Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Charlotte Mendelson, Daniel M Davis, David Shields and Shane Salerno, and Jhumpa Lahiri.

Almost English, Charlotte Mendelson 

Charlotte Mendelson’s fourth novel pivots precariously between tragedy and comedy, exploring the turbulent inner workings of an emotionally fragile mother – Laura – and her awkward daughter Marina. A coming-of-age story with a Hungarian tang, this Booker-longlisted novel has been receiving a mixed response from critics, who both admire Mendelson’s theatrics, yet criticise her sincerity.

Bella Bathurst, writing for The Observer, praises the sharp, cynical voice that governs Almost English, noting that the novel deserves to win the Booker “for the quality of the writing alone”. While impressed by the prose, Bathurst does find fault with the similar characterization of Marina and Laura, noting that although “the lack of differentiation between mother and daughter sometimes makes for comedy, [it] sometimes feels uncomfortably same-ish”. In a similar vein, The Independent’s Arifa Akbar criticises the pair’s lack of individuality, observing that “the often histrionic inner voice of the teenager sounds a little too similar to the often histrionic inner voice of the mother, which sounds peculiarly petulant for a woman of her years”.

Arifa Akbar writes in the Independent that it’s not just Laura and Marina who lack refined characterisation, but the whole cast of Almost English. “Characterisation of the eccentric brood of Hungarians feels two-dimension and generic,” writes Akbar, “they seem forever to be saying ‘Von-darefool’ as if accented English were a substitute for depth.” But aside from this, Mendelson is admired for her depiction of strained but intense teenage crushes: “Marina talks in the screeching language of teen love”.

The New Statesman's Claire Lowdon refigures what Akbar calls “generic” or “histronic” as a “Dickensian love of caricature and plot.” Lowdon identifies a shared purpose between Mendelson and the Victorian author, where “the comedy comes with a sting”, and acts as a “poignant counterpoint to all the rollicking social satire.” This “sting” however, is not always achieved and at points the humour is smothered by over-exaggeration. “Marina’s visit to the Viney country pile is hammed up, Guy’s snooty 17-year-old sister utter[s] such improbabilities as, ‘One becomes so protective…’” Initially appreciative of Mendelson’s larger-than-life characters, Lowdon is ultimately frustrated, concluding with the judgment: “if you are writing in the realist tradition, you can only exaggerate so far.”

The Compatibility Gene, Daniel M Davis

In The Compatibility Gene Davis popularizes the genetics of immunology, investigating how the genes of each human being determine relationships, health and individuality. Small clusters of our 25,000 genes, Davis argues, hold disproportionate influence over the human body. These clusters, as The Compatibility Gene explores, control tissue compatibility for transplants and are responsible for a healthy immune system.

Michael Brooks, writing for the New Statesman, praises Davis’ scientific storytelling, paying particular attention to his Darwinian vision of genetics: “As well as dealing with foreign tissue, the compatibility genes seem to influence our selection of biologically beneficial partners. It turns out that we look for complementary immune systems that enhance the chance of our offspring’s survival.” While Davis’ study offers optimism for a future where genetics is increasingly understood, Brooks is quick to notice a note of poignancy in Davis’ work. “Many more scientists are threaded through the pages of Davis’s thoughtful book and they all share one thing: the grinding heartbreak that is the slow progress of scientific discovery.” Nonetheless, concludes Brooks, “The Compatibility Gene is a fascinating, expertly told story of a field that may yield significant treasures in the decades to come”.

Peter Forbes in the Guardian also identifies Brooks’ “heartbreak”, noting how “Davis sugars the pill of exploring unresolved research by focusing on the lives of the researchers and their struggles.” In his review, Forbes highlights the problem of locating underlying principles in immunology, when exceptions are present in so many cases. Most diseases require more than a single defective gene, and this “makes the job of a populariser such as Davis doubly difficult.” But Forbes is satisfied with Brooks’ admission: “While many scientists would argue that a popular-level book like this one should stick to established decades-old ideas, my view is that nothing can be more exciting than what's happening at the edge of knowledge."

