When it comes to baseball, the mind is unreliable and selective in what it remembers. Games and seasons blend into to one another and most second basemen or relief pitchers fade from view forever soon after they leave the diamond for good. Old teams and players live on only as lines of statistics in massive baseball encyclopedias or deep historical databases. Lost, too, are the millions of moments that make up every game. But Roger Angell has been quite good, over the years, at capturing those moments and preserving them as though in amber. And so, in reading his collection of baseball pieces that span more than forty years, one feels a bit like the lucky archeologist who has stumbled upon magnificent specimens so exquisitely preserved as to seem positively lifelike. Angell writes with almost scientific precision: “With the strange insect gaze of his shining eyeglasses, with his ominous Boche-like helmet pulled low… Reggie Jackson makes a frightening figure at bat.” Angell is not just an observer; he is also the ultimate fan, rooting for childhood favorites or for a team whose story has caught his fancy that particular year. Game Time is laid out like the baseball year, with pieces about the languor and anticipation of spring training in the beginning and closing with multi-faceted recollections of several past World Series. The many pieces taken together are like one long summer spanning forty years, a summer when you went to the ballpark frequently but listened to most of the games on the radio on the back porch at dusk.
In the aftermath of the Best Fiction of the Millennium series – given that none of my own favorite five made the list, either the “professional” list or the readers list – I am thinking about awards, recognition, popularity; and how reading (and critiquing) fiction is, on the one hand, a communal activity; but also a highly personal one.
Of the Pros’ 20 (the list to which my votes were applied): I’d read seven; two were on my serious to-read list; two were on my “if I can get to them or if a strong personal recommendation comes my way” list; three I’d heard probably way too much about, and so had decided to pass. About the remaining six, I had no particular feelings one way or another. Among the seven I’d read: two were among my favorites, though not my top five; one I found “just fine;” one I had strong negative feelings about; one I found disappointing relative to my expectations; and two I struggled to get through, for reasons I’ve yet to precisely identify.
So much of the joy of reading is, I think, what the reader brings to the work, and the particular alchemy that happens when reader and book collide. I myself would be hard pressed to ever pursue book reviewing in any serious way, because I could see each review devolving into maudlin hand-wringing and tedious qualifying, the prose overwhelmed by appositives and parentheticals, detailing how most of the reasons for why I did or did not connect with the book have to do with my station in life, my mood this week, the book I read previous to this one, the way in which the protagonist reminds me of my cousin Josephine, etc.
My Top Five works of fiction since 2000, for the record:
My #6 (a backup, because initially I didn’t know if short fiction (my Bolaño choice) would qualify) was The Tutor of History by the Nepali novelist and essayist Manjushree Thapa. Published by Penguin UK, Tutor — the first major English-language novel by a Nepali writer – was not released in the U.S.; and so not many American readers know of it. But this was a book that got me out of a reader’s slump (as described by Lydia Kiesling in an essay earlier this summer)—a slump that was composed, as it turned out, of three award-winning novels.
Why did Rachel Kushner’s Telex From Cuba, Lily Tuck’s The News From Paraguay, and Ali Smith’s The Accidental all come to feel more like required classroom reading than the vivid and continuous dream (in John Gardner’s words) we hope for when we read fiction? Here, after all, I had a triad of major award-winners – National Book Award finalist, National Book Award winner, and Whitbread Award winner (and Booker Prize shortlisted), respectively. And yet I found myself, midway through each, trudging through, sighing deeply, and saying to myself like a quarterback who’s been sacked one too many times, “Ok. I’m going back in.”
It struck me that the three books happened to share a common feature: shifting point-of-view. By my count, Telex, which takes place in the American expat community in Cuba during the years leading up to Castro’s revolution, is narrated via eight different points of view — four of which are major characters, the others minor — alternating chapter by chapter. One of these is a first-person voice, that of KC Stites, the bland younger son of a United Fruit Company executive. In Paraguay, which is also based on historical events, point-of-view shifts from paragraph to paragraph, in clipped, episodic fashion, among a wide-ranging cast of characters, including Francisco Solano Lopez (Franco), Paraguay’s heir-dictator at the middle of the 19th century; his Eva Peron-esque mistress, Ella Lynch, an Irish beauty; Ella’s wet nurses and maidservants; Franco’s fat and petty sisters; a self-righteous American minister; a disgraced American doctor; and dozens of other characters including assorted diplomats, soldiers, and Franco’s Brazilian and Argentine adversaries. Ella is the one character who comes to us in (pseudo) first-person, via her diary entries. The Accidental tells the story of the affluent, discontented Smart family, on holiday in contemporary Norfolk, England. Again, sections are narrated from alternating points of view, by each of four angst-ridden family members—two adults, two teenagers—as their lives are disrupted by Amber, a seductive hippie-girl stranger, who, in a familiar trope, shows up out of nowhere and Changes Everything. Amber is the one character (the fifth point of view) who narrates in first-person – an abstract, sinister voice that may or may not be hallucinatory.
