400 articles, and in recent times has published bestselling books on the topics of time and evil (The Time Paradox and The Lucifer Effect).

Written with Nikita D. Coulombe, his latest book, Man (Dis)connected, considers how technology has changed what it means be a man, and why more young men are failing as a consequence. It was published last week.

You can read my review here: Man (Dis)connected by Philip Zimbardo and Nikita D. Coulombe

There’s an interesting chapter in the book about the rise of women. As someone who has seen several generations of men, I wonder if the decline you identify in Man (Dis)connected is relative to the rise of women, or if this is an absolute decline?

I'm making two statements. One, more men in this generation are failing than ever before. If something is not done to change that, that failure will continue. At the same time, in parallel, women are doing better than they ever have. They are more successful in academia, more successful in business, more successful in athletics, than they have ever been. Now it's even worse for men because in the past you could made invidious comparisons with women: at least I'm better than them if I'm not better than most guys. Now these young men are better than no one. It's a double whammy. It's young men feeling that they are not successful in school, and they are not as successful in business as they should be - they are feeling socially isolated. Again, as I point out, many of them do not have a father around to set standards. Then retreating to the security, safety, predictability of an internet world, video game world, and the pornography world.

At the same time as they are doing worse, women are doing significantly better than ever before. Last year we have data that around the world women received more of every academic degree from BA, to PhD, MA, MD, medical, law, and even engineering. This has never happened before. Many, many, universities in America have a gender gap of five to ten percent favouring women. In past eras it used to be the opposite. You'd see many more men than women.

Why do you think it is that men have failed to adapt to the new technology - the digital environment - when women are clearly thriving by comparison? What causes technology to be more of a problem for men than women?

Women have always been more social creatures. Women have always had social networks. Women live in social networks. Men have always been relative loners, had one or few friends. We point out that if men don't make friends in high school, college, or the military, they will never have friends again. Women don't need the internet as entertainment. They don't need the internet for an escape. They have other women. This has always been true. Men now are gravitating toward the internet, toward technology, as an escape from not being able to make it on their own, not having friends. In many, many, cases we're showing shyness among men is on the increase.

I think it’s fair to say that in the book two of the key technologies you pick out as being problematic are video games and online pornography. You write that there are positive elements of video games, which can encourage problem solving and various other transferable skills. Do you feel there is scope for pornography to be positive too – in a changed form, perhaps – or can it only be detrimental?

It's not only detrimental. With the video games we're making it clear: we are not against video games per se. There is research that shows video games played in moderation, and that probably means two hours a day or less, has benefits. It improves cognitive skills and improves hand-motor coordination. It gives you something that you can develop a mastery in. Something that you can be good at, something that is predictable. It's only when it becomes excessive, that you begin to do it five hours a day or more, that it becomes a problem. It's only when it becomes a source of social isolation when you retreat to the video games and the retreat is away from friends, away from social contact, away from girls.

The other thing we haven't even made the argument about is the reason boys are more attracted to video games is that they're violent. Video games encourage aggression. Women get turned off by that. The makers of the video games and the way they're promoted is geared towards men. They are appealing to male values of dominance, of aggression, of assertiveness. Obviously, there are some women who play video games, and many more would if games reduce that hostile aggressive component. There are games like Farmville. It's not that they can't make games like that, there are games that encourage social cooperation - there could be games promoting conservation etc. It's just that aggressive games are most appealing, the games that sell most. This is a business, that's the bottom line. It’s a multi-million dollar business that caters to men who are willing to pay for their X-box, for the newest thing.

With pornography, it used to be, in my generation, you looked at pornography and learned about sexual performance, you learned about what kinds of sexual positions were possible or available, things that you never thought about. In one sense access to pornography increases the realm of possibility. The problem again is the porn industry is a multi-million dollar industry. There are hundreds of porn sites. Many of them charge, some of them are free to begin and then you pay a dollar for high definition etc, and you get hooked. 98% of all the porn sites that involve paid subscription are subscribed to by men. For those that are free more than 75% of users are men, primarily. The problem now is that men are watching pornography alone - most people don't even talk about it, so there's some shame to it. Again, the problem is in excess; our data shows that boys are watching at least two hours a week on average. For each boy who watches two hours a week, there's somebody watching four or six hours a week. It gives you a totally false conception of what sex is all about. It eliminates all of the social, emotional and romantic elements of sex.

Now it's all about physical performance, there's no narrative, there's no story; it's about physical performance. It's about putting penises in an orifice, in vaginas and anuses and in the mouth. In every conceivable arrangement; there's no kissing, there's no touching, there's no romancing, there's no communication about boundaries. When a young boy watches this it becomes the norm because every single video is like that. Let's say Porn Hub, which is a free one, there are probably a million videos there and there are a hundred categories. There are categories of sex that I couldn't even, ever imagine: Asians molested on public transportation, mother and daughters, for example. That's a category and within that category there are endless number of videos. There are sexual combinations that are unimaginable. Given that pornography is big business, there are people who say, "What can we do that other sites don’t to attract guys?”

The narrative of sex and seduction is a really interesting issue. To pick up on that for a moment – in the book you mention pick-up artist communities briefly, where young men are taught a kind of social script for attracting women. I wondered if you saw any correlation between the way men interact with video games and the way they pursue romantic attachments? That is to say, do men now treat dating like a one-player video game, simply needing to negotiate different steps with the goal of ‘closing’ the girl (and then moving onto the next ‘game’)?

It's certainly a consequence of watching a lot pornography; there’s clearly the objectification of women. Women are there across all the videos to give men pleasure. Women have no rights. In many of the videos it's rough sex, it's gang bangs, where women physically get abused. Even in the others, it is always women as objects. The bottom line of every single video now is, a man has an orgasm on a woman's face or on her breasts. This is the way virtually every single one ends. Almost no woman I’ve ever met in my life, and I'm 80 years old, ever wanted that, ever thought that was sexy or appealing or attractive. Now young men who see that assume this is what women want.

