Book Reviews (8)

Books 8

Inherent Vice – Thomas Pynchon

PI Doc Sportello investigates a plot to kidnap a real estate mogul at the close of the sixties in California, becoming caught up in a complex, colourful tangle of hippies, cops, and criminals.

He’s a convincing and complex character, an analytically-gifted dope fiend steeped in counterculture, scornful of the LAPD and authorities – concerned the lifestyle he knows is slipping away as political tides shift. The large, diverse cast is well-realised, but with many characters slipping in and out fluidly, and many plot layers forming, it can be hard to keep track. Some plot threads seem to not quite come together – but perhaps this reflects the effects of Doc’s own recreational habits.

There’s brilliant humour and wordplay, like the ‘plastricrats’ living off credit, and Pynchon somehow managed to keep weed-culture humour fresh and funny. The absurd events and trains of thought provide a psychedelic romp atmosphere to this tie-dye noir, though someone who remembers more of the period would pick up on jokes and references I didn’t.

I couldn’t believe this came out in 2009 – Pynchon’s nostalgia for this time seems so strong. But was it really as rosy a period as it’s presented through Doc’s eyes? There’s a strong current of objectifying women here, for a start. The book’s stances on police wrongdoing, American foreign policy, etc, seem to come packaged with a not particularly critical view of the excesses and flaws of Doc and his associates.

The writing is amazing; the plot a bit knotty but balanced with levity; a time, place, and spirit evoked to entertain us while also challenging our own time and priorities.

On Anarchism – Noam Chomsky

I found ‘Who Rules the World?’ a bit long, while this could have used being a little longer. It’s a little book packing a lot of content: discussing the ideas of key anarchist thinkers; the Spanish Revolution; the disagreement with state socialism; responses to various questions and concerns; and how classical liberal ideas, taken to their conclusions, can actually imply anti-capitalist or anarchist perspectives.

The word is commonly associated with ‘chaos’, conjuring images of masked mobs throwing bricks, but this has nothing to do with the philosophy. Chomsky describes the core of it as being that ‘the burden of proof is always on those who claim that some authoritarian hierarchic relation is legitimate. If they can’t prove it, then it should be dismantled.’ In the case of capitalism, he points to ideas from the 19th century labour movement in America, which responded to early industrial capitalism as ‘wage slavery’ in which a worker rents themselves to factory owners for a wage, and had ‘the assumption, just taken for granted, that those who work in the mills should own them.’

For Chomsky traditional anarchism is ‘an antistate branch of socialism, which meant a highly organised society, nothing to do with chaos, but based on democracy all the way through. That means democratic control of communities, of workplaces, of federal structures, built on systems of voluntary association, spreading internationally.’

What’s here is compelling and readable – there just isn’t quite enough of it. Some points could use more elaboration. If you’re not already fairly far to the libertarian left, you’ll have questions and disagreements that Chomsky doesn’t take much time to address in detail. However, this is a very good introduction to powerful ideas, worth reading for an exposure to the Spanish Revolution alone.

Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class – Owen Jones

This is an excellent book, examining how class war has been waged by the elite against the majority from Thatcher through to Cameron and New Labour: looking at regressive policy, the media’s demonising stance, and the realities you won’t find in the Daily Mail.

With the demise of industry and crushing of the unions, millions lost reliable work, falling into unemployment and under-employment in exploitative service-sector roles. As social problems naturally resulted in formerly bustling areas, an anti-social minority (‘chavs’, an inherently classist slur) were unfairly cast as representative of whole communities.

[As] our society has become less equal and in recent years the poor have actually got poorer, resentment against those at the bottom has positively increased. Chav-hate is a way of justifying an unequal society. […] What if people are poorer than you because the odds are stacked against them? […] if you were to accept it, then surely you would have to accept that the government’s duty is to do something about it [but] if you convince yourself that the less fortunate are smelly, thick, racist and rude by nature, then it is only right they should remain at the bottom.

Successive governments peddled the idea that aspiration isn’t about workers as a whole improving conditions, but about individuals pulling themselves up by their bootstraps into the middle class – leaving behind, supposedly, a feckless, wilfully unemployed, benefit-cheating rump.

Problems caused by neoliberalism and austerity were blamed on individuals. Rare instances of depravity were signal-boosted in the media to suit a narrative – while the larger crimes of the wealthy were minimised. This provided justification for the welfare state to be further undermined to incentivise hard work (whether or not opportunities were actually available!), making inequality worsen.

Jones says that, ‘it was the might of the working class that was once mocked and despised. But, today, with their power smashed into pieces, the working class can be safely insulted as tracksuit-wearing drunken layabouts with a soft spot for Enoch Powell.’ He has hope that this power can be restored, the class war waged back: making suggestions along the lines of a Green New Deal, a national programme to build socially owned housing, more progressive taxation, more co-operatives, and bringing back the ability of unions to really stand up for workers.

Passionate and deeply researched.

The White Book – Han Kang (trans. Deborah Smith)

It’s difficult to summarise this. Biographical prose poetry? Each short chapter shines with evocative imagery and crisp prose, brimming with beauty, grief, and thoughtful reflection on life. The narrator thinks back to an older sister that died just after birth, and how if she had lived then the narrator wouldn’t have been born – a life possible because of that loss. A present rooted in the past, the present continually falling away into an unknown future as one branch of possibility is selected instead of all the others.

That sounds really heavy, but the writing is delicate and meditative, focused on simple images and moments. Just because this is experimental and has deep themes doesn’t make it at all hard to read or appreciate. The translation retains a sense of the original Korean, representing some idioms literally, which is a nice touch.

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