Thursday, October 21, 2010

Of liars and outliers

While preaching that “honesty is the best policy”, my parents lied to me through their back teeth throughout my childhood. Here are a few of their lies: sleep early otherwise ghost will come, Father Christmas exists and God makes all children. It’s as if my entire childhood was one big lie. Are my parents compulsive liars?

I looked for answers in psychologist Dorothy Rowe’s new book Why We Lie and my parents have been exonerated with the following argument: “On a crowded bus, try explaining to your seven-year-old what a dildo is.” That’s like saying that in this age of cloning and parthenogenesis, women don’t need men at all. These kinds of half-baked arguments are potential landmines that dot the book’s landscape, a book that claims to make its way to the last shingle on the vast beach of lies.

One look at the index page and the book would come across as if it was conceived at a table where Malcolm Gladwell and Sigmund Freud were exchanging ideas: How Important Is The Truth to You, Why Lying Is Necessary, How We Learn to Lie, Varieties of Lies, Some Hard Truths. One answer that Rowe offers to why we lie is that “what determines our behaviour is not what happens to us but how we interpret what happens to us”. Rowe also posits: “We might lie in order to protect our sense of being a person, but the consequences of our lying can be such that it would have been better to tell the truth in the first place. But how can we be sure what we take to be the truth is so?” More than a psychologist, Rowe comes across as an impressionable teenage philosophy student who just stumbled across Descartes.

Rowe mines several contemporary themes — Bush’s war on terror, Blair’s complicity with Bush’s lie, recent recession, extermination of Jews, climate change, dynamics of writing literature, existence of God — to drive home the Gladwellian point: there is more to a lie than what meets the eye. Rowe treats a lie in a very Manichean manner: for every yin there is a yang and, ipso facto, for every truth there is a lie. She, however, fails to grapple that a lie can transcend black and white and land in the grey area too. After all, one man’s truth is another man’s lie.

Rowe says people resort to a lie either under the prevailing circumstances or believe something that masquerades as a truth and has been ingrained in their psyche. How else could one explain the unflinching support offered by civilians to Hitler or why there has never been an uprising in North Korea despite the rich-poor disparity reaching a dizzying height? Rowe gets it right when she says humans turn rigid when faced with incontrovertible proof that their long-held truth is, in fact, a lie. When a few dismissed the climate change talk, they were branded anti-human or ignored like car wrecks (A paper authored by endocrinologist Klaus-Martin Schulte has been rejected by the journal Energy & Environment as “hot air” even without giving it a look).

Some live a life based on a lie. The Nazis were convinced of Germany’s superiority and the extermination of Jews never caused them the slightest of remorse because they were convinced that this was the means to their end: Germany’s right to take over the territory to its east. Years later, they would realise their ghastly mistakes but would still stick to their stand in case they were seen as culprits.

There is a bravura chapter in the book, “How Important Is the Truth to You?”, where Rowe really displays her psychology chops. She implores everyone to be a sceptic and question everything even though it may appear true, at the face of it. Being British, Rowe turns vituperative at Tony Blair’s prime ministerial days. “Blair’s government ran on spin, which is a message that has a tiny kernel of truth inside a thick husk of lies. Often the kernel of truth is missing,” she bristles. Another chapter titled “The Delights of Shared Fantasies” is compelling. Global terrorism is a dangerous delusion. Why would Abdulmutallab carry a bomb in a place that would automatically render him useless to enjoy the services of 72 virgins? It’s this shared fantasy (of 72 virgins waiting for jihadis in heaven) that has wreaked havoc across the world.

Even after quite a few flaps, Why We Lie never metamorphoses into a bird of much grander plumage. An accomplished psychologist and best-selling author like Rowe cannot get away with sweeping statements like “married men who know that, if they are unfaithful, their wife will throw them out are likely to think carefully before they put their marriage at risk”. This is Jackson Pollock in the garb of Seurat.

My biggest grouse against my parents has been the denial of a Walkman citing “potential ear problems” as a reason. The other day when my mother asked for a music player, I couldn’t pay her back in the same coin and ended up buying it. How I wish Rowe touched upon lies that are tantalisingly close to coming a full circle!