There's a website, I think we talk about it, Make Love Not Porn. The person that organised that website says: here's what men want, here's what women want and there's no connection. What men want is what they derive as the norm from videos and women don't want that, women want romance. Women want touching, kissing, hugging, so physical sex is part of social, emotional romance. For men physical sex is simply part of performance. Video games are, let's say, asexual: in video games everybody becomes an object. It's an object to form a team, it's an object to kill if they're enemies. In the video games it's a world without feelings. Especially if we're talking about Mafia or Warcraft. For me it's creating a negative conception about what other people are. Other people are your allies or you enemies, if they're enemies you should destroy them.

Finally, to go back to one of the points you talk about in you mentioned earlier, I wanted to pick up on video games and pornography being big business. I wondered how you felt one could go about reforming industries that are entirely driven by money; set up to pander to men’s every need, hook them and then monetise their addiction.

Essentially you're talking about changing the attitudes of some guys - one way not to get addicted is to set a limit, to say you're only going to watch a hour, whatever. It's really a systemic change that’s needed: how do you get the video game industry, how do you get the porn industry to do some self-regulation? How do you get the video game industry to make more games which involve social cooperation? More games are needed, I'm arguing, which involve having two human players side by side, so you have social proximity, as you would have if you were an airline pilot with a navigator. Those are simple ideas we put forward.

In pornography all you would have to do is have some female consultants to say what kind of pornography would be attractive to women and companies could create that. You could have female erotica, aside from lesbian things. First of all there would be a narrative as it used to be in the old videos. If you remember Behind the Green Door, Deep Throat - there was a story and throughout the story people would have sex. Now there's no story, there's no narrative. It's only about physical engagement. I'm sure you could appeal to video companies and say, there's a huge world out there; women have lots of money, especially young women. Why not have a whole video program which is designed for women, not lesbian women. It's women who would be your consultants. I'm sure all it would mean is the videos have a narrative, the guy shows respect for the women, sometimes the woman takes the lead, sometimes she follows. You make it more natural as in real life. You can still have beautiful women, you can still have studly men, you can still have oral, anal, vaginal sex, but it would be within a more romantic, loving context. That's how I would change it. I don’t think it would cost a company money, I think it would make a fortune.

You think change is possible from within the industry then, it wouldn't need any legislation?

No, no, not at all. You can't have legislation because it violates free speech. You can't limit pornography, you can't limit free speech. You can't even say to a five-year-old kid that there should be a limit because you can't control it now, given that it's available 24-7. Parents don't have a clue what their kids are watching.

If you'd like to find out more about Philip Zimbardo and his work, you can visit his website at Man (Dis)connected is available now, in both paperback and e-formats.

Useful Links
Man (Dis)connected on Amazon (UK)
Man (Dis)connected on Amazon (US)
Philip Zimbardo's Website
Philip Zimbardo on Twitter

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Review: Man (Dis)connected by Philip Zimbardo
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Review: Man (Dis)connected by Philip Zimbardo & Nikita D. Coulombe

Man (Dis)connected by Philip Zimbardo & Nikita D. Coulombe book cover
Man (Dis)connected: How Technology Has Sabotaged What it Means to be Male (2015) by Philip Zimbardo and Nikita D. Coulombe is a clear-eyed appraisal of modern masculinity and how technology is accelerating the decline of men. The book follows four years after a short but provoking TED talk delivered by Zimbardo in 2011. His message to the psychology community and beyond then was simply this: hooked on a cocktail of porn, video games, and prescription drugs, young men are failing like never before, academically, socially, sexually - it’s time to do something about it. Since then research into the effects of online pornography and video games has increased, and Man (Dis)connected represents a fuller appraisal of the current situation as well as an opportunity for the authors to work through some potential solutions, something that the world-famous psychologist’s TED talk tantalisingly omitted.

Although pornography and video games are the headline news here, what lies behind this exploration of how young men are living their lives is far less to do with the technology directly, and more to do with the isolating effect it has on young men. While women - who are disposed to be more social than men, Zimbardo argues - increasingly outperform their male counterparts academically, socially, and increasingly in the work arena, young men are retreating to the isolation of their own bedrooms, where video games offer a safe and easy way to gain a sense of achievement, and pornography provides a warm embrace without the requirement to negotiate any form of social interaction. Of course, the more often guys retreat into isolation, the less opportunity they have to develop the life skills they need to succeed in the world. It is in these self-formed realities that guys’ sexual education is played out. No wonder then, that sexual failures and objectification of women are on the increase. When young men do venture out from digital sanctuaries, their concentration is wrecked from the lightning fast stimulation that video games provide and they are increasingly diagnosed with ADHD as a consequence. Not only this, but anxiety disorders are on the increase, and young men are more likely to be medicated than ever before, whether for supposed ADHD or an anxiety condition. All this is set against a picture of absent fathers, disconnected families, economic turmoil, poor health, and lack of exercise that makes up the modern world for many youngsters in the west.

It would be easy to feel despair at the state of modern masculinity when painted in these terms, but Zimbardo and Coulombe’s message is not one of hopelessness. Indeed, they see positive aspects to all of the technology they discuss and the final section of the book is reserved for the discussion of potential solutions as the authors see them, whether these be suggestions for how the media - porn and gaming included - can adapt to offer a healthier message, the government can help encourage men to take responsibility for their own lives and reach their potential in the real world, or for the men, women, and families who are affected by the new digital world to adapt to this new arena. While the authors are convinced that there is financial-incentive enough for pornography companies to produce romance-led films and move away from the dulling objectification of women, video games companies to produce more social games, and governments to produce better citizens, one is aware at all times that this has to be a financial argument as, after all, digital media is designed to appeal to men’s every desire - from lust to violence - and make money from it. Ultimately, it is the companies that profit from keeping men spellbound that will determine the shape of media going forwards.

