Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on Junot Diaz, Naomi Wolf and Pat Barker.

This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz

“Junot Díaz’s short story collection is so sharp, so bawdy, so raw with emotion, and so steeped in the lingo and rhythms of working-class Latino life that it makes most writing that crosses the Atlantic seem hopelessly desiccated by comparison,” effuses Sukhdev Sandhu in the Telegraph. “This Is How You Lose Her could have been an exercise in ghetto picaresque, a kind of Latino Shameless… But Díaz – so acute, so dexterous – is more ambitious than that. He has the ability not only to make you laugh, but to wince with pain, to feel that you’re being offered tender X-rays into social worlds that are too often ignored by the gatekeepers of mass media.” Sandhu makes sure to emphasise the key role that language plays in the book: “Díaz is both a minimalist – scraping, chiselling, honing his prose into its flinty essence – and a maximalist who’s capable of code switching, flipping between the colloquial and the highbrow, creating a taut lexical calabash made up of Caribbean phrases, black American vernacular and the playful pugilism of urban street banter.”

Sarah Hall’s review in the Guardian also picks out the language as the defining characteristic of This is How You Lose Her, in particular the narrative style of Yunior, the protagonist, which she calls “a mixture of identities and languages, Spanish slang, English slang, sci-fi, highbrow, street, Ameri-vario-cana. He's also extremely funny,” she adds “and, though frequently pitiful, is not self-pitying.” Hall believes that the most affecting narratives in the collection are those told in the second person, which she acknowledges might have been “a potentially overpowering device in the hands of a lesser writer,” but in the capable hands of Díaz become “a masterpiece of skill and sensitivity, which makes full use of this mode's fascinating inside-out quality.”

Toby’s Room by Pat Barker

Toby’s Room, the latest novel from Pat Barker, has been largely praised by the critics. “Her prose remains fresh, humanely business-like, crisp and unsentimental,” writes Freya Johnston in the Telegraph. “Images are scrupulously vivid, and the plot has real momentum. One strength of her writing, suggested by her title, is the description of spaces and buildings – including the cathedral-like structures of the dissected human body.”

Leyla Sanai at the Independent thinks that the value of Toby’s Room lies in Barker’s ability to convincingly depict plausibly flawed characters, as well as her refusal to paint situations as black and white. “As well as the more monumental themes, Barker conveys ordinary lives with skill,” she says, before going on to write that “in Barker's fiction, nothing is clear-cut – people are a mix of good and bad; destructive wars are fought for laudable aims. And facts… are multi-faceted and eroded by recall and subjectivity.”

The book follows on from 2007’s Life Class, giving the reader a chance to follow the fortunes of the young artists that Barker portrayed so vividly then. But Hermione Lee, writing in the Guardian, thinks that “Toby's Room is not treated as a sequel, and the connection between the two novels is a bit awkward, with earlier relationships and events having to be clumsily back-filled. Barker has never been a thrilling stylist, and can often sound ordinary… But you don't go to her for fine language, you go to her for plain truths, a driving storyline and a clear eye, steadily facing the history of our world. In these respects, Toby's Room doesn't disappoint.”

Vagina: A New Biography by Naomi Wolf

In the New Statesman’s review of Naomi Wolf’s latest offering, Helen Lewis discovers that Wolf’s return to feminism is not much more than a combination of pseudoscience and psychobabble that doesn’t quite work together. “The frontiers of western science are represented as underscoring the ancient insights of mystics, preferably eastern ones,” she explains. “Although it doesn’t seem too unreasonable to suggest that a chronically bad sex life can affect your overall mood, often the science and self-help make uncomfortable bedfellows.” Lewis concedes that Wolf does have some valid points to make: “the section on the use of mass rape in war zones to dispirit and control the female population is both tragic and insightful… It’s a more sympathetic view than the 'all men have the potential to be rapists' approach and seems more likely to be true.” Ultimately, however, she remains unimpressed and disappointed with the direction Naomi Wolf has decided to take in this latest work. “Reading this book left me downcast. Has the Naomi Wolf I loved in The Beauty Myth really drowned in a soup of psychobabble about 'energies' and 'activating the Goddess array'? It seems so.”

