“More Happy Than Not” by Adam Silvera

sohopress

sohopress.com

When we first meet him, Aaron Soto is stumbling his way through a miserable adolescence in the Bronx. His family barely scrapes by on his mother’s income, and is still reeling from his father’s suicide, and Aaron’s own attempt at one. In the background of this near-future setting is the Leteo Institute, which offers a controversial “memory-relief procedure” that may come with unwelcome side effects. When Aaron’s girlfriend leaves town for art school, he starts spending time with Thomas, a profligate quitter who “lives his life…one misfired dream after the other.” Aaron starts to question his sexuality (and Thomas’) but concludes, after bullying from his old friends, that he can’t live with “Side A” showing. He gets a procedure at Leteo to try to live a normal life. Complications ensue, and unwanted memories arise, shedding new light on the novel’s earlier sections. While More Happy Than Not suffers from some epidemic young adult maladies, like a girlfriend who’s more quirk than human, this debut novel is a nonetheless compelling look into a troubled young man’s psyche as he learns to make peace with himself. Aaron doesn’t ascribe undue therapeutic value to suffering, but neither does he advocate erasing it: “Sometimes pain is so unmanageable that spending another day with it seems impossible. Other times pain acts as a compass to help you through the messier tunnels of growing up. But the pain can only help you find happiness if you can remember it.”

More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera. Published in June by Soho Teen. 295 pages. $18.99

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A Hard-Nosed Look at Charity

harpercollins.com

harpercollins.com

When secular friends confront us with the more shameful figures of the faith—the pedophile priests, arrogant television personalities, and complacent suburbanites—Christians often find ourselves invoking the charitable giver. She is selfless. She travels to forsaken nations and forgotten neighborhoods to give with no expectation of reward. Now that’s Christian.

But the giver, it turns out, may be doing as much harm as good. Unaccountable charity can undermine local business—some African nations’ textile industries were walloped by foreign donations of clothes—and foster dependency. Even a “successful” food pantry that gives away tons of food doesn’t do much to develop the infrastructure of community and jobs necessary to lift a community into prosperity.

So argues Robert D. Lupton, a veteran of ministries in impoverished communities in Atlanta and Nicaragua, in Charity Detox: “We cannot serve people out of poverty.” (This is a follow-up to his 2011 book Toxic Charity—if that was a diagnosis, this new book offers prescriptions.)

Stories of Christ feeding the masses may make us think that every giveaway is productive, Lupton writes, but, in this book’s only patch of exegesis, he reminds us that Christ was a transformer, not a feeder, who refused to work miracles to win people’s faith: “[T]he kingdom that this radical young rabbi was introducing was about far more than heart-responses. It was about heart-changes. And feeding the multitudes was clearly not the most effective way to achieve heart-changes.”

Even education, vital as it is, cannot lift up a community by itself. A child in a low-income community who received a good education is more likely to leave than to stay and improve the community if there’s nothing to keep her.

So what does Lupton propose instead? Stateside, mixed-income communities can bring the resources of higher-income neighborhoods to once-blighted neighborhoods. He calls this “gentrification with justice,” a process in which higher-income immigrants will join with, rather than displace, their new neighbors.

In such a community, redistribution of wealth is a fact of life, not because it’s imposed from above but because “we live in close proximity to each other—and because we choose to depend on one another.” Thus, “the opportunities for exchange (redistribution) become a normal part of community living.” His ministry in Atlanta has formed such communities, and he briefly overviews their setbacks and successes.

Abroad, he proposes for-profit missions, such a one a friend started that increased the scales—and profits—of farmers in Nicaragua, connecting them with multinational corporations while ensuring they got a good deal.

Lupton’s praise of free-market economics and emphasis on the necessity of personal transformation may unnerve liberal Christians, but he makes clear that, just as charity requires “banker-like accountability,” business requires ethics: “Business without a moral, ethical foundation isn’t liberating; it enslaves people in the perpetual cycle of poverty.”

