Tiger mom: author Amy Chua at a the Jaipur Literary Festival in 2012. (Photo: Getty)
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Playing the race card: the Triple Package by Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld

A provocative new exploration of ethnicity vs success in modern America by the authors of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

The Triple Package: What Really Determines Success
Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld
Bloomsbury, 336pp, £18.99

It is not surprising that The Triple Package has caused such a stir. Its subject matter – the connections between culture, ethnicity and success – is emotive and controversial. Written by the husband-and-wife team of Jed Rubenfeld and Amy Chua, the author of the parenting memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, it has a fluent style and possesses all the hallmarks of American comfort food: it is easy to consume but not altogether fulfilling.

The “triple package” is touted as the combination of magic ingredients that enable certain ethnic groups to achieve extraordinary success in modern America. Chua and Rubenfeld identify three key qualities: a superiority complex, a sense of insecurity and “impulse control”.

Some have denounced the book as racist. This loaded term is often bandied about in discussions about culture and achievement. Yet to point out the material success of Mormons in the United States is clearly not racist. Mormons represent just 1.7 per cent of the US population but they are disproportionately represented in the higher levels of business and politics in the country (Mitt Romney is perhaps their best-known representative). When the subject is Jews or African Americans, people get nervous. However, to talk about sociological differences is precisely the opposite of the biological racism that was prevalent in the 20th century. The book’s point is that it is cultural, not genetic, factors that lead to success.

The Triple Package is not racist but it is certainly provocative. Chua and Rubenfeld write: “The majority of African Americans typically still do not – to put it mildly – grow up with a group superiority complex.” This trite observation is used to explain their underachievement.

The book is peppered with interesting but rather meaningless facts. We are told that Jews, who make up just 2 per cent of the US population, have received 36 per cent of all Nobel Prizes ever awarded to Americans. Among African Americans, Nigerian immigrants are held up as exemplars. In 2010, there were some 260,000 people of Nigerian origin in the US – 0.7 per cent of the black American population. Yet in 2013, between 20 and 25 per cent of the 120 black students at Harvard Business School were Nigerian. One response is simply: “Who cares?”

The three determinants of success are curious, if rather crass, subjects of speculation. The superiority complex is familiar to historians. The British empire was shaped by it; no class in history has been as self-confident as the late-Victorian imperial administrator. Unfortunately, the past is a glaring omission from The Triple Package. Identifying groups is all very well but you cannot understand culture without an appreciation of history, an observation that surely applies with as much force to the example of the computer whizz-kid son of Chinese immigrants who sails through Stanford with top grades in the US today.

Next, Chua and Rubenfeld deftly explore the roots of insecurity among their fav­oured ethnic groups. Here, American Iranians, Arabs and Indians are held up as examples of peoples who have deep insecurities that derive from the casual stereotyping they have experienced, especially since 9/11. Depictions of Arabs as baddies in films and popular culture have reinforced a sense of insecurity in the past decade.

The third ingredient is impulse control. This refers to delayed gratification. The con­cept is not new; even the most casual sociologist will know Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), which describes the hoarding instincts of Protestant capitalists in the early modern era. John Maynard Keynes, from a different intellectual tradition, described this instinct to accumulate more than 90 years ago, when he wrote about Europe in the 19th century: “To save and to invest became at once the duty and the delight of a large class.” As the economist put it, in a spirit of irony: “A rich man could, after all, enter into the Kingdom of Heaven – if only he saved.”

The last chapter of The Triple Package addresses the favourite subject of all Americans: the United States of America. The authors somewhat naively call for the US to recover its triple package, to ensure economic dominance. Despite the range and diversity of the ethnic groups described, the book is intensely self-regarding. It remains firmly in the “America the Beautiful” genre.

Though parochial, Chua and Rubenfeld’s argument is enjoyable and timely. After the financial crisis – and with rising material inequality – discussions about the cultural roots of economic success are necessary. The Triple Package may be superficial but the issues it raises are serious. They will no doubt generate more controversy and impassioned debate in the years ahead. l

Kwasi Kwarteng is a Conservative MP and the author of “Ghosts of Empire” (Bloombury, £9.99)

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's power game

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Paula Hawkins: a pulp-feminist follow-up on The Girl on the Train

Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion in misogyny. 

A couple of years ago, Paula Hawkins, an Oxford graduate with a run of chick-lit novels to her name (well, to her nom de plume Amy Silver), became the latest example of various splashy phenomena. Most obviously, The Girl on the Train, her first thriller, made Hawkins an out-of-nowhere, book-clubtastic, “movie rights gone in a flash” sensation, on the model of E L James. It also made Hawkins, who had formerly worked at the Times, one of those journalist-turned-juggernaut figures, like Robert Harris and Gillian Flynn, a beacon of light to every deadline-haunted hack.

