Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Mark Pagel, Grace McLeen and Paul Preston.

Wired for Culture by Mark Pagel

For Robin McKie, Pagel provides an assured and illuminating account of the history of human evolution and its inextricable relationship to cooperative culture. Writing in the Observer, he is convinced by Pagel's theory, remarking that "There is nothing pre-ordained in our genes to account for the societies we have created". Rather than the innate selfishness of our genetic make-up dictating how we behave towards one another, Pagel posits that it is in fact our ability to forge and learn from meaningful relationships that leads to human advancement. McKie highlights Pagel's account of honour killings, and their acceptance in some cultures, as an extreme manifestation of the natural leaning to uphold a good reputation: "we hold open doors, stand aside for others, help the elderly, give to charity and even risk our lives to save animals. It is all done to build up our own reputations so that others will seek us out and co-operate with us".

Tom Chivers in the Telegraph takes a more measured approach, pointing out that Pagel's work makes for less of a stark distinction from Dawkins's seminal The Selfish Gene, and more of a complementary thesis that re-examines what appears to be co-operative behaviour. Though Pagel charts examples of the long history of cooperation between humans that has fuelled social and technological progression, this is tempered by an underlying selfishness to make advantageous alliances to safeguard our own genes: "our psychology ... is full of tensions between the need to advance the interests of culture, and the benefits of looking out for number one".

The Land of Decoration by Grace McLeen

"Deep, fantastical and powerful" is how Viv Groskop describes McLeen's debut novel in the Independent on Sunday. She notes how McLeen has brought her own experiences of growing up in a religious fundamentalist family to bear upon the novel, creating a strongly believable voice in the form of Judith, the book's ten-year-old narrator. Though the world into which Judith is drawn is often sinister, full of bullies, strikes and hatred, Groskop is charmed by the humour of the novel and the Land of Decoration in the title, a playtime paradise through which Judith attempts to alter real-life events to her advantage.

Writing in the Observer, Nicola Barr also testifies that the book lives up to the widespread hype, praising the "beautiful" way in which McLeen allows the language of Christian texts to infiltrate Judith's world. Burr observes that the book works on a wider, social level, despite it featuring an inward-looking narrator: "this young writer has done a bold, brave thing, writing what is effectively a religious allegory set in the mid-80's Welsh valleys".

Although Alexander Larman in the Spectator adds his plaudits to the chorus, he's left underwhelmed by the book's concluding stages, which don't seem to match the "strange, rich world" that McLeen so admirably crafts. Nevertheless, he comments on the "compelling, and at times, hideously tense narrative" and adds to the general consensus that this debut novelist "approaches a potentially absurd subject with great moral clarity and purpose".

The Spanish Holocaust by Paul Preston

Giles Tremlett describes this as "an essential read for anyone wishing to understand Spain and its recent history". Preston's work, he writes in the Guardian, sheds some much needed light on the abhorrent acts perpetrated by Franco's dictatorship, and in turn "destroys the myth cherished by some Spaniards that he was a 'soft' dictator". The titular holocaust is bound to grab attention and is clearly intended to shock, but, says Tremlett, Preston adopts the word with good reason. Only until recently have Spaniards have been facing up to the extent of the atrocities committed by the regime, such was the lasting power of Franco's brainwashing campaign: "Preston charts the prejudice that led Spain's reactionary right into this bloodletting. Decades of dictatorship, and the ensuing silence after Franco's 1975 death, have kept this out of Spanish minds. Only over the past decade, as campaigners have dug up mass graves, has a desire for knowledge burst through".

In the Financial Times, although Victor Mallet concedes that "his sympathies indeed lie with the Republicans", he states that Preston nonetheless retains his focus on the "civilians and their suffering, as well as the class enmities and twisted ideologies that lay behind the conflict". Similarly to Tremlett, he warns that the book is not for the faint of heart, as it provides in-depth accounts of the systematic slaughter of 200,000 men and women: "Piling horror upon horror, Preston leaves no room for doubt that the events he describes were exactly that: crimes so appalling that they negate out humanity".

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Attention millennials: we have reached Peak Unicorn

There is a strong current of Nineties nostalgia that blends the ironic celebration of childhood kitsch with wilful self-infantilisation.

If you have been on the internet recently, you may have noticed the unicorns. Social media has become saturated with pastel pinks and blues, sprinkled with glitter and transformed into a land of magical rainbows and prancing, mystical creatures. For adults.