“Ambitious” shows up frequently in reviews of these novels, along with “heady” and “inventive.” Each aims to bring to the reader not a conventional journey-through-transformation-with-protagonist, but rather a kind of collective psyche of place and time; hence, the diverse points of view on a single set of events. As readers, we’ve become accustomed to this fragmented, collaged approach to narrative (Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction arguably brought this expectation fully into the mainstream), embracing the notion that truth is relative, and thus the more versions and perspectives – i.e. the more prismatic the presentation – the closer we come to the whole truth.
But the overlay of a complex point-of-view structure onto an already thorny narrative canvas seemed to generate too much static in the reception. And by the time I came to the end of my summer reading, I was tempted to think that the plural-main-character device just doesn’t work (note: apart from my disappointment with the reading experience, this was an especially low moment, since my own forthcoming novel features an ensemble cast and shifting points of view). In each case I felt that the sort-of main character – the one first-person narrator – was the least compelling; and that there was too much competition between character-as-protagonist and setting-or-ethos-as-protagonist. Ultimately, place and time and culture wreaked havoc, while characters became mere casualties of the battle of ideas and historical forces, chewed up and spit out with marked detachment. As Joanne Omang of The Washington Post wrote in her review of Paraguay:
The sheer sprawl of Tuck’s subject matter seems to have overwhelmed her; she has put it all into her story without focus, rather than pruning away the undergrowth… We emerge with neither a grasp of the historical period nor any feeling for its shapers, real or fictional… Perhaps this frustrating approach is meant to evoke the disjointed nature of human experience, the measuring out of lives in coffee spoons, the inadequacy of memory, the sheer coquetry of chance and life and death, etc. If so, it is certainly just as frustrating as real life can be — for example, when one is hoping to sit down with a vivid story and learn a little something about how to be a full human being while yet surviving during violent and turbulent times.
A strong protagonist, I thought; that’s the bottom line. Likable, unlikable, whatever; we – emotionally-ravenous readers (which is a redundancy, really) – we need a through-line, not just a complex or dynamic set of circumstances. In stories of and about shapelessness, we need a primary shaper. Maybe, I thought, as readers, we are fundamentally monogamous.
But then. The Tutor of History raised the lid off of my airless resignation. In Tutor, Thapa has done what I had longed for Kushner, Tuck, and Smith to do—what seems deceptively simple but clearly is not, given the caliber of these writers—which is to bring us both the story of a society in chaos, i.e. the bustling Nepali town of Khareini Tar (circa late 1990s); and the beguiling individuals who people that society. She has sacrificed neither a sense of political-societal complexity, nor depth and sympathy of character. In the end, I wanted to both visit and study this obscure and politically turbulent corner of the Subcontinent, and to sit down with each character over tea.
The book blurb identifies four main characters; I would cite eight: Rishi, the eponymous tutor, a rebellious drifter and disillusioned communist who gives private lessons in history for his livelihood; Giridhar, the alcoholic chairman of the People’s Party’s district committee and an administrative man who suffers from thwarted political ambition; Om Gurung, a large-hearted former British Gurkha, who works along side Giridhar on the campaign; Binita, a reclusive young widow on the margins of society as a result of her manlessness, who runs a small tea shop where the campaign committee congregates; Binita’s beautiful and fatally prideful niece Sani, and her brother-in-law, the famous cinema actor Nayan Raj, who becomes the Party’s well-meaning if a bit misguided candidate for the local parliament seat (driving Giridhar deeper into drunken misery); Harsha Bahadur, the ugly, undernourished Khadka boy who ruins Sani’s reputation by declaring his love for her; and Chiranjibi, a successful businessman who undergoes a quiet conversion to community organizing and political idealism.
There is something here for everyone – idealism, petty corruption, personal rebellion, despair, ambition, beauty, ugliness, opportunism, loneliness, family, feminism, even romance. There are numerous characters, a slate of political parties and bureaucracies, and unfamiliar (to Westerners) cultural references to keep track of. And yet the novel never feels crowded nor impenetrable. How has Thapa accomplished this? I dare say, by keeping it simple. No stylish tricks of narrative episodism, or ambivalent structural gestures toward a sort-of main character, or experimental abstraction. The Tutor of History, while equal in ambition to these other “inventive” and “heady” novels, and sharing their broad goals, succeeds, at least partially, by virtue of fidelity to old-fashioned narrative omniscience. In a brief conversation with Thapa recently (over coffee, not tea – this was in New York, after all), she laughed at herself good-naturedly and confessed: “When I was studying fiction writing, I was doing all this avant-garde experimental stuff; and here, I ended up writing essentially a Victorian novel.”
The comparison is not far off in that Tutor imagines and renders the human experience as one of both self-determination and connection—each of the character’s fates is intimately entwined with that of the others—and in this sense is also concerned with inviting the reader into the novel’s moral world. It is, I suppose, a bit of a throwback in contemporary literary fiction to envision the reader not as detached auditor but rather as moral investor. Is it valid to evaluate books based on the writer’s awareness of the reader at all? Perhaps not. But I’ll say that I came away from my summer reading triad feeling distinctly stiff-armed by a kind of insularity of intelligence. These books seemed to me written by the writer, for the writer—more of an intense conversation with self (and, in the case of Telex and Paraguay, with history) than with reader. Stephen Elliott said recently in an interview, “Some readers read to escape; I read to connect.” My summer reading efforts afforded neither escape nor connection, but something more like chin-stroking, head-nodding reverence. Well-played; yes, indeed. Remarkable oeuvre you have there. There is certainly something to be said for heady novels written by women, when so much of “women’s fiction” is about inner emotional lives and domestic relationships. But it does make me ask the question of why we write and why we read; and what it means when a book strikes you more as an intellectual feat than an experience.
The Tutor of History is a novel I will likely revisit, again and again. And like the old Choose Your Own Adventure books, I believe that each time I read it, a different character, a different storyline, will come into relief as my protagonist and through-line; depending on what I am obsessed with or trying to understand at the time (I say it again: reading is highly personal). In the shadow of the Victorians, Thapa employs a bit of EM Forster-ism here (“only connect”), adhering to mature realism (Thapa is also a journalist who’s written extensively on Nepali society and politics and thus sees her characters and their context with unsentimental eyes), while lacking the contemporary Western novelist’s relative disregard for the enduring organism of community. An Irish mistress in Latin America, American expats in Cuba, bourgeois Londoners shuttling between city and country – they ultimately come and go at will, once upheaval has run its course. But for the townspeople of Khareini Tar, this is it; this is where their lives will be lived out. Some characters are handed their place in the community, others must make their own; societal position is no doubt a persistent source of hardship. And yet, we understand in the end that it ain’t nothing, this placeness, this connectedness. There seems even to be a place for the reader.
As Edgar Allen Poe wrote in his essay “The Philosophy of Composition,” a short story should be able to be read in a “single sitting.” The writers in Loud Sparrows have taken his call for brevity to heart. Topping out at three pages, each selection from this anthology of Chinese “short-shorts” (also known by the name flash fiction) consumes about as much time as smoking a cigarette, making sitting more or less irrelevant.Whether this is a good thing or not is open to question. What is beyond doubt is the popularity of the form in China. Although, short-shorts (as featured in such journals as Flashquake, Vestal Review, and Smoke-long Quarterly) have found a readership in the U.S., they have not been met with the same enthusiasm as in China, where the Journal of Selected Short-shorts accounts for over half of all subscriptions to the P.R.C’s 400 plus literary journals.Starting with this rampant popularity as its premise, Loud Sparrows proposes to give its readers an introduction to the “contemporary Chinese experience,” as seen through the world of Chinese “short-shorts.” To accomplish this goal, the translator/editors have assembled a selection of ninety-one stories by professional and amateur writers working in the P.R.C., Hong Kong, Taiwan and abroad. The stories are interspersed with philosophical musings about the nature of the “short-short,” which are somewhat condescendingly described as a means to “ease [any] anxiety that may have been caused by the absence of rigid definition[s] [of the form].”This absence of definition has not hindered the form’s success in China. Rather, the short-short’s popularity there seems almost inevitable. As the joke goes, if you’re one in a million there, there are 100,000 others just like you, a sentiment mirrored by the writer Yin Di in the book’s introduction: “What can be said in 1,000 words had better not be said in 10,000.” As suggested by its accompanying slogan “everybody writes” (a thought that must send shivers down the spines of slush pile readers across the globe), the form’s length makes it democratic in a way that the novel can never hope to be, opening a path not just to mass expression, but also mass consumption, a point that the writer Yang Xiaomin makes effectively in one of the book’s many interludes:Short shorts are the art form of common people. By that I mean, they can be consumed by most people, most people can participate in the creative process, and most people can benefit from an art form of simple words and profound meaning.This compression of form suits not just China’s population, but also its somewhat schizophrenic political sentiments. On one hand, the short-short’s brevity fulfills an almost Marxist function, taking the means of literary production away from the intelligentsia and giving them to the people (or proletariat, if you prefer). On the other hand, the short-short fulfills a market function: its length makes it the ideal literary commodity, easily distributed and easily consumed.This market function has lead to short-shorts being widely embraced by the business world. Unlike novels and longer short stories, which require a much larger investment of time and discipline from both the reader and the writer, the accessibility of short-shorts has made them the perfect vehicle for selling, distributing, and manufacturing the written word. As with any product, this commodification has been a mixed blessing. While short-shorts have made written works more widely available and accessible to the “average Joe,” they have also, arguably, cheapened the written word. A fierce battle over the literary merit of short-shorts – a question elliptically addressed in many of the “please love me” quotes peppered throughout the book – has raged for some time and there are no signs that it will soon abate. Rather, the boundaries of what constitutes literature continue to be tested. The upcoming introduction in China of mobile fiction for cellular phones, stories even shorter than the current crop of short-shorts, raises the question of when a story ceases to be a story (those with an interest in the coming apocalypse should follow this link.Predictably, this two-fold function of democratization and commodification has had the effect of creating endless opportunities for bad literature. In theory, the form encourages its practitioners to choose their words carefully, picking over every sentence, removing anything that might be extraneous, until all that remains is a small, hard, highly polished jewel of a story, something more closely approaching traditional Chinese poetry than Edgar Allen Poe’s vision for the short story. Examples of this “I would have written a shorter letter, but I didn’t have the time” philosophy of story telling are few and far between, however. Instead, the instant gratification of the form seems to encourage both lazy writing and lazy reading.This is the main problem facing Loud Sparrows. Despite a well of source material that probably approaches the infinite, the majority of the collection’s stories fail to inspire. While there are a few excellent selections, the majority, to quote one story, “[come] like a gust of wind and [go] like a waft of smoke,” relying on tired jokes or twist endings, rather than providing the reader with any true emotional resonance or the epiphanies that the stories’ writers repeatedly insist are part and parcel of the form. Part of the problem arises from a flawed premise. By anthologizing short-shorts, the translators have undermined their essence. When read in context, on the bus or between newspaper articles, a short-short might provide a pleasant aesthetic jolt, much like the sudden appearance of a full moon on a cloudy night, but with little space to develop memorable characters or incidents, the stories quickly lose their novelty and begin to run together. This problem is not helped by the difficulties faced by the book’s translators. Although all three translators write fluidly and well, the idiosyncratic voices of the various writers are inevitably subsumed by the translators’ personal styles. This is an unavoidable artifact of the translation process, but, while it might not be problematic in a novel length work, the stories in this volume fall victim to a sameness that further blurs their boundaries. Sadly, Loud Sparrows does not only fail as fiction, it also falls short as a scholarly work. The book’s informative introduction is undermined by a haphazard and seemingly arbitrary organizational scheme, which sees the stories arranged by putative subjects (grooming, nourishment, weirdness and, perhaps most tellingly, ??) of dubious value to either the scholar or the casual reader. Even the translator Howard Goldblatt, who “introduces” each subject with original short-shorts written for the project, seems to recognize the meaningless of the task, ending one of his more uninspired stories about a translator writing – guess what – a short-short with the line “…to hell with it…I’ve got better things to do.”More than anything, the organizational scheme underlines the book’s missed opportunities. Stories from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the P.R.C are lumped together, leaving readers to assume that a common language (common only if you ignore the enormous differences between the three Chinese dialects involved) has played a more important role in the form’s development than the three countries’ different politics, cultures and economic systems. This seems an unlikely proposition. A comment about “Greater China” in the introduction leaves one to wonder whether this possible organizational scheme might have fallen victim to the politics of mainland China, with its insistence on integrating Taiwan and Hong Kong into a seamless whole. Other pertinent information is also ignored. Although the translators make a point of emphasizing the importance of context to the stories’ content, claiming that their length means they are often dashed out in response to breaking news and social trends (a literature of the moment if you will), no context is given. Nor do the translators include the contributors’ biographical introductions that are typical in short story anthologies. These omissions all conspire to further deprive each story of its substance, drawing attention to the fact that, with such a paucity of words, most of the stories, unlike a novel, cannot exist in a vacuum.In the end, Loud Sparrows amounts to little more than an interesting experiment. Although a few of its pieces show promise, ultimately, its problems are best expressed by one of its contributors: A piece of good fiction must never leave the reader thinking, “So what?”
When you flush the toilet, do you know where your shit goes? Sure, in most cities, it flows into the main sewer system until it reaches a waste-water treatment plant somewhere on the outskirts of town. But then what happens to it? Do you have any idea? If your first response is, “Ask somebody who cares,” then you need to read David Waltner-Toews’s The Origin of Feces. Now.
Despite its goofball title and jokey tone, The Origin of Feces is a deeply serious work of environmental science that strives to do for how we think about shit what Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan have done for how we think about what we eat. In just more than 200 breezy, gag-filled pages, Waltner-Toews argues that by crowding people into cities and animals onto factory farms we have turned shit from a vital part of a healthy ecosystem into a toxic waste that must be managed. “We are taking a brilliantly complex diversity of animal, plant, and bacterial species,” he writes, “and transforming them into a disordered mess of bacteria and nutrients. We are transforming a wonderful complex planet into piles of shit.”
Unlike journalists such as Schlosser, Pollan, and Malcolm Gladwell who have led the charge in recent years to popularize abstruse scientific findings for lay readers, Waltner-Toews is himself a veterinarian and epidemiologist who teaches population medicine at the University of Guelph, near Toronto. Unfortunately for American readers, Waltner-Toews is also a Canadian whose new book is published by an independent Canadian publisher, ECW Press, which means The Origin of Feces will have nowhere near the public profile of a new Gladwell or Pollan tome.
This is a crying shame. I cannot think of a more necessary work of popular science since Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, which together pulled back the curtain from the American agricultural-industrial food complex and helped kick the slow-food movement into gear. In some ways, though, those books had an easier time of it. While industrial feedlots and food processing plants may be largely invisible to most consumers, we eat the results of this industrial approach to food, which in a lot of cases tastes pretty awful. You don’t have to be an organic farming purist to be willing to pay a little extra to buy whole foods that taste better and, by extension, do slightly less damage to the planet.