Davis in the Times offers personality to his readers as well as science. “Until recently, in everyday speech ‘Neanderthal’ was a stock term of abuse, meaning lumbering, out-dated, stupid”, notes Forbes. “Davis himself can't resist quipping: ‘I look forward to discussing my wife's Neanderthal inheritance with her family at our next Christmas lunch.” Nicola Davis in the Times comments on this readability, which allows for easy comprehension. She comments, “many of the early concepts tackled are fairly familiar but Davis’s readable narrative allows them to be seen afresh through the eyes of those who first probed such puzzles as the existence of blood groups or the very nature of disease.” For all readers of The Compatibility Gene, it is clear the more we find out about this science, the more complicated the science becomes. Nicola Davis doesn’t seem fazed, she remarks.

Salinger, David Shields and Shane Salerno

With a figure as aloof as J D Salinger any biography is likely to be alluring and problematic in equal measure. In their new work Salinger, David Shields and Shane Salerno, neither of whom are biographers, think they have the answers to this particular mystery. But despite nine years of research, 200 contributors and 175 photos, they have failed to impress the critics.

Christopher Taylor, writing in the Telegraph, is unconvinced and awards the book two stars. He doesn’t like the tone of the book and although he grants that it is “energetically researched and contains some notable scoops, it is non-Salingerian in spirit to an almost comical degree: over-emphatic, lurid Hollywood-infected”. All in all, Taylor deems the autobiography to be looking for a film-style “killer montage” rather than providing any sort of insight into Salinger’s relatively unknown life.

John Walsh, in the Sunday Times, however, was more complimentary, impressed especially by the scale of the work. He says “You take away two fascinating paradoxes from this hugely impressive, if not entirely revelatory project. One is Salinger’s creepy obsession with girls on the edge of adulthood... Second is his attitude to seclusion. For a man supposedly indifferent to fame, he monitored it obsessively, checking reviews of his work, ringing up journalists, turning up to interviews with pretty women, inviting people to his house, attending army reunions.“

Carl Rollyson in the Wall Street Journal points out the haphazard nature of the book: “Salinger is biography as scrapbook, chock-full of well-known figures and well-worn stories, with fresh information scattered about.” While Taylor was pleased by the amount of information, Rollyson finds it all too much, concluding “Biographies are often accused of not explaining enough. Here, however, is an example of one that tells us too much. The raw material in "Salinger" will need to be digested by yet another biographer. But the next book will need to be less thesis-ridden and more generous to the insights that other biographers contributed to our understanding of Salinger. We have waited so long to understand J D Salinger. We must wait longer.”

The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri

Jhumpa Lahiri’s second novel The Lowland, already longlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize, follows the story of two Calcutta brothers as their paths diverge after they go to university. While one becomes politically active and a Naxalite revolutionary, the other is more obedient and passive, studying oceanography in Rhode Island. The novel examines the political and the personal, set over nearly 50 years of Indian and American history.

Stephanie Merritt, writing in the Observer, gave the book a positive review, impressed by Lahiri’s “restraint and understatement. She resists lyricism, just as she avoids obvious drama.” Although she says that “perhaps Lahiri spreads her net a little too wide at times”, she ultimately concludes that “there is no doubt that The Lowland confirms Lahiri as a writer of formidable powers and great depth of feeling, who makes the business of conjuring a story from the chaos of human lives seem quite effortless.”

Randy Boyagoda of the Financial Times, however, was not so complimentary. He writes that “Jhumpa Lahiri would be a far better writer if she weren’t so bloody exquisite about her writing. The Lowland [...] is an ambitious multigenerational intercontinental drama, but also a symptom of its author’s success.” He finds the style too irritating for the novel to merit much praise, concluding “All of the intellectually listless contradictories share the novel’s pages with those tiny ants and the softness of kisses and many other maddeningly meticulous, pathologically decorous reflections on memory and identity and tea and biscuits and journeying and jasmine-picking and Googling. Booker or not, The Lowland is awash with Lahirical excess.”

Chandak Sengoopta, in the Independent was also unconvinced, again finding problems with the Lahiri’s style. While he lauds Lahiri’s character portrayal, commenting “the tragic family saga is certainly affecting and Lahiri, as always, is adept at portraying the lives of diasporic Indians without condescension”, Sengoopta feels the tragic impact of the novel is somewhat blunted: “The entire novel, in fact, has an emotionally detached tone that reduces the impact of the tragedy”. He concludes that “The Lowland chooses to be a novel about unfathomably dysfunctional people, and not the epic human tragedy it could easily have been.”

Jhumpa Lahiri. Photograph: Getty Images.

Book talk from the New Statesman culture desk.

Photo: Getty
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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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