Trying to unpick the effect of technology on modern masculinity in under three hundred pages sounds like an incredible task, and it is, but Zimbardo and Coulombe have organised Man (Dis)connected - cycling through the symptoms, causes, and solutions - into a remarkably reader-friendly series of information flashes; short, sharp, and reminiscent of the style of browsing digital media that insists information be compacted into chunks bearable to even the most addled grazer. This is a smart move, and even when the chapters become longer as the book moves towards the causes of the problems, it never becomes weighed down. Instead, it is a light and breezy trip through an area of social psychology that should be as important to the general public as it is to researchers. The digital world is ubiquitous and failure to engage with everything that stems from this can only be to the detriment of society’s shared future.

Engaged is, in fact, a perfect word for Man (Dis)connected. Undoubtedly this is helped by the extensive survey data collected by Zimbardo, which is often referred to and offers a chance for young men to have their own say on the problems that affect them. Despite being a somewhat whistle-stop tour of the issues (the pages of notes and references kept neatly to the end of the book indicate how deceptive the feeling of lightness in the main text is) there are few areas that one feels are left unaddressed in some form. Young men will recognise the landscape as described here, and for everyone else this will provide an entree into the often disturbing worlds of young men. Orwell wrote that the “power of facing” was one of the key skills of a good writer - so too for a social psychologist, and little is turned away from in Man (Dis)connected. At times, the authors appear to be pointing back to a form of masculinity now swept away as the preferable model for modern man, but aside from this and a few sentiments relating to the rise of women that might be challenged, this is as clear-eyed and on-point evaluation of modern masculinity as one could expect from what is, in essence, a popular psychology book about the plight of young, heterosexual men.

To declare a bias, Man (Dis)connected is, to my mind, the non-fiction equivalent of what I attempted to capture in fiction in my own debut novel, ****, or, The Anatomy of Melancholy. Clearly, this makes me both the ideal reviewer and the most biased, but this seems to me a well-rounded, engaged discussion of an absolutely crucial topic for our times. Young men are starting to recognise the problems of their lifestyle, and it is time that the wider community acts on this before a generation of young men are lost entirely to the stupefying effects of the digital world.

Clearly, this is a book that was bound to speak to me. I'm pleased it exists and pleased with the truly engaged manner that the authors have addressed the issues. I expect to see more literature/research in this area, and this is a great starting point for the mainstream.

Useful Links
Reviews of Man (Dis)connected on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of Man (Dis)connected on Amazon (US)

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Competition: Win a Copy of My Debut Novel

****, or, The Anatomy of Melancholy by Matthew Selwyn book cover
Today it is exactly four years since I launched this blog - I've enjoyed some great things in that time: besides my first novel having been released and my second coming along nicely, I've read all sorts of books, and been lucky enough to attend some great literary events. If you've ever considered starting a blog, take it from me, it is more than just a few webpages that Google will forget exist within days of them going live. Blogging can change your life.

Coincidentally, my novel ****, or, The Anatomy of Melancholy is coming out in hardback on the 22nd May, so what better way to celebrate my blog's fourth birthday, I thought, than by giving away a signed, pre-release copy of the hardback? 

If you've not heard about my novel before, here's its blurb to give you a taster:

Reality is overrated. Sex, love, power, life: it's gone digital. Why settle for a girlfriend with cellulite? Why spend every day working a dead-end job? These are the new days, the infinite days: plug in, get connected. Life is porn, porn is life, don't accept anything less than the electric light show that is our digital reality.

At the end of every computer screen, a mind is being formed on the material coughed up by the web that connects us all: this is the story of one of the internet's children, told from his own warped perspective. This is the millennial generation, the Y generation: we're horny, lonely, afraid, and self-confident. This is our story, our reality.

Thrillingly inventive and powerfully engaging, ****: The Anatomy of Melancholy is a timely examination of life and masculinity in the digital age, a study of loneliness and mental decay, and a satire on the consumption of literature of disaffection. Brutally honest and darkly comic, it is a very modern novel about a very modern life.

That's about all there is to say - enter below, and best of luck!


! Please note, this competition is open to everyone, 
no matter where you are in the world !

a Rafflecopter giveaway

The competition closes at midnight on 15th May 2015 and the winner will be notified by 18th May at the latest.

~ Good luck ~

Reading Plan: May 2015

Pig Tales by Marie Darrieussecq book cover
I’m at an exciting place in my writerly life just at the moment, so I hope you will all excuse my gushing for a few moments (for those that cannot possible tolerate a little light cheeriness, skip to the fourth paragraph, you loveable grumps). So, what’s exciting you ask? Well, firstly I am nigh on being finished with the first draft of my second novel and, despite being 70,000 words in and not having actually included my plot yet, I’m really chuffed. It’s taken me less than half the time it did to write my first novel and although it needs a lot more work, just reaching the first target of getting it all down feels great.

Oh, and about my first novel, after decent sales I’m pleased to announce that it is coming out in hardback on 22nd May. I’m really pleased with this as there is nothing nicer than holding a hardback in your hands. I’m a sucker for a good dustjacket too, even if it does have my mopey mug on it. Although most of my sales will continue to be in the e-book market, I’m sure, I am really chuffed with this next step forward on my path to being an almost legitimate writer (did I mention, on this tact, that the library where I work now has two copies of my book? – if that doesn’t scream legitimacy, I don’t know what does!)

Lastly on the good news front (yes, I’m almost done), it is my blogiversary this coming month. (If you ever hear me use the word blogiversary again you have my permission to slap me.) It will have been four whole years since I started this blog on 3rd May – I can hardly believe I’ve been putting you all through this for that long! Looking back at my early posts (which in painfully navel-gazing style I did the other day) I can’t believe how cringe worthy some of them are: I seem to have been possessed by a cheese-ridden DJ recommending pop tunes to cynical teeny-boppers half the time rather than the, ahem, morally serious writer I am now. Thank goodness I’ve improve a little, although I suspect in four years’ time I’ll be ready to lay the literary smackdown on my current offering. So, bless you all for not pointing out my inadequacies over the years – at times, silence can truly be golden (did you feel the cheese-ridden DJ begin to creep back in there? Crafty bugger.) I’m hoping to run a competition to win a pre-release copy of my hardback to mark the occasion, so stay tuned over the next week or so.