Melanie McGrath’s review in the Telegraph picks out a further problem with the book. “Vagina is to be admired for its clear-minded and persuasive synthesis of new research on female sexuality, but by dividing the book into sections dealing, respectively, with 'misunderstandings', 'social control' and “the modern pressures desensitising men and women to the vagina”, Wolf sets up the vagina as essentially problematic and by pointing the finger at those of us with 'unliberated vaginas' she introduces yet another standard against which we women are judged and exhaustingly judge ourselves.”

Junot Diaz's short story collection has been well received by critics. Photograph: Getty Images.
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How nature created consciousness – and our brains became minds

In From Bacteria to Bach and Back, Daniel C Dennett investigates the evolution of consciousness.

In the preface to his new book, the ­philosopher Daniel Dennett announces proudly that what we are about to read is “the sketch, the backbone, of the best scientific theory to date of how our minds came into existence”. By the end, the reader may consider it more scribble than spine – at least as far as an account of the origins of human consciousness goes. But this is still a superb book about evolution, engineering, information and design. It ranges from neuroscience to nesting birds, from computing theory to jazz, and there is something fascinating on every page.

The term “design” has a bad reputation in biology because it has been co-opted by creationists disguised as theorists of “intelligent design”. Nature is the blind watchmaker (in Richard Dawkins’s phrase), dumbly building remarkable structures through a process of random accretion and winnowing over vast spans of time. Nonetheless, Dennett argues stylishly, asking “design” questions about evolution shouldn’t be ­taboo, because “biology is reverse engin­eering”: asking what some phenomenon or structure is for is an excellent way to understand how it might have arisen.

Just as in nature there is design without a designer, so in many natural phenomena we can observe what Dennett calls “competence without comprehension”. Evolution does not understand nightingales, but it builds them; your immune system does not understand disease. Termites do not build their mounds according to blueprints, and yet the results are remarkably complex: reminiscent in one case, as Dennett notes, of Gaudí’s church the Sagrada Família. In general, evolution and its living products are saturated with competence without comprehension, with “unintelligent design”.

The question, therefore, is twofold. Why did “intelligent design” of the kind human beings exhibit – by building robotic cars or writing books – come about at all, if unintelligent design yields such impressive results? And how did the unintelligent-design process of evolution ever build intelligent designers like us in the first place? In sum, how did nature get from bacteria to Bach?

Dennett’s answer depends on memes – self-replicating units of cultural evolution, metaphorical viruses of the mind. Today we mostly use “meme” to mean something that is shared on social media, but in Richard Dawkins’s original formulation of the idea, a meme can be anything that is culturally transmitted and undergoes change: melodies, ideas, clothing fashions, ways of building pots, and so forth. Some might say that the only good example of a meme is the very idea of a meme, given that it has replicated efficiently over the years despite being of no use whatsoever to its hosts. (The biologist Stephen Jay Gould, for one, didn’t believe in memes.) But Dennett thinks that memes add something important to discussions of “cultural evolution” (a contested idea in its own right) that is not captured by established disciplines such as history or sociology.

The memes Dennett has in mind here are words: after all, they reproduce, with variation, in a changing environment (the mind of a host). Somehow, early vocalisations in our species became standardised as words. They acquired usefulness and meaning, and so, gradually, their use spread. Eventually, words became the tools that enabled our brains to reflect on what they were ­doing, thus bootstrapping themselves into full consciousness. The “meme invasion”, as Dennett puts it, “turned our brains into minds”. The idea that language had a critical role to play in the development of human consciousness is very plausible and not, in broad outline, new. The question is how much Dennett’s version leaves to explain.

