Reviews Round-up

The critics' look at Lehrer, Rogan and Haidt

The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan

Charlotte Rogan’s debut novel follows the fate of 39 passengers escorted to a lifeboat after an explosion on their ocean liner, Empress Alexandra. Writing in The Independent, James Kidd finds it “a giddily gripping read” which is “denied much in the way of broad context, the plot is driven largely by the 39 characters, who quickly form alliances and enmities, often on little more than a glance or a glare.” Determining links between the narrative and reality, “The Lifeboat becomes a metaphor for conceptions of truth, innocence, identity, class, gender, religion, love, and indeed existence itself. Grace [the novel’s narrator] reminds us that, in the end, we are all in the same boat, whether we like it or not. And, try as we might, no one leaves this one alive.”

The Telegraph’s Anthony Cummins holds reservations as to the depth of the stories protagonist, stating that “the lack of definition to Grace lowers the stakes attached to the ever-present jeopardy.” He also perceives less metaphorical substance to the novel, believing that "you could see The Lifeboat as an allegory of female self-determination under patriarchy. Squint hard enough and there’s one about US foreign policy, too.” For The Guardian, Justine Jordan hails the novel as “a fascinating portrait of a determined, free-thinking young woman, and an inquiry into the puzzle of personality. How much can we bear to know about ourselves? What do we decide to remember?”

 

Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer

In his most recent book, the journalist Jonah Lehrer examines the science behind the art of creativity, drawing on Bob Dylan, Pixar and Post-it Notes, amongst others. Writing for The Guardian, Steven Poole finds fault with the author’s idea that Dylan’s lyrics “make little literal sense”: “The amazing presumption of Lehrer's description, the shattering banality of its explanation, and its mystifying stupidity are all entirely characteristic of a phenomenon best branded "neuroscientism".” Continuing, he declares that “Lehrer's neuroscientistic method consists of paraphrasing brain-imaging studies, grossly inflating what can be properly inferred from them, and so purporting to explain "creativity" or "imagination".” For Poole, this book is a “peculiarly unhelpful self-help.”

The New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani feels that in avoiding “gauzy hypotheses and gross generalizations”, the author “proves an engaging tour guide to the mysteries of the imagination and the science of innovation.” She hails the clarity of Lehrer’s concepts which “makes them accessible to the lay reader while dispensing practical insights that verge on self-improvement tips along the way. With these suggestions, his book implies, you too might be able to maximize your creative output.”

 

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt

The social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, explores the behavioral trends of morality within poitics and religion. Beginning as an essay in why people vote Republican it has evolved into “an old-fashioned liberal plea for tolerance”, according to The Observer’s Ian Birrell. Nonetheless, “what makes the book so compelling is the fluid combination of erudition and entertainment, and the author's obvious pleasure in challenging conventional wisdom. One minute he draws on psychological experiments to defend Glaucon, the cynic in Plato's Republic who argued that people behaved well only because they were scared of being caught. (Here Haidt gives dishonourable mention to Britain's MPs, so happy to abuse expenses when they thought no one was looking at their moats and duck ponds.) The next he is enlisting the Scottish philosopher David Hume to challenge our "rationalist delusion". He asks a series of strange questions – is it wrong to eat your dog if you run it over by accident, or to perform sexual intercourse on a dead chicken? – to prove how people rely on intuition to find answers, then produce reasons to justify them.” Although, this results in Haidt “glossing over the uncomfortable conclusions of what he is saying.”

Writing for The Wall Street Journal, Gary Rosen believes Haidt’s “practical aim is modest: not to bridge the divide between left and right, atheist and believer, cosmopolite and patriot, but to make Americans, in all their diversity, more intelligible to one another.” Moreover, he “has the added virtue of encouraging a degree of humility in righteous, partisan minds of every stripe.” For The New York Times’ William Saletan, the author “seems to delight in mischief.” “The worldviews Haidt discusses may differ from yours. They don’t start with the individual. They start with the group or the cosmic order. They exalt families, armies and communities. They assume that people should be treated differently according to social role or status — elders should be honored, subordinates should be protected. They suppress forms of self-expression that might weaken the social fabric. They assume interdependence, not autonomy. They prize order, not equality.”

The cover illustration for 'The Lifeboat'
Marcelo Krasilcic
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“I don’t want to burst into tears on stage”: The Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt

The cult chamber pop curmudgeon on the process of writing a song for every year of his life – and how he avoided soul-searching.

Stephin Merritt has a stye. Sitting in a hushed greenroom at London’s Barbican, he presses a hot mug of tea against his left eye and winces.

An enormous Steinway grand piano shimmers by the wall, reflecting the room’s sparse glow from an electric candle and mirror framed in fairy lights.

“Have you ever had one?” asks the 52-year-old musician, after bowing in his chair in greeting (to avoid germ contact).

No, I reply.

“Don’t.”

Set against the grandeur of his surroundings, it’s a fitting introduction to The Magnetic Fields frontman and cult chamber pop curmudgeon.

Medical complaints are just one theme in his painfully personal new album, 50 Song Memoir. It’s an epic, genre-bending variety show with a song for each year of his life, performed in two halves. The 1992 track “Weird Diseases” cites an ear condition that confines him to a soundproofed shelter from his band onstage – and means he covers his ears when applauded by the Barbican audience later that evening.