Welcome back grumpy paragraph skippers – glad you could join the rest of us and don’t worry, you only missed three bits of extremely exciting news. Yes, go on then, skip back and check them out, I’ll wait… ready? … ok, now we’re all back in the loop, to this month’s reading. I will, I must, read Mansfield Park this month (apologies, Di, it’s been teetering at the top of my TBR pile for ages now). But I also have a few other things on the horizon. Firstly, I’m reading Pig Tales by Marie Darrieussecq. If you haven’t heard of this, think Kafka’s Metamorphosis but with a sexy pig-lady. And then go and read a proper blurb that does the book justice. This fell into my hands, as so many good books do, accidentally when I was reshelving returned items at the library where I work. I have a vague recollection of hearing that this was rather a scandalous book, or got people (feminists, possibly) hot under the collar. I haven’t looked anything up about it yet as I don’t like to while I’m reading a book, so that might be a bunch of misinformation, but I’m finding it interesting so far. It reminds me of Knut Hamsun, although that might just be because he’s the only literary reference in the book as yet.

The next book I’m going to be reading is Man (Dis)connected by Philip Zimbardo, the psychologist who ran the infamous Stanford prison experiment. I cannot tell you how much I am looking forward to this book: it is all about how technology has fundamentally changed what it means to be a young man in this world, and what effect that is having on this (my) generation. For anyone who has read my novel, you will know that this is pretty much bang on what it is about and I’m really looking forward to reading about the issues from a scientific point of view.

I’ll leave it there for now as that should keep me busy for the next few weeks. Do come back and celebrate my blogiversary (ok, slap me now) with me over the next few weeks, and enjoy May whatever you are up to. Four more years, four more years.

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Review: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

Review: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark book cover
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961) by Muriel Spark is a short novel that follows the story of an Edinburgh teacher and her ‘set’ during the 1930s and beyond. The charismatic Jean Brodie is a spinster who is devoted to her profession as teacher at the Marcia Blaine Academy. Being in the ‘prime’ of her life, Miss Brodie takes an interest in six of her students in particular: Sandy, Jenny, Rose, Mary, Monica, and Eunice. This is her set. Favouring the arts over the sciences, she sets about giving her girls the most enlivening education, setting aside the curriculum in favour of her personal preferences, and cautioning the girls against revealing to anyone quite how unusual their lessons are. As the narrative jumps backwards and forwards in time it becomes clear that all is not well with Miss Brodie’s methods and as she involves her girls in her little deceptions, enthuses over her admiration of both Giotto and Mussolini, and reports to them on trysts she has had with fellow teachers, a rather unhealthy bond develops. Eager to please their idol, the girls find their lives shaped by all that Miss Brodie teaches them, for better or worse. Eventually, however, her rein is put to an end when one of her set betrays her: reporting to the headmistress just exactly what Miss Jean Brodie has been filling their heads with. But which of her girls could betray Miss Brodie in this way?

It becomes obvious very quickly that Miss Brodie seeks to control her girls’ lives, from their opinion on art to their romantic pursuits. Indeed, she writes the script for her own set, creating for each girl their own role. Rose, for example, is designated as the sexual member of the group who is to be “famous for sex” and another, Mary, as the scapegoat – a “stupid lump” upon whom ill-fortune is routinely blamed. In this way she creates for each girl an identity and a place in the group. The unusual dynamic of the relationship – of a middle-aged woman choosing to spend so much of her time and energy on a group of young girls – creates a peculiar atmosphere that only grows darker as the girls age and their teacher’s impact upon them becomes more clear.

Particularly unnerving is the way in which Miss Brodie oversees the girls’ sexual maturation. Indeed, one of the novel’s achievements is the spare but realistic way that Spark maps out their sexual awakening. When first her set is devised, the girls are ten years old and on the verge of raising questions about their own sexualities. Through stories about her own love life and her promotion of the sensual, if occluded, delights of art, Miss Brodie subtly awakens impulses within them. But more than that, she represents a form of sexuality for them, which few are familiar with. Indeed, the girls consider her quite different from their own mothers: Miss Brodie is almost above sex, existing on a somewhat higher plane.

There is certainly lightness as well as dark to Jean Brodie, however. By showing a complete disregard for the prescribed curriculum, she demonstrates both the wonderful freedom of a teacher willing and able to enliven their lessons with personal touches, promoting a truly individual education, but also the grave dangers of allowing one mind to control the formative years of young lives. There is a strange paradox at the centre of Brodie’s teaching method, namely that on one hand she demands almost complete deference as she determines for her girls the path their lives should take and the opinions they should hold, while on the other hand much of her own personality and teaching seeming to represent and promote a free-thinking, individual attitude.

Miss Brodie’s fate is one common to many women who, in the aftermath of World War I, found themselves outnumbering the eligible men. Having lost her first love to the war, Miss Brodie displaces her sexual affection and refigures it into an affection for her students, trysts with other teachers, and in her fascisti – all proving attainable substitutes for the conventional domestic romance circumstance has denied her. Indeed, she finds in fascism – her admiration of which is perhaps the main cause of her downfall – a certain exciting romance. Finding conservatism and socialism to be rather dull forms of political ideology, she prefers instead the vibrancy of fascism, which carries, in her mind, a more artistic air, which she of course favours in all things, and represents a more revolutionary, vibrant form of politics. In this way, her insight is clouded as she mixes moral judgements with aesthetic ones.

However, Jean Brodie’s downfall cannot be put down simply to poor judgement or naivety on her part. Her paranoia and secretive behaviour, as well as her delusions and desire to control, paint her as a woman with a narcissist personality disorder, who has more in common with Mussolini than might at first glance be apparent. Indeed, that Spark creates a female character who does not simper after her fascist idols but rather identifies with them is quietly progressive, as is the assimilation of many male bonding techniques that Brodie and her set utilise.

