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Saturday, May 19, 2007

When reading Dennis Cass’s Head Case: How I Almost Lost My Mind Trying to Understand My Brain (HarperCollins, 2007), it’s important to manage your expectations about genre.  The title might lead you to believe it’s going to be a work of science reportage, like Steven Johnson’s Mind Wide Open.  That’s not quite right.  The book jacket compares it to Supersize Me, which implies a sort of culture-jamming, quasi-political approach.  That’s not right, either.  And the blurb says it’s “touching,” which is always a little worrisome.  If you bracket those expectations, however, Head Case turns out to be quite interesting. 


Head Case is actually several different books in one: Cass does subject himself to a battery of neurological tests, even self-medicating with Adderall, and he attends several neuroscientific conferences and has read a lot in the journals, and so to that extent it is a work of science reporting.  But thinking about minds and brains leads him, inevitably, into thoughts of his stepfather’s brain, tormented by addiction and manic depression, and of his first child’s rapidly forming brain.  Triangulating with wry humor among these three stories, Cass unpacks the discomfort many feel about thinking too closely about the brain. 


Thinking about the brain is so uncomfortable that at one point, while looking at functional MRI image of his brain, Cass “didn’t believe this brain was mine.  I found this disturbing.  Even though not feeling your brain is a perfectly healthy and normal thing, I thought that there was something sinister in how my brain denied its own existence.”  More darkly, he “went back over the Brain Logs, my diary of all the bad TV and fast food, and cringed.  I thought I was watching Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines with ironic detachment, but in reality the crap I was feeding my head meant something.  The brain was always on.  There was no work time and leisure time.”


Although Cass was raised by two drug addicts, one of whom ultimately suffered a psychotic break (and his natural father probably suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder), his stories of his childhood are not sentimental tales of victimization.  Instead, given the discussions of children’s theory of mind, the influence of childhood experiences, and so forth, Cass’s childhood emerges as a blackly comic source of potential psychopathology. 


Head Case is thoughtful, funny, and very accessible—I read it while proctoring an exam, and would vouch for it as summer reading.  An index and list of sources would be helpful; their absence serves as a cue that this book is less about understanding the brain and more about living, for better and for worse, with one’s mind.



Cass graciously agreed to answer a few questions about Head Case this week:


Head Case‘s distinguishing feature is its mix of science writing with two slightly different (though related) personal stories—your unforgettable relationship with your stepfather, and your slightly more standard-issue anxieties about fatherhood.  How/when did you realize that the book needed to open with your stepfather sprinting down Amsterdam Avenue?


When I started this project I had no intention of writing about my family. Yes my childhood was awful, but was it memoir awful? But then about halfway through my research I realized that in order for this story to make sense I would need to deal with my stepfather’s grandiose idea of conquering 80s New York. Then it became a technical matter. I wrote dozens of different opens, but having a prologue type thing about my stepfather’s psychotic break seemed like the best way to start. 


What interested me about Head Case‘s mixing of narratives is that it seems implicitly to contrast the two most culturally pervasive theories of mind in the past century: psychoanalysis and neuroscience.  (Implicit because you nowhere mention Freud or psychoanalysis, but that cultural mythology is so much about fathers and sons that it’s hard not to read it in.)  Was that deliberate?  If so, to what end? 


I wish I could take more credit for exploring thoughtful dichotomies, but in truth writing this book was an exercise in survival. Every day I got up and tried to make it good and every day the subject matter (neuroscience), the story (weaving together personal narrative, participatory journalism and memoir) and the tone (it’s supposed to be funny) kicked my living ass. But when it works (and it doesn’t always work) I think there is a lot of room for the reader to make these kinds of larger connections. This is a book that invites you to talk about it behind its back. 


A follow-on about psychoanalysis: In the 20s and 30s, many artists turned their back on psychoanalysis, not so much on scientific or medical grounds but on epistemological/aesthetic/ontological ones: They didn’t want to unravel the source of their art.  You voice similar doubts throughout Head Case.  Is this just part and parcel of thinking about the mind or brain? 


