Bad Blood

Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup

By John Carreyrou

All Posts Contain Spoilers

I imagine that one of the drawbacks of being a journalist that is that, in real life, villains are thin on the ground.

Bad BloodWriters of fiction can conjure a villain whenever they want, and drape him in the accoutrement of evil.  He can wear a poisoner’s ring; his literal fangs can drip literal blood; flowers can wilt at his approach – no problem at all for a writer of fiction.

But journalists are, at least hypothetically, bounded by truth, and the truth is: most humans are not villains.  None are perfect, most are complicated, many are bad, but very, very few are truly wicked.

There are exceptions, of course.  Every once and a while, a thorough-going monster hoves into view, and a lucky journalist discovers it.  I can only imagine that those discoveries are the journalistic scoops of a lifetime, the exposure of a real-life Iago in our midst.

Which makes me suspect that John Carreyrou must have just about shit a brick when he realized that he had discovered one.  He seems like a Very Serious Journalist, so I’m sure he was super professional about it, but I’ll bet that, in his secret heart of hearts, when he realized what it was that he had found, he did little, private journalistic leaps for joy.

Because he found a genuine villain.  A real one.  He discovered a villain, and he discovered her when everyone else thought that she was hot stuff.  He exposed her.

I remember when the Wall Street Journal published their first Theranos exposé.  It was the first I had heard of Theranos, but I remember thinking that the description of the technology sounded…optimistic.  I remember wondering about Elizabeth Holmes, about whether, if the Wall Street Journal allegations were true, she had known.  CEOs often do not know about the specific actions of their scientific staff, I knew.  Perhaps she had been ignorant.

She was not.

Elizabeth Holmes
Elizabeth Holmes

Bad Blood‘ is the story of Elizabeth Holmes and the company that she founded, Theranos.  Theranos’ mission statement was simple: comprehensive, rapid blood-testing from finger-pricks, rather than intravenous blood-draws.  Holmes had a fear of needles, as she famously explained during pitches, and she wanted to spare patients the stress of them.  She wanted to make blood-drawing so quick, so painless, that no one ever lost a loved one to a condition which might have been caught by a blood test.

At no point during its existence did Theranos possess the technology to do this.  However, their lack did not stop Holmes from promising her investors that they did, from producing prototypes, from entering into partnerships with pharmaceutical companies, and from testing on patients.  At its peak, Theranos was valued at over $50 billion, and was running tests in Walgreens on actual humans.

I’m not sure quite how to express how convincing, unrelenting, and shocking ‘Bad Blood‘ is.  Even for a cynical person (which I am), the amount of bad faith, of systematic dishonesty, displayed by Holmes and her vice-president (and boyfriend) Sunny Balwani, was enormous.

And, what’s worse, when their employees called them on it, told them that their machines couldn’t meet quality controls, or that their results couldn’t be replicated, weren’t matching the control samples, they fired those employees, threatened them with lawsuits, and even, in some cases, blackmailed them.

Perhaps you find it slightly incredible that a book about what is, essentially, a medical device company lying about the precision of blood tests would be fascinating.  But fascinating isn’t even an adequate term – this is a page-turner.  ‘Page-turner’ is an over-used term, so I would like to take just a second to explore what that term is actually supposed to mean, to explain how I am using it.

A page-turner is a book which demands that you turn its pages.  Some books you move in and out of at leisure, it is up to you whether you are reading them or not.  You may love them, and appreciate them very much, but they don’t call to you when they’re closed.

John Carreyrou
John Carreyrou

But some books are not up to you.  Some books require a sort of devil’s bargain: once you start them, they own you until you finish them.  They shout at you when you’re not with them, and you move through your life with half your mind, because the other half of your mind is forever grasping back to where you left the book.

That’s what ‘page-turner’ means – it means that it isn’t up to you who turns the pages.  And ‘Bad Blood‘ is a page-turner by that definition.

(And a contagion – I read it when a friend from my old lab at MIT told me that she had read it in one sitting, when she insisted that I read it.  I read it in one sitting on a train to visit my parents – when I disembarked, I told my mother about it, and she then spent that evening reading late into the night.  She had finished it when I woke up the next morning.  I have given it to at least three people since.)

I should be clear: partly, ‘Bad Blood‘ is so absorbing because it isn’t really a book, not in the artistic sense of the word.  It’s a case for the prosecution.  Carreyrou is a good journalistic writer; his prose conveys information without getting in the way.  His meticulousness shines through the words – he is totally convincing.  He is also, I think, furious (the last section of the book details Holmes’ attempt to destroy him personally), and that also shines through the words.  But, in this case, words and personality don’t equal literature – they equal a plot, a gripping story, one of those rare books which is more like a movie than printed word.

And, because I believe that it is true, I recommend it highly.  These examples of far-out villainy, they are rare in real life.  We are lucky in that.  But, it is rarer still that they are so well-documented, so thoroughly illuminated and detailed.  And we are even luckier in that, when it happens.  Because, rare though they are, they are real, and it’s worth taking a real hard look at them, every once and a while.

World War Z

An Oral History of the Zombie War

Max Brooks

All Posts Contain Spoilers

Any reader of books knows that the books you love, the books you proselytize, the books you recommend to people at parties and display proudly on your shelves, say almost as much about you as you might about them.  And, of course, some kinds of books are more rewarding, in terms of what they say about you, than others.

Masterpieces make for lousy social accessories.  These are the Books Everyone Thinks Are Great.  No matter how much you may love a classic, no one will think better of you for it, for the simple reason that they all also believe that they love the classics.  Loving these books is no feat, because it requires no personal judgement at all.  You won’t ever impress anyone by loving ‘Hamlet’.

Some books, it’s fun to love them because everyone knows that they ought to love them, but no one has actually read them.  We can think of these as the Books You Love So That You Can Show You’ve Read Them.  This is how people who actually like Proust get to feel all the time*.

*I’m not one of these people.

And then there are the books which no one expects anyone to enjoy, because they aren’t fun at all.  These are Books Which Show Character.  It’s really fun to love these books, because then people think that you have unexplored depths, that you must know something that they don’t know, or that you possess a tortured, artistic soul.  Imagine how fun it would be to announce that your favorite book was, oh, ‘The Anatomy of Melancholy’.

But my own personal favorite category, in terms of social accessorizing via reading list, is Secretly Great Books Everyone Else Thinks Are Trash.  I’m a little contrarian, so it gives me enormous (and, yes, extremely juvenile) pleasure to go to bat for books which everyone else thinks are Beach Reading, to argue that these books are, instead, Great Art.

World War ZSo here I go:  I think that ‘World War Z‘ is Great Art.

I’m not exaggerating for effect – I love this book.  I think it’s magnificent.  I’ve now read it three times, and I like it better every time I read it.  No, I love it better every time I read it, and I refuse to be ashamed of this fact.