Throughout its 196 pages, Toxic Charity offers few details. Lupton’s material may have been better served by a tighter focus on one ministry, with specifics giving births to general prescriptions, rather than the other way around. But that may be an unfair expectation, as he’s a minister, not a journalist—or gifted writer. (In one particularly terrible sentence, he compares people moving to a low-income neighborhood to Marines establishing a beachhead.)

Oh, well. Toxic Charity never claims to be anything more than the beginning of a conversation that all Christians should participate in—including the givers, whose good intentions, however laudable, are hardly sufficient.

Charity Detox: What Charity Would Look Like if We Cared About Results. By Robert D. Lupton. Published by HarperOne on July 7th. 196 pages. $24.99

“Visions and Revisions: Coming of Age in the Age of AIDS” by Dale Peck

sohopress.com

sohopress.com

Visions and Revisions is at once a memoir of the AIDS epidemic, a meditation on gay identity, and a masterly case of Joan Didion-style narrative deconstruction (albeit more rigorous than Didion’s, and grounded in righteous anger rather than ennui). Newly out and free in New York of the late 80s and early 90s, Peck felt his way through love, sex, and activism, and tried to figure out what it meant to be gay in the face of an epidemic “whose initial impact had been magnified a thousandfold by the homophobically motivated disregard of the government, media, medical establishment, and general population.” Now older and wiser, he explores how best to write about the time. He criticizes the mainstream homophobia of the time, particularly its lurid fascination with the murders of gay men, but also rebuts the theories of other gay writers, most notably Leo Bersani, who called for gays to separate themselves from the demands of citizenship and “relationality itself.” Peck—author of a dozen previous works of fiction and nonfiction—has just as little patience with those who assume that empathy and human-interest stories are sufficient in the face of epidemic or murder: “Empathy probably won’t hurt anyone struggling with this disease, but it won’t help them much either, and it won’t cure anyone.”

Visions and Revisions: Coming of Age in the Age of AIDS. By Dale Peck. Published in April by Soho Press. 224 pages $25.00

Love in the Time of Identity Politics

graywolfpress.org

graywolfpress.org

In her slim but sprawling memoir The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson recounts her romantic relationship with Harry, a woman transitioning to man, and her own pregnancy, while liberally interspersing their story with reflections on the nature of gender and sexuality.

Nelson, to her credit, feels no compulsion to portray the female body as a sex object or something pretty to gaze at. She demonstrates that the female body, for all the charm attributed to it, can be just as vile as the male.

Here she is when her midwife demonstrates that she’s already making milk: “In one stunning gesture, she took my breast into her hand-beak and clamped down hard. A bloom of custard-colored drops rose in a ring, indifferent to my doubts.” Milk is the most pleasant of the substances she describes emitting.

She doesn’t hide her pleasures in sex, either: “[Y]ou spread my legs with your legs and push your cock into me, fill my mouth with your fingers.”

In the face of those who condemn her sexuality or her lack of shame around it, she is defiant, challenging popular conceptions of, for example, the sameness at the core of a lesbian relationship. “[W]hatever sameness I’ve noticed in my relationships with women,” she writes, “is not the sameness of Woman, and certainly not the sameness of parts. Rather, it is the shared, crushing understanding of what it means to live in a patriarchy.”

Throughout, she calls out the patriarchy she encounters, from the cab drivers who tell her how women should live, to the man at a lecture of hers who asks how she can write about dark subject matter while pregnant.

If The Argonauts was simply this, a frank memoir of a woman’s romance, pregnancy, and academic career, it would be perhaps half its length, and much more compelling. Unfortunately, much of this book is made of smatterings of theory indulging in the worst of identity politics, like her knee-jerk dismissals of outside commentary or tendency to read vast significance into personal anecdotes.

“How to explain, in a culture frantic for resolution,” she wonders, “that sometimes the shit stays messy?…How does one get across the fact that the best way to find out how people feel about their gender or their sexuality—or anything else, really—is to listen to what they tell you, and try to treat them accordingly, without shellacking over their version of reality with yours?”

Sure, good point. We shouldn’t rush to impose our narratives on others. Lord knows, in the past fifty years we’ve made great (but incomplete) progress towards turning the “neutral” viewpoint into something more inclusive than the merely white and male.

But imposing our views of reality onto others isn’t inherently wrong. Every effort to accurately represent reality—whether it’s a scientific model, a newspaper article, or a book of theory as loosely organized as The Argonauts—inevitably distorts it. The ideal response is not to let every individual have his or her own “version of reality,” but to strive to find the version of reality that most closely represents the thing itself. Some views of reality are more realistic than others; not everything is a matter of one’s taste or “personal journey.”

In more concrete terms, the proper response to bigots is not to express indignation that they dare challenge your version of reality, but to tell them why their version of reality is wrong. Don’t tell a homophobe that it’s wrong to have an opinion different from that of the gay rights movement; tell him (if he’ll listen) about the many gays who live lives of peace and wholesomeness, who raise families, work and worship beside their straight neighbors.

An appeal to objective reality is often seen as a right-wing position, but it’s not. After the discrediting of “A Rape on Campus,” Rolling Stone’s sensational article about a rape at the University of Virginia, Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig wrote in the socialist journal Jacobin that personal narratives can only go so far. “The strength of leftist critique,” she wrote, “is that it concerns itself with the broad, the historical, the powerful, the structural. Contrast this with right-wing accounts of politics, which focus on individual choice and disposition, private and personal interests, and folk-legendary tales of bootstrapping.”

Holding a personal narrative against greater standards isn’t shellacking, it’s fact-checking.

Nelson strays further onto shaky ground when she presents a pat response to critics of identity politics. Responding to criticisms of gender theorist Judith Butler, she writes:

[T]he simple fact that she’s a lesbian is so blinding for some, that whatever words come out of her mouth…certain listeners hear only one thing: lesbian, lesbian, lesbian. It’s a quick step from there to discounting the lesbian—or, for that matter, anyone who refuses to slip quietly into a ‘postracial’ future that resembles all too closely the racist past and present—as identitarian, when it’s actually the listener who cannot get beyond the identity that has been imputed to the speaker. Calling the speaker identitarian then serves as an efficient excuse not to listen to her, in which case the listener can resume his role as speaker. And then we can scamper off to yet another conference…and shame the unsophisticated identitarian….

In summary, Nelson argues that criticism of identity politics hinges on 1) defining the argument by the identity of the arguer, then 2) dismissing the argument based on that identity.

But much of identity politics does derive its legitimacy not from the quality of its arguments but from the identity of the arguers, and the simplistic dualism of privilege and oppression they’re placed in. We see this right after the excerpt above, when Nelson complains about academics “at the feet of another great white man pontificating from the podium, just at we’ve done for centuries.”

Now, I’ve rolled my eyes as much as the next guy at hilariously aloof white men saying I can’t see why we don’t all move beyond this, as if overcoming centuries of tragic history is an attitude problem. But to dismiss the arguments of white men, who may happen to be great, based on their identity is cheap rhetoric. Let’s stop defending it with rebel cool.

(And come on—white people aren’t that bad. They gave us liberal democracy, which, for all its flaws, is the best form of government we variously colored, hairless apes have yet to experiment with.)

This book unwittingly proves many conservatives talking points about academic leftists—that they’re navel-gazing, that they’re in the throes of adolescent rebellion, that they’re ivory tower intellectuals with no relation to reality.

Academia is home to many genuine agents of change, whose research helps bolster the case of people calling for the change in the streets (and in congress). Research—like the American Psychological Association’s studies suggesting that homosexuals make perfectly fine parents—does more for the gay rights movements than any number of navel-gazing memoirs. The personal may be the political, sometimes, but The Argonauts stretches that saying to its limits and reveals its absurdity.

It may be unfair, anyway, to expect coherence from Nelson, as she seems content to abstractly theorize without following her thoughts to their conclusions: “I have…never been less interested in arguing for the rightness, much less the righteousness, of any particular position.”