Waiting for his soundcheck in his signature brown flatcap, a beige and turquoise argyle jumper and fawn trousers (he only wears brown – it’s hard to get dirty, and matches his eyes, hair and beloved late chihuahua Irving), he’s about to perform the last show in The Magnetic Fields’ first tour in five years.

“I hate touring,” he tells me in his baritone drawl, his head cupped in one hand. “I can’t wait to get home.”

Before he returns to Hudson, New York, he’s taking a week’s holiday in London, which he first visited at 15. As he wrote in the song for 1980, “London By Jetpack”, its blossoming New Romantic scene passed him by.

“I was here at the right time, but I was not in the right places to experience it,” he sighs. “So I was doing touristy things and going to Madame Tussauds. Eating English pizza. I bought a Sherlock Holmes hat and London trenchcoat for my costume, I guess which was fun.”

Merritt went to high school in Boston, where he founded the revolving gaggle of musicians that make up The Magnetic Fields in 1989. The album 50 Song Memoir is their 11th. It’s an eccentric, dizzying journey from Merritt’s nomadic childhood of cults and communes with his bohemian mother, via a cockroach-infested ménage à trois and the 9/11 aftermath, to writing a silent movie score for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

But it has the regular stuff too. Break-ups, unrequited love, absent fathers and all too present ex-boyfriends. In scope and ambition, it’s similar to The Magnetic Fields’ most famous work, 69 Love Songs (what it says on the tin), but it’s the first time Merritt has written a first-person, autobiographical album.

We hear bitterness and mockery in equal measure about his beatnik upbringing (“My mama ain’t no nudist/Except around the pool/She’s a Tibetan Buddhist/Like Catholic only cool”), dark musings on the AIDS crisis (“We expected nuclear war/What should we take precautions for?”), and the final song, 2015’s “Somebody’s Fetish” – like a filthier version of Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love” – acts as Merritt’s self-deprecating justification for finding love (“Nothing’s too strange for somebody’s palate/Some spank the maid and some wank the valet”).


Stephin Merritt. Photo: Marcelo Krasilcic

Like the Stephen Sondheim of New York’s underground scene, or a rock ‘n’ roll Noël Coward, Merritt’s acerbic observations and camp brand of miserablisim have established him as an extraordinary lyricist over a quarter century of music-making.

Throughout the 25 albums he’s made with different bands and as a solo artist, Merritt’s words are brought to life by theatrical scores and an experimental use of instruments – but nowhere more celebrated than with The Magnetic Fields.

“I keep wondering if this album has been so well-reviewed partly because people think it would be boorish to question bearing my soul,” he says. “Because reviewing it is like reviewing a person.”

Although 50 Song Memoir seems like a highly revealing “audio-biography”, Merritt insists: “I am against soul-searching in general. I don’t believe in souls in the first place – and if I did, I don’t know how one would search them.”

He points out that these songs are more likely to provoke laughter than tears. The “psychoanalysing” by critics annoys him. “I have to perform these things and I do not want to burst into tears on stage,” he says, his eyes widening. “I don’t want to stand on stage humiliating myself and the audience.”

Merritt recalls crying while performing The Magnetic Fields’ classic ballad “The Book of Love” at the funeral of a friend who died suddenly. “That is the last time I will ever do that,” he smiles drily.

The 50 Song Memoir show is more of a revue, with wry narration by Merritt between each song, and band members playing everything from the omnichord to a saw. The singer himself sits in his pastel-hued soundproof booth, surrounded by 16 dolls houses and other trinkets from his own home – Hooty, his stuffed owl, little wooden animals, quirky instruments and “some of my lunchbox collection”. It makes him feel “weirdly” at home.


Before releasing these songs, Merritt contacted every person he names to run the lyrics by them – including his mother, who burst into tears when he played the music for her in his studio.

“What I’m saying about her is not necessarily criticism on her terms,” he says. “So she should not feel insulted, and I said that. She agreed and said in fact [she didn’t] feel insulted.”

You get the impression Merritt enjoyed the mechanics of writing 50 Song Memoir more than the emotional vulnerability. It pieces together lyrics and music he had written back in the Eighties and never released, and even a guitar solo he wrote at the age of 11. It features 100 instruments, many from his own collection. He also notes the challenge of finding rhymes for so many proper nouns. “I usually let the rhymes lead the narrative,” he says, calling them, “the automatic plot generator”.

Merritt mostly wrote this album at a couple of bars in his neighbourhood, filling around five notebooks overall. He buys expensive pads – to try and guard against losing them – which look as different from each other as possible, “in the hope I will be able to find a song or a thread more easily with visual help: ‘this was the piece of music I wrote in the flowery notebook with a robot on the cover’”.

A useful system for when he returns at the age of 100 to fulfil his vague ambition of adding another 50 songs to the piece (“I have quite a while to decide.”)

It’s soundcheck time. After admiring my rucksack (it’s brown), Merritt says goodbye without getting up, apologising again for his stye.

Never mind, perhaps we’ll hear about it in a song in 50 years’ time?

He gives a rare chuckle. “48, actually.”

The Magnetic Fields performed both halves of 50 Song Memoir at the Barbican. Listen to Stephin Merritt discussing the show on the Barbican podcast here.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.