World War Z‘ is, as advertised, the oral history of the Zombie War.  It is a collection of the personal reminiscences of the survivors, from all over the world, from the ordinary citizens who witnessed it to the presidents and generals who prosecuted it.  It covers the entire war, from the first few cases, the handling (or mishandling) of the outbreak by various nations, the desperate flight of millions of people from the cities, the overwhelming and near extinction of the human race, and the eventual beating back, the destruction, of the zombie menace.

I love this book.  I love this book because it is so smart.  It’s smart and it’s thorough, thought-out and careful and precise and imagined down to the last detail.

I’m going to land on this point with a little more emphasis, because I am sure that most people unfamiliar with this work (or, heaven forfend, people who saw the movie) would be surprised, perhaps, to hear ‘smart’ as the primary description of a book about, uh, zombies.  Literal zombies.

But that’s the thing about smart – it can work with anything, can make something brilliant out of starting material which is, well, stupid.

ZombieZombies have never been my favorite metaphor.  All the ghouls and goblins have their metaphorical purpose, the existential conundrum they were written to pose to us.  Vampires are about the price of immortality; werewolves are about our inner beasts.  Ghosts are about death (obviously).  Zombies are about humanity, what makes us human, whether it’s our bodies or our minds.  Zombies (usually) ask the essential question: when do our loved ones stop being themselves?  When can we let them go?  When are we willing to destroy them?  Could you shoot your mother in the face, to save yourself?  Your child?  Your spouse?

But that’s not what ‘World War Z‘ asks, not exactly.  ‘World War Z’ is a novel of geopolitics; it is a novel of logistics.  Its nearest analog, to my mind, is Asimov’s ‘Foundation‘ trilogy.  It’s a novel about how societies cope with unimagined and unmanageable threats, threats that come from within.  Arational threats.

I recognize that this is not ‘Walking Dead’-sexy, but it’s a lot smarter.  And it’s more interesting, more fun to read.  There aren’t any hand-to-hand battles with zombies here, no slow, wrenching transformations of loved ones.  This isn’t a book about people as individuals; it’s a book about people as nations, people as animals.

And it’s plausible, super plausible.  It’s the kind of the book that makes you feel as though, if a zombie apocalypse happens, it’ll look a lot like this.  Not the way it will look to you (or to a bunch of people way better-looking or tougher than you), but how it will look from above, how it will look on a grand scale.

Max Brooks
Max Brooks

This is so much more interesting than watching a bunch of grubby people scramble around in the woods.  Zombies just aren’t that interesting as an interpersonal problem, but as a logistical problem, they are fascinating.  They are both a disease and an enemy, a contagion and an infiltration.  And ‘World War Z‘ captures this so well, holding the problem up to the light and holding it this way and that, so that you can admire facets of it that you’ve never noticed before.

I’ll give you an example, perhaps my favorite example, of a really great tweak to the old zombie problem.  It comes in the middle of the book, as the tide begins to turn.

(Remember that the book is structured as a series of interviews)

“The biggest problem were quislings.

Quislings?

Yeah, you know, the people that went nutballs and started acting like zombies.

Could you elaborate?

Well, as I understand it, there’s a type of person who just can’t deal with a fight-or-die situation.  They’re always drawn to what they’re afraid of.  Instead of resisting it, they want to please it, join it, try to be like it…But you couldn’t do it in this war.  You couldn’t just throw up your hands and say, ‘Hey, don’t kill me, I’m on your side.’  There was no gray area in this fight, no in between.  I guess some people just couldn’t accept that.  It put them right over the edge.  They started moving like zombies, sounding like them, even attacking, trying to eat other people…Do you know that quislings were the reason some people used to think they were immune?…I think the saddest thing about them is that they gave up so much and in the end lost anyway.

Why is that?

‘Cause even though we can’t tell the difference between them, the real zombies can.  Remember early in the war, when everybody was trying to work on a way to turn the living dead against one another?  There was all this ‘documented proof’ about infighting – eyewitness accounts and even footage of one zombie attacking another.  Stupid.  It was zombies attacking quislings, but you never would have known that to look at it.  Quislings don’t scream.  They just lie there, not even trying to fight, writhing in that slow, robotic way, eaten alive by the very creatures they’re trying to be. (p. 198)

You have to admit, that is brilliant.  It’s better than brilliant: it’s correct.  It is a true observation about humans, but placed in an entirely fictional, terrifying, absurd context.  Or, to be more precise, it is an entirely fictional, terrifying, absurd context which draws your attention to a true observation about humans you had already made, but had never really understood.

That’s what science fiction is for.  That’s what it does: reteaches you things you already knew, or should have known.  This is also, by the way, what Great Art does.  And I will defend as Great Art any book which takes something you thought you knew, no matter how stupid, and then twists and turns it back around on you, so that you discover that you were looking at yourself all along.

Dietland

By Sarai Walker

All Posts Contain Spoilers

This is probably just a coincidence, but I’ve been reading a lot about female rage recently.

It’s very strange that I’m on this run of books about women’s anger.  It’s not by design, but I have, in the past few months, picked up book after book with this theme: ‘Alias Grace’, ‘The Power‘, ‘I Love Dick’, ‘Shrill’, even ‘Fates and Furies’.  I’m not doing it on purpose.

DietlandAt least, I wasn’t doing it on purpose, but then I read this article in The Atlantic about all the new T.V. shows about female rage which are being made, one of which is a show based on the novel ‘Dietland‘.  I had actually never heard of the novel ‘Dietland’ before, but this article describes it as a novel in which “a guerrilla group of women kidnaps and and murders men who’ve been accused of crimes against women, ranging from institutionalized misogyny to violent sexual assault.  But that’s just a subplot.”

Vigilante justice is an old interest of mine (whether or not the avenging agents are female) and, if we’re being totally honest, I enjoy consuming a healthy dose of fictional violence in my media.  I am used to getting this dose from movies and television, but I’m not at all averse to taking it in book-form.

So I was all over this book.  I ordered it right away and started it within minutes of its arrival.

Dietland‘ is the story of a few months in the life of Plum Kettle.  Plum weighs 300 pounds.  She wears all black, and counts calories obsessively.  Every day, she goes to the same cafe and ghost-answers emails on behalf of the editor of the teen magazine Daisy Chain, dispensing advice to thousands of desperate teen girls every day about the issues which trouble and occupy them.  She secretly orders colorful clothes for a thinner woman, hiding them in her closet.

Plum occupies a permanent sense-state of unreality, the persistent belief that her ‘real life’ has not yet started.  That life, the real one, will begin when she is thin, and she has scheduled bariatric surgery to finally achieve what years of dieting and misery has not.  One day, however, while she waits, she notices that she is being followed.  She soon learns that she is being observed for recruitment to a feminist collective, Calliope House.  Calliope House was founded by the daughter of a famous diet guru, and now serves to shelter and protect women as they free themselves from the cultural baggage which has been loaded on them.

While Plum is trying to decide whether or not she would like to set her baggage down in the care of Calliope House, a group of vigilantes acting under the name ‘Jennifer’ begin killing men.  What begins with the gruesome murders of a few rapists will escalate into a crime spree across nations, the killing and terrorizing of men responsible for violence, both physical and psychological, against women.