Not so publicised was the kind of writer the book showed Hawkins to be. The Flynn comparisons were perfunctory, the overlap limited to shared use of multiple narrators and that not uncommon word, “girl”. A puff from Stephen King was a little more in tune with Hawkins’s sensibility, a taste for the Gothic intensities that lurk beneath the everyday; but King’s praise – it kept him up all night – still missed her strangest virtue: not the gift for making people turn a lot of pages and feel foggy on the next day’s commute, but for using the mystery thriller form as a back-door polemic, every revelation bringing an adjustment of world-view, every twist of the plot putting a spin on what we thought she thought. More striking than Hawkins’s late success or old career was her emergence as a new practitioner of feminist pulp, the sub-subgenre in which men destroy and women suffer, whose most recent classic had been Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and whose presiding genius – its queen for fifty years and counting – is the hydra-headed literary combustion engine who usually signs herself Joyce Carol Oates.

Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, serves to make things clearer. It enables her readers to sketch a Venn diagram to identify what was incidental to The Girl on the Train – what merely helped to grease the wheels – and what she is obsessed with. Why call it an obsession and not a crutch, a formula, the hardening of habit? Not because what Hawkins is up to conflicts with readability – clearly that isn’t the case – but because she is building novels more intricate, more packed with implication, than readability demands.

Like The Girl on the Train, the new novel centres on a female victim with alleged deficiencies as a woman and mother. The body of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a writer and photographer, is discovered in the part of a lake known as “the drowning pool”. Nel wasn’t much liked by the other local women. She had ideas above her station. She was a “slattern”. In fact, Nel’s death goes unmourned by everyone except her wild 15-year-old daughter, Lena, who is convinced her mother jumped, but for a good – withheld – reason. To Nel’s unmarried sister, Jules, who ignored a number of phone calls and messages, and who has travelled from London to watch over Lena and identify the body, Nel’s death is the final insult, another way of upsetting her existence.

Into the Water follows its predecessor in applying laser scrutiny to a small patch, but there are signs of growth and greater ambition. Last time the setting was a pair of houses on Blenheim Road, Bucks. Here it is the community of Beckford, a village in or near Northumberland, several hours’ drive from anywhere civilised – “if you consider Newcastle civilised”, in the words of one character. The Girl on the Train had three female narrators describing events, in mildly jagged order, that occurred across a single summer. The new novel features testimony from five characters, including Jules, Lena and the brother of Lena’s dead best friend, and provides close access, in the third person, to another five, including the best friend’s mother. Alongside these ten voices are sections narrated by Jules in 1993 – her experiences carry echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie – as well as passages from Nel’s unfinished manuscript: a photographic history of the Beckford lake called The Drowning Pool, containing a prologue and descriptions of three previous deaths, dating from 1920, 1983 and 1679.

The book isn’t free of cliché – the phrase “out of the woods” is not a reference to the rural setting – and some of Hawkins’s devices border on cheating. At various points a narrator starts talking about a previously shrouded incident soon after it has been revealed elsewhere, as if the characters were in cahoots, conspiring how best to frustrate the reader. There’s much recourse to the undefined event, the word “it”. (What?!) The outsider figure, Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, is severely restricted in her role as a conduit for backstory. “Have you not seen any background on this?” her superior asks. No, she hasn’t. But Erin “should have been given the files”. Well, she wasn’t.

But most of the time, the novel is plausible and grimly gripping, and Hawkins plays fair. Characters aren’t only lying to us, they are often lying to themselves, or else they’re misinformed. The reader always knows more than any one character but never knows all that a character knows, and Hawkins trusts that the promise of enlightenment is sufficiently seductive to deliver information by the drip.

So, Into the Water is on a par with The Girl on a Train – and of a piece with it, too. Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion not just in patriarchal structures, but in misogyny. The blame lies with men, who react with violence and psychological abuse to the perceived threat of a woman’s independence. But one of the main products of this mistreatment is that the female characters overlook the role played by such damage when considering other women’s behaviour and subscribe instead to a male-sanctioned narrative of stubborn irrationality or wilful coldness.

Hawkins seems more engaged with the second part of the equation, the way that women see themselves and each other. The radicalism of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water depends partly on the persuasive depiction of figures such as (in Girl) the pathetic drunk and the unrepentant home-wrecker, and in the new novel the money-grabbing mystic, the joyless spinster, the trouble-making man-eater. Then Hawkins exposes the truth behind the cardboard, the way these images have been constructed and perpetuated. Her plotting works as an ambush and also as a rebuke. “You didn’t believe that nonsense, did you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, you did – and here’s why.”

The effect is less patronising than perhaps it sounds. The rebuke is aimed at the reader not as a citizen but as a participant in the thriller tradition. After all, the victim who deserved it is a familiar character: we have little trouble believing the type. Hawkins has set herself the challenge of adding a third dimension to the dramatis personae bequeathed by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. We are accustomed to characters shifting shape as a story develops. The obvious suspect – twitchy, tattooed, alibi-less – was all along a Good Samaritan; the spotless widow has a cellar full of skulls. Hawkins goes further, showing how narrative presumptions betray unconscious beliefs, upending clichés of other people’s making. You might dismiss her as a killjoy if she wasn’t so addictive. 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

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

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