I don’t think this resistance is limited to artists or writers. Imagine that you and your friends are at a bar getting deliciously drunk. Nothing ruins the moment more than someway exclaiming, “We’re so wasted!”


After your experience with Adderall, which I recognize is colored to some extent by your experience of your parents’ drug abuse, how do you view the increasing use of, or acceptance of, such cognitive enhancers by college students and others?  Will our children see Adderall much like coffee? 


My problem with any kind of drug is that there is always a price. And I mean that physiologically, not morally. Because it’s time-released Adderall has lower side effects than traditional amphetamines, but still: after up time it’s down time. Which is too bad, because you can really read on that stuff. 


Near the book’s end, you’re not just skeptical about neuroscience’s ability to decode the brain, but instead see neuroscience as treating you abjectly.  (I’m thinking of the moment where you describe yourself as “covered in science cum,” even though you were “not having a good time.”)  Do you have ethical reservations about neuroscientific research, or is your recoil more idiosyncratic?


I think it’s a little of both. I think we’re probably going to discover something about the brain that we’ll regret discovering. That is no fault of science; it’s more a matter of the law of unintended consequences. Other than perhaps outright curing a disease like polio it’s hard to find any human endeavor where there weren’t unintended negative consequences. But mostly in that moment I just felt like a jerk. 


Head Case is preoccupied with its own writing—you take on several different roles during the narrative; you spend some time talking about the nature of insight, and so forth.  Has your writing process changed much since working on this book?


I often write myself into my stories and I do it for a lot of reasons. First, it’s fun. I can tell jokes and make observations that are more personal and idiosyncratic than if I were writing from a distance. Plus, I can serve as the through line, which lets me juggle a lot of different elements. I also feel that it’s more honest. If I’m there talking to someone or witnessing something, why pretend like I’m not? 


What bit of brain knowledge is either your favorite or something that haunts your dreams?  For myself, I could have done without learning that an “unpreserved brain would spread like pudding.”


Yes: the physical brain is pretty gross. But I think the most haunting thing is the idea that the 10% myth is just that: a myth. There is no secret door behind which lay wonders or a hidden switch that activates cognitive afterburners. We are using all of our brains all the time and this is what we get. This is your life. This is the world we have made for ourselves. Bon chance.


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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Over the weekend, Scott Horton published at Harper’s this withering indictment of Alberto Gonzales, considered from the point of view of honor (via The Daily Dish).  Horton develops his argument on the basis of his reading of Anthony Trollope, the humiliatingly prolific Victorian novelist, focusing particularly on Plantagenet Palliser.


Horton’s argument is worth reading in full for its take on contemporary American politics; however, I’m more interested in his opener:


Anthony Trollope was a very great novelist, a man who in a sense is a far better surveyor of English society in the Victorian Age than Charles Dickens. His works are filled with humor and wisdom and importantly, they never tire the reader. I hardly embark on a long trip without a volume of Trollope in my carry-on bag, and while his works are entertainments, they go far beyond that.


If “surveyor of English society in the Victorian age” means “provider of a comprehensive view of all social classes, in something like an appropriate perspective,” then, no, Trollope is not better than Dickens.  But, if “society” is taken in its more limited sense—the upper crust of the social order—then Horton’s absolutely right: Dickens is famously bad at sketching gentlemen, and his lords and ladies are the stuff of farce.  Trollope, by contrast, is brilliant at capturing the nuances of this social milieu.  And this milieu is worth representing accurately, since it undergoes a remarkable transformation in the 19thC, from a landed aristocracy to a class much more dependent on the complex shifts of capital and democracy.  It’s great stuff.