Sarai Walker
Sarai Walker

It’s not Great Art.  ‘Dietland‘ is probably not a novel for the ages.  Walker has said that she wanted to write ‘Fight Club‘ with women, and that’s probably a decent approximation of what she’s accomplished.  ‘Dietland’ is a lot like ‘Fight Club’: it’s a single-note novel, extremely readable, funny and quick.  Grounded in the specific culture and moment which produced it, and speaking to a very specific unhappiness which denizens of that culture might experience.  Both are novels of modern isolation, but they lack the grandeur of true loneliness and the art which speaks to it.  ‘Fight Club’ is cleverer, but ‘Dietland’ is more emotionally focused.

What do I mean, ’emotionally focused’?  ‘Dietland‘ isn’t just about female rage – it’s about one kind of female rage, the kind which grows as you receive ceaseless, personal, painful reminders that you are not a good enough female, that you are not attractive enough, not thin enough, not pretty enough.  When you are bombarded by images of women whom you will never resemble, offered products and services to make you look at least a little more like them, and threats about what will happen to you if you don’t look like them: no one will want you, no one will marry you, the person who loves you now will get tired of you and find someone younger, prettier, better.  About the ways you begin to mutilate yourself when every piece of cultural information suggests that you should, when every female who is held up as ideal does not look like you.

The constant grinding of this message afflicts most women, no matter how thin or pretty they are.  For Plum, it has exiled her from all normal human intercourse, from love and relationships not only with men but also with other women.  It has convinced her that she will not even be real until she is thin.

And it is about the sort of rage, the sort of spiritual violence, which it takes a soul like that to break past a life of shame.  About the price we pay for towing the line, and the price we pay for breaking out.

And it’s focused on that problem, on communicating it in language that other women will understand.

The clearest, most pointed, and most effective, device in the novel is a room in the basement of Calliope House, a small room lined floor to ceiling with screens which stream, at all hours of the day and night, the most searched for pornography on Porn Hub:

Dietland Porn Room
An image of the Porn Room from the AMC adaptation of ‘Dietland’

‘The room was circular, larger than my bedroom and the other bedrooms combined.  The walls were banks of screens, all of them synchronized with the same scenes…On the screens were a naked woman and three naked men on a bed.  The men’s penises were inserted into the woman’s vagina and anus and mouth.  After a minute, the men removed their penises and reinserted them in different places.  There were always three penises inside the woman.  The men twisted and contorted the woman so that what they were doing was visible to the camera.  As the scene went on, the woman became haggard, her black eye makeup smeared with semen and sweat.  She was the underside of a piece of Lego, her bodily orifices nothing more than slots for the men’s penises.’ (p. 182)

It’s not beautifully written, but it’s very…well, focused, right?  Walker has figured out what makes her angry, and she’s pretty good at communicating it, which means that if you are at all susceptible to prose text, by the end of ‘Dietland‘ you will probably be angry, too.

Which, I would argue, is a good thing.  Novels are one of the ways that we can see the world through other people’s eyes; it’s how we try on other people’s feelings.  You don’t have to keep this anger with you, don’t have to buy it, but it’s worth taking it for a test drive, to see how it might feel to walk around the world in Plum Kettle’s body, to listen to her describe her own rage.  It will, I suspect, echo in the hearts of most women, but even if it doesn’t echo in yours, isn’t it worth knowing?

I Love Dick

By Chris Kraus

All Posts Contain Spoilers

Have you ever been at an art museum and heard some idiot, standing in front of a Pollack or a Rothko, say, “I don’t get it – I could paint that”?  And did you then feel a stab of rage towards that idiot, because a) even if they could have painted it, they didn’t and b) they definitely could not have painted it.  And did you silently congratulate yourself on your sophistication and appreciation, on your ability to see the enormous amount of skill and learning and vision that lies behind deceptively simple masterpieces?

Well I definitely have, which is what made it a little alarming to read ‘I Love Dick‘, by Chris Kraus this week and think, over and over again, “I could have written this”.

I Love DickI Love Dick‘ was Kraus’s first book.  Published in 1997, it is an epistolary novel, a series of letters from a woman Chris Kraus (and her husband, Sylvère) to Dick, her husband’s friend, with whom she has fallen in love.  The novel was, apparently, in large part memoir; Kraus was married to Sylvère Lontringer and the eponymous Dick was later identified as the cultural critic Dick Hebdige.

However, the novel isn’t really about either of those men – it’s about Kraus, and about female desire, uncontrolled.  It’s about how when your culture will not recognize your legitimate desires, it robs you and your desires of dignity.  It is about the way that women in unreciprocated lust are ridiculous in our culture (“debased”, to use Kraus’s word).  It is Kraus’s attempt to take back her own dignity by fully inhabiting that debasement.

I loved ‘I Love Dick‘, and when I say, “I could have written this”, I don’t mean, “I could have written this because it seems so easy, so amateurish”.  I mean: “I wish I had written this.”  I mean: “I am so glad that someone wrote this, and I only wish that it had been me”.

Chris Kraus
Chris Kraus from The New Yorker

I Love Dick‘ is considered an important feminist text (The Guardian called it “the most important book about men and women written in the last century”), and that makes sense to me: I feel as though I connected to it primarily as a woman.  This is unusual for me – I don’t read books as a woman.  And what I mean by that is, ‘woman’ is not the first lens through which I experience most literature.  Sometimes a text, or a portion of a text, will remind me that I am a woman, but it is rare that I engage with a book in constant awareness of the fact that I am a woman, rare that my femininity, my lived experience as a woman, is the best tool I have for connecting with a text.

Aside/Manifesto: I believe that there is an enormous amount of information about humanity lurking within the Amazon algorithm.  When Amazon suggests a product to you based on your purchase, it is essentially telling you what kind of person you are, and what it is that your kind of person buys.  What I have learned from ‘I Love Dick”s Amazon page is that Amazon thinks that people like me (women?) are stupid: the ‘Sponsored Products Related to this Item’ include: ‘Stone Heart: A Single Mom & Mountain Man Romance’, ‘Bad Seed: A Brother’s Best Friend Romance’ and something beggaring description called ‘Falling For My Dirty Uncle: A Virgin and Billionaire Romance’.  These books are ‘related’ to ‘I Love Dick’ the way gonorrhea is related to penicillin.

But I found that I did read ‘I Love Dick‘ in large part as a woman.  It is as a woman that I was best able to understand what Kraus felt as she thrashed around in love, and shame, and fear.  And it is as a woman that I was best able to relate to her desire to understand, articulate, express herself.  If femininity is a house, a large, complicated, rambling house, with an old, old main building but with additions and wings and rooms in the back that we all forgot were there, then ‘I Love Dick’ is spring cleaning, airing out the attic and the basement and spending some time in all those rooms which we don’t like to show to guests.