The Argonauts. By Maggie Nelson. Published in May by Graywolf Press. 160 pages. $23.00

 

Finding George Orwell in Scotland

sohopress.com

sohopress.com

When people today speak of “George Orwell,” they’re often referring to either of two people. The first is the historical Orwell, the hack critic and columnist who wrote two monumental novels and plenty of damn good essays amidst a torrent of less significant work. The second is Orwell the legend, known primary, if not exclusively, through Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. This Orwell is an exemplar of truth and freedom, a saint. (Never mind, though, that the historical Orwell developed a McCarthyist streak in the last decade of his life, and wrote that “saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent.”)

At its best, Andrew Ervin’s adolescent first novel Burning Down George Orwell’s House deals with Orwell the saint. Most of the time, it doesn’t even do that. “George Orwell” is simply the name of the Great Writer idolized by a man undergoing a midlife crisis.

That man is Ray Wheeler, a Chicago ad executive. Born a humble farm boy, he’s made good by selling the masses stuff they don’t need. Ray’s most successful ad campaign involved putting anonymous graffiti (OIL HOGG) on SUVs, so that buying the gas guzzlers became an act of rebellion against perceived eco-vigilantes.

But Ray is sick of it all. He doesn’t want to take his firm’s next project, which would entail trying to convince people that fracking is perfectly safe. His wife is cheating on him, and divorce is imminent. Walking amidst the “cubicle farmers” in the “march-step choreography of the herd” on the streets of Chicago, painfully aware of the advertising and surveillance from which there is no escape, he feels like Winston Smith in Oceania, surrounded by unthinking proles, hoping for an impossible authenticity.

So Ray quits his job and travels to the remote Isle of Jura off Scotland, where Orwell composed his masterpiece, to read Saint George’s works and drink scotch. The villagers, unfortunately, are none too friendly, especially the father of a precocious teenager who may be too smart for such a small island.

What results is a standard story of a man traveling to a remote land, getting to know the locals and their strange ways, and leaving after having made his mark on it—and the land having made a mark on him.

Ray is full of righteous indignation at society, and Ervin never fails to indulge, pausing so Ray can frown at the sheeple. Here he is watching the students at his ex-wife’s university:

The class bells rang, and faster than he could say Ivan Petrovich Pavlov the corridor teemed with rival tribes differentiated by the number of beats per minute throbbing around their precious heads and the corporate logos adorned on their too-tightly clothed chests. A hundred cell phones chirped at once, a collaborative ringtone technique destined to put Schoenberg and Webern out to pasture.

It’s moments like these when Burning is not just dull but adolescent (I’ll explain that term shortly). Has it ever occurred to Ray that the members of the “rival tribes” may have lives with doubts and struggles just as legitimate as his? Even if a student wears Beats by Dre and a Hollister T-shirt, who’s to say he’s not slamming Red Bull because his dishwashing gig keeps him up all night, that he’s not a first-generation college student struggling to win in a game his family never had the chance to play? Ray—in the name of his own commitment to authenticity—dismisses the possibility of authenticity in those who aren’t as loudly jaded as he is.

I call this worldview “adolescent” not because adolescents are the only ones who think this way, but because it’s most closely associated with, and celebrated in, teenagers and young adults. Weren’t we all like Ray at one point? I remember walking through the streets of San Francisco in my late teens, dividing the passersby into hipsters and airheads and taking comfort in the though that, though they may be more successful than I am, they’re not as a thoughtful. But I grew out of it, or at least gained the decency to be ashamed of it.

