From Polonius to American Pie, there's an aphorism out there for everyone

Popular culture is bursting with handy tips.

Erica Jong once wrote: “Advice is what we ask for when we already know the answer but wish we didn’t.” Now that we have that at the forefront of our minds, what is to be the reaction to two bits of advice I came across recently? The first, in a women’s magazine, came under the title “Brilliant love advice you haven’t read before” and featured tips gathered from people in all walks of life – a barman, a nurse, a travel agent, a hotel concierge, and so on. From a member of British Airways cabin crew came this: “Want to boost your chances of chatting to a cute stranger on a flight? Ask for a seat on the aisle, somewhere near the toilet. You’ll get noticed every time people get up to stretch.”

The second bit of advice came from a counsellor in a newspaper column, in response to a woman seeking guidance on what to do with a boyfriend who found her vagina “repulsive”. She was advised to read a book on sexual and physical diversity with her boyfriend and “discuss the material as equal adults, not teacher/pupil, and reward him when he demonstrates maturity”.             

Both of these bits of advice struck me as so incredibly odd that I have been unable to stop thinking about them. Was I missing something? Were these the answers that had already occurred to the readers, as Jong might argue, or were these just two examples of seemingly absurd and incorrect advice?

Dispensing wisdom, informed or not, isn’t hard. We can all do it and often do: despite having no degree (or real interest, to be honest) in economics, I could tell you my thoughts on what we should do to turn this financial downturn around, at 20 paces.

Personally, I like to deliver my perceptive titbits of good judgement with a languid stroke of my chin and a thousand-yard stare, which gives unearned gravitas to the most idiotic utterances. The internet is a mass grave of advice – good, bad, misogynist and racist. When you have a spare few hours, I urge you to trawl the “advice” tag on Tumblr; humanity’s problems are laid bare, from the anonymous person who wants to know a noncreepy way to procure the phone number of a crush to the person looking for book recommendations for the summer. Your screen will squeak at the platitudes unironically held up as wisdom from the lips of King Solomon himself.

There is guidance on how to survive your miserable teens, your footloose twenties, your regretful but now appropriately grateful thirties. Conclusion: we’re a mess at all times and there is foolish advice to be foisted on us at every turn.

But back to popular-entertainment culture, which is what this column is all about. What instructions from the finest fictional minds out there have you squirrelled away for everyday living? Are you a fan of Polonius (a twinkly-eyed Ian Holm, for fans of Franco Zeffirelli’s adaptation), clearly destined for an Oprah-esque talk show before Hamlet puts paid to that, who advocates “To thine own self be true”? Perhaps you prefer the new age/The Apprentice contestant-style braggadocio of Yoda’s “Try not. Do, or do not. There is no try”? The dignity in the words of Ree in Winter’s Bone (played by the Oscar-winner Jennifer Lawrence) – “Never ask for what ought to be offered” – is admirable but somewhat misplaced. Saddest of all, I’ve yet to utilise this gem from Vizzini, the wily Sicilian hunchback in William Goldman’s The Princess Bride: “Never get involved in a land war in Asia.”

And so, with best wishes, here are my current top three bits of useful, pertinent advice from the movies.

This unstintingly truthful nugget from the non-rom-com (500) Days of Summer: “Just because she likes the same bizarro crap you do doesn’t mean she’s your soulmate.”

This bit of quiet, overlooked profundity, from the comedy Bridesmaids: “Make room for someone who is nice to you.”

And this useful tip for 99.9 per cent of human interactions, from American Pie: “You ask them questions and listen to what they have to say and shit.” See? Just when you thought gross-out comedies from the late 1990s had nothing to offer you, there it is. My advice for you is to skip the other movies in the franchise, though – no good ever came from watching those.

Thought gross-out comedies from the late 1990s had nothing to offer you? Wrong!

Bim Adewunmi writes about race, feminism and popular culture. Her blog is  yorubagirldancing.com and you can find her on Twitter as @bimadew.