Chris Kraus 2
Chris Kraus from The Guardian

And the part of me that did not read ‘I Love Dick‘ as a woman read it as someone who loves texts, and meaning.  ‘I Love Dick’ is often described as a semiotics text.  Kraus was a filmmaker (in fact, much of what ‘I Love Dick’ is about is her reckoning with the failure of her filmmaking career; it is failure transformed, escaped from, into sexual desire, and, really, who hasn’t been there?), and if her book is about love, and lust, and failure, then it is also about art.  It is about how we use art to understand ourselves, and our feelings.  It is about the collision of our selves and the content we consume, and how the result is our lives.

Kraus loves art that I do not love, but I understood the enormous meaning that she draws from art.  I am, like her, built from the parts I have found in art.  And, even if her taste does not suit, her eye is phenomenal.  She is a witty, biting observer of…everything.  Born, perhaps, to be a critic, she weaves art into her life, and then shreds the result with observation:

“Years later Chris would realize that her fondness for bad art is exactly like Jane Eyre’s attraction to Rochester, a mean horse-faced junky: bad characters invite invention.” (p. 21)

“”As soon as sex takes place, we fall,” she wrote, thinking, knowing from experience, that sex short circuits all imaginative exchange.  The two together get too scary.  So she wrote some more about Henry James.” (p. 51)

“Because [Chris and Sylvère] are no longer having sex, the two maintain their intimacy via deconstruction: i.e., they tell each other everything.” (p. 21)

People often seem to object to ‘I Love Dick’ on the grounds that it is ‘difficult’, that it is dry and theoretical and abstract.  I find this puzzling: I found warmth and wisdom and sadness here, no difficulty, just a winding path.  A novel analyzing love is still about love, and observing something doesn’t make it any less true.  I recognize myself in Kraus’s love, and I think that many women do, in the snarls and complexity of it all:

“If the coyote is the last surviving animal, hatred’s got to be the last emotion in the world.” (p. 160)

“How do you continue when the connection to the other person is broken (when the connection is broken to yourself)?  To be in love with someone means believing that to be in someone else’s presence is the only means of being, completely, yourself.” (p. 168)

“And isn’t sincerity just the denial of complexity?” (p. 181)

“Isn’t sincerity just the denial of complexity?”  I could have written that.

Fates and Furies

By Lauren Groff

All Posts Contain Spoilers

Sometimes, I just don’t have anything to say about a book.

This isn’t because the book is bad, necessarily.  On the contrary, some books which are considered Great Books have left me shrugging in this way, with a complete lack of comment.  I felt this way when I read ‘The Adventures of Augie March‘ by Saul Bellow, and ‘Neuromancer‘ by William Gibson, and ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being‘ by Milan Kundera (that last one is obviously a joke – I HATED ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’).

And that’s sort of how I feel about ‘Fates and Furies‘: like, ‘Well, that was a book’.  I liked it, actually (I think); I read it quickly, with pleasure.  I just don’t have anything to say about it.

Fates and FuriesFates and Furies‘ is the story of a marriage.  It is a marriage joined in youth, impetuously, by two badly damaged and beautiful young people right after they graduate from college.  The first half of the book is the story of their married life from the point of view of the husband, Lotto (short for Lancelot) Satterwhite, failed actor turned successful playwright, as he adores, fears, and chases his wife through their decades of marriage.

The second half of the novel is told from the point of view of his wife, Mathilde, after Lotto’s sudden death in his forties.  Her widowhood sends Mathilde, now without an anchor, reeling into fury and despair, and through her flashbacks we learn how Lotto’s wife saw their marriage.  In a sense, we learn what really happened.

Of course, that’s the whole point: in a marriage, as in any human relationship, there is no “what really happened” – there are only the beliefs of the participants and the witnesses.  There may be a provable fact here and there, but these matter so much less than you would think, certainly less than you would hope.  In the end, our own experience is king, and ‘Fates and Furies‘ is about how discordant that experience can be even in the most “successful” marriage.

Which, of course, is all very true, and well-worn literary territory, and Groff does it nicely, and I just don’t have a ton more to say about it.  It’s a good read; it’s compelling.  You’re interested in these people, at least while you’re with them, but I doubt that I’ll be thinking about Lotto and Mathilde again.  ‘Fates and Furies‘ isn’t the first novel (and won’t be the last) to tell me that love and understanding are two different things, and that all love is, in a way, narcissism, but that it is no less necessary for that.

Maybe it’s just because I’m so cynical by nature, but I just don’t find novels about what an emotional sham marriage is to be at all scandalous, pleasingly or otherwise.  We get it, don’t we?  We’re all strangers to each other, in the end.  This path is so well trod by now that I really can’t muster even the most banal observations about it.

However, it seems as though I am the only one with nothing to say about ‘Fates and Furies‘.  Nothing to say, and, in fact, two years too late to say it.  Apparently, ‘Fates and Furies’ was the book to read in 2015.

According to The Guardian:

“Not only has Groff’s novel, by the Wall Street Journal’s count, landed on more US year-end best-of lists than any other work of fiction, but Amazon has made it official, stamping its endorsement on Fates and Furies as the retailer’s book of the year. The cherry on the top came from Barack Obama, who earlier this month told People magazine he liked Fates and Furies more than anything else he’d read in 2015.”

Really?  Huh.  More than anything else?

The Guardian offered this explanation for the book’s wild success:

Lauren Groff
Lauren Groff

“On the surface, this premise echoes the familiar observation that even two people who live together intimately can end up feeling they hardly know each other. Given that most fiction is read by women, and that the purchase of a hardcover novel suggests a certain midlife affluence, it’s hardly surprising that so many book buyers would find this theme arresting and easy to relate to.  They are at that point in life when they realise that a wedding is less the end of a fairytale than the beginning of a mystery, and sometimes an ugly one.”

Well, I may not have much to say about ‘Fates and Furies’ itself, but I have a lot to say about that.

First of all, I don’t think that ‘Fates and Furies‘ is about the fact that two people who live together intimately can end up feeling they hardly know each other; I think it’s about the fact that two people who live together can feel that they know each other intimately and be completely wrong about that.  What is askew between Lotto and Mathilde is not known to them.  We are aware of the discrepancy in their understandings of their marriage, but they are not (Lotto, in particular, is not; Mathilde is a much murkier and more complicated figure).

Second, I do not think that women have special access to the distances and alienations of marriage, that they experience a special loneliness that men do not feel.  Or, perhaps, to be more precise, I suspect that men must have their own loneliness, the equal counterpart of woman’s, and that a book about alienation would therefore be of interest to them as well.

Third, I do wish people would stop insisting that women are all in for fairytale marriages.  It makes us all sound stupid, girlish and naive.  Women are capable of being perfectly clear-eyed about marriage, certainly just as much as men are, and people should stop speaking about women’s marital expectations as though they were necessarily childish.