Before the reader arrives at that crux, there are many useful philosophical interludes: on different senses of “why” (why as in “how come?” against why as in “what for?”), or in the “strange inversions of reasoning” offered by Darwin (the notion that competence does not require comprehension), Alan Turing (that a perfect computing machine need not know what arithmetic is) and David Hume (that causation is a projection of our minds and not something we perceive directly). Dennett suggests that the era of intelligent design may be coming to an end; after all, our best AIs, such as the ­AlphaGo program (which beat the human European champion of the boardgame Go 5-0 in a 2015 match), are these days created as learning systems that will teach themselves what to do. But our sunny and convivial host is not as worried as some about an imminent takeover by intelligent machines; the more pressing problem, he argues persuasively, is that we usually trust computerised systems to an extent they don’t deserve. His final call for critical thinking tools to be made widely available is timely and admirable. What remains puzzlingly vague to the end, however, is whether Dennett actually thinks human consciousness – the entire book’s explanandum – is real; and even what exactly he means by the term.

Dennett’s 1991 book, Consciousness Explained, seemed to some people to deny the existence of consciousness at all, so waggish critics retitled it Consciousness Explained Away. Yet it was never quite clear just what Dennett was claiming didn’t exist. In this new book, confusion persists, owing to his reluctance to define his terms. When he says “consciousness” he appears to mean reflective self-consciousness (I am aware that I am aware), whereas many other philosophers use “consciousness” to mean ordinary awareness, or experience. There ensues much sparring with straw men, as when he ridicules thinkers who assume that gorillas, say, have consciousness. They almost certainly don’t in his sense, and they almost certainly do in his opponents’ sense. (A gorilla, we may be pretty confident, has experience in the way that a volcano or a cloud does not.)

More unnecessary confusion, in which one begins to suspect Dennett takes a polemical delight, arises from his continued use of the term “illusion”. Consciousness, he has long said, is an illusion: we think we have it, but we don’t. But what is it that we are fooled into believing in? It can’t be experience itself: as the philosopher Galen Strawson has pointed out, the claim that I only seem to have experience presupposes that I really am having experience – the experience of there seeming to be something. And throughout this book, Dennett’s language implies that he thinks consciousness is real: he refers to “conscious thinking in H[omo] sapiens”, to people’s “private thoughts and experiences”, to our “proper minds, enculturated minds full of thinking tools”, and to “a ‘rich mental life’ in the sense of a conscious life like ours”.

The way in which this conscious life is allegedly illusory is finally explained in terms of a “user illusion”, such as the desktop on a computer operating system. We move files around on our screen desktop, but the way the computer works under the hood bears no relation to these pictorial metaphors. Similarly, Dennett writes, we think we are consistent “selves”, able to perceive the world as it is directly, and acting for rational reasons. But by far the bulk of what is going on in the brain is unconscious, ­low-level processing by neurons, to which we have no access. Therefore we are stuck at an ­“illusory” level, incapable of experiencing how our brains work.

This picture of our conscious mind is rather like Freud’s ego, precariously balan­ced atop a seething unconscious with an entirely different agenda. Dennett explains wonderfully what we now know, or at least compellingly theorise, about how much unconscious guessing, prediction and logical inference is done by our brains to produce even a very simple experience such as seeing a table. Still, to call our normal experience of things an “illusion” is, arguably, to privilege one level of explanation arbitrarily over another. If you ask me what is happening on my computer at the moment, I shall reply that I am writing a book review on a word processor. If I embarked instead on a description of electrical impulses running through the CPU, you would think I was being sarcastically obtuse. The normal answer is perfectly true. It’s also true that I am currently seeing my laptop screen even as this experience depends on innumerable neural processes of guessing and reconstruction.

The upshot is that, by the end of this brilliant book, the one thing that hasn’t been explained is consciousness. How does first-person experience – the experience you are having now, reading these words – arise from the electrochemical interactions of neurons? No one has even the beginnings of a plausible theory, which is why the question has been called the “Hard Problem”. Dennett’s story is that human consciousness arose because our brains were colonised by word-memes; but how did that do the trick? No explanation is forthcoming. Dennett likes to say the Hard Problem just doesn’t exist, but ignoring it won’t make it go away – even if, as his own book demonstrates, you can ignore it and still do a lot of deep and fascinating thinking about human beings and our place in nature.

Steven Poole’s books include “Rethink: the Surprising History of New Ideas” (Random House Books)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times