One of the things that’s interesting about Trollope is that he seems to be more widely read outside American universities—i.e., by general readers—than he is in, say, Victorian novel classes.  Partly this is because some of his best novels belong to series, and most draw on a dense cultural context that’s hard to pull off in a semester.  Part of it is that, given what undergraduates are able to read these days, plus the length of canonical Victorian novels, there’s a pig-ugly attrition: You’ve got to teach at least one Brontë (and maybe 2), at least one Dickens, and Eliot.  If the Dickens is, say, Bleak House or David Copperfield and the Eliot is Middlemarch, then there just isn’t that much semester left.  Who else makes it in?


Like Horton, I have found that Trollope makes splendid vacation reading.  In fact, each of the past 5 summers and winter breaks, I have read at least one Trollope novel.  He has been good for cross-country flights, for bouts of the flu, Connecticut blizzards, trips to the parents, and much else besides.  Of the major Victorian novelists, Trollope’s sensibility is probably the brightest.  His novels’ darkest moments are usually pretty carefully quarantined, allowing the social order to reconstitute itself more readily at the end.  (Compare The Way We Live Now with Little Dorrit, for example.)  These are fine distinctions, of course, but I’m pretty sure people will grant me that Trollope is the Victorian novelist least likely to have a character vengefully ripped to pieces.


At any rate, because we’ve now cleared Mother’s Day, and opportunities for summer reading are starting to beckon, here are three Trollope novels that are first-rate introductions to his work:


  • He Knew He Was Right: A man’s jealousy—or, perhaps more precisely, his overliteral insistence on Victorian social mores and their enforcement—leads to the downfall of his marriage. 
  • The Eustace Diamonds: Does the widowed gold-digger get to keep the family jewels, or not?
  • The Way We Live Now: Very Enron: An impossibly wealthy man buys his way into society, even though no one can quite figure out where his money comes from.  David Brooks wrote an introduction to the Modern Library edition, which seems just about right.

All three novels are perfect beach reading, and, for the city-bound, will keep you safely off of this list (via Unfogged). 


A special note: If you see The Warden at the bookstore, you may well be tempted to buy it.  It’s 300-ish pages shorter than any other Trollope novel, and it kicks off the Barchester series, and so seems like a natural beginning point.  And, really, it is a fine little novel.  It does require a bit more familiarity with the Church of England hierarchy than the concept of “beach reading” strictly requires, however. 


 


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Sunday, May 13, 2007

My loneliness was still there, but it was getting louder, and easier to dance to.
—Brett Butler, Knee Deep in Paradise


Her favorite thing to do when she visits is to peruse my bookshelves. They rarely change—everything squared safely away in categories, alphabetized, hardbacks with hardbacks, paper with paper. But, she looks at them every time as if they’re new, and she says, “I just love this.” For a long time, I thought she, like me, loved the visual, the idea, of stacks of collected books, waiting to be read and reread. It’s so great a site even for me that on my way from the kitchen to the living room, dinner tray in my hand, sometimes I’ll stop and stare at the shelves and remind myself how much I have to learn, and how my education is right there, perfectly ordered, ready. Recently, though, I heard my mum’s words differently. She’s not marveling at the books, or their order, or anything at all to do with them specifically. Her expression, I realized, says: “I created a reader.”


My mum and I have always shared books. She’s often mentioned how she read to my sister and I in the womb, that her one major goal in life was for her children to love books. We do—my sister and I are big readers, thanks to our mum. I remember when my sister and I were maybe 11 and 13, mum would take us secondhand book shopping, and we’d run into the book exchanges in Shepparton so we could be first to grab whatever Stephen Kings had come in that week. In those days, my sister and I shared a lot less. Or, perhaps, while we didn’t mind passing books around, we knew early the thrill of book ownership.


