Quick Review: Egan’s books The Invisible Circus, Look at Me, A Visit From the Goon Squad

After reading several positive reviews of Jennifer Egan’s newest book, I decided to read her earlier work. Here are my thoughts after reading three of her first four novels:

1. One of the more consistent themes is tying together the past with the present and future, both in the personal stories of the characters as well as broader social forces that are always swirling around and threatening to sweep them along. For example, one of the main characters in Look at Me is trying to connect the past of Rockford, Illinois to a vision of the future. He is convinced that the decline of this Rust Belt city will illuminate important paths forward. Or, the characters in The Invisible Circus are trying to figure out what their actions as teenagers mean for their barely-formed adult lives.

2. All of the characters are flawed – sometimes by their own actions and other times through their family – and they are searching for answers. Rarely do they find them. Dreams are remembered yet lost as the characters can’t quite figure out how they got to this point of adult existence. Relationships burst with intensity and then fade. Success is fleeting. A Visit From the Goon Squad does a lot with this: even as the story lines come together to suggest that our future lives may not be very desirable, we are shown intriguing yet short glimpses of characters and relationships spanning several decades.

3. Across the three books, there are a number of settings ranging from San Francisco to Rockford to New York City to European locations big and small. The communities are present but also not present. They come and go in broad strokes. To illustrate, New York City is featured and the characters stagger around and big landmarks and ideas are mentioned but there is little tangible connection to places. Perhaps this is how people truly do live their lives these days as they focus on their private selves.

4. Much of the time I was reading these three books, I could not shake the idea that these works are heavily influenced by Tom Wolfe. The characters are caught between the cosmos and their day-to-day concerns. The language is loose and evocative. There seem to be larger messages and commentary about societal change though perhaps the clearest message is that modern individuals have no idea of how to figure any of this out.

All in all, I found the stories engaging and thought-provoking. However, they also had an ephemeral quality. Do they provide some deep insights into who we are today and where we are headed? Or, are they a cleverly-constructed yet ultimately common story of human frailty? It may take some time for me to answer these queries in my own mind even as literary critics seem to think Egan is asking the right questions.

 

Argument: Tom Wolfe’s “sociological novel” about Miami doesn’t match reality

A magazine editor from Miami argues Tom Wolfe’s latest “sociological novel” Back to Blood doesn’t tell the more complex story of what is going on today in that city:

TOM WOLFE has often declared that journalistic truth is far stranger — and narratively juicier — than fiction, a refrain he’s returned to while promoting his latest sociological novel, the Miami- focused “Back to Blood.” With cultural eyes turning to Miami for this week’s Art Basel fair, and on the heels of a presidential election in which South Florida was once again in the national spotlight, “Back to Blood” would seem a perfectly timed prism.

Yet Mr. Wolfe would have done well to better heed his own advice. The flesh-and-blood reality not only contradicts much of his fictional take, it flips the enduring conventional wisdom. Miami is no longer simply the northernmost part of Latin America, or, as some have snarked, a place filled with folks who’ve been out in the sun too long.

For Mr. Wolfe, the city remains defined by bitter ethnic divisions and steered by la lucha: the Cuban-American community’s — make that el exilio’s — frothing-at-the-mouth fixation on the Castro regime across the Florida Straits. The radio format whose beats Miami moves to isn’t Top 40, rap or even salsa, but all Fidel, all the time. It’s a crude portrait, established in the ’80s, reinforced by the spring 2000 telenovela starring Elián González, hammered home in the media by that fall’s Bush v. Gore drama and replayed with the same script every four years since.

Yet the latest data hardly depicts a monolithic Cuban-exile community marching in ideological lock step. Exit polls conducted by Bendixen & Amandi International revealed that 44 percent of Miami’s Cuban-Americans voted to re-elect President Obama last month, despite a Mitt Romney TV ad attempting to link the president with Mr. Castro. The result was not only a record high for a Democratic presidential candidate, it was also a 12 percentage-point jump over 2008.

Can a novel, even a sociological one, capture all of the nuances of a big city? Or, is a novel more about capturing a spirit or the way these complexities influence a few characters? While I do enjoy fictional works, this is why I tend to gravitate toward larger-scale studies about bigger patterns. One story or a few stories can explore nuance and more details. However, it is hard to know how much these smaller stories are representative of a larger whole. In Wolfe’s case, is his book a fair-minded view of what is taking place all across Miami or does he pick up on a few fault lines  and exceptional events?

While browsing in a bookstore the other day, I did notice an interesting book that was trying to bridge this gap: The Human Face of Big Data. On one hand, our world is becoming one where large datasets with millions of data points are the norm. With this, it may be harder and harder for novels to capture all of the patterns and trends. Yet, we don’t want to lose perspective on how this data and the resulting policies and actions affect real people.