Jean Brodie’s oft repeated lamentations about her betrayal, while vain, suggest an important theme in the book. For it is not only Brodie that is ‘betrayed’ but her ideas too, as her betrayer breaks the narrative pattern that Brodie has written for her set by assuming the role meant for another and daring to challenge, through her actions, Brodie’s own opinions. The betrayal here represents the removal of the girl(s) from Miss Brodie’s control, and their pursuit of their own individual paths. This denotes a shift in the novel’s dynamic from the girls living vicariously through Brodie and her stories, to the teacher living through her former students. But Jean Brodie, too, is betrayed by her own ideas, which lead her to make poor judgements, and in turn betray the innocent trust of her set, who look up to her and in return have fairly dubious ideas poured into their heads.

In all, Jean Brodie is a rather more complex character than might be apparent at first glance. Spark felt that satiric writing was far more valuable in shifting opinion and being genuinely useful in a wider sense than moralising realism. Her refusal to moralise or conform to realist structure here more than bears this out, and the novel is laced throughout with moments of satire, which force the reader to engage with the text.

The structure of the book, which is told through a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards, breaks any link with realism, and allows information to be revealed as Spark sees fit (mirroring Miss Brodie’s own manipulation of facts to her own ends) and not in chronological order. This shifts the focus from traditional narrative suspense to a more intimate character study of Miss Brodie and her girls. This technique also allows for certain, character-forming pieces of information to be revealed at opportune moments, rather than as they might have become apparent if the narrative was to follow a traditional chronology. This helps create an ever-moving tension in the novel, which in some ways replaces the need for a traditional plot. It also creates the sense of memories selectively recalled, and personal histories written through a particular lens.

With the narrative jumping around in time frequently, prolepsis is used regularly. Although this gives only a certain amount away it is also quite often repetitious. Despite the purpose of the oft repeated phrases, whose mantra-like reiteration represents Brodie’s need to shape both her own memories and the narrative she writes for the girls, being reasonable, the technique can nevertheless become a little irritating. (How many times can one be told that Rose is famous for sex?) The lack of suspense, too, creates a certain flatness to the book: characters, save for Jean Brodie, don’t leap from the page as they might, and the story never really gathers momentum, despite some large events unfolding.

In all, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a deceptively thoughtful book that gathers together some large themes, from the haze of adolescent years to Catholicism and morality, the (sometimes) sadness and strangeness of spinsterhood to the state of politics. It is a mistake to think that this is simply a character study of a woman in her ‘prime’ but Jean Brodie is certainly what holds the whole thing together. Apparently based, in some respects, on Christina Kay, a teacher of Spark’s, Jean Brodie is a perpetually difficult character: a vibrant, free-thinking woman surrounded by straight-laced conservatism, she cannot help but appear a breath of fresh air. This, however, is juxtaposed against her manipulative behaviour and ill-advised politics, and what results for the reader is a genuinely uncomfortable, thought-provoking piece of characterisation. Unlike her creation, Spark seeks no divine right to pass judgement and so the reader is left to make the moral judgement on Miss Jean Brodie and her betrayal.

If it weren't for Jean Brodie I don't think this would be remembered, but there is a lot more to it. I don't think I had any instant affection for the book, but it is certainly a good and thought-provoking read.

Useful Links
Reviews of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie on Amazon (US)

Review: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro book cover
The Buried Giant (2015), Kazuo Ishiguro’s first novel in a decade, is a complex and allegorical mediaeval-style fantasy set in post-Roman Britain around the sixth century, which has as much to say about modern life as it does about the slaying of dragons. Across the fictional land, an unexplained fog hangs, which causes a kind of collective Alzheimer’s, with all memory being slowly lost to the mist. The novel’s main characters – Axl and Beatrice – are an ageing couple who set out from their small village to visit their long-departed son, who lives only a few villages away. With the war between Britons and Saxons not long finished, lands are not always hospitable and along the way the couple encounter a handful of major characters with whom they travel, some friendlier than others. There is a young boy, Edwin, who is cursed and seeking his lost mother; Wistan, a warrior who is honourable but dangerous and derives, surely, from Beowulf; and, finally, Sir Gawain, a famous if ageing knight of King Arthur’s court, here closer to Don Quixote than the fresh-faced knight of the famous story. In the haze of the mist, their stories mingle as, in classic quest story tradition, Axl and Beatrice face all manner of test, from negotiating difficult terrain and devious monks to fighting Querig, the dragon who has doomed their lands to the collective amnesia. All the while, they make their way towards their son, who lives, it transpires, on an island away from Axl and Beatrice’s own country. To reach it, they must claim passage with a boatman: strange and mythical men who, it is said, will only on rare occasions carry couples together to other lands, and only then if they are able to prove their devotion to each other. This is the final, defining test that Axl and Beatrice must face, no matter how heavily the odds are weighted against them.

The fog of collective amnesia that is slowly overtaking the inhabitants of Ishiguro’s world is an excellent conceit: the buried giant, more than Querig, refers to the memories deeply buried (or perhaps lost altogether), a mass forgetting that has allowed two peoples – Saxons and Britons – to find peace and reconciliation after a bloody war, just as, on a personal level, it has allowed Axl and Beatrice to be reunited after trouble in their own relationship. Within this giant allegory of a novel, this is the central and most powerful metaphor. It is reminiscent of Jose Saramago’s Blindness, in which a collective loss of sight amongst a city’s people is used as a metaphor for humanity’s failure to see even in clear daylight. Here, Ishiguro’s metaphor is as relevant to the reader as to his characters: if forgetting brings happiness, then how far ought we to excavate our own buried giants – the dark memories that dwell within us, unspoken for fear of their implications? And without memory, what of identity, individual or national? What holds the threads of life together if it is not memory? Without it, there is only an unending present.