In recent years, mum and I, too, share fewer books. Strangely, the woman who once handed down Kurt Vonnegut, JP Donleavy, and Joseph Heller, has started reading trashy crime novels almost exclusively. As much as she knows about Kilgore Trout, she knows even more about James Patterson’s Alex Cross. She’ll sit on the couch and fly through the latest Harlan Coben, and yet the copy of The Fixer I gave her a few months back still has a bookmarks in it’s center. I don’t know quite what happened, but, as mum would always tell me, it doesn’t matter what you read (I was addicted to Dean Koontz for a while, my sister Anne M. Martin), as long as you’re reading. I’m praying, however, that my trash addiction passed with adolescence.


A decade ago, when I had just turned 18, I handed my mum a copy of Brett Butler’s Knee Deep in Paradise. I loved the book; Butler was on TV at the time, in Grace Under Fire, a show I watched only really when I remembered it was on. Bulter’s story is about growing up in the Deep South, coming to terms with her self-abuse, finding new respect for her parents, and herself. It’s a poetic, shocking read; I knew my mum would love it as much as I did. Something I didn’t think too much about when I gave mum the book was the little lead pencil markings I’d made inside next to passages I wanted to remember, that stood out to me as particularly meaningful. In the book, Brett writes a lot about her mother, intelligent and well-meaning, but scarily unstable. Despite her mother’s complications, Brett lets us know her mother was instrumental in her success. Brett writers of her mother’s unflinching compassion, her interest in her children’s lives, her encouragement of her kids to be unique, educated, and open-minded. My mother is complex in her own ways, and her philosophies mirror those of Brett’s mum. I underlined passages relevant to that. I also underlined passages I felt mirrored my experience – Brett had learned from her mistakes and perhaps, this early in my life, I could, too. I underlined passages about drinking, about bad men, about wanting to crawl away from life. The sad opening paragraphs of chapter 14, I’ve not only underlined, but bordered with five-pointed stars. I was a kid, really, at the time, and knew very little about what was to come. But I realize now, a rocky teenagehood, completely outside of my family home, prepped me early.


My mum handed the book back to me close to tears. We’d had a strong relationship to that point, but there was a lot we didn’t know about each other. She was the cool mum who hated doing the cleaning, and bought me mixed drink cans and took me to parties because that’s what cool mums did. To her, I was the rebellious free spirit, who looked after herself despite her wildness. Brett’s book showed us each other’s lies. She read my underlines, and began to know me. It turns out, we were more alike than we let ourselves realize.


My mom and I share fewer books now, but we rarely go a day without revealing something about ourselves to each other. Like Brett’s mum, mine is there for me, always willing to give, to help, to rescue. Her complexities are my complexities. She created not only a reader, but a woman. The books on my shelf, their importance, their order, and their underlined passages, reveal her as much as they do me. 


 


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Friday, May 11, 2007
by Preston Jones [McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)]

Rant: An Oral Biography of Buster Casey
by Chuck Palahniuk (Doubleday / $24.95)


Raw and unblinking, Chuck Palahniuk’s novels often feel like primal scream therapy, unloading into the void and holding back very little.


His deadpan, withering social commentary has spawned legions of fans who anticipate his works with a fervor generally reserved for rock stars—it isn’t overreaching to connect the industrial-tinged nihilism of, say, Trent Reznor to Palahniuk’s razor-edged fantasies.


Rant: An Oral Biography of Buster Casey continues the author’s penchant for toying with conventions of form—2005’s Haunted was a novel masquerading as a collection of short stories; 2000’s Survivor unfolds in reverse—while retaining his flair for sketching reprehensible antiheroes with the faintest glimmer of humanity.


Palahniuk renders brief, punchy narratives that demand attention; Rant, in particular, isn’t a book to be consumed at leisure. Relying on interviews with those who met the mythic Buster “Rant” Casey during his brief, violent life, a portrait of a tortured, confused martyr emerges—or seems to, anyway. It’s not giving much away to reveal that Rant is infected with a potent strain of rabies and prone to freely sharing his sickness. The concept of a homegrown bioterrorist, an all-American “patient zero,” is merely an opening salvo in what becomes a misanthropic thrill ride, culminating in a temporally dislodged religious fervor.