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, You were the future once

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Drama without sensation: A Separation is an unsettling novel of distances

In Katie Kitamura’s novel, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort.

In a 2013 interview with Guernica, the online magazine, the novelist Katie Kitamura discussed how publishing’s “deeply patronising attitude” towards female readers results in overtly feminine book covers, featuring, for instance, women in bathing suits. “That’s not the kind of book cover that makes me want to buy a book,” she said.

The cover of Kitamura’s latest novel, A Separation, does, surprisingly, feature a woman in a bathing suit. But there is something quietly unsettling about this picture: the woman, who has her back to us, is awkwardly cropped out of frame from the elbows up, and she is sitting at the edge of an oddly shaped pool. Most of the cover is solid turquoise – a bright wash of negative space.

Kitamura’s unnamed narrator is a poised literary translator. As the novel opens in London, we learn that she is married to Christopher (a charming, haphazard non-author) but, in secret, they have been living separately for the past six months. When she receives a telephone call from Christopher’s mother, Isabella, informing her that he has seemingly gone missing in Greece, she doesn’t let on about her disintegrating marriage but boards a plane to look for him.

Much of the rest of the novel takes place in Greece: at a “very pleasant” hotel, in “perfect weather”, the pool “heated to a very comfortable temperature”. The area has recently experienced a string of devastating fires, leaving patches of scorched earth. The location has an almost eerie surface stillness that jars with the mystery at its heart. In this way, Kitamura (an art critic as well as novelist) creates a setting somehow reminiscent of David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash, Christopher’s sudden disappearance leaving behind no visible ripples.

The narrator, too, has a glassy composure at odds with the tumultuous events. On deciding to end her marriage formally, she shows neither despair nor relief, but anxiety about the etiquette. “I assumed – I had no prior experience to go on – that asking for a divorce was always discomfiting,” she says with typical understatement, “but I could not believe it was always this awkward.” Of her feelings for her new partner, Yvan, she notes that they seem more like “administration rather than passion”, and then offers a moderated gloss of Hamlet, “You cannot say you did it out of love, since at your age romantic passions have grown weak, and the heart obeys reason.

Her emotional separation from the trauma of her circumstances allows the narrator to examine the facts of her husband’s disappearance. She knows Christopher was unfaithful and she immediately identifies the hotel receptionist as the object of his attentions. We never see the narrator professionally translating, but the novel is concerned with her attempts to read the deeper meanings behind the remarks and behaviour of those around her. She finds it easy to imagine unseen contexts to conversations: an argument between Christopher’s parents, an embrace between her taxi driver and the hotel receptionist. As she writes, “Imagination, after all, costs nothing.”

Her propensity for projection is such that some things remain lost in translation. Even the most minute interactions can be misread. When Christopher’s mother comments that the two women’s love for her son connects them, “she was looking over my shoulder, as if watching someone approach . . . she was staring at nothing”. The novel occupies this imaginative negative space: the gap between what people think and how they appear.

Ultimately, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort. How long will she allow others to read her as the concerned, loving wife? Should she admit she wants to find Christopher in order to request that they separate officially? As her search continues she notes, “There was a small but definite wedge pushing between the person I was and the person I was purporting to be.”

There is a suspenseful and menacing tone to Kitamura’s prose that might trick a reader into thinking, at first, they are in the territory of thrillers such as Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. Both these novels, like A Separation, have narrators who defy readers’ attempts to fathom their emotional depths and to deal with questions of how well you know anyone – even your own partner. But this is a work free of sensation, or even resolution. As the narrator notes, in the shock of an event it is natural to look for a more dramatic narrative. “But in the end,” she says, “this is only chasing shadows. The real culpability is not to be found in the dark or with a stranger, but in ourselves.”

A Separation by Katie Kitamura is published by Clerkenwell Press (231pp, £12.99)

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution