Thursday, March 20, 2008

Philip Roth: The Plot Against America

This well-written book is an interesting diversion in the course of the 20th century in America.

In Roth's alternate history (though I'm sure he would despise that genre term as much as TC Boyle rails against "science fiction" in his preface to "A Friend of the Earth,) Roth imagines what if Charles Lindbergh had run for and won the presidency in 1940. Lindbergh was reputed to be a vicious anti-Semite, and in this piece of fiction, Lindbergh subtly sets out to assimilate the Jews into pork-eating, Saturday-working Americana.

The story is told from the POV of young Phil Roth, the author's doppelganger. Roth has done this in other books, and it's an interesting conceit. It certainly answers that question that all writers occasionally get, "Is {insert a character's name here} really *you*?"

The only thing that it obfuscates is that Roth is, of course, *all* the characters. All characters require, as Marge Piercy so nicely put it, a "blood sacrifice" to bring them to life.

The end of the book is, IMHO, problematic. While there may be some historical support for the tactic Roth imagines, I found it a too convenient motivations to explain away some of the preceding events. And, while it might explain the imagined actions of a fictionalized character, it does not explain why people (fictionally) followed him. I don't find it startling that Hitler was a murderous anti-Semite and conceived the Final Solution, but I find it horrifying that so many Germans blithely allowed it to happen. I think the end of the book could have delved a little deeper into Lindbergh's Willing Collaborators.

TK Kenyon
Author of Rabid: A Novel and Callous: A Novel

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Review of New Journal "Neuroethics"

There is a marvelous new online, free, open-access journal that everyone should read: Neuroethics.

The first issue includes an unflinching look at the field of neuroethics (as distinct from Bioethics,) and the way that the brain determines ethics and morality.

In the first issue, editor Dr. Neil Levy has written an elegent overview of the field, including a neuroethicist's view of the notorious Trolley Problem, namely, if a trolley is hurtling toward five people on a track, and you hold a lever that will change the track so that the trolley is shuttled onto a track where it kills only one person, should you pull the lever.

Most ethicists and ordinary folks say "yes," for the greater welfare is at stake.

However, if the problem is changed subtly so that your choice is between allowing the trolley to crush the five people or pushing a large, beefy man onto the track to obstruct and stop the trolley, most ethicists and ordinary people will say no, that this violates the man's rights, and you should allow the trolley to slaughter the five people.

Neuroethicists have identified where the real problem is: the difference between these two scenarios is not merely “action,” as the Kantian folks dissemble, but emotion. We do not want to be actively responsible for the death of a human being, and a particular human being (the large, beefy man) at that.

The real problem is: since it is emotion that informs our ethical choices, ethical choices are not rational.

The journal also has a lovely article on “The Popular New Genre of Neurosexism” by Dr. Cordelia Fine, comparing recent mommy-brain books to the painfully terrible science of the 1800’s, in which eminent scientists actually promulgated that women’s education should not be too rigorous because it would divert energy to their brains and away from their ovaries, rendering them sterile. (Testicles, apparently, had an independent energy source.)

This excellent new journal deserves bookmarking. Do it now to avoid the rush.

TK Kenyon

Author of RABID: A Novel and CALLOUS: A Novel, where neuroscience, morality, and murder intersect.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Hari Kunzru -- Raj, Bohemian

Hari Kunzru (My Revolutions) has written an intellectual but ultimately dry short story for The New Yorker (March 10, 2008.)

His main character is a first-person, nameless New York trend setter, a la Patrick Bateman, but without the interesting killing sprees of American Psycho. The character discovers that many of the people in his consumer-driven, shallow, trendy lifestyle are actually something like Buzz Agents who "monetize their social networks" because they are "early adopters," and spout buzz lines to their friends whenever appropriate.

Protag feels betrayed because he thought he was hip. He takes a knife to go kill Raj, the first person who he figured out was a buzzer in his social circle, but when he gets there, ennui overcomes him, and he instead succumbs to habitual trendiness.

This is ultimately unsatisfying because Kunzru ends his story with The Shrug. The story falls into numb and mindless violence, or violent and mindless numbness, or whatever.

While I'm no fan of epiphanic fiction, where a story's climax can be summarized as "And then I realized...," or "And everything was blue feathers," a story must end; it cannot merely peter out.

"Raj, Bohemian" is interesting, but essentially numbing. It does not shake you with emotion, which is what the best stories do.

TK Kenyon
Author of RABID: A Novel and CALLOUS: A Novel