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'
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The Underground Railroad is a novel which offers hope for the very strong of heart

Whitehead’s prize-winning novel of slavery in America is his finest work yet.

30 DOLLARS REWARD will be given to any person who will deliver to me, or confine in any gaol in the state so that I can get her again, a likely yellow NEGRO GIRL 18 years of age who ran away nine months past. She is an artfully lively girl and will, no doubt, attempt to pass as a free person, but has a noticeable scar on her elbow, occasioned by a burn.

 

“Want ads” for runaway slaves serve as section breaks throughout Colson Whitehead’s searing novel The Underground Rail­road, which takes a familiar story – concerning the manifold injustices of American slavery – and brings it to terrible, terrifying new life. Whitehead does so by revealing, in close view, just how brutal and businesslike were efforts to ignore, obscure and destroy the dignity and humanity of so many men and women for so very long.

The novel begins with an auction:

 

Onlookers chewed fresh oysters and hot corn as the auctioneers shouted into the air. The slaves stood naked on the platform. There was a bidding war over a group of Ashanti studs, those Africans of renowned industry and musculature, and the foreman of a limestone quarry bought a bunch of pickaninnies in an astounding bargain.

 

Thereafter we learn that “A young buck from strong tribal stock got customers into a froth”, that “A slave girl squeezing out pups was like a mint, money that bred money”, and that a mother “maintained a reserve of maternal feeling after the loss of her five children – three dead before they could walk and the others sold off when they were old enough to carry water and grab weeds around the great house”.

Finally – and this is still just in the opening pages of the novel – we discover, through the eyes of a young woman named Cora, what happens when any of these persons resists living as purchased property: “She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to prevent theft.”

Whether in spite or because of these consequences – and mindful, even haunted by the knowledge, that her mother managed to escape her own bondage – Cora decides to join a fellow slave named Caesar in running away. In Whitehead’s treatment, a metaphor for the secret network of support that helped black slaves reach the free (or at least freer) American north and Canada becomes an actual makeshift train that travels underground, which Cora and Caesar ride across the South. They are in constant peril, relieved by passing periods of respite: sleeping in a bed for the first time, learning to read and write, and even coming into a small amount of money, which, Cora soon discovers, “was new and unpredictable and liked to go where it pleased”.

Throughout their escape, they are pursued by a vicious slave-catcher called Ridgeway, who is motivated by far more than merely financial reward: “Charging through the dark, branches lashing his face, stumps sending him ass over elbow before he got up again. In the chase his blood sang and glowed.” Ridgeway, Cora and their respective others meet throughout the novel, their positions of advantage and opportunity revolving in ways that make for flat-out suspenseful reading. Many others are grievously harmed in the meantime, as they move through a small-town, 19th-century American world of crafty and hypocritical politesse and ritualised violence. The violence is never rendered more awfully than in the festive, Friday-night lynching sessions that take place at a picturesque park which Cora watches from an attic refuge.

The Underground Railroad, awarded the American National Book Award for Fiction last month, is Whitehead’s sixth novel. Following the more playful novel of manners Sag Harbor and Zone One, a zombie romp, it is his most ambitious and accomplished book since the Pulitzer-nominated John Henry Days of 2001. In fact, the lack of literary showiness – vividly presenting the rudely built underground railway and the hard lives of those riding it – makes The Underground Railroad perhaps his finest work. Although the repeated encounters between Cora and Ridgeway across such a sprawling set will strain the credulity of anyone save a diehard Victor Hugo fan, Whitehead is a confident enough writer to let their lines of escape, pursuit and capture braid and break apart again and again, building to an exciting and rending conclusion. It is one that offers hope for the very strong of heart. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage