Reviews Round-up: Atwood, Wolitzer and Danahar

The critics' verdict on Atwood, Wolitzer, Danahar and Ripley

MaddAddam, by Margaret Atwood

With MaddAddam Margaret Atwood concludes her “speculative fiction” trilogy, which began in 2003 with Oryx and Crake and continued in 2009 with The Year of the Flood. In the final instalment, the focus shifts to Toby, who plays a more minor role in the first two books, and sees the subplots and loose ends rounded off and tied up as Attwood’s satirical dystopia reaches its climax.

Sarah Churchwell, writing in the New Statesman magazine, found the conclusion to be a little too neat for the tone of the trilogy noting that “One might expect a dystopia to be rather messier and more entropic: the plague wipes out the entire human race, except for all Atwood’s protagonists, who endure in order to come together in MaddAddam and tie up her storylines rather too neatly”.  While not unimpressed by the finale, she still rates the opener as the “tour de force of the trilogy”.

The Scotsman’s Tom Adair, however, was spellbound by the finale, suggesting that Attwood’s witchlike ability to charm her reader would have had her burnt at the stake in times gone by. Her cutting prose is “diamond edged and perfectly pitched” and while Churchwell might think it is unnatural that the subplots of the previous two works are brought together so conveniently, Adair feels that “MaddAddam represents the brilliant culmination of their stories”. He concludes that, in this case, three is better than one or two as “Atwood’s trilogy eclipses the sum of its parts in a way that could not have been foreseen in the first two books”.

James Kidd of the Independent was also impressed by final work, commending both Atwood’s reflective side (“It ends with a bravura meditation on the power, consolations and endurance of literature itself”) and her subtle humour (“Atwood is not always praised as a comic writer, but MaddAddam reveals a fondness for bad puns, off-beat one liners and some inventive running gags”). He judges Atwood to have given an almost distressingly accurate reflection on humanity in all its depravity concluding that “It is not always a pretty picture, but it is true for all that.”

The Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer

Meg Wolitzer’s tenth book The Interestings follows a group of otherwise unremarkable American teenagers, who meet at a summer camp in New York, as the unquenchable excitement of youth gives way to the inevitable dreariness of middle age in a tale that has received a positive response from critics.

For the Telegraph’s Alison Pearson, it is a breakthrough novel, worthy of five stars and a gleaming review. She is charmed by Wolitzer’s wit “which can even make clinical depression entertaining” and impressed her “fearlessness in tackling everything from the difficulty of getting a penis inside you to the sheer horror occasioned by your best friend’s new walk-in refrigerator”. Above all, Pearson hails The Interestings as “a great feminist novel” concluding that “Meg Wolitzer is a supreme ironist. If anyone can find the bittersweet humour in an elevation to the Big Boys’ League, it’s her.”

Rachel Cusk, writing for the Guardian, acknowledges that the plot-line might be considered somewhat “old-fashioned” but thoroughly enjoyed the novel, calling it “essentially a cheerful enterprise with a guaranteed entertainment value” and attributing to Wolitzer a “knack for comic-satirical perceptions of character and culture”. Whilst she laments the occasional excess of “narrative bulk” she ultimately concludes that the reader is constantly “waiting to see what happens next”.

In the Independent, Holly Williams gives the novel another positive reception, hailing in particular Wolitzer’s brilliance in writing about “normal, unremarkable lives, investing them with just as much detailed attention and humane humour as the lives of the beautiful, the rich and the famous.” She finds it refreshing that the heroine “isn’t particularly pretty or sexy, or rich or glamorous”. Williams also points out the success of Wolitzer’s socio-historical contextualisation and concludes that although the prose is sometimes forced, and she thinks that Wolitzer occasionally and unhelpfully indulges her “urge to run down every available narrative track”, ultimately “this novel lives up to its name; Wolitzer’s perceptive portraiture makes these ordinary lives very interesting indeed."

The New Middle East: The World After the Arab Spring, by Paul Danahar

In The New Middle East: the World After the Arab Spring Paul Danahar reveals his own insights on the Arab Spring, having worked on the "axis of evil" during the revolution. In vivid prose, Danahar narrates the events that removed the "stable (yet ruthless) dictatorships" from the Arab Continent and have yet to reform: he notes that the end product is still an unknown entity.

Christopher de Bellaigue, writing for the Guardian, considers that the book is somewhat out of its depth; despite "a smattering of horror" and "exotic frisson" he concludes that there is "little to surprise an even moderately attentive reader of the foreign news." Indeed, the paper mocks Danahar’s willingness to embrace the obvious when stating that "in war, seconds and inches are the difference between life and death." There are also criticisms of the content itself: Danahar seems to have neglected the ever-changing nature of the situation when writing that the Arab Spring has left "a stronger Sunni, and a weaker Shia, Islam." In fact, the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood party has been toppled in Egypt and Assad’s Shia regime continues to remain in power. De Bellaigue also appears to be mildly amused by the author’s naivety; to the statement, "God has returned to the Middle East," de Bellaigue responds "did he ever leave?"

However, the New Statesman’s Philip Maughan offers a more sympathetic view. He reminds us of Danahar’s expertise, running "the BBC’s coverage of the Arab spring between 2010 and 2013," before describing how the book leads us to some important questions concerning these newborn democratic states, nominally difficult matters of "statehood, secularism and religion."

Colin Freeman, writing for the Telegraph, also shares some of the Guardian’s concerns; he criticises the scapegoat Danahar places on "the shortcomings of American intervention" whilst ignoring Al-Qaeda’s nihilistic resistance. Freeman feels that this is completely paradoxical to the Arab Spring itself, for it adopts "that old mentality that still dogs the Arab world – namely, that whatever goes wrong, someone elsewhere is always to blame." This mantra appears contrary to the progressive mindset that typifies the Arab Spring.

The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, by Amanda Ripley

In her book The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way Amanda Ripley condemns the grim state of American education, reiterating the view that is rife contemporary politics. She answers the pressing question "What exactly is happening in classrooms in foreign countries that are out-performing the U.S.A?" by spending time at the heart of the action: she follows three American teenagers choosing to take a year out as foreign-exchange students in Finland, Poland and South Korea. She presents the startling effects this has on their academic performance and attempts to discover what other countries are doing right and the U.S. is doing wrong.

Emma Keller, writing for the Guardian, tells potential readers Ripley’s book will "amaze you" and agrees that she drives home some very accurate points on America’s failing schools: "kids are bored, mentally unchallenged and could do so much more with their time."

The Huffington Post’s Jonathon Edelman shares Keller’s view that Ripley’s book is "gripping" and admires her "fascinating characters" and "fresh observations." He admires that, "Ripley lets facts and firsthand observations guide her conclusions, not the other way around," and is adamant that Ripley’s suggested improvements to America’s educational system – "parent involvement, heightened levels of expectation and well respected teachers" – ought to be at the core of the organisation and inculcated into its pupils.  

The Economist agrees that Ripley’s "wide-eyed observations make for compelling reading" and praises the "startling amount of insight" the book offers. The reviewer connects with Ripley’s frustration at America’s focus on "tracking students at different cognitive levels" where "low expectations are often duly rewarded" and, like Ripley, laments "the perverse sort of compassion that prevents American teachers from failing bad students."   

The consensus suggests that this book successfully crystallises why America’s schools are declining; the reviewers all hope that the contempt for the American education system this book breeds will spark a desperately needed overhaul.

Joe Iles and Irfan Allana

Margaret Atwood. Photograph: Getty Images
Nicola Snothum / Millenium Images
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The end of solitude: in a hyperconnected world, are we losing the art of being alone?

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. 

Michael Harris is a Canadian writer who lives in a big city and whose life is defined and circumscribed, as so many Western lives are now, by digital technologies. He finds it hard to leave his phone at home in case he misses anything. He worries about his social media reputation. He uses apps and plays games, and relies on the internet hive mind to tell him which films to watch or where to eat. Here is what happens when he goes on holiday to Paris:

Disembarking from the train from London, I invited a friendly app to guide me to a hotel near the Pompidou . . . The next morning, Yelp guided me towards a charming café in the Marais. There, wizard-like, I held my phone over the menu and waited for Google Translate to melt the words into English. When the waiter arrived, I spoke into my phone and had it repeat my words to the grinning garçon in a soft, robotic French. Later, at the Louvre, I allowed a Nintendo-sponsored guidance system to track my steps up the centuries-old Daru staircase as I squinted confusedly at its glowing blue you-are-here dot . . .

Terrifying, isn’t it? Well, I thought so as I read it, and Harris thought so afterwards. It was situations like this, during which he realised that his life was controlled, confined and monitored by distancing technologies, that led him to wonder whether solitude – the act and the art of being alone – was in danger of disappearing.

Harris has an intuition that being alone with ourselves, paying attention to inner silence and being able to experience outer silence, is an essential part of being human. He can remember how it felt to do this, before the internet brought its social anxiety and addiction into his life. “I began to remember,” he writes, “a calm separateness, a sureness I once could live inside for an easy hour at a time.”

What happens when that calm separateness is destroyed by the internet of everything, by big-city living, by the relentless compulsion to be with others, in touch, all the time? Plenty of people know the answer already, or would do if they were paying attention to the question. Nearly half of all Americans, Harris tells us, now sleep with their smartphones on their bedside table, and 80 per cent are on their phone within 15 minutes of waking up. Three-quarters of adults use social networking sites regularly. But this is peanuts compared to the galloping development of the so-called Internet of Things. Within the next few years, anything from 30 to 50 billion objects, from cars to shirts to bottles of shampoo, will be connected to the net. The internet will be all around you, whether you want it or not, and you will be caught in its mesh like a fly. It’s not called the web for nothing.

I may not be the ideal reader for this book. By page 20, after a few more facts of this sort, I had already found myself scrawling “Kill everyone!” in the margins. This is not really the author’s fault. I often start behaving like this whenever I’m forced to read a list of ways in which digital technology is wrecking human existence. There are lots of lists like this around at the moment, because the galloping, thoughtless, ongoing rush to connect everything to the web has overcome our society like a disease. Did you know that cows are now connected to the internet? On page 20, Harris tells us that some Swiss dairy cows, sim cards implanted in their necks, send text messages to their farmers when they are on heat and ready to be inseminated. If this doesn’t bring out your inner Unabomber, you’re probably beyond help. Or maybe I am.

What is the problem here? Why does this bother me, and why does it bother Harris? The answer is that all of these things intrude upon, and threaten to destroy, something ancient and hard to define, which is also the source of much of our creativity and the essence of our humanity. “Solitude,” Harris writes, “is a resource.” He likens it to an ecological niche, within which grow new ideas, an understanding of the self and therefore an understanding of others.

The book is full of examples of the genius that springs from silent and solitary moments. Beethoven, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Einstein, Newton – all developed their ideas and approach by withdrawing from the crowd. Peter Higgs, the Nobel ­Prizewinner who discovered the Higgs boson particle, did his best work in peace and solitude in the 1960s. He suggests that what he did then would be impossible today, because it is now virtually impossible to find such solitude in the field of science.

Collaboration, not individuality, is fetishised today, in business as in science and the arts, but Harris warns that collaboration often results in conformism. In the company of others, most of us succumb to pressure to go with the crowd. Alone, we have more chance to be thoughtful, to see differently, to enter a place where we feel free from the mob to moderate our unique experience of the world. Without solitude, he writes, genius – which ultimately springs from different ways of thinking and seeing – becomes impossible. If Thoreau’s cabin in the woods had had wifi, we would never have got Walden.

Yet it is not only geniuses who have a problem: ordinary minds like yours and mine are threatened by the hypersocial nature of always-on urbanity. A ­civilisation can be judged by the quality of its daydreams, Harris suggests. Who daydreams now? Instead of staring out of the window on a train, heads are buried in smartphones, or wired to the audio of a streaming film. Instead of idling at the bus stop, people are loading up entertainment: mobile games from King, the maker of Candy Crush, were played by 1.6 billion times every day in the first quarter of 2015 alone.

If you’ve ever wondered at the behaviour of those lines of people at the train station or in the street or in the café, heads buried in their phones like zombies, unable or unwilling to look up, Harris confirms your worst fears. The developers of apps and games and social media sites are dedicated to trapping us in what are called ludic loops. These are short cycles of repeated actions which feed our brain’s desire for reward. Every point you score, every candy you crush, every retweet you get gives your brain a dopamine hit that keeps you coming back for more. You’re not having a bit of harmless fun: you are an addict. A tech corporation has taken your solitude and monetised it. It’s not the game that is being played – it’s you.

So, what is to be done about all this? That’s the multibillion-dollar question, but it is one the book cannot answer. Harris spends many pages putting together a case for the importance of solitude and examining the forces that splinter it today. Yet he also seems torn in determining how much of it he wants and can cope with. He can see the damage being done by the always-on world but he lives in the heart of it, all his friends are part of it, and he doesn’t want to stray too far away. He understands the value of being alone but doesn’t like it much, or want to experience it too often. He’ll stop checking his Twitter analytics but he won’t close down his account.

At the end of the book, Harris retreats, Thoreau-like, to a cabin in the woods for a week. As I read this brief last chapter, I found myself wishing it was the first, that he had spent more time in the cabin, that he had been starker and more exploratory, that he had gone further. Who will write a Walden for the Internet Age? This book is thick with fact and argument and some fine writing, but there is a depth that the author seems afraid to plumb. Perhaps he is afraid of what he might find down there.

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. After 200 pages of increasingly disturbing facts about the impact of technology and crowded city living on everything from our reading habits to our ability to form friendships, and after warning us on the very last page that we risk making “an Easter Island of the mind”, the author goes back home to Vancouver, tells his boyfriend that he missed him, and then . . . well, then what? We don’t know. The book just ends. We are left with the impression that the pile-up of evidence leads to a conclusion too vast for the author, and perhaps his readers, to take in, because to do that would be to challenge everything.

In this, Solitude mirrors the structure of many other books of its type: the Non-Fiction Warning Book (NFWB), we might call it. It takes a subject – disappearing childhood; disappearing solitude; disappearing wilderness; disappearing anything, there’s so much to choose from – trots us through several hundred pages of anecdotes, science,
interviews and stories, all of which build up to the inescapable conclusion that everything is screwed . . . and then pulls back. It’s like being teased by an expert hustler. Yes, technology is undermining our sense of self and creating havoc for our relationships with others, but the solution is not to stop using it, just to moderate it. Yes, overcrowded cities are destroying our minds and Planet Earth, but the solution is not to get out of the cities: it’s to moderate them in some way, somehow.

Moderation is always the demand of the NFWB, aimed as it is at mainstream readers who would like things to get better but who don’t really want to change much – or don’t know how to. This is not to condemn Harris, or his argument: most of us don’t want to change much or know how to. What books of this kind are dealing with is the problem of modernity, which is intractable and not open to moderation. Have a week away from your screen if you like, but the theft of human freedom by the machine will continue without you. The poet Robinson Jeffers once wrote about sitting on a mountain and looking down on the lights of a city, and being put in mind of a purse seine net, in which sardines swim unwittingly into a giant bag, which is then drawn tightly around them. “I thought, We have geared the machines and locked all together into interdependence; we have built the great cities; now/There is no escape,” he wrote. “The circle is closed, and the net/Is being hauled in.”

Under the circumstances – and these are our circumstances – the only honest conclusion to draw is that the problem, which is caused primarily by the technological direction of our society, is going to get worse. There is no credible scenario in which we can continue in the same direction and not see the problem of solitude, or lack of it, continue to deepen.

Knowing this, how can Harris just go home after a week away, drop off his bag and settle back into his hyperconnected city life? Does he not have a duty to rebel, and to tell us to rebel? Perhaps. The problem for this author is our shared problem, however, at a time in history when the dystopian predictions of Brave New World are already looking antiquated. Even if Harris wanted to rebel, he wouldn’t know how, because none of us would. Short of a collapse so severe that the electricity goes off permanently, there is no escape from what the tech corporations and their tame hive mind have planned for us. The circle is closed, and the net is being hauled in. May as well play another round of Candy Crush while we wait to be dragged up on to the deck. 

Paul Kingsnorth's latest book, “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist” (Faber & Faber)

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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