More Summer Fiction: Revenge of the English Majors

“English majors” (and other humanities lovers) are famous for underemployment and general impractical misalignment with the contemporary world.

However, they have one real advantage over the rest of us: they can construct stories that other people read and watch. In these stories, they can punish the oppressors and triumph on their own terms—and make us all love them.

These stories often feature a long suffering  English Major (of Art Major or whatever), forced to make his or her way in the brutal world of money run by ignoramuses and tyrants.  These [expletives] are exposed through savage satire and clever writing, and the protagonist achieves love and happiness.  Take all that!

Here are several case studies on the book shelves this summer.

The Intern’s Handbook by Shane Kuhn (Simon & Schuster, 2014).

The idea here is that a rather murky organization of professional assassins (who exactly do they work for?) tackles extremely hard to get at targets. Their agents infiltrate as unpaid interns, and wheedle their way up close and then – wham.

The joke is, of course, that interns are invisible, and accumulate deep access into the organization precisely because they are nobody. And are not remembered or recognized, so they can fade away after the hit.

This characterization of internships is, no doubt, based on personal experience of the author. I hope the rest of the story isn’t biographical in any way.

The story is well written, which isn’t surprising given the experience of the author. The plot is exciting, the love interests and character development is OK, if a bit Hollywood.

It would be a funny story if there wasn’t so much gratuitous violence. Really serious violence, and really gratuitous descriptions thereof. More than a bit Hollywood.  (And drugs too.)

The writer’s ties to Hollywood are not difficult to discern.

In the end, I’ll say: this book ought to be sufficient to turn you away from a career in professional assassination. It’s pretty grim overall.

I gather this is being made into a movie.

Lost for Words by Edward St. Aubyn (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014.)

Yet more thinly disguised autobiography, in a distinctly revengeful tone. If you are one of his friends and you don’t find yourself portrayed in this book, you should be furious. I’m also assuming that much of the blather comes straight out of University literature courses, I wouldn’t know from recent personal experience.

This book is full of (unsubtle) parody, and the plot involving judges for a British literary prize gives license to make us read faux samples of many fictional contemporary novels. The fictional writing is horrid, and the fictional authors are miserable people—and much of it is hilarious, if rather slapstick.

One of his characters muses,

“In England, art was much less likely to be mentioned in polite society than sexual perversions or methods of torture; …. Perhaps in future generations a law would be passed allowing consenting adults to practice art openly, an Intellect Relations Board might be set up to encourage tolerance toward people who, through no fault of their own, were interested in ideas.” pp 75-76.

I don’t mean to imply that the author defends an elitist or any other particular position: absolutely everyone is an idiot in this story, though some gain more self consciousness than others.

In the end, there isn’ t much point to this book except to make fun of literary prizes and novelists—which is unnecessary cruelty to helpless invalids, as far as I’m concerned. And who takes such awards seriously, anyway?  (Obviously, I’ve never received one or I wouldn’t ask, would I?)

The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon (Doubleday, 2014).

Another “English major”, and yet more “autobiographical” fiction.

Set in the near future, the world is addicted to a combination of mobile device with brain computer interface connected to an online service that “reads your mind” and “suggests” words and other actions to you (all from a single monopoly company). The big company has bought the rights to all the dictionaries in the world, so they own all the words. They are destroying the books and selling you “meaning”. In this way, humans are losing their ability to read, write, talk, and think without the aid (and rent) of the digital system.

The technology is mostly nonsense, of course, but it is really a morality tale about dependency on technology and the implications of out sourcing language, thought, and culture—along with personal autonomy and even self awareness. Books (among other things) are almost extinct, and perhaps being deliberately destroyed.

Taking the notion of an intelligent language assistant to extremes, the word exchange helps you communicate by telling you what to say. The notion in the story is that people quickly lose the ability to speak (and think) for themselves, and don’t even realize it.

One detects the (autobiographical) lament of writing teachers the world over, who struggle to get students to think and write their own thoughts (supported by evidence), not regurgitate from sources cut and pasted and spell checked and “recommended” by algorithms.

The story takes this to a “what if” extreme, imagining direct neural connections which make these effects much more intimate, inescapable, and pervasive. This is not only beyond current technology, it is pretty unbelievable: the brain and perceptual system doesn’t work this way, and I don’t think humans could actually operate the way she describes. But we shall see.

One of the fictional problems is some sort of “virus”, AKA “word flu” which makes people aphasic. As far as I know, this word flu is nonsense, but it stands for any number of technological failure modes that would, indeed, wreck havoc on a digitally dependent culture. And the biological effects do remind us the implanted interfaces have biological risks, though probably not the one described here.

Unfortunately, Graedon feels obliged to lovingly recreates aphasic dialog on and off for more that a hundred pages. I realize that this is a key plot point, and a challenge for the characters, but it makes reading a real chore. (The Thanksgiving dinner alone took me forever to plough through….) I wish she had come up with a better way to portray this phenomenon.

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