Quick Review: The Casual Vacancy and Back to Blood

I recently read two recently-published New York Times best sellers: The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling and Back to Blood by Tom Wolfe. Even though the books come from very different authors, one known for writing about a boy wizard and the other known for “new journalism” and tackling status, I thought the books had a lot in common. After a quick overview of each story, I discuss some of the similarities:

1. The Casual Vacancy is about English small-town life as the village of Pagford debates whether a nearby council estate (public housing project in American terms) should remain under their purview or should come under control of the nearby large city. The sudden death of a local council member alters the debate and different members of the community, from residents of the council estate, disaffected teenagers, and local business owners get involved in the decision. In the end, the battle doesn’t really turn out well for anyone involved.

2. Back to Blood is about multicultural Miami where different ethnic and social groups vie for control. The main story is about a Russian businessman turned art benefactor who is investigated by a beleaguered Cuban cop and WASP reporter. Others are caught up in this story including the black police chief, the Cuban mayor, a Cuban psychiatric nurse, and a pornography addiction psychiatrist. Similarly, no one really wins in the end.

3. Although set in very different places, the muted English countryside versus vibrant Miami (reflected to some degree by the writing styles, more conventional for Rowling, more in-your-face from Wolfe), there are common themes.

3a. Power and status. At the heart of these novels are characters vying for control. Of course, this looks different in different places: in Pagford, England, this means being a local council member or having a respectable job in the local community (say as a bakery owner or a doctor) while in Miami, this means the ability to own expensive clothes, cars, houses, and boats while also twisting people’s arms in the directions you want them to go. The characters in both books spend a lot of time worrying about their relative position and scheming about how to get to the top of the heap or how not to be buried completely by others (there is little room for middle ground).

3b. Sex. This is tied to power and status, but both books feature a lot of sexual activity. On one hand, it is presented as one of the rare moments when the characters aren’t solely consumed by the quest for power and yet, on the other hand, sex and who is having sex with whom and for what reason, is inevitably wrapped up in the naked grab for power and status.

3c. Characters alienated from society. Both books are full of characters who feel like they don’t fit in society, that they don’t know where they belong or aren’t able to achieve what they would really want to achieve. This comes across in some classic types: there are teenagers who feel like the adults around them are idiots and so they grasp at ways to make their own name. There are characters caught in the cogs of bureaucracy, particularly adults who are “successful” but don’t feel like it, who have some agency but are ultimately dependent on social and government institutions.

3d. Communities striving for goals but having difficulty overcoming the frailty of their human actors. Although the communities are quite different in size and aspirations (Miami striving to be a world-class city and Pagford striving to control more of its own destiny), their characters want them to be known and coherent places. They want their neighborhoods as well as their municipalities to be about something. Alas, both places are reliant on social actors that can’t overcome their own anxieties and hang-ups and this limits what the larger whole can become.

In the end, I’m tempted to write these off as the sort of themes one finds all the time in “serious adult literature,” the sort of books that peel back the facade of life and expose people for the vain creatures that they are. These are not uncommon themes in more modern books where there are no real heroes, most characters are just trying to get by, and authors revel in tackling sociological issues. But, I don’t think it is an accident that the two books cover similar ground. Power, sex, alienation, and communities striving for success are known issues in our 21st century world. Compared to movies, books like these offer more space to develop these themes and really expose the depths to which individuals and institutions have fallen. Stories like these can translate sociological themes into a medium that the public understands.

Yet, I can’t help but wish that both books had more redemptive endings. If power, sex, alienation, and community striving do make the world go round, how can this be tackled in a “right” way? Is there anyone or any social institution who can put us on the right path? In ways common to 21st century commentary, both of these books offer a bleak view of social life and not much hope for the future.

Tom Wolfe and Max Weber’s ideas about status

In the wake of the release of his new book Back to BloodTom Wolfe talks about his “sociological approach to writing”:

On his sociological approach to writing

“This attention to status … started when I was in graduate school and I was in a program called American Studies, which was a mixture of different disciplines but one [in which] you were forced to take sociology. I had always looked down on sociology as this arriviste discipline that didn’t have the noble history of English and history as a subject. But once I had a little exposure to it, I said, ‘Hey, here’s the key. Here’s the key to understanding life and all its forms.’ And the great theorist or status theorist was a German named Max Weber. And from that time on, I said this obviously is the way to analyze people in all of their manifestations. I mean, my theory is that every moment — even when you’re by yourself in the bathroom, you are trying to live up to certain status requirements as if someone were watching … It’s only when your life is in danger that you drop all that.”

If you have read any of Wolfe’s novels, you know his characters are constantly worried about status: what do people think of me? In The Bonfire of the Vanities , Sherman McCoy starts at the top of the world as a bond trader but the story traces his path to the bottom as he loses his job, his family, and, most importantly, his previous status as “Master of the Universe.” On the other side, the title character in I Am Charlotte Simmons comes from a more humble background and has to learn how to negotiate within an elite university.

Weber built upon Marx’s ideas about the means and modes of production by adding the dimension of status. Marx argues social class was determined by economic factors; you either had access to and control of economic resources or not. But Weber suggested status, or prestige, was also tied up with economic resources. Thus, one might be high status but relatively lower on the economic ladder or vice versa. An example of this in today’s society would be a measure of occupational prestige where Americans are asked to rate different occupations on a prestige scale from 1-100. Here is one such table from Harris Interactive in 2009:

Firefighters don’t make the most money nor do nurses but both are considered more prestigious, probably because they involve caring for people. In contrast, look at the bottom of the list: occupations where the actors may be perceived as looking more for money or their own interests are considered less prestigious.

If you want to read more on the connection between Tom Wolfe, sociology, and the concept of status, Joel Best wrote an interesting 2001 piece titled “‘Status! Yes!’: Tom Wolfe as a Sociological Thinker. I also wonder if there isn’t a hint of Goffman in Wolfe’s work as well. What he describes above also could play out through the concept of impression management and the constant need to change our behavior to fit the changing social situations.

 

David Brooks, “Boo-boos in Paradise,” and American public intellectuals

I like David Brooks’ pop sociology analysis of the suburbs in Bobos in Paradise but a piece in Philadelphia suggests Brooks got some of his facts wrong:

Brooks, an agile and engaging writer, was doing what he does best, bringing sweeping social movements to life by zeroing in on what Tom Wolfe called “status detail,” those telling symbols — the Weber Grill, the open-toed sandals with advanced polymer soles — that immediately fix a person in place, time and class. Through his articles, a best-selling book, and now a twice-a-week column in what is arguably journalism’s most prized locale, the New York Times op-ed page, Brooks has become a must-read, charming us into seeing events in the news through his worldview.

There’s just one problem: Many of his generalizations are false. According to Amazon.com sales data, one of Goodwin’s strongest markets has been deep-Red McAllen, Texas. That’s probably not, however, QVC country. “I would guess our audience would skew toward Blue areas of the country,” says Doug Rose, the network’s vice president of merchandising and brand development. “Generally our audience is female suburban baby boomers, and our business skews towards affluent areas.” Rose’s standard PowerPoint presentation of the QVC brand includes a map of one zip code — Beverly Hills, 90210 — covered in little red dots that each represent one QVC customer address, to debunk “the myth that they’re all little old ladies in trailer parks eating bonbons all day.”

But this isn’t the main complaint of this arguement: rather, the main problem is that Brooks is considered a public intellectual and his words have a lot of weight:

On the publication of Bobos, New York Times critic Walter Goodman lumped Brooks with William H. Whyte Jr., author of The Organization Man, and David Riesman, who wrote The Lonely Crowd, as a practitioner of “sociological journalism.” (In the introduction to Bobos, Brooks invoked Whyte — plus Jane Jacobs and John Kenneth Galbraith — as predecessors.) In 2001, the New School for Social Research, in Manhattan, held a panel discussion in which real-life scholars pondered the bobo. When, in 2001, Richard Posner ranked the 100 highest-profile public intellectuals, Brooks came in 85th, just behind Marshall McLuhan at 82nd, and ahead of Garry Wills, Isaiah Berlin and Margaret Mead.

Ironically, Richard Florida is granted the final academic say regarding needing more serious public intellectuals:

Richard Florida, a Carnegie Mellon demographer whose 2002 book The Rise of the Creative Class earned Bobos-like mainstream cachet, nostalgizes an era when readers looked to academia for such insights:

“You had Holly Whyte, who got Jane Jacobs started, Daniel Bell, David Riesman, Galbraith. This is what we’re missing; this is a gap,” Florida says. “Now you have David Brooks as your sociologist, and Al Franken and Michael Moore as your political scientists. Where is the serious public intellectualism of a previous era? It’s the failure of social science to be relevant enough to do it.”

Here is what I take away from this: this writer is worried that Brooks (and other New Journalists) are influencing public opinion and possibly public policy more through impressionistic writing than facts and correctly interpreting data.

This could make for an interesting discussion involving things like the role of columnists and opinion-makers (facts or zeitgeists?), why social scientists and sociologists aren’t seen as public intellectuals, and who should guide public policy anyway. It is interesting to note that the American Sociological Association (ASA) gave David Brooks the Excellence in Reporting of Social Issues Award in 2011. I assume the ASA didn’t just give the award because Brooks discusses sociological research or is of the same political/social persuasion as sociologists.

By the way, having read a lot of David Brooks and Tom Wolfe, I wonder how many commentators would suggest these two are engaging in similar techniques.