This idea of truth hidden beneath the surface not only acts as a metaphor for the human relationship to memory but also to Ishiguro as a writer. No matter which genre he writes in, Ishiguro’s novels deal with life on the surface level, the meat of his works hidden deep beneath the words – The Buried Giant is no exception, although one might argue that in such an openly allegorical tale this fact is concealed less so than in some of his other works – and in this way The Buried Giant is almost a critical analysis of Ishiguro’s own attitude towards writing characters.

If the novel is about a way of living – about how relationships are formed and sustained, the trials that one must face in life and how they can be met with love, and the knowledge that not all is as it seems – then it is equally as much about death. The son that Axl and Beatrice seek has passed over to an island beyond their reach – they must persuade a boatman to carry them across the water to this isle – and the Mediaeval tradition, used by modern authors like Tolkien and Pullman, informs the reader that such a journey represents more than a simple crossing of water but a trip to the afterlife, a passing from this life to the next. In Ishiguro’s world, the boatmen who carry people from one isle to the next determine whether a couple are carried together or separately. It is a rare privilege for both to make the trip together, and Axl’s repeated anxiety about this journey throughout the novel is representative of the very human response to potential loss; the wrenching of a long loved one from one’s arms. As the novel progresses and the mist that engulfs the reader and the characters begins to lift (note, another subtle metaphor for the reading experience), the sense of existential dread that hangs about the novel begins to solidify into a very real, precise fear. In this way, Ishiguro creates an incredibly poignant journey that mirrors the experience of ageing with a partner and the creeping move towards the ultimate separation.

Ishiguro is always readable but although plain in its language, The Buried Giant describes a world that is full of classic mediaeval tropes – monsters that must be vanquished, knights and civil wars – as well as drawing on the traditions of various other mythologies to form a narrative space that is uncanny and somehow both filled with interest and almost devoid of character. Everything is muddled, from literary reference-points to the geography; all this contributes to the undeniable sense of confusion and dream-like suspension of reality. For Ishiguro, these half-formed allusions represent memories falling to the failing mind, and say something about the value of remembering and the threat of not, a fact that any historian will keenly confirm.

The dialogue of the novel is oddly formal, characteristic of language when it is not coloured by memory, but left as a functional tool of communication. This style introduces questions about the art of language and what elevates it beyond its rudimentary use as a means of communicating ideas. So too, the knock on effect this has on the formation and nurturing of ideas themselves: if language is functional, impoverished even, then thought must lose something. Like the people who inhabit Ishiguro’s world, when memory fades and words fail, nothing quite fits together. It is an interesting technique and one that fits with the wider ideas in the novel, but for the reader, the dialogue-heavy passages can leave one feeling a little dry.

Beyond the most obvious examples, there are metaphors all over the place in the text if one looks hard enough – try, for example, to read Querig the fiery she-dragon who terrorises a people as a stand-in for Margaret Thatcher and the novel becomes an intriguing political allegory. Or consider the suspicious monks who, it is suggested, keep Querig alive – and The Buried Giant becomes an attack on theologies that attempt to remove free will and keep people spellbound and stupid, burying logic rather than facing the existential reality that would see them dispel all theology. Indeed, the scope and range of valid readings is enormous and, at times, one wonders if Ishiguro quite manages to pull off the huge number of, often conflicting, things he attempts in The Buried Giant. On the whole, one would have to say that he does, and where he doesn’t the sheer ambition more than makes up for any slight issues.

As the final pages close in, much of the mist has cleared for the reader, but things are by no means clear. The strange ending leaves one in undiscovered territory, unsure how things stand within the novel and forced to delve into the questions raised in the previous three hundred pages. It is an oddly appropriate end to an unusual and thought-provoking read, which is reminiscent of The Unconsoled in its dream-like quality. The reverberations of what Ishiguro has attempted here will run on long after the final pages for the reader, and, as a more accessible piece than The Unconsoled, might find wider acclaim. Expect to see The Buried Giant on the shortlist for many a fiction prize over the coming year (those, at least, that can see past its nominal categorisation as a Fantasy novel – a genre that doesn’t seem to find favour too often).

There's been quite a lot of negative press about this (and plenty of good too) and while I understand some of the points I really can't see this as the failure that some reviewers are labelling it. It is comfortably the best book I have read this year so far and found it profoundly moving.

Useful Links
Reviews of The Buried Giant on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of The Buried Giant on Amazon (US)

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Quotes #002: Famous First Lines

Great stories stay with us a long time after we read the last page, and close the book. But how many of these famous first lines can you identify? There’s no connection between the books, but all are considered classics in their own right. Post your guesses in the comments below, and let me know how you got on.
They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did.

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.

I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.

Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.

Mother died today. Or maybe, yesterday; I can't be sure.

I am an invisible man.

Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.

I have never begun a novel with more misgiving.

All children, except one, grow up.

Review: The Restoration of Otto Laird by Nigel Packer

The Restoration of Otto Laird by Nigel Packer book cover
The Restoration of Otto Laird (2014) by Nigel Packer introduces the reader to Otto Laird: an ageing architect who has long retired from the hustle of the London scene to a quiet villa in Switzerland where he lives with his second wife Anika. However, when he hears that a high-rise building he designed in the 1960s – London’s Marlowe House, a brutalist masterpiece – is to be demolished and its residents evicted, he is spurred to action. Invited by a television company to stay for a weekend in the building as part of the campaign to save it, Otto – in poor health but with his old fire quickly rekindling – sets off for London for the first time in twenty-five years. It is a poignant journey and as he rediscovers the London landscape he once knew well, so too Otto retraces memories past: of how a Viennese Jew who spent much of his childhood hiding in a Belgian basement from the Nazis grew to be a young man of imposing stature who established himself as an architectural prodigy in London, met and married his first wife, Cynthia – a fellow architect of some genius – had a son, fought the socialist fight, became estranged from his son, lost faith in the socialist movement, retreated into a bourgeois life, and found himself happily married to a younger woman and hiding away in the Swiss Alps. It turns out that Otto has had quite a life but as his memories spread out, they paint the picture of a life full not only of great triumphs but pathos too. As Marlowe House’s chances of survival fade, what chance that Otto’s dwindling life can, at least, be saved?