Evoking J.G. Ballard’s Crash and Philip K. Dick’s cyberpunk dystopias, Palahniuk also cribs from future-shock films like Strange Days and eXistenZ, dour examinations of life in a brave new world. Rant flirts with government-mandated genocide, Greek tragedy, aberrant sexuality, substance abuse and audacious fusions of religion and violence, stitching together disparate elements to craft a surreal, poignant and darkly humorous quilt of madness.


Much of the book’s emotional potency stems from one of Palahniuk’s enduring thematic fascinations: the almost pathological need for his characters to feel something—anything—in their modern, anesthetized existences. Choke‘s protagonist, Victor Mancini, faked asphyxiation in restaurants to meet people, for example, while Rant’s hobby is Party Crashing, a brutal form of socialization that involves vicious auto collisions.


Rant may too strongly recall Fight Club for some, but Palahniuk has more on his mind here than simple titillation. A white-knuckled what-if, Rant is the author’s most idiosyncratic work to date, a piercing plea to push the galactic reset button.


Tagged as: chuck palahniuk
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Tuesday, May 8, 2007

For a long time I’ve been interested in the relationship between reading, time, and interpretation.  Anyone who’s ever had a conversation with someone, especially while distracted, or read a book, has had the experience of having a fuller awareness of a passage’s meaning open up long after the conversation or book is ostensibly over.  Sometimes you haven’t read enough to fully grasp a book’s import, or you’re just too busy, or, you know, you just missed it. 


I’ve become *particularly* aware of this difficulty over the past year, as I’ve started reviewing books more frequently (some 40-odd books since August 4, 2006).  Generating a reasonable off-the-cuff reaction, one that won’t be wholly embarrassing six weeks later, is a tricky thing.  But, then again, free books . . . .


This problem has been kicking around my brain again, thanks to this Kenyon Review interview with Meghan O’Rourke, whose first book of poems, Halflife, came out last month with Norton.  David Baker is an excellent interviewer, and the conversation is unfailingly interesting.  One exchange in particular has stuck in my mind over the past week.  Baker asks, “Why read lyric poetry?,” to which O’Rourke replies:


A lyric poem delivers its payload efficiently. It doesn’t require an extraordinary investment of time on the reader’s part. So you can figure out quickly whether you like something. More important, the lyric poem is the most powerful embodiment of the paradoxes of life and art. Walter Pater once talked about “the splendour of our experience and of its awful brevity,” a phrase I like because it contains both the unutterable depth of perception that living seems to contain and the peculiar corollary—that that depth, those perceptions, are unsustainable because we die. Poems have always seemed to me to be the most crystalline reflection of that sensation of privilege and loss. They mimic life, if you will.


This is a lovely answer, and, really, not enough people talk about Walter Pater on a day-to-day basis.  Having said that, O’Rourke here sounds a bit too optimistic about the investment of time required to read lyric poetry.  Clearly it’s the case that glancing over, say, this Kathryn Maris poem takes less time than does even the most cursory reading of Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.  But it’s also the case that lyric poetry requires a greater investment of attention than does a novel.  Anyone who’s taught knows this: It can be quite difficult to get students to read poems, because they demand more care than novels do.  (And since Pater’s on the table, this is surely one of his points in that “Conclusion”—that art metaphorically grants us more life by awakening our otherwise sluggish consciousness.)  We could even sharpen O’Rourke’s point a little and note that “that depth, those perceptions” that life offers are only possible “because we die,” and are not “unsustainable” only.


I have yet to figure out a way to recognize quickly whether I will like a book of poems.  (Reading aloud sometimes works, but not always in ways I can explain.)  That’s why I like reviewing them and try to be extraordinarily careful when doing so: Not because poems are more delicate, but the converse: Because they engage consciousness in such an oblique way that I grow less sure of myself as I write. 


How do you know whether you’ll like a book—poetry or anything else?


 


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