Often, when books make big, cultural splashes, it tells us more about the culture than the book.  Certainly, ‘Fates and Furies‘ is a very competent novel of its kind – I do not feel that I wasted my time reading it.  Grim, well-executed novels of bourgeois marriage are always enjoyable, in their way.  But the frenzy around it says more about us than about ‘Fates and Furies’, I think.  Maybe, at a time when we are feeling more and more alienated, novels which are about alienation even in the most intimate spaces will mesmerize and frighten us.

Or maybe I’m missing something.  Maybe the desire to be really, totally, perfectly known by the person that loves you is what people expect from marriage; perhaps perfect intimacy is a dream cherished by hearts more romantic than mine (which would be most hearts).  And perhaps those romantic hearts are the ones that catapulted ‘Fates and Furies‘ to the tops of the bestseller lists.  Perhaps they did not find it, as I did, obvious.  Perhaps, to the romantic heart, ‘Fates and Furies’ is, in fact, a terrifying debunking of our last true fairytale.

Cannibalism

A Perfectly Natural History

By Bill Schutt

When you were a kid, did you ever feel as though you belonged to a completely different species than everyone around you?  As though you were totally alien, a tiny island of strangeness in a vast sea of normality?  That there was no one like you, no one who would ever understand why you liked the things that you liked, dressed the way the you did, wanted the things you wanted?

I did.  When I was a kid, I was pretty sure that I was the weirdest person on the planet, humanity’s outlier, doomed never to do the right things and never to have companions in my own, odd interests.

CannibalismI was wrong, though.  There are other weirdos like me, and I can tell because otherwise there would be no market for books like ‘Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History‘.

Some books are about exactly what you think they’re about. ‘Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History‘ is both a history, and a natural history, of cannibalism.  It describes the circumstances in the animal kingdom in which cannibalism reliably occurs (in what species, in what conditions).  What animals eat their own young, and why?  What animals eat other peoples’ young, and why?  What animals eat other adults, and why?

And it’s a history of human cannibalism.  Schutt, on principle, doesn’t spend time on so-called Cannibal Killers, like Jeffrey Dahmer, aberrant individuals who happened to eat other people.  Instead, he is interested in institutions of cannibalism in human society, either rituals in which humans construct meaning around the eating of other humans, or circumstances in which humans semi-reliably eat other humans (like mass starvations).

He does spend a chapter on the Donner Party, the incident of human cannibalism with which most of his readership will be familiar.  But he also devotes a chapter to, for example, the practice of placenta-eating, which he describes (defensibly) as cannibalism.

I can see already that I am going to have difficulty describing how happy it makes me that this book exists.  ‘Cannibalism‘ isn’t literature, for sure, and it probably won’t go down as one of the all-time most beautifully written scientific texts.  But it’s an entire book about cannibalism!  It’s 300 pages of well-articulated information about the myths and facts of cannibalism – I really can’t offer praise much higher than that.

I think that there are two essential relationships that people can have to the grotesque.  Some people have a basic disinclination to the weird and the gross.  They find it aversive, or boring.  They have no interest in learning, say, which insects can lay eggs under your skin, or how to get a lightbulb out of a human rectum (or why someone would even put a lightbulb in a human rectum, for that matter), or what an infection of flesh-eating bacteria looks like, or any of the other creepy information lurking at the corners of the human world.

And then there are people like me.  It’s not that we like learning about serial killers, or bloodworms, or disturbing sexual perversions, not exactly.  It’s that, as soon as we learned that the knowledge existed, we needed to have it.  We were drawn to it.  The gruesome has an irresistible fascination for us; say to us, “Don’t look at that – it’s disgusting, or wrong, or forbidden”, and you have only assured that we will look.

If you are the sort of person who is not attracted to the strange, then ‘Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History‘ is not for you, and it will help not at all if I tell you that, for example, there is an entire chapter on sexual cannibalism in the animal kingdom (though, of course, that was an immense selling point for me).  It’s called ‘Sexual Cannibalism, or Size Matters’.

Which chapter heading also usefully describes the writing style of ‘Cannibalism’.  Although Schutt is a professor of biology, ‘Cannibalism’ is meant for a popular audience, and is written in a jokey, approachable style.

Bill Schutt.jpeg
Bill Schutt

I don’t mean that entirely as a compliment.  Popular science is difficult to write.  You never make everyone happy: you’re either too dense for the layman, or too dumb for the scientist.  Schutt isn’t quite able to make up his mind on which way he’d like to err, so he sort of tries to disguise a lot of the actual science by surrounding it with dramatic description and dad-jokes:

“Insects undergoing pupation, the quiescent stage of metamorphosis associated with the production of a chrysalis or cocoon, are also vulnerable to attack from younger conspecifics.  The ravenous larva of the elephant mosquito (Toxorhynchites) not only consumes conspecific pupae, but also embarks on a killing frenzy, slaying but not eating anything unlucky enough to cross its path.” (p. 23)

“All caecilians do share one characteristic unique to the amphibians: internal fertilization, and during this process, sperm is deposited into the female’s cloaca with the aid of a penis-like structure called a phallodeum…But as interesting as the concept of legless caecilians wielding their penises underground might be (admittedly, it disturbed some of my older Italian relatives until I explained the spelling differences)…” (p. 80)

But there is a lot of science, and that I do mean that as a compliment.  I learned a lot about cannibalism, both in humans and in animals  (I think my all-time favorite fun fact (soon to be deployed at parties, I can tell), is from the chapter on Christopher Columbus and the alleged cannibals he encountered in the New World:

“But whether or not these strange savages had tails (and even if they were supported by trained fish and Amazonian girlfriends), plans were soon being formulated to pacify the Caribs, who were now being referred to as Canibs.  According to scholars, the transition from Carib to Canib apparently resulted from a mispronunciation, although in light of stories describing locals as having canine faces, I agree with Yale professor Claude Rawson that “Canib” may also be a degenerate form of canis, Latin for “dog”.  Eventually, canib became the root of “cannibal,” which replaced anthropophagi, the ancient Greek mouthful previously used to describe people-eaters.” (p. 102)).

And Schutt deals properly and respectfully with the problem that many of the “facts” of human cannibalism, the famous stories from Papua New Guinea and of the Aztecs, among others, are probably exaggerated or fabricated.  Even the so-called eye-witness reports were often racially biased, and accusing a tribe or a people of cannibalism was often just the easiest moral justification for enslaving them and confiscating their property.

I also want to put a small plug in for the illustrations, which are weird and charming and chosen without rationale that I can understand.  Some are deeply helpful and clearly scientifically apropos, but some are bizarre and seem to be there just to amuse, which they do.

For example, the first is a useful one from the chapter on the Donner Party, which shows their trail.  Next is one of dubious, but potential, utility, from the chapter on Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, of the structure of a ‘hypothetical prion’.  The third is stranger still, an illustration of ‘skull moss’, which is, as you might have expected, moss grown on a human skull (preferably that of a hanged man), and which was used to treat bleeding.  And, perhaps most confusingly, and also from the chapter on Mad Cow Disease, is a drawing of a hamburger, in case you didn’t know what one looked like.