It’s an Orwell novel, actually, that helped me do so. The protagonist of Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Gordon Comstock, is a once-promising poet who quits a job as an ad copywriter so he can sink into poverty and get away from “the money-god” that enslaves society. (An aspidistra is a houseplant.) Often, he wishes to see the streets of London blown to bits. At the end of the novel, though, after resolving to marry his pregnant girlfriend, Gordon sees a bit of authenticity in the lives of the money-god’s supplicants:

Our civilization is founded on greed and fear, but in the lives of common men the greed and fear are mysteriously transmuted into something nobler. The lower-middle-class people in there, behind their lace curtains, with their children and their scraps of furniture and their aspidistras—they lived by the money-code, sure enough, and yet they contrived to keep their decency. The money-code as they interpreted it was not merely cynical and hoggish. They had their standards, their inviolable points of honor. They “kept themselves respectable”—kept the aspidistra flying. Besides, they were alive. They begot children, which is what the saints and the soul-savers never by any chance do.

Max never has a realization like Gordon’s. This alone would not sink the novel. Plenty of protagonists fail to learn the error of their ways, but at least their novelists hold them accountable, rather than cheering them on. Ray, in contrast, never gets his arrogance deflated. In fact, he never even realizes that it’s arrogance—both he and Ervin mistake it for wisdom.

And while his reading of Nineteen Eighty-Four evolves somewhat, he never realizes that there’s more to Orwell than dystopian paranoia. You’d think someone obsessed enough with Orwell to travel to Jura would reference more of his works.

Burning Down George Orwell’s House fails because the protagonist’s adolescent worldview is allowed to run unexamined, and because the figure “George Orwell” alluded to is hardly worthy of the name of the actual writer. There are some bright spots, particularly Ervin’s descriptions of Jura’s landscapes, people, food and drink (haggis is described as “a possum that had puked up its own guts”). But these do the novel as much good as pingpong balls thrown to a drowning man.

Burning Down George Orwell’s House. By Andrew Ervin. Published in May by Soho Press. 272 pages. $18.25

No Hope in the Wilderness

twodollarradio.com

twodollarradio.com

Two hitmen travel to a bar after their latest job, expecting to get paid, only to find that it’s been burned down. So begins Colin Winnette’s debut novel Haints Stay, and it only gets bleaker from there.

Haints follows Brooke and Sugar, two brothers and the aforementioned hitmen, who wander looking for work while fighting off thieves and lawmen. One night, a young boy appears between them, naked and not knowing who he is or how he got there. After determining that he’s not worth killing, they name him Bird and let him tag along.

Bird is soon separated from the pair by a stampede of wild horses, and the brothers are arrested when they arrive in a town. Sugar—who is actually Brooke’s sister, and pregnant—is put in jail, where authorities plan to hang her after she gives birth. Brooke makes a lucky break from captivity and begins wandering through the wilderness. Bird is taken in by a family, only to be sent fleeing again when its patriarch is murdered by creditors.

As the synopsis suggests, there is no security in this world. “[W]e are always in the wilderness,” says one character. “Beneath everything is wilderness and there is no end to it.” There’s no religion, either, or standards of decency or morality, or, most of the time, familial love.

Even in the novel’s most stirring moment, when Sugar escapes from prison, massacres a town searching for her newborn, and takes off when she finds it, Winnette makes clear that it’s not a mother’s love at work:

“As it was, something was keeping the thing pressed to his chest. Something made him want to warm it and stop it from crying. He did not feel a tenderness toward it, but felt a strong desire to balance it out. To put the creature and himself on a more even keel.”

Haints Stay does not have particularly well-developed characters or sense of place—the setting seems vaguely western and apocalyptic—and sometimes feels like a bleak parable without a moral. And the coincidences that bring various characters together in its final pages strains credulity, introducing sentimentality into a novel that proudly shuns it.

The novel’s ending gives us not hope but a bit of sick comfort. Terrible as it can be, the world keeps moving along in awfully familiar patterns.

Haints Stay by Colin Winnette. Published June 2 by Two Dollar Radio. 212 pages. $16.00

A Compelling (If Unconvincing) Proposal for Sustainability

haymarketbooks.org

haymarketbooks.org

You may have seen—and, like this reviewer, rolled your eyes at—certain canvas grocery bags proclaiming I AM NOT A PLASTIC BAG. Look at me! they announce on behalf of their owners. I’m making a minor lifestyle change with an infinitesimal impact on the environment.

