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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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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