As, I said, charming, about as charming as a book on cannibalism could possibly be.  And, if you are anything like me, that’s pretty charming.

The Power

By Naomi Alderman

All Posts Contain Spoilers

The PowerHere’s an unusual event: I’ve actually read the book of the moment within a calendar year of the moment itself!

I’m not a trendy soul, not in anything really.  My tastes have never been fashionable, not in music, not in clothes, certainly not in books.  My favorite authors are all dead: Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, George Orwell, writers who chronicled different times in old-fashioned language.

I tend to cast a leery eye on contemporary fiction.  To my mind, it has not yet been vetted, polished smooth by years of beloved readers, safely endorsed by generations.  It is risky, it has a too-high likelihood of wasting your time, and with so much to read in this world, I am loathe to waste my reading time on books which may turn out bad.

But every once and a while, (and quite a bit lately, it feels like) I end up picking up a new and trendy book.  And every once and a rarer while, I pick it up when it is still trendy.  And so it has turned out with ‘The Power‘, which I grabbed in the airport in a panic, worried that I was going through my other books too quickly and wasn’t going to make it through my vacation with enough to read (this is a particularly bad way to choose a book: airport reading, like airport eating, is almost always junky).

The Power‘ supposes that women a power.  It starts with young women, girls really, but young women can teach it to older women, and soon all women will have it.  This power, which originates in a new organ, a string of muscular tissue between their shoulder blades, allows them to send electrical current out from their hands, injuring and even killing other people with it.

This power will completely reorder the world.

First will come liberation, freedom from the restraints and authorities of men.

Then will come revenge: riots, gangs of women will swarm through cities, finding male offenders and brutalizing them.

Then, finally, will come control.  Women will take possession of a state, in Eastern Europe, and impose a set of state sanctions on men: all men must have an official female guardian, they will not have freedom of travel, they will have curfews.

I was deeply skeptical about ‘The Power‘ going in, and not just because it’s modern.  I don’t usually go for gender war stories – I tend to find them over-simplifying.  And ‘The Power’ threatened to simplify gender dynamics to the point of cretinousness: throngs of newly empowered women finding out men who traffic in sex slaves and roasting them alive.

But ‘The Power‘ is more than a novel of vengeance, more than just a imaginative bloodletting (although it does feel like that sometimes).  It is a meditation on power, and on gender.  It asks, and answers, the question, ‘Do men act brutally because they are men, or do they act brutally because they have power?’

Or, to put it another way, ‘Are men and women intrinsically different?  Are their differences differences of morals, or differences of strength?”

Or, “Are women really any better than men?”

The Power‘ answers this question clearly and emphatically in the negative.  Women in ‘The Power’ are no better than men, and, as they come to understand and coordinate their power, they will do to men, in short order, all the terrible things that men have done to them.

It’s always pleasant to read a book which agrees with your worldview.  This is not less true for me just because my worldview is dark, nihilistic and grim.  I like having my prejudices confirmed just as much as the next guy.  And so I enjoyed ‘The Power’ the way one enjoys seeing one’s own dire predictions played out in fiction.

As I mentioned, ‘The Power‘ isn’t subtle.  The metaphor is, well, it isn’t really a metaphor, is it?  It’s a parable, crystal clear and morally direct.  And I was prepared to be offended by the obviousness of the parable – I don’t like being talked down to by books.

Naomi Alderman
Naomi Alderman.  By the way, the Guardian has the best author photos.

However, sometimes the simpler a fictional moral problem is, the greater the force it has, and that is the case with ‘The Power‘ (this is also the case with the most rudimentary and effective moral tale of our time: ‘Star Wars’).  The truth is, despite my initial skepticism and my sense of being insulted, ‘The Power’ landed on me like a ton of bricks.  I didn’t even really notice how affected I was until I finished, until I put the book down and realized that I felt unsettled, implicated and guilty, contaminated by the things I had seen in the pages I just read.

I mean this as a compliment, an extremely high compliment.  The ability to elicit an emotional reaction from your reader is one of the reasons for a novel existing, and not all novels wish to make you feel good.  I feel pretty confident that Naomi Aldermen didn’t want me to feel good, maybe about anything, maybe ever again.

This is not a reason not to read her book!  On the contrary, it is a reason to read it right away!  Most grim-natured books don’t get it quite right, they aren’t emotionally effective somehow.  They either swing too hard at your fear, or yank too hard at your heart strings, or build a world too bleak, marked by violence too frenzied.

IMG_0014
One of the book’s rare illustrations (p. 180).  ‘The Power’ is science fiction, and part of the story takes place thousands of years in the future.

The Power‘ doesn’t do this.  It rarely over-plays its hand – there were only one or two moments in the entire book when I thought, ‘That might have been a little much’.  Mostly, the book communicates not through violence but through a sense of building dread, of disaster rolling inexorably toward you, a hope that humanity will save itself and a sure knowledge in the pit of your stomach that the hope is vain.  And when the storm finally breaks, you feel the confirmation as a low blow, not painful exactly, but dreadful.

Partly, Alderman does this through her use of spare, direct language.  The ridiculous blurbs on the back of the book say garbage things like, “gorgeously written” (Ayelet Waldman) and “Will knock your socks off!” (Margaret Atwood, to whom Alderman is being compared – I suppose the comparison to ‘The Handmaid’s Tale‘, which is facile, is too easy to resist).  This is nonsense – it is not gorgeously written – it is bleak, and effectively written, and that is much, much better:

“They start by rounding up the young man.  They go tent to tent, pulling them down or setting them on fire so the occupants have to run out or burn.  They’re not neat about it, not methodical.  They’re looking for any halfway-decent-looking young man.  She was right to send Tunde into the forest.  A wife, or perhaps a sister, tries to stop them from taking the pale-skinned, curly-haired man who’s with her.  She fights off two of them with precise and well-timed jolts to the chin and the temple.  They overwhelm her easily, and kill her with a particular brutality.  One of them grabs the woman by the hair and the other delivers a bolt directly through the woman’s eyes.  Finger and thumb pressed against her eyeballs, the very liquid of them scrambled to a milky white.  Even Roxy has to look away for a moment.” (p. 315)

As you can see, there is no hiding from prose like this.  It’s unrelenting, and at the end you feel as though you’ve been chased down and forced to look at something ugly, and real, and all the uglier for being real.

But it’s highly worth doing – I’m glad that I did it.  If there weren’t ugliness in the world, books like ‘The Power‘ wouldn’t have any effect at all.  And as long as they are effective, that is a sure sign that we should be reading them.

Alias Grace

By Margaret Atwood

All Posts Contain Spoilers

I’m beginning to suspect that all Margaret Atwood’s books are really just about how terrible men are.

Certainly, that’s what ‘The Handmaid’s Tale‘ is about.  It’s pretty much what ‘Oryx and Crake‘ is about.  It’s kind of what ‘The Blind Assassin‘ is about, although I’ll grant that is a fuzzier case.

