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16 March 2022

Reviewed in short: New books from Cathy O’Neil, Tove Ditlevsen, Okechukwu Nzelu and Anthony Barnett

The Shame Machine by O'Neil, The Trouble With Happiness and Other Stories by Ditlevsen, Here Again Now by Nzelu and Taking Control by Barnett

By Sarah Manavis, Ellen Peirson-Hagger, Katherine Cowles and Gavin Jacobson

The Shame Machine: Who Profits in the New Age of Humiliation by Cathy O’Neil
Allen Lane, 272pp, £20

How much of modern life is shaped by shame? More than you’d think, hypothesises the American mathematician Cathy O’Neil. She lays out the ways in which shame drives problems such as obesity, drug addiction, poverty and political divides. She discusses how social media thrives on and is designed to encourage humiliation, and unpicks the many fallacies in how we think about shame, such as supposing it discourages harmful behaviour, when in fact, O’Neil argues, it can often be a root cause.

The Shame Machine is an engaging read, but it is lacking. Many of its chapters are too brief to make an impact and O’Neil’s points become cyclical – you begin to pre-empt the conclusion well before she reaches it (shame is the problem, everybody!). Another problem arises in lessons drawn from O’Neil’s personal views and experience: she recalls how her husband was shamed in 2020 for not wearing a mask outdoors, saying that his being embarrassed was a good thing. But outdoor mask-wearing was proved to be near-pointless due to Covid-19’s low transmissibility outdoors, making the ridicule he suffered counterproductive.
By Sarah Manavis

The Trouble With Happiness and Other Stories by Tove Ditlevsen, trs Michael Favala Goldman
Penguin, 192pp, £10.99

Tove Ditlevsen’s stories are filled with women who are bored of life, bored with their husbands, bored of pacing the floors of their urban homes. The Danish author, who is acclaimed in her homeland, has only in recent years become prominent in the English-speaking world thanks to the translation by Tiina Nunnally and Michael Favala Goldman of her desperately affecting, autobiographical Copenhagen Trilogy. Born into a working-class family, Ditlevsen found literary success but fell into a series of unhappy marriages, became addicted to drugs, and died by suicide in 1976 aged 58.

These collected short stories show off her astonishingly precise prose. We all know that life is tough; few writers have the scalpel-like capabilities to render that brutality on page so truthfully. Ditlevsen’s usual interest in helpless women makes one story, “One Morning in a Residential Neighbourhood”, particularly vivid. In it, a mother of two does not allow herself to be abandoned. Instead she chooses to break her family apart, setting up with her lover. But there is no euphoric ending here either – Ditlevsen knows that even the most emboldening decisions bring hurt.
By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

Here Again Now by Okechukwu Nzelu
Dialogue, 304pp, £14.99

Achike and Ekene fight like brothers and love like friends: slowly, unsurely and yet, it seems, inevitably. The two men, both gay and British-Nigerian, practically grew up together, the resilient sons of despondent parents. Except that Chibuike, Achike’s alcoholic father, has been offered a chance at redemption: invited into his son’s home in Peckham, south London, he becomes the third person in an already uneven relationship, in which Achike – energised by a new acting gig – wants real, electric love from Ekene, who wants time to think it over. Then time runs out.

Like its central characters, Okechukwu Nzelu’s second novel is thoughtful but flawed. Nzelu carefully examines masculinity – re-evaluating it, softening its tough exterior – but he’s too fond of therapy-speak, too reliant on the word “vulnerability”. There is more exposition than enticement, and it is a problem that the will-they-won’t-they dance of the second half is staged in flashback, after we know for certain that they never will. This is the risk of the unconsummated love story: that without sufficient suspense, there is dissatisfaction, both on and off the page.
By Katherine Cowles

Taking Control! Humanity and America after Trump and the Pandemic by Anthony Barnett
Repeater Books, 298pp, £12.99

The contemporary period – arguably datable from the 2008 financial crisis, or the Brexit referendum and Donald Trump’s election win eight years later – continues to supply abundant riches for the commentator. A decade and more of democratic crises, accelerating climate change, pandemic and war has produced a growing literature defined by considerable intellectual industry, if few genuine landmarks. Some of these “histories of the present” are better than others (Disorder: Hard Times in the 21st Century by the NS columnist Helen Thompson is the exceptional text of the last few years). But most will date poorly, acting as placeholders until future historians can clarify events with the benefit of hindsight and longer deadlines.

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Anthony Barnett’s Taking Control! is the latest in the genre. The founding editor of openDemocracy, Barnett attempts to make sense of the forces convulsing the American republic and show the reasons for progressives to be optimistic about the political future. Passion of argument makes up for banality of insight in a book that otherwise fails to reach the standards of Barnett’s other works on British politics.
By Gavin Jacobson

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This article appears in the 16 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s War Goes Global