No matter how pure your eating habits, however, your shit still stinks, and unless you are living in a yurt in the wilderness, it still gets flushed into the same sewage-treatment system that everybody else uses. Like so many of the systems that undergird a modern industrial society, waste management is opaque to everyone outside a tiny coterie of specialists — until, of course, there is an outbreak of food-borne illness or a fish-killing algae bloom caused by agricultural runoff, in which case we run around looking for villains, who are almost by definition not ourselves.
Waltner-Toews aims to tear down the mental wall we have built between ourselves and our crap and show us that what we excrete is not simply toxic sludge, but an essential, nutrient-rich link in the life cycle of our planet. To do this, he says, we must first find a good way to talk about shit. Early on, Waltner-Toews takes his reader on a whirlwind tour through the etymology of dozens of terms we use to describe what comes out of our asses, from the profane (“shit” and “crap”) to the euphemistic (“poop” and “BM”) to the technical (“biosolids” and “fecula”). This chapter is hilarious and often enlightening. Who knew that “excrement” comes from the Latin word excernere, “to sift,” or that the Middle English word “crap” found a place in the modern lexicon in part by its association with Thomas Crapper, who popularized the use of the flush toilet?
But here as elsewhere in the book, Waltner-Toews’s purpose is deadly serious. The way we talk about shit, he points out, lays bare the way we think about this basic byproduct of human life — which is that, most of the time, we’d rather not think about it at all. Shit embarrasses us. It’s dirty and smelly, and in colloquial language it is the go-to term for everything from outrageous lies (“bullshit”) to illegal drugs (“really good shit”) and worthlessness (“a piece of shit”). But when we are forced to think about its real-world consequences, we quickly retreat to vague technical terms like “biosolids” that have the advantage of not having any real meaning to most people.
This matters, Waltner-Toews argues:
We can use precise technical terms when we want the engineers to devise a solution to a specific organic agricultural or urban waste problem…In so doing, however, we alienate the public, who are suspicious of words like biosolids. This public will need to pay for the filtration and treatment plants. They suspect that the solution to chicken shit in the water might not be a better filtration plant, but they don’t have the language to imagine and discuss what the alternatives might be.
Waltner-Toews spends the rest of the book giving his reader the language, and the knowledge, to begin imagining alternatives to our present industrially engineered solutions to our quickly multiplying waste problems. His central point is that in a healthy, bio-diverse ecosystem, shit is neither waste nor a problem. For millions of years, animals have been eating plants and other animals and shitting out whatever their bodies couldn’t use, in the process distributing seeds that have allowed stationary plants to spread and providing nutrients to fertilize the soil and feed billions of insects and smaller organisms.
But by concentrating people and the animals we eat into increasingly industrialized spaces, we have severed the vital link between shit and the natural biological processes that have been cleaning it up and re-using it for as long as there has been life on our planet. One result is pollution, which, as Waltner-Toews suggests, is just a word we use to describe what happens when a substance — carbon dioxide, say, or pig shit– gets concentrated in one place faster than the natural systems can recycle it. Another outcome is a rise in food-borne illnesses like salmonella and E. coli, most of which are caused by animal or human shit finding its way into our food. The separation of people and animals from the surrounding biosphere also contributes to broader systemic imbalances that lead to problems like extinction of species that depend on healthy ecosystems, famines resulting from nutrient-starved soils, and widespread use of petroleum-based fertilizers designed in part to make up for the lack of natural shit-based fertilizer.
The problem of shit, Waltner-Toews says, is a classic “wicked problem,” meaning a problem that can’t be solved by straightforward science and engineering without creating a whole set of new problems. We can, for instance, pump pig shit into vast manure lagoons and pump the animals themselves full of antibiotics that help them avoid diseases derived from eating shit, but ultimately the toxic brew in those manure lagoons has to go somewhere and antibiotics have a nasty habit of creating antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria.
The Origin of Feces is better at describing the wickedness of this problem than at articulating solutions, which get high-falutin’ and improbable in a hurry. Drawing on the work of scientists who see the complex interactions in natural ecosystems as “panarchy,” and quoting the philosopher Arthur Koestler, who saw each living thing as a whole unto itself and also a part of something larger, which together he called a “holon,” Waltner-Toews uses the term “holonocracy,” which he says “embodies a way of interpreting nested social and ecological changes and implies a new way to think about management and governance based on those observations.”
Yeah, I know. I didn’t really follow that, either. In later pages, Waltner-Toews thankfully returns to plain English and argues that the problem of shit is merely a particularly unpleasant manifestation of the more generally unsustainable nature of our industrial age, which has created “too much shit in the world, in all the wrong places.” He details some nifty small-scale solutions involving the repurposing energy-rich shit into fuel or animal feed. But at the macro-level, he seems to be saying that a comprehensive, systemic problem of this kind demands an equally comprehensive, systemic solution, which, if I am reading him right, means seriously rethinking industrialized agriculture and urbanized population. Which — call me crazy — I don’t see happening anytime soon.