But it’s definitely what ‘Alias Grace‘ is about.

Alias GraceNot superficially, of course.  ‘Alias Grace‘ is the story of Grace Marks, convicted at the age of 16 of murdering her employer, Thomas Kinnear, and his head of household (and lover), Nancy Montgomery.  She allegedly commits this murder with the help of her lover, James McDermott, who is hanged for the crime.  Grace, in view of her youth, is given a life sentence.

Most of the novel takes place many years into her imprisonment, during her extended examination by Dr. Simon Jordan, who is a specialist in diseases of the mind.  It is the story of her life (from her questionable perspective), of her relationship with this doctor, of his obsession with her, and of the murders themselves.  It is a mystery of guilt or innocence.

But, really, it’s a long indictment of men, of male power and the abuses it rains down upon women who are powerless.  It is about doctors who grope during examinations, employers who rape their servants, institutions which incarcerate women who do not conform, men who defame women who will not sleep with them, abortionists who kill women without consequence.

It about the fact that, in a society where men alone are powerful, women are damned if they do, and damned if they don’t.

I’m not exaggerating this theme, and it is not subtle.  Take, for example, this discussion of quilts, which Grace is forever sewing and on which she is forever discoursing:

“…when we’d hung a half-dozen of them up on a line, all in a row, I thought that they looked like flags, hung out by an army as it goes to war.

And since that time I have thought, why is it that women have chosen to sew such flags, and then to lay them on the the tops of beds?  For they make the bed the most noticeable thing in a room.  And then I have thought, it’s for warning.  Because you may think a bed is a peaceful thing, Sir, and to you it may mean rest and comfort and a good night’s sleep.  But it isn’t so for everyone; and there are many dangerous things that may take place in a bed.  It is where we are born, and that is our first peril in life; and it is where the women give birth, which is often their last.  And it is where the act takes place between men and women that I will not mention to you, Sir, but I suppose you know what it is; and some call it love, and others despair, or else merely an indignity which they must suffer through.” (p. 161)

Check your privilege, Sir.

Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood

Of course, Margaret Atwood is a marvelous storyteller; she always has been.  She has an eye for detail, for immersion.  It’s easy to lose yourself in her books: I sat down and read ‘Alias Grace‘ in one long layover in Tokyo, and I was honestly in more danger of developing thrombosis from reading this book than I was in the 12 hour flight that followed it.  That’s a strong recommendation for any novel.

But there is something about Atwood which always makes my teeth hurt a little, something irritating right at the edge of her writing.  Perhaps it is a lack of irony.  There is a lyrical quality to her prose, a sort of sing-songing free association in her descriptions, which can be enormously effective, but which more often annoys me badly.

Here, for example, is a passage where I think that writing style works really well:

“The season has now officially changed: Lydia has burst into bloom.  Layers of pale floral ruffling have sprouted all over her, and wave from her shoulders like diaphanous wings.  Simon eats his fish – overdone, but no one on this continent can poach a fish properly – and admires the smooth white contours of her throat, and what can be seen of her bosom.  It’s as if she is sculpted of whipped cream.  She should be on the platter, instead of the fish.  He’s heard stories of a famous Parisian courtesan who had herself presented at a banquet in this way; naked, of course.” (p. 193)

Here, though, is an example of that writing style which makes me want to run screaming from the room:

“It’s the middle of the night, but time keeps going on, and it also goes round and around, like the sun and the moon on the tall clock in the parlour.  Soon it will be daybreak.  Soon the day will break.  I can’t stop it from breaking in the same way it always does, and then from lying there broken; always the same day, which comes around like clockwork.  It begins with the day before the day before, and then the day before, and it’s the day itself.  A Saturday.  The breaking day.”  (p. 295)

I understand that this passage is supposed to communicate the maddening monotony of an imprisoned life, but I’ve never really liked expression by reader-punishment like this – just because my protagonist is suffering should not mean that I must, too.

Or, perhaps, what annoys me is the vague sense of female grievance that lurks behind Atwood’s stories.  Yes, men can be terrible, but there is something flat, two-dimensional, to a world in which everything is explained by the fact that men are terrible, to a world in which all men are terrible in some way, a world in which you cannot have both a good nature and a penis.

And then there is the problem of the resolution.

[Warning: what follows is a very spoilery spoiler.  Very, very spoilery].

It’s always disappointing when endings and books don’t match, when a well-developed and richly imagined book purchases its end with implausible plot theatrics.

A general rule of mine: there are, I think, a few plot mechanisms which, if you find yourself using them, always mean that you need to re-think your storyline.  They signal lazy craft – they are cheap.

These plot developments include (but are not limited to): secret brother-sister incest (I’m looking at you, ‘August: Osage County‘, and you, ‘Crimson Peak‘), a secret twin (excusing ‘The Prestige‘, which pulls it off and (little known fact) is a book!), and a protagonist with undiagnosed Multiple Personality Disorder.

Alias Grace‘ strongly implies that Grace Marks, at the time of the murders, is under the control of an alternate personality, that of her dead friend, Mary Whitney, whose death (at the hands of a back-alley abortionist, of course) was traumatic for Grace.  And, just to add fuel to the trashy fire, this fact is brought to light while she is under hypnosis.

Resolving a murder mystery via multiple personalities is, in my opinion, totally bogus.  ‘Alias Grace‘ is a subtle, thorough story, based on a real person who almost certainly did not have multiple personalities.  Until that session of hypnosis, it was a complex novel about power, and rage, and friendship, and love, what it means to be guilty and whether we can ever see how the world looks through another person’s eyes and how slippery the truth can be.

And then it resolves all that lovely moral ambiguity with the sort of plot device that you expect to see in an episode of Criminal Minds.  It was very disappointing.

None of which, obviously, kept me from turning its pages like it was the last book on Earth.  That’s Atwood for you – whatever your complaints about her, she’s tough to put down.

Explaining Hitler

The Search for the Origins of His Evil

By Ron Rosenbaum

‘Explaining Hitler’ was one of those books that I knew I had to read as soon as I heard that it existed.  I thought that it would be right up my alley, and I was right.

Like so many historically-minded people, I’m a little obsessed with the fact of Nazis.

[I will allow myself a little self-serving quotation here: “When asked whether it was possible to think too much upon the Holocaust, [W.G.] Sebald said, ‘No serious person thinks of anything else.'” (p. 412)  I totally agree.]

Even if you take, as I do, a dark view of humankind, the Nazis are an outlier on the Evil Scale.  Anyone trying to get their arms around humanity’s capabilities must fit Nazis into their theory, must take account of the ability of an entire nation to rise up in a seizure of controlled, insane, determined violence.

Hitler himself must be part of that equation, whether you consider him the author of all the evil or a historical coincidence (‘if it had not been him, it would have been someone else’).  So people who are, as I am, interested in evil, or in the wickedness of human nature, end up reading a lot about Hitler.

But ‘Explaining Hitler‘ isn’t really about Hitler.