Spaced out

To readers who are too busy or distracted or interested enough to not read beyond a paragraph, let me cut to the chase: Room is a masterpiece and Emma Donoghue is a genius. Now that I’ve got that off my chest, here’s more about it.

In a flourish reminiscent of a nineteenth century novel, Room rings up its curtain on its 11X11 eponymous setting. Its inhabitants, Jose and her son Jack, have been holed up there since time immemorial. Living within the soundproofed cell, the mother-son duo’s only connection with the outside world is a psychopath, Old Nick, who held Jose in captivity seven years ago. Jack is made to believe that the world is an oyster called television where the cartoon characters are his “real” friends and a saccharine lollipop (courtesy Old Nick) is the best thing he ever tasted.

When he turns five, Jack’s mother tells him so many things he never thought possible. Being the narrator, Jack coins a term for these revelations in his typical fashion: unlying. In a manner inspired by the Count of Monte Cristo, Jack makes it to the open world and, subsequently, so does his mother. Of course, with a fair bit of action involved.

While this part of the novel sounds like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (think of it as chick lit for non-chick lit readers), the following portions take David Foster Wallace tones — post-modern irony on crack. When Jack is confronted with the harsh realities of the open world, he turns into a victim of Stockholm Syndrome and his mother is no better.

In a shade over 300 pages, Donoghue captures physical deprivation and human degradation, not to mention the most poignant mother-son relationship committed to paper. The plot of the seventh novel of this Ireland-born, Canada-based author seems like an obvious nod to the Fritzl case in Austria — when, in 2008, Elisabeth Fritzl accused her father Josef of holding her captive for 24 years and subjecting her to sexual abuse. Donoghue categorically dismissed the notion. Speaking to the Guardian, she said: “It’s too strong, I’d say it was triggered by it.” Some similarities, however, are hard to miss. Jack, who is released from the garden shed, is the same age Felix Fritzl was when his mother emerged from her dungeon.

That being said, there is so much to celebrate about Room. It’s never easy to narrate the story through the eyes of a five-year-old, whose vocabulary would not extend beyond a handful of words and understanding of the world would be stunted at best. In fact, Donoghue’s writing style, its present tense notwithstanding, can be sandbagged into a kind of hard-boiled poetry, what with the machine-gun cadence interspersed with abbreviated sense impressions (Jim Thompson would be a proud man). Sample this: When a news reporter insinuates to Jose that she might have wanted to kill the kid, Jose bristles, “What, put a pillow over his head?” Jack thinks to himself, “Is that me Ma means? But pillows go under heads.” Considering the kid at the heart of the novel is a bastard child, this is, all rights reserved, inglorious bastardry at its best.

The novel’s second half lends gold standard credence to the old saw that “every man is an island”. Most of us only do things in our day-to-day life and, consequently, we don’t live a life. Here are two people who shared five years in an almost Amish lifestyle never craving for technological felicities beyond the bare minimum. Jack curbs his desire to take his own picture with the following reasoning: “I was going to take one (a picture) of me in the mirror (phone camera) but then I’d be a paparazzi.” (Italics are mine).This novel is a stab at modern man’s compulsion to buy the new car, the faster laptop, the inflated stock. For fear of becoming dinosaurs, are we turning into sheep? This question turns moot in the novel.

Unable to cope with urban demands, Jose tries to kill herself to which Jack remarks, “I saved her, only then she didn’t want to be alive anywhere.” The writing sometimes seems ill-suited to those faint of heart. There’s this gut-wrenching talk between the mother and son when the former describes how she gave birth to a stillborn baby before Jack.

Though the book is suffused with immensities, there are a few immaturities too. I understand that the narrator is a five-year-old and to retain the cutesy factor, Donoghue makes him commit grammatical howlers, which he fails to rectify despite his mother’s persistent corrections. This, when he undertook a complex task (for a five-year-old) to trick the captor. At times, Jack’s weariness seems beyond his age: “In Room we knowed what everything was called but in the world there’s so much, persons don’t even know the names.” Really?

I wouldn’t give a hang if Room doesn’t get the Booker (it’s on the shortlist) but my disappointment would know no bounds if it doesn’t find mention along with the works of literary masters that delight in misery: William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, Susan Hill’s I’m the King of the Castle, J G Ballard’s High Rise, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and J M Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians. Enter this Room to expand your world.