But of course the very difficulty Waltner-Toews has explaining his solutions for a non-specialist audience underscores the fundamental wickedness of the problem. The Origins of Feces is a genial book, and often a kick to read, but I put it down thinking two things: 1. I will never look at shit the same way again; and 2. We are in deep shit. That Waltner-Toews, clearly one of the smartest guys in the room when it comes to this issue, cannot explain a solution in terms I can understand makes me think we are in even deeper shit than he claims.
“Six things you can’t live without,” the online dating site commanded to me to include in my new profile. The blank spot below the prompt begged for something more than a tepid, “addicted to my iPhone/I love my mother” answer, but I felt stumped. What to say? After a moment’s hesitation, I went full geek. I can’t live without cytosine, adenine, guanine, thymine, and uracil, I wrote. I also like cappuccino.
It’s true: like all living things, I’d be nothing without the components of my DNA. (I could not exist at all, in fact.) But the nitrogenous base pairs I’d listed were clearly unfamiliar to plenty of prospective online suitors — which is also true for a large percentage of the American public. For them — for all of us — a trip through Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene: An Intimate History offers startling clarity.
The Gene is a follow-up to Mukherjee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning medical history of cancer, The Emperor of All Maladies. “The archetypal genomic disease is cancer,” Mukherjee explains in The Gene, connecting that book to this one (he later calls The Gene a “prequel” to The Emperor). While it’s fair enough to say that genes influence the development of cancer — and while Mukherjee spends a fair number of words to describe how that can happen — The Gene extends far beyond that relatively niche topic. Rather, Mukherjee tackles the entire history of genetics, from its origins as a passion project of a Czech monk named Gregor Mendel to Charles Darwin’s journeys to Galapagos to the Nobel Prize-winning discovery of the structure of DNA by James Watson, Francis Crick, and their colleagues. After rehashing that relatively well-known history, he traverses more recent, obscure, and often contentious topics, including eugenics, gene therapy, and the daunting ethical challenges of the future. In short, the work serves as a kind of primer on the whole of the topic, an unsurprising repackaging of a few major sections of an undergrad biology degree.
That said, it’s more appealing than any other molecular biology text I can recall. “Excuse my big yawn, but I just came from my own lecture,” a genetics professor tells a student halfway through the book. The comment is as an apt reminder of the Spockian science-nerd stereotype (perhaps the reason I’m still single?) and it almost comes across as Mukherjee’s admonishment to himself. He needn’t have worried. The book is defined best not by a crack about boredom but rather by a remark Mukherjee co-opts from the French impressionist Paul Cézanne, who once said about his friend Claude Monet: “Monet is but an eye, but, God, what an eye.”
“DNA, by that same logic, is but a chemical,” Mukherjee writes. “But, God, what a chemical.”
Humans depend on DNA, but not only. All life makes use of the exact same unique double helix of base pairs, sugar, phosphate, and water molecules. “A gene from a blue whale can be inserted into a microscopic bacterium and it will be deciphered accurately and with near perfect fidelity,” Mukherjee notes. Elsewhere, he constructs a list of DNA’s features in evocative, quasi-anthropomorphic language: “it is fiercely inventive…encrusted with history…[and] poised to evolve.”
Of course, our genes are also tightly tied to our daily existence — although that, too, Mukherjee describes as “surprisingly beautiful:” “On a vast stretch of [human] chromosome eleven, for instance, there is a causeway dedicated entirely to the sensation of smell. Here, a cluster of 155 closely related genes,” encodes “professional smell sensors…[for] spearmint, lemon, caraway, jasmine, vanilla, ginger, pepper.” The author’s enthusiasm for his simultaneously transcendent and mundane subject can make the dense text feel light.
Some readers have found the book a little too light. This month an excerpt printed in The New Yorker prompted controversy: a group of epigenetics researchers took issue with Mukherjee’s approach, alleging it misrepresents epigenetics (the process by which environmental factors can modify the structure and function of genes). “Their main criticism was that Mukherjee’s article put too much emphasis on histone modification and DNA methylation, which they say are relatively minor contributors to gene regulation,” an article in the science magazine Nature summarized. “They and other critics argued that Mukherjee ignored [other] well-established mechanisms of gene regulation.” In a statement published on a website (but since removed), Mukherjee prefaced a point-by-point rebuttal with a frank statement that he thought he had described epigenetics accurately. He also acknowledged errors.
But to argue too much about the fine points of The Gene seems to misunderstand its purpose. The book doesn’t serve only to attempt a summary of the technical points of a field that — as Mukherjee accurately reports — often advances through contentious debates. Rather, it serves to make the generalities of the topic accessible to the 90-odd percent of Americans who do not hold degrees in genetics or molecular biology. And here — amid odes to smells, plus lyrics to a Sanskrit folk tune and a stray quote from Snoop Dogg — Mukherjee delivers.
