Books in brief: The School of Life, Jonathan Franzen and Yasushi Inoue

Three new books you might have missed.

Life Lessons
Various authors
Pan Macmillan, 128pp, £6.99 each
 
What can reading Henri Bergson teach us about gruelling departmental meetings? Can Friedrich Nietzsche, attuned to his inconsistencies, enable us to negotiate conflict and see the merits of a change of heart? A new series of books from Alain de Botton’s School of Life does for Hobbes, Freud, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Byron and Bergson what de Botton’s books have done for classical philosophers and Proust. They are short, snappy reads, reminiscent of Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings blog – aphoristic digests from history’s great minds.
 
The Kraus Project
Jonathan Franzen
Fourth Estate, 336pp, £18.99
 
Karl Kraus, who died in 1936, was a Viennese satirist and poet who used his self-published newspaper Die Fackel (“the torch”) to rage against the media, capitalism and the stilted patriotism of an empire in decline. A century on, he is an ideal counterpart for Jonathan Franzen, who has translated and annotated Kraus’s essays. In notes along the bottom of each page, Franzen identifies parallels between fin de siècle Vienna and the technology-glutted US, while offering an autobiographical account of his kinship with the writer known by his enemies as “the Great Hater”. Consumer technology, Franzen argues, distracts us with perpetual yakking, making us restless and ill at ease, while companies such as Amazon run roughshod over the verbal culture to which Kraus belonged.
 
Bullfight
Yasushi Inoue
Pushkin Press, 128pp, £12
 
In 1949, at the age of 42, after working for many years as a journalist and literary editor, Yasushi Inoue began to write novels and short stories. Bullfight was his first. This novella has been translated by Michael Emmerich, known for his work with Banana Yoshimoto. It tells the story of Tsugami, a newspaper editor in Osaka, who takes a great risk when he agrees to sponsor a bullfight, only to find that his life increasingly resembles that of the bull.
The fantasy library at this year's Frankfurt Book Fair. Photograph: Getty Images.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 07 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Nelson Mandela

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Katy Perry’s new song is not so much Chained to the Rhythm as Chained to a Black Mirror episode

The video for “Chained to the Rhythm” is overwhelmingly pastel and batshit crazy. Watch out, this satire is sharp!

If you’ve tuned into the radio in the last month, you might have heard Katy Perry’s new song, “Chained to the Rhythm”, a blandly hypnotic single that’s quietly, creepingly irresistible.

If you’re a really attuned listener, you might have noticed that the lyrics of this song explore that very same atmosphere. “Are we crazy?” Perry sings, “Living our lives through a lens?”

Trapped in our white picket fence
Like ornaments
So comfortable, we’re living in a bubble, bubble
So comfortable, we cannot see the trouble, trouble
Aren’t you lonely?
Up there in utopia
Where nothing will ever be enough
Happily numb

The chorus muses that we all “think we’re free” but are, in fact, “stumbling around like a wasted zombie, yeah.” It’s a swipe (hehe) at social media, Instagram culture, online dating, whatever. As we all know, modern technology is Bad, people who take photos aren’t enjoying the moment, and glimpses other people’s Perfect Lives leave us lonely and empty. Kids these days just don’t feel anything any more!!!

The video for this new song was released today, and it’s set in a (get this) METAPHORICAL AMUSEMENT PARK. Not since Banky’s Dismaland have we seen such cutting satire of modern life. Walk with me, through Katy Perry’s OBLIVIA.

Yes, the park is literally called Oblivia. Get it? It sounds fun but it’s about oblivion, the state of being unaware or unconscious, i.e. the state we’re all living in, all the time, because phones. (I also personally hope it’s a nod to Staffordshire’s own Oblivion, but cannot confirm if Katy Perry has ever been on the Alton Towers classic steel roller coaster.)

The symbol of the park is a spaced-out gerbil thing, because, aren’t we all caged little hairy beings in our own hamster wheels?! Can’t someone get us off this never-ending rat race?!

We follow Katy as she explores the park – her wide eyes take in every ride, while her peers are unable to look past the giant iPads pressed against their noses.


You, a mindless drone: *takes selfies with an iPad*
Katy Perry, a smart, engaged person: *looks around with actual human eyes, stops to smell the roses*

She walks past rides, and stops to smell the roses – and the pastel-perfect world is injected with a dose of bright red reality when she pricks her finger on a thorn. Cause that’s what life really is, kids! Risk! At least she FEELS SOMETHING.


More like the not-so-great American Dream, am I right?!

So Katy (wait, “Rose”, apparently) takes her seat on her first ride – the LOVE ME ride. Heteronormative couples take their seats against either a blue heart or a pink one, before being whizzed through a tunnel of Facebook reaction icons.

Is this a comment on social media sexism, or a hint that Rose is just too damn human for your validation station? Who knows! All we can say for sure is that Katy Perry has definitely seen the Black Mirror episode “Nosedive”:

Now, we see a whole bunch of other rides.


Wait time: um, forever, because the human condition is now one of permanent stasis and unsatisfied desires, duh.

No Place Like Home is decorated with travel stamps and catapults two of the only black people in the video out of the park. A searing comment on anti-immigrant rhetoric/racism? Uh, maybe?

Meanwhile, Bombs Away shoots you around like you’re in a nuclear missile.


War: also bad.

Then everyone goes and takes a long drink of fire water (?!?!) at Inferno H2O (?!?!) which is also a gas station. Is this about polluted water or petrol companies or… drugs? Or are we just so commercialised even fire and water are paid-for privileges? I literally don’t know.

Anyway, Now it’s time for the NUCLEAR FAMILY SHOW, in 3D, no less. Rose is last to put her glasses on because, guess what? She’s not a robot. The show includes your typical 1950s family ironing and shit, while hamsters on wheels run on the TV. Then we see people in the rest of theme park running on similar wheels. Watch out! That satire is sharp.

Skip Marley appears on the TV with his message of “break down the walls to connect, inspire”, but no one seems to notice accept Rose, and soon becomes trapped in their dance of distraction.


Rose despairs amidst the choreography of compliance.

Wow, if that didn’t make you think, are you even human? Truly?

In many ways – this is the Platonic ideal of Katy Perry videos: overwhelmingly pastel, batshit crazy, the campest of camp, yet somehow walking the fine line between self-ridicule and terrifying sincerity. It might be totally stupid, but it’s somehow still irresistible.

But then I would say that. I’m a mindless drone, stumbling around like a wasted zombie, injecting pop culture like a prescription sedative.

I’m chained…………. to the rhythm.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.