Young women post pictures of themselves with lilac-and-turquoise-tinted “unicorn hair”, or holographic “unicorn nails”, and put up photographs of rainbow-coloured and gold-leafed “unicorn toast”. The beauty industry has something of a unicorn problem, with brands issuing identikit ranges of shimmery, unicorn-themed cosmetics and perfumes with names such as “I Heart Unicorns”. When it comes to millennial commodity capitalism, no depth of unicorn-related paraphernalia has been left unplumbed. You can buy sparkle-laced gin advertised as “Unicorn Tears”, body glitter branded as “Unicorn Snot”, and even a lipstick tinted with “unicorn blood” – which is presumably aimed at the niche market for Goth unicorns.

In the past few weeks, the world has officially reached peak unicorn, following Starbucks’s limited-edition release of the selfie-friendly, Instagram-baiting “Unicorn Frappuccino”. Despite being described by tasters as “the worst drink I have ever purchased in my life”, and “like a combination of the topical fluoride used by dental hygienists and metallic sludge”, pictures of it were shared on Instagram more than 150,000 times in the single week it was available.

But why do unicorns have such seemingly inexhaustible popularity among millennials – many of whom, despite entering their thirties, show no signs of slowing their appetite for a pre-teen aesthetic of prancing ponies and mythical fantasy? Certainly, there is a strong current of Nineties nostalgia at play here – though it seems to be a nostalgia that blends the ironic celebration of childhood kitsch with wilful self-infantilisation. There is something terribly earnest about the language of unicorns; its vocabulary of rainbows and smiles is too embarrassing to sustain genuine irony.

The sickly-sweet copy issued by brands starts to feel unhinged, after a while. (A £28 body “Wish Wash” that tells you “Unicorns are awesome. I am awesome. Therefore I am a unicorn”, anyone? That’s not how logic works and you know it.)

God knows there’s room for a bit of crayon-coloured twee in our dark geopolitical times. And if my generation is to be denied any conventional markers of adulthood, in the absence of affordable homes or secure employment, I’ll cover myself in glitter and subsist on a diet of pink lattes and sugar sprinkles as much as I please. But in our post-truth age of Trump, Brexit, Twitter trolls and the rise of the alt right, advertising that maniacally shouts that “UNICORNS ARE REAL! UNICORNS ARE REAL!” has a flavour of deranged escapism.

Yet maybe there is an element of knowingness in countering the rising tide of global hate and uncertainty with a pretend sparkly magic horse. Perhaps unicorns are a particularly fitting spirit animal for Generation Snowflake – the epithet given to young people who have failed to grow out of their instincts for sensitivity and niceness. Eighties and Nineties kids were raised on cartoons such as My Little Pony, which offered anti-bullying messages and a model of female strength based on empathy and collaboration. By identifying with creatures such as horses, dolphins and unicorns, young girls can express their own power and explore ideas of femininity and fantasy away from the male gaze.

And perhaps these childhood associations have shaped the collective millennial psyche. For the generation that is progressively dismantling the old gender boundaries, unicorn aesthetics aren’t just for women. On Instagram, lumbersexual hipsters show off their glitter beards, while celebrities such as Justin Bieber and Jared Leto rock pastel-tinted dye jobs. Increasingly, young people of all genders are reclaiming styles once dismissed as irretrievably girly – as seen in the present media obsession with “millennial pink”. Pink is now performing the double feat of being both the unabashedly female colour of fourth-wave feminism and the androgynous shade of modern gender fluidity.

Let’s be frank: there are limits to this kind of ideological utopianism. The popularity of unicorn aesthetics and millennial pink is due in no small part to one simple thing: they are eye-catchingly appealing on social media. In an age dominated by visual media, bubblegum shades have the power to catch our attention.

Starbucks knows this. The company has explicitly acknowledged that the Unicorn Frappuccino was “inspired” by social media, knowing well that Instagram users would rush to capture images of the drink and thus giving a spike to their publicity free of charge.

But predictably, with the vagaries of the fashion cycle, Starbucks has killed the unicorn’s cool. The moment that corporate chains latch on to a trend is the moment that trend begins its spiral towards the end – or towards the bargain basement from which it will be redeemed only once it has reached peak naff. Unicorns are now “basic” – the term the internet has given to the rung on the cultural capital ladder that sits between hipster and ignominy.

Yet already the next mythical creature is waiting in the wings for us to pass the time until the inevitable heat death of the universe. If Instagram hashtags are anything to go by, the trend-setters are all about mermaids now.

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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