The debate also obscures this book’s other compelling accomplishments. First, Mukherjee takes on the ethically heavy topic of willful modifications to the human genome. “The most remarkable fact about human genomic engineering today is not how far out of reach it is, but how perilously, tantalizingly near,” he writes. These alterations have been proposed as ways to cure or prevent genetic illnesses. But because the genome (the sum total of genes in a given living being) is highly complex, willfully altering it carries the potential for unintended, potentially disastrous consequences. His solution? “We need a manifesto — or at least a hitchhiker’s guide — for a post-genomic world,” he writes. He doesn’t offer it himself, acknowledging in several places that geneticists are collectively grappling with their field’s ethical issues. Instead, he adds what he calls “an opening salvo,” which functions to distill the issue for readers. He ends with an appeal to skepticism at the value of genomic engineering, and adds, “Perhaps the compassion that such skepticism enables is also encoded indelibly in the human genome.”
The author is a good example of this compassion. Mukherjee interweaves the text with the story of his own family, particularly two uncles and a cousin with serious mental illnesses. (This, too, has been partially excerpted in The New Yorker.) Another chapter, “The Miseries of My Father,” documents a genetic brain disease Mukherjee’s dad is currently experiencing.
To oversharing-prone Americans, these disclosures might seem small. But they are not. What Mukherjee calls “ethical vertigo” with genomic engineering was what prompted me to leave biology and go into public health. Partly on the strength of a recommendation from a genetics professor (who, like Mukherjee, is a Bengali raised in Delhi), I won a Fulbright in the Bengal region to conduct research on mental health.
The topic was so intensely neglected I could not find an appropriate mentor for my work. (What ad hoc assistance I got was unsafe and often plain loony: one university administrator told me to manage people in psychiatric crisis by phoning an anthropologist in Germany. “Don’t call me,” that anthropologist later said, and I agreed.) Mental health was taboo enough to prompt flat rejections — and occasionally open anger — from my colleagues in health research.
In that context, Mukherjee’s forthright discussion of his own Bengali family’s psychiatric health is rare and courageous. It’s also worthwhile. If ethical issues in genetics are to be solved (or even communicated effectively to the public), we’ll need not only skepticism and compassion, but also a clear understanding of the humans our choices affect.
If I were joining that dating site today, I might alter my answer a bit. I can’t live without cytosine, adenine, guanine, thymine, and uracil, I would write. I also enjoyed The Gene, by Siddhartha Mukherjee.
In the century that followed the birth of the Roman Empire under Augustus, the Imperial Roman Army transformed itself into the world’s first standing army, and with it the finest professional fighting force the world had yet known. For the soldiers that stood guard on the Empire’s frontiers life wasn’t easy. Terms of service were twenty-five years. Soldiers were forbidden from marrying. Postings were remote. But the training, experience, and unit cohesion of professionalized legions ensured Rome would have no peer on the battlefield.
A Roman army that during the previous five hundred years had relied on citizen levies in times of crisis to bolster the ranks became a culture unto itself, the institution and its soldiers ever more distant from citizens at the empire’s core. Forced to fend off barbarian tribes on the periphery and push into new territory, the army found that most of the soldiers willing to endure the long terms of service and harsh conditions were rural peasants from the frontiers themselves. An army whose Italian soldiers numbered over ninety percent during Augustus’s time barely counted ten percent among their cohort a hundred years later.
Upon finishing their terms of service, the vast majority of soldiers found themselves unable to shed their outsider status. Most soldiers were forced to settle on or near the same frontiers they guarded, the land grants given upon their discharge far from Rome. Equipped with citizenship and having been exposed to Roman values, these veterans were often used as colonizers. Many times their sons would find their way into the ranks. With the exception of the aristocratic officers heading the legions, relatively few soldiers would ever visit the Italian lands from which policy, money, and culture emanated.
Two millennia on, the Roman Imperial Army has found its reflection in the United States’ armed forces. Over a decade of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan has forged a professional fighting force whose excellence is unparalleled in world history. We can whisk brigades around the world in a matter of hours, supply whole armies with the creature comforts of home, and snuff out terrorists at the push of a button. But the cost of this excellence, in the form of the burdens placed on the soldiers both at war and upon their return, is compounding with each passing year.
The last ten years has not lacked for reporting and commentary on the burdens shouldered by “the other one percent” – members of the armed services and veterans – or the resultant civilian-military gap. Even casual observers of our nation’s foreign wars have likely read a piece or two in the popular press. Time devoted their cover to it a little over a year ago. Yet the journalism and opinioneering is often conducted piecemeal and on the periphery, focusing on things like repeat deployments, civilian oversight, wounded veterans, civil-military relations, and veteran suicide and unemployment. Statistics are cited. Senior officials quoted. Individuals are profiled. 60 Minutes tells the story of Clay Hunt’s suicide. Esquire finds it outrageous that the Navy SEAL who killed Bin Laden can’t find a job. Veterans are valorized and irreproachable, but at the same time held at arms length.