Rather, it is a history of Hitler theories.  It’s a long, ambivalent interrogation of our relationship with Hitler.  It’s about what Hitler represents, the various psychoanalytical and historical models that we have used to understand him, and about how those theories reflect back on us.

Explaining HitlerIt’s about why we need to explain Hitler.  It’s about why he, in particular, has obsessed us for so long, what it would mean to really understand him.  It’s about whether evil exists, and, if it does, what that means about the world.  It’s about what price we pay for thinking about Hitler too hard, and what price we might pay for not thinking about him enough.

It is exactly my kind of book.

To give you a sense of what I mean, let’s take a brief whirl through the table of contents:

‘Part 1: The Beginning of the Beginning’ is about the myths and origin stories about Hitler’s early life, the little that is known about his family, and about how the newspapers in Germany at the time of his rise understood him.

‘Part 2: Two Postwar Visions: Sincerity and Its Counterfeit’ features the work of two post-war Hitler scholars, H.R. Trevor-Roper and Alan Bullock, and their debate about whether or not Hitler was ‘sincere’ in his anti-semitism, or whether he was merely a cynical and opportunistic politician playing on the anti-Semitism of the country he was hoping to rule.

‘Part 3: Geli Raubal and Hitler’s “Sexual Secret”‘ is about all the weird theories around Hitler’s sex life: whether he had one, whether it was abnormal, and whether those facts had anything to do with his political identity.

‘Part 4: Hatred: Complex and Primitive’ discusses whether Hitler was secretly Jewish, and whether or not that might be the source of his virulent anti-Semitism.

‘Part 5: The Art of Evil and the Future of It’ is about what happens when Hitler scholars try too hard to get into the Hitler headspace, and about the most famous Holocaust denier (or ‘Revisionist’), David Irving.

‘Part 6: The War Over the Question Why’ criticizes the position taken by some Holocaust chroniclers, most notably Claude Lanzmann, that to even seek to understand Hitler is “obscene”, because an explanation would inevitably, to some degree, exculpate him, and because to understand is, perhaps, to empathize.

‘Part 7: Blame and Origins’ covers the work of several scholars of Hitler and the Holocaust, namely Emil Fackenheim, Yehuda Bauer, George Steiner, Hyam Maccoby, Daniel Goldhagen, and Lucy Dawidowicz, on questions like: Would an omnipotent and just God allow the Holocaust to happen?  Why, of all the nations in Europe, did Germany fall prey to a Hitler?  When exactly did Hitler decide to exterminate the Jewish race in Europe?

Ron_Rosenbaum
Ron Rosenbaum (looking, I think, unnecessarily ferocious for a journalist)

Explaining Hitler‘ is, essentially, a long existential query, and it reads like one.  I found it mesmerizing, but then, I would.  Rosenbaum interviews scholars, visits historic sites, pores over archives.  He asks complicated, devastating questions, and he records the answers of the men and women he’s interviewing, even when they are belligerent, or rude, or contradictory, or unconvincing.  He does not shy away from the global, or the grandiose.  It is clear, by the end, that most questions about Hitler are, ultimately, unanswerable, that the best we can do is be honest with ourselves about the dark potential of mankind.

“In declaring so offhandedly “the fact” that Hitler was a “person like you and me,” Bullock places himself squarely on the side of a great schism among Hitler explainers: those who speak of Hitler as “one of us,”, of a “Hitler within” all of us, of a potential for Hitlerian evil in all human nature, in our nature – and those who maintain one of several varieties of Hitlerian exceptionalism.  Exceptionalist arguments range from the belief that the magnitude of Hitler’s evil (however that magnitude is measured) surpasses that of previous malefactors of history to the most sophisticated theses of those like the philosopher Berel Lang who argue that it is the quality of Hitler’s intentionality, not the quantity of bodies, that makes the Nazi genocide a new chapter in a “history of evil”.  Beyond that are the more metaphysical and theological arguments of Emil Fackenheim, who rejects the idea of a Hitler “within us,” who argues instead that Hitler is beyond the continuum, off the grid, not explicable by reference to any previous version of human nature.  Rather, he represents some kind of “radical evil”, even an “eruption of demonism” into history, one so unprecedented it must cause us to reconsider our conception of God’s relationship to man.” (p. 85)

“Fackenheim’s notion of “posthumous victory” suggests that, much as we would like to understand Hitler, it is important to realize that we should in some sense also still be at war with him.  And there might be some value to continuing to resist, even to hate, the enemy.  Is hatred of Hitler still a legitimate response, or is it the kind of crude, debased emotional reaction that explanation and understanding should ideally lead us upwards from?  Is it bizarre, out-of-bounds, a sign of an unevolved sensibility, for a civilized, educated citizen of the post-Holocaust world to hate Adolf Hitler?  Put another way: Would it be a bizarre moral failure not to hate Hitler?” (p. 390)

If these are not the sorts of questions that get you going, if you don’t like moral dilemmas strung out over hundreds of pages, dense, insoluble ethical and historical riddles which force you to choose between a rock and a hard place, then ‘Explaining Hitler‘ is not the book for you.

But these are exactly the sorts of questions that get me going.  I love thinking about stuff like this, I do so voluntarily, in my free time, and so ‘Explaining Hitler‘ is like four hundred pages of exactly the kind of conversation I use to alienate people at parties!

What is evil?  Are people evil, or just actions?  Can we use a term like ‘evil’ when we’re talking about something merely human, and not actually Satanic?  Was Hitler evil?  Does it matter?  Was the entire Nazi leadership evil?  At what level does the evil stop: Nazi leadership, the S.S., the army, complacent civilians?  Can a whole nation be evil?  How about a species?

Who bears responsibility for the Holocaust?  What if you found out that Hitler had a brain tumor from 1918 on – would that make him less evil?  It certainly wouldn’t make the Holocaust less terrible, so how could it make him less evil?

Is it wrong to even ask these questions?  By seeking to understand Hitler, do we risk empathizing with him?  Or, on the other hand, do we have a responsibility to understand him, in order to make sure we spot the next Hitler before he kills millions of people?

I will also say this: I’ve read a lot of W.W. II history, and several Hitler biographies, and I encountered a bunch of stuff in ‘Explaining Hitler‘ that I hadn’t seen before.  Some of the theories of Hitler get very granular, and I learned things I hadn’t known about his rise, his life, and the post-Holocaust scholarship about him.

But, mostly, to me, ‘Explaining Hitler‘ was a long series of compelling questions, premises and thought-experiments about what is, for my money, one of the most interesting relationships of the 20th century: our relationship with Hitler.  There is no use pretending that we don’t have one – he is our go-to example of Badness, on the tip of our tongues even now, omnipresent in Godwin’s Law and political punditry and meme culture.  Hitler is important to us, not simply because of the enormities that he orchestrated, but because he represents the farthest-out version of ourselves, the most extreme human potential in Category: Evil.  We need to see the worst that we might be, and I think that we need to understand that worst.