The central metaphor – of a phallic building that represents hope, social justice, and more, about to be toppled, mirroring the decline of its architect, and his personal loss of virility – is a good starting point for a novel, as is the general premise of a spatial trip triggering a psycho-temporal journey in the narrator. Packer’s idea, too, of using Otto’s long life to encompass some of the big events and ideas of the twentieth century is reasonable, if a little reminiscent of Forrest Gump-style excess (I will hold my hands up here and admit that this particular style rarely works for me). However, from these promising seeds fails to grow any substantial exploration of memory and aging, of the cyclical nature of ideas and the spaces in which we live, or even of the gap between intellectual concept and practical reality in the case of Marlowe House (although there is some good if limited stuff on the attempts by the production company who have facilitated Otto’s return to package his cause for a television audience and also on the reality of living in a building like Marlowe House and being pulled about by the ‘powers that be’). Where this could have been a poignant reflection on frailty and family, however, it is instead a more tepid amble through a collection of, often, badly conceived vignettes.

The plot, while on the surface intriguing, is relayed in a rather heavy-handed way, with far too much told and not enough shown. Sometimes this weakness for direct telling is delivered through Otto’s own voice, but more often it is via the crude interjections of the selectively omniscient narrator. The memories that Otto relays are somewhat better in this respect, examining as they do different periods of his life and showing the construction of the man who narrates the story. However, Packer opens up so many plot strands – in an attempt, one suspects, to encompass as many themes and points in twentieth Century history as possible – that many feel superfluous or poorly constructed. To give an example of the former, Otto’s youth spent hiding from the Nazis in a cellar seems, really, to have nothing to do with anything else in the plot – it is diverting enough, but essentially unnecessary. To look to the latter, the relationship with Otto’s son, Daniel, is constructed via a few short memories and the whole trajectory of this plot strand is (i) rather weakly mapped out, and (ii) entirely predictable.

On top of this, the dialogue is, sadly, completely wooden and painfully clunky: the characters lack distinct voices and too often speech is used purely for conveying plot points without any real feeling for the rhythm of a conversation or the feeling beneath the words. Otto is a reasonably drawn character but not quite as engaging as he is sold to be; enough, however, that the reader grows close to him. This allows for moments of genuine melancholy in the novel, predominantly in the sections towards its end as Otto nurses his wife through the final days of her life, and these are well done. One can’t help but wonder how much stronger the book could have been if the plot had been more concentrated on Otto’s two marriages and the interweaving of his decline with that of Marlowe House. Nevertheless, what exists of this plot strand is good and worth reading.

It is worth remembering with these gripes that this is only Packer’s first novel and that these are all issues which can be ironed out. In interviews he has said the he drew on his personal interest in some of London’s brutalist buildings as well as the architecture of Erno Goldfinger to form the basis of the book and this shows in the passages that revolve around architecture. Although this isn’t enough to hold the story together, these passages do point to a good observational eye and offer hope for Packer’s future projects.

Here, the central idea of The Restoration of Otto Laird is really good and the blurb does a great job of selling the novel’s strong points, however, the execution of the ideas leaves a fair bit to be desired. Sadly, the blurb rather oversells the book and one might easily be left wondering where the “funny, moving, and heart-warming” novel is, and exactly how Otto could be seen as one of the “most endearing protagonists you will ever meet”. None of this, of course, is the novel’s fault, but it does create false expectations that the novel will always fail to deliver. Instead, what one actually gets is a gentle but melancholic meandering through an old man’s fading memories. This, clearly, is not quite dynamic or precise enough to work as a sales pitch, but perhaps that points to the more deeply rooted problem with Otto Laird and his rather muddled restoration.

I was disappointed by this: the pitch was really good, but the book just didn't really deliver. It was too messy, ponderous, and poorly executed. This sounds like I disliked more than I probably did, but being luke warm, as I was, is a pretty big indictment of a book.

Useful Links
Reviews of The Restoration of Otto Laird on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of The Restoration of Otto Laird on Amazon (US)

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Reading Plan: April 2015

The Restoration of Otto Laird by Nigel Packer book cover
My good reviewing form stalled a little this month, I know. Not sure what happened there – March rather ran away with itself. Time to write another of these monthly plans, however, and I shall hope to have a little more time for reading and reviewing what with the Easter break. If nothing else, I shall be running on copious amounts of chocolate and that’s always good for productivity!

My main read for this month is going to be The Restoration of Otto Laird, which I mentioned in last month’s reading plan. It is the story of an ageing architect travelling back to Britain from his Swiss villa to try and save a building he designed some forty-odd years previously. I’ve read a little of this already and it has been pretty good so far: it’s a good idea and a neat way of having a character retrace old steps and memories.

Other than this, I’m looking back myself. Firstly stopping off with Jean Brodie when she was in her prime, and then further back still. It is a funny thing, but I am sure I have read Muriel Sparks’s short novel before – reading it now is a mix of de ja vu and half-remembered scenes – and yet I really don't think I have actually read the book before. Do you get book de ja vu – have I reached that point where I can no longer remember things I’ve read? When I used to work in a public library, readers would frequently return books and claim they didn’t bother to read them as they realised, after a few pages, that they had already read the book. Pulp fiction, I thought, disappointingly formulaic to the point of being entirely unmemorable. How wrong I was, probably.

My book club are reading Far From the Madding Crowd over Easter and, Hardy being one of my favourite authors, I’m looking forward to this one. I’m also planning to read Mansfield Park as I attempt to get through those Jane Austen’s novels still on my TBR pile and catch up to the majority of the rest of the reading world!

That’s enough to keep me busy this April – what will you be reading this month?