Conspicuously absent, though, is the very thing that is needed most: a broader debate over whether the moral cost of having a professional army continuously at war is acceptable. On this count the military, government, and society itself have answered unequivocally in the affirmative. There is no serious talk of returning to the draft. The urban and best educated among us are not choosing to join up in greater numbers (in fact, the opposite is true). War has become, in the words of former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, “something for other people to do.” Society has made its choice. But only now are the consequences of that choice coming home to roost.
A new collection of short fiction, Fire and Forget, edited by Matt Gallagher and Roy Scranton and written by veterans (and one Army wife), stands as the best fictional account of the wars of the last decade and the contemporary military experience, and as such, is utterly damning of the devil’s bargain the nation and its military have entered into. Unlike any other book yet published, fiction or non-fiction, Fire and Forget captures the grim moral price of having a select few fight years overseas, only to return to a society that is unable to relate to their experience or sacrifice. (Full disclosure: I know some of the vets in this collection; the community of veteran writers is exceedingly small.)
Fire and Forget is not a collection of war stories in the classic sense; here combat plays only a tertiary role, if any at all, and only six of the fifteen stories even take place in Iraq or Afghanistan. The biting and brutal focus is instead more often on the soldiers’ return home, sometimes scarred, both physically and emotionally, but always changed. In Brian Van Reet’s “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek,” two maimed soldiers share a day of flyfishing as part of a program for wounded soldiers, only for one to accost a pair of teenage girls with the shocking cost of war. Colby Buzzell’s “Play the Game” has a veteran take a job as a streetside sign-holder in Los Angeles as he lives a “temporary,” novocained existence. And in Siobhan Fallon’s “Tips For a Smooth Transition” an army wife confronts the awkwardness of rekindling a marriage put on hold during her husband’s deployment.
On a purely aesthetic level, one is reminded in many of the stories that we are dealing with emerging writers, ones whose control of their craft is sometimes uneven. Ill-placed metaphors, clunky exposition, pacing issues, and dream sequences all rear their head. And stylistically these are a uniform bunch, with only a few slipping outside the bounds of a stripped-down realism. Yet these flaws seldom detract from what counts: the myriad truths each of these stories contain, all of which feel fresh, raw, and vital. It is a rare thing for a book to live up to its blurb, but E.L. Doctorow got it right when he called this a “necessary” collection. Much of the credit lies with the editors, whose curation, in terms of content and tone, is impeccable.
Two stories in particular stand out. Ted Janis’s “Raid” is like a panther – lean, dark, and stealthy in its import. Method matches up perfectly with material in its story of a Special Forces soldier conducting one in a seemingly endless chain of Afghanistan night raids. Phil Klay’s “Redeployment” is the masterpiece of the collection. It grabs you by the lapels with its opening line – “We shot dogs” – and by the end you’re thoroughly shaken. Klay’s tale of a soldier’s tumor-ridden dog and his Marine battalion’s return home from Iraq contains more in its thirteen pages about contemporary war and its effects on the people who fight it than anything I’ve read.
One comes away from the collection struck by the weariness and cynicism and alienation that suffuses these pages. There is nothing overtly political about any of the stories, but as a body they make a political statement: war, when waged, must be a cost borne by the nation as a whole. America has over the last decade outsourced war to its military. At a recent forum, former Afghanistan commander General Stanley McCrystal suggested reinstituting the draft because “right now, there’s a sense that if you want to go to war, you just send the military. They’re not us.” Fire and Forget reminds “us” who “they” are.
There is no easy answer to the central dilemma here. A professional army is without question more efficient and effective at maintaining security, protecting American interests, and fighting the country’s wars than an army raised for exigent circumstances. Yet during war, especially prolonged war, only through the draft does the populace as a whole have skin in the game.
Alas, this is a debate that won’t be had. The war in Iraq is over. The war in Afghanistan is winding down. In two years time the army will take leave of the frontiers and return to its garrisons. Left in its wake will be a generation of veterans bearing the scars of war who will stand apart from the peers, theirs an experience limited to a self-selecting few. Like the Roman soldiers before them, many joined for a job, others out of patriotism, but all to serve their country.
Jill Lepore, writing in the New Yorker a few months ago, pressed home the fact that the United States was founded on opposition to a standing army. A citizen army, the reasoning went, composed from the whole swath of society and raised only in times of duress would be less likely to be wielded as a tyrannical instrument, both at home and abroad, since the whole society would bear the cost of its wielding. But conscript armies, while potent for fighting large-scale wars, are less efficacious when policing the world.
As Augustus comprehended in the aftermath of the Roman Civil Wars, the geopolitical reality required new methods if he was to be successful. For two centuries his professional legions stood guard on the hinterlands, fighting wars both just and unjust, protecting a citizenry that knew little of their sacrifice. The United States crossed the Rubicon in 1973 when it converted the military to a professional force; but only now, in the aftermath of exhausting war, has the moral price of that decision become evident. We have created a caste of warriors – one but apart, taxed but unbroken – to insulate us from the storms of the world. Such are the costs of Empire.