That may not be a plastic bag, responds leftist writer Michael Lowy in Ecosocialism, but you’re still participating in a capitalist economy that pursues growth for growth’s sake, thereby depleting and polluting the environment.

Lowy proposes replacing capitalism with the economic system of the title. Along Marxist lines, he rejects calls to reform, temper, or clean up capitalism, as he finds fault in the type, not degree, of consumption it demands: “The issue is not ‘excessive consumption’ in the abstract, but the prevalent type of consumption, based as it is on conspicuous consumption, mercantile alienation, obsessive consumption of goods, and the compulsive acquisition of pseudo-novelties imposed by ‘fashion.’”

An Ecosocialist society, in contrast, would gear production toward basic needs, “beginning with those which could be described as ‘biblical’—water, food, clothing, housing—but including also basic services such as health, education, transportation, and culture.”

These logistical changes would accompany a cultural shift toward, as Lowy puts it, “being” rather than “having.” Freed from the pressure to consume, he writes, the people will shift their focus from chasing the latest iPhone to “[e]ssential creative, nonproductive, and reproductive human activities, such as householding, child-rearing, care, child and adult education, and the arts.”

(Lowy’s prose is dry at best and dense at worst, but the author repeats his points throughout these articles, so a concept that’s understood only vaguely upon the reader’s first encounter should be clear by the third.)

This production would be under democratic control. Rather than giving decision-making power to corporations or unaccountable officials, the people of an Ecosocialist society would vote on what to produce and how to distribute it.

The standard—and, if the murder of millions means anything, sensible—response to such ideas is, but what about the Soviet Union? This time will be different, Lowy assures us, as control will be in the hands of the people rather than a politburo. “The failure of the USSR,” he writes, “illustrates the limits and contradictions of bureaucratic planning, which is inevitably inefficient and arbitrary; it cannot be used as an argument against democratic planning.”

Really? Ecosocialism is full of such moments in which assumptions are hastily justified and ideas are quickly proposed, leaving the reader to ponder their real-world applicability. Here are two more examples:

After the transition to a postcapitalist society, after the means of production will have been “seized from banks and other corporations and made a function of the public good,” citizens will come together to democratically decide the whats, hows and whos of production. Really? What is there to keep power from sliding back into the hands of the most charismatic, powerful, or otherwise privileged groups?

“[W]hile advertising did not exist in the countries whose bureaucratically planned economies vanished after the Berlin Wall fell, there was a mendacious political propaganda that was no less inhuman and repressive. That too must be avoided in any transition to a postcapitalist society.” Yes, but how can that be avoided? How can you have a revolution without propaganda? Who decides what propaganda is “inhuman and repressive”?

A humane Ecosocialism seems possible at the level of a commune, or in the indigenous societies Lowy cites as models, but it seems much less feasible on the global scale he ultimately envisions. (“Ecosocialism will be international and universal,” he writes, “or it will be nothing.”)

As you may have noticed, this reviewer is a liberal. He is alarmed at the rape of the natural world, and the widening chasm between the rich and poor, but he is comfortable enough that the messy business of revolution is more frightening to him than, say, the destruction of faraway tribal lands by agribusiness. Such distance is a shameful luxury, but it also serves as an inoculation against utopianism, against hopes of change for change’s sake.

Lowy acknowledges the obstacles, known and unknown, that lie between the current state of the world and Ecosocialism, and the uncertainties of its realization. It’s a utopian’s job to propose an alternative, not to work out the details. He asks, “are not utopias (that is, visions of an alternate future) wish-images of a different society, a necessary feature of any movement that wants to challenge the established order?”

Yes, they are. When all reality has to offer us is inequality and environmental degradation, we need utopias. Ecosocialism may not tell us exactly where we need to go, but it tells us, screaming and unapologetic, that we are headed in the wrong direction.

Ecosocialism: A Radical Alternative to Capitalist Catastrophe. By Michael Lowy. Published in April by Haymarket Books. 120 pages. $15.00