Notable Posts from March
Review: The Library Book by The Reading Agency
Review: All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

Review: All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews book cover
All My Puny Sorrows (2014) by Miriam Toews is a heart-breakingly personal stories of two sisters caught in an impossible struggle: as the narrator puts it, “[s]he wanted to die and I wanted her to live and we were enemies who loved each other.” Elfrieda von Riesen (Elf) is a world-renowned concert pianist, attractive and with a loving partner. She also wants to die. Yolandi (Yoli) is her younger sister, writer of pulp fiction, and partnerless mother to two; she has but one crucial quality her older sister doesn’t, the Darwinian survival instinct. Opening after Elf’s latest suicide attempt, in which she has drunk a bottle of bleach and slashed open her wrists, the story examines what it means for a family, and more particularly a sibling, to live with a loved one whose heart is not just set on oblivion, but whose spirit is already there. Yoli’s narrative traces the sisters’ early life in Canada, raised by Mennonite parents, through the suicide of their father, and into their chaotic adult lives – All My Puny Sorrows is more than a story of suffering and grief, but of life in all its messy shades.

If the subject matter sounds heavy, it is made all the more weighty by the knowledge that Toews was able to draw strongly on her own experiences for the book: her father committed suicide by kneeling before a train in 1998 – an experience that Toews wrote about in Swing Low: A Life – and, ten years later, her sister repeated the act. But Toews writes with humour and clarity, and elevates the novel above the base sadness of its theme. Like Toews, the von Riesens grow up in a stifling Mennonite village – a familiar autobiographical theme of Toews’s writing. In such an oppressive atmosphere, Elf’s wild spirit is constantly clipped by the conservative, patriarchal society she finds herself growing up in. Even her piano playing is seen as an improper pastime and, for Elf, becomes an act of rebellion. It is hardly surprising then, to find that she turns this talent into a career – the ultimate act of rebellion, escape gleaned through her individuality – but equally that she spends the rest of her life trying to reclaim her body through starvation, pills, and violence.

After the constricting atmosphere of her small town Mennonite upbringing, come the demands of her fans, and the dehumanising psychiatric profession, which sets up new protocols and demands that Elf must adhere to if she is to receive their compassion and care. As Elf lies helpless – voiceless, her throat scarred so badly from the bleach she has swallowed that she cannot speak – doctors quibble over how she communicates with them, and nurses expend more energy trying to enforce arbitrary rules than they do trying to find compassion and healing for their patient. It is a pretty damning picture of indifference from those that, often, stand between some of the sickest in society and death.

Toews’s prose is littered with tight sentences – overwhelming emotions kept, for the most part, in check – which express powerful, thought provoking ideas in simple forms. Much of the prose is laced with a gallows humour too and while the weight of the situation is often thrown off by the characters in throwaway comments, the overall pathos never gives way to optimism; at best, it can be said All My Puny Sorrows is a book about survival, and the pain and promise that brings. The quietness of Toews’s writing, the non-dramatic style of death and dying, is very well done, and far closer to life than any melodramatic depiction of mental illness that glamorises suicide and pain.

In large sections, the dialogue is not punctuated, the story a free flow of experience through Yoli’s eyes. As a narrator, Yoli is so focused on her personal faults, that it is very easy for the reader to miss all of her strengths; to spend your life pulled across the country, or even the world, flying to the bedside of a loved one after their latest attempt to leave you permanently is no small act. To do so without bitterness, while your own life and those of your children are disrupted, and with generous love is something quite special – a quiet form of heroism that many locked into similar situations will empathise with.

For the most part, All My Puny Sorrows exists without a plot and in a particular snatch of time for the von Riesens; it’s an examination of the end of a life, and in that sense the only real movement in the plot is the inevitable rolling towards the final conclusion. As death lurks about her sister, waiting its call to arms, life for Yoli can be quite repetitive – constant drives to and from the hospital to visit Elf hardly constitute high-octane adventure – and inevitably this affects the reader a little, the monotony of caring for and about someone who is on the brink infecting the prose, as it should, and causing the plot, which is slim anyway, to falter at various stages.

Authors are, unsurprisingly, prone to dropping in characters who quote poets, and possess all the qualities a lit-chic bohemian should. At times this wears a little thin, and here Elf’s character could have stood a little more development and a little less intellectual peacocking (and why, as a pianist, so much emphasis on poets and books – again, a slightly too familiar penchant of the literary author?). This does allow, however, for some good stuff on the inability of art to save a life, even if it manages to ornament it and sustain it in the short term; art is, against the harsh reality of the world, a palliative that holds in it everything that is life. From the title – a reference to a Coleridge poem that laments the loss of a sister – onwards, literature is heavily interwoven with the story, William Wordsworth to A. A. Milne, Italo Calvino to Raymond Chandler – and this is an unashamedly literary work. At times the references feel a little forced, but at others they work well to express the culture in which Elf and Yoli have immersed themselves; their escape from the reality of small-town Canada.

With all the literary allusions and focus on life through Yoli’s eyes, the connection that Toews builds between Elf and the reader is only just strong enough to make the story take; although all is seen through Yoli’s eyes, the reader still needs to feel that connection that tethers Yoli to Elf, and the reader to the story. Toews pulls this off, but only just.

All My Puny Sorrows is a delicate and sensitive novel on death and living; a personal, human story laced with bittersweet humour and moments of poignancy. It’s a knowing, engaged book that faces the decision to opt out of life that many people take, with an unflinching but never flabbily emotive style. More than this, it is a novel about sisterhood – a unique relationship – and everything that entails; the love, the fighting and competitiveness, and ultimately the conspiratorial notion that only siblings can conjure of themselves against their parents, against the world. To lose your only sister is to be a solo-conspirator; a place of irreparable loneliness. It’s a truth that both Yoli and Toews share.

This is a painful but still enjoyable read, which is quite an achievement - it's hardly surpising that it's doing well at the awards this year. It does falter occassionally, but that is more than forgivable.

Useful Links
Reviews of All My Puny Sorrows on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of All My Puny Sorrows on Amazon (US)