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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
January 28, 2007

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Episodes, Digging, Wildfire, Rumpole, and Blinders

Last week I reviewed an episode of Smallville as dull because Clark Kent was barely in it; the following week, they gave us one of the best episodes ever, focused almost entirely around Clark's own actions as he struggled to free himself from a creature that had taken control of his perceptions of the world around him. (See my discussion of John Mortimer's new Rumpole book for a real-world example of Clark's problem -- the best fantasies aren't fantasies at all.)

On the other hand, last week's episode of Medium was awful, not because there was anything wrong with the storyline, but because somebody got the horrible idea of having a "funny" episode.

Every episode of Medium is filled with humor that arises out of characters' own wit. But the core story of each episode is serious -- that's why we watch.

The perky music track nearly killed the story. It reminded me of that awful Carol Burnett episode of Rod Serling's Twilight Zone in which they inserted a laugh track to make sure we understood that this episode was funny -- making it the least funny of all episodes.

Medium is a good series in spite of an absurd premise, precisely because the writers take the stories and characters seriously. Lose that, and you've lost your audience.

*

I'm a Norelco user -- but don't go by me. Everybody's skin and beard are different, and the razor that works for one doesn't always suit another.

However, if you're also a Norelco user, a word to the wise: If you've sunk the money into buying the top-of-the-line Spectra 8, take Norelco's recommendation to replace the blades once a year seriously! Because I have very light whiskerial growth, I can get away with using the same blades longer than guys with heavy beards. But even whiskerwimps like me eventually wear out the blades.

It takes a little effort to get online and find the replacement blades you need -- but once you install them (an easy enough task, even if you've lost the instructions), it's as if you got a whole new razor. But way cheaper.

*

One of our best living novelists, Anne Tyler seems to have two modes of writing: Full-fledged novels, in which she follows someone closely through life -- sometimes through a single day, like her masterpieces Back When We Were Grownups and Breathing Lessons; and novels that skim over the surface of several lives, dipping in here and there for a scene or two, but never lingering long enough for the reader to form much of an emotional attachment.

The result, in her skimming novels, is a kind of detachment, so that readers experience the characters as if through a telescope; it is as if we were reading, not a novel, but an essay with illustrations from life.

Such a novel was The Amateur Marriage, from 2004; and such a novel is her 2006 novel Digging to America. It seems that Tyler wanted to write an essay on the theme of immigration. So she found a pretext for juxtaposing an American-born white-bread family, the Donaldsons, with a family of Iranian immigrants, the Yazdans.

They meet at an airport, where both families, by sheer coincidence, are meeting their newly-adopted infant Korean daughters. On impulse, the Donaldsons invite the Yazdans to their celebration; the Yazdans don't go, but accept a later invitation. Their lives intertwine from there on, as Ziba Yazdan finds herself imitating many of the ideas and actions of her American counterpart, the bossy Bitsy Donaldson, while Bitsy's father, the newly widowed Dave, finds himself falling in love with Maryam Yazdan, Ziba's mother-in-law.

The problem with the book is that since it so relentlessly about the relationship between Iranians and Americans, and most particularly how Americans treat immigrants, this American reader could not help but resent the fact that Tyler stacked the deck by choosing a bunch of obnoxious twits to represent our team. Not that there aren't people like the Donaldsons in the world -- but native-born Americans become impatient with them, too!

However much the book might resemble a collection of case studies, Anne Tyler remains one of the best writers of fiction alive, and even when she's writing disguised essays, her books are still compulsively readable.

I happened to listen to it unabridged, performed by Blair Brown, who does a superb job, not only of an Iranian accent, but also of different Iranian accents -- a real tour-de-force for any actor. Brown's performance went a long way toward overcoming the emotional distance of the book, making the people seem more real than I think they would have if I had read the book silently myself.

*

In a way, Nelson DeMille's Wild Fire is also an extended essay, concealed within a thriller. But DeMille knows his job as a writer of thrillers, and he delivers -- the characters are engaging, especially narrator John Corey, who gets himself in trouble with his smart mouth, but realizes it even as he does it.

Corey and his wife, FBI agent Kate Mayfield, head for the Adirondacks to investigate the death of a fellow member of the Anti-Terrorist Task Force (ATTF, meant to represent the real-world Joint Terrorist Task Force). They head for the Custer Hill Club, an ostensible hunting lodge built and run by an oil bazillionaire and Vietnam vet named Bain Madox.

By the time they get there, however, the reader already knows all about what Madox is doing. Since his conspiracy is fully revealed quite early in the book, I feel no qualms about telling you that Madox plans to nuke some American cities in order to trigger an automatic response plan called Wild Fire; the plan consists of a massive nuclear response, against the entire Muslim world, if any American city is subjected to a WMD attack.

Naturally, Madox is a right-wing nut -- what would American fiction writers do without the standard right-wing nut? -- but John Corey is something of a right-wing nut himself. For that matter, one has to wonder the same thing about DeMille himself, since in his foreword, speaking in his own voice, DeMille candidly says that he hopes a plan like Wild Fire exists.

Really? A plan to respond to the destruction of an American city by killing a hundred million Muslims all over the world? I suppose DeMille really means that he hopes we have told the heads of the governments of Muslim countries that such a plan exists, so they'll keep a tight rein on the terrorists that operate in so many Islamic countries.

But to really carry out such a plan would be a monstrous crime against humanity on a par with Hitler's and Stalin's and Pol Pot's. Especially since some Islamic terror groups are so fanatical that they might accept the deaths of a few hundred million Muslims as an acceptable risk -- betting, of course, that the United States would never actually make good such a threat.

And I, for one, hope we would not! I know that many people believe it was "Mutually Assured Destruction" (MAD) that kept us and the Russians and Chinese from using any of our nukes during the cold war, but personally I believe it was the blowback problem -- any government crazy enough to think of using these weapons had to consider the fact that, as with poison gas, you run the risk of killing many of your own citizens as well. You don't use a weapon that might cause as much damage to you as to the enemy.

Or maybe it's just that by the time any of the above-named countries had nuclear capability, they had leaders who recognized the monstrousness of nuclear first use, except as a last resort in the face of invasion by conventional forces.

But that is precisely the situation that some Muslims believe they are in right now, and I don't believe a Wild Fire plan would really deter terrorists. They already feel fully justified in killing any number of non-Muslims, while they regard the death of any Muslim at Western hands as a crime that must be avenged a thousand-fold. How do deterrents work against such a mindset?

Never mind; the book is still a good read, even if I find it impossible to believe that a rich nut with four nukes would find anyone highly placed in government, regardless of which party is in power, who would countenance the deliberate nuking of American cities in order to trigger a response like Wild Fire.

I do wish, however, that writers like DeMille would stop using the pathetically lame device of trying to persuade us that a couple of lovers (or a husband and wife) are really really really in love, by explicitly showing them having sex in some weird circumstance. In Wild Fire, it's lovemaking on a Long Island beach in icy weather; apparently DeMille thinks it's extremely significant to their characterization that we know who's on top and other details.

And yet somehow we manage to get by without knowing which hand they use to hold the toilet paper, so DeMille must know there are some intimate details we just don't need to know. Come on, my fellow novelists, don't throw in meaninglessly detailed sex scenes -- if it doesn't tell us something that matters to the story, then get over it. You're not twelve years old anymore, faunching over the Sears catalog, and nowadays explicit sex in fiction is a trite waste of time.

I listened to this book in a powerful performance by Scott Brick, who recently was named the Narrator of the Year -- which is an award he deserves most years. A great reader makes a good book better, and Brick certainly does the job here.

The cd version of the book also includes a conversation between Brick and DeMille that is quite interesting and well worth the extra you pay for the recording.

I was also amused by DeMille's afterword, in which, tongue-in-cheek, he thanks practically everyone he ever met.

Wild Fire has its problems, but I found myself so engaged in listening to the recording that I was reluctant to leave the car -- even when I knew an excellent dinner was waiting for me once I went inside the house. That's the proof that it's a terrific read, as far as I'm concerned!

*

I've loved John Mortimer's Rumpole of the Bailey books (and I deeply regret that Leo McKern, being dead, will no longer be able to play Rumpole on the screen).

The newest book in the series, Rumpole and the Reign of Terror, is as delightful as ever, with Rumpole's wife, She Who Must Be Obeyed, emerging for the first time as a character rather than a mere annoyance. Mortimer is only getting better as a writer, and the series gets richer as well.

However, Mortimer suffers from the same disease as so many writers -- he must register his absolute disapproval of any measure in the War on Terror that in any way deprives terrorists of the full range of traditional protections for a criminal defendant.

Though he is trained as a lawyer himself, Mortimer does not attempt to recognize the dangers that the abridgments of these traditional rights are designed to eliminate -- the ability of a defendant, for instance, to take advantage of the prosecution's disclosure of evidence by compromising (and killing) sources within the terrorist organization.

Instead, he begs the question by making Rumpole's defendant the victim of a frame-up combined with prosecutorial misconduct of the sort that Rumpole has always been up against. It's doubtless Mortimer's point that since there are so many bad prosecutors and biased judges in the world, any abridgment of defendants' rights makes it easier for the twits to prevail; but he seems blithely unaware of the probability -- equally probable and far more dire of consequence -- of terrorists making use of the existing system against the public good.

The imperfection of those who execute the laws and procedures is not an argument against the laws and procedures themselves. No one would claim that because the Duke LaCrosse Team prosecutor ignored proper procedures and the rights of the defendants, rape laws ought to be abolished, or prosecutors should be stripped of their powers. Only that prosecutor should be removed from office; the law, if it needs to be challenged, must be challenged on other grounds.

Likewise with Rumpole and the Reign of Terror -- Mortimer makes a splendid case for the need to remove bad judges and prosecutors, but does not actually address the propriety of the new anti-terrorism legal procedures designed to protect the public. He gives lip service to being against terrorists, but does not show his readers any of the pertinent arguments on the anti-terrorist side.

I suspect, though, that he simply did not think of doing so. Mortimer, like most intellectuals today, lives in a world in which he probably never meets anybody that he likes who doesn't detest anything and everything to do with the Iraq War, without ever giving the slightest thought to the possibility that there are no better alternatives.

He is, in short, a victim of the tunnel vision of those who never learn any ideas different from the ones their friends all believe in; who never learn to speak language that does not reflect those beliefs. It simply does not occur to him that the other side might be anything other than fools or malefactors.

This is a natural human trait, to conform with your tribe. Whenever you live in close proximity with a community, you feel anxiety if you detect any visible sign that you don't have their respect, or at least their recognition that you are a member of the tribe.

This is true even if you don't like or respect any of the people in it, but the effect is all the more powerful when it's a group you have worked hard to join. That's why people who have chosen to live an intellectual life, but are insecure about their own qualifications, become almost fanatical about disdaining or exiling anyone who questions their beliefs or the worth of their intellectual achievements.

The result of this is that fashionable new ideas quickly become dogmas that cannot be challenged; it also means that a group of intellectuals quickly become incapable of listening to any idea that is not expressed in terms of their own jargon.

I recently attended a presentation by a philosophy student, in which I dared to raise the question of whether the ideas of a dead philosopher actually applied to any situations outside of his own time and experience -- and if not, what was the point of studying his political philosophy. I could hardly have been less welcome if I had broken wind in a small room. My punishment? Everyone was very civilized, but it was clear that the speaker was merely being polite as he dismissed my question as if it were childish, and the body language of the rest of the group made it just as clear that I had embarrassed myself.

The effect is rather exciting, if you examine it dispassionately. Regardless of the merit of my question (and there's always the possibility that it really was idiotic), the moment it became clear that I had put my foot in it, I became filled with anxiety that did not go away for several days. This is a human reflex -- civilization depends on it. If human beings were not predetermined to feel pressure to win the respect of their community, it would become almost impossible for us to act together or live together. Every disagreement would tear us apart.

We have evolved to feel two opposing desires: to get our own way, and to conform to the group. What's odd today is that the very set of tribes that most values the first -- our intellectual class, which practically worships anything "edgy," "innovative," "revolutionary," or "challenging" -- is the very group that is most insistent on perfect conformity.

Which is why so many truly idiotic ideas remain virtually unchallenged among contemporary intellectuals. While the dogma is that creativity and innovation are vital to intellectual life, the fact is that you can only be "creative" and "innovative" if your creations and innovations adhere to the dogmas of the group.

In the last years of his life, Isaac Asimov railed against the way the various disciplines of science had become so narrow, so incapable of taking the broader view and allowing self-questioning, that he worried that the very ability of scientists to advance human knowledge was coming into doubt. It takes only a few tiny steps for the jargon of a group working on similar projects to become a secret language that is clung to with almost religious intensity, excluding the very people most likely to challenge or at least freshen the group's outlook.

John Mortimer's talent as a writer are unquestionable. But his credentials as a freethinker (rather than as a writer about a freethinker) are suspect; when he thinks he's showing us the truth, he is in fact, showing us the blinders he wears that allow him to proceed on his tribe's course without ever noticing any of the other paths that might lead to better places.

Communities that began well can go on for a long time in that condition; but eventually, they always founder against the rock of reality. Groupthink kills, unless it's tempered by tolerance of the nonconformist and disobedient. When a group of people get together and congratulate themselves for being nonconformist and disobedient all in the same way, it's so sad it almost makes you want to cry.

And I fear for the bright young kids I see heading off for college. How many of the best of them will have the strength of character not to get swallowed up in groupthink? For it is character, not intelligence, that decides whether you are able to stand just a little bit outside of every tribe you belong to, so you remain capable of seeing, not just what the tribe sees, but also what the tribe does not see. And too many of our best and brightest minds go to university and become, not educated, but trained -- able to race through an intellectual obstacle course, but convinced that the preset course they run is the whole world, and not just an artificial sliver of reality.

Homeschoolers have the right idea -- it just needs to extend to university-level education as well. Our best students would often be better off getting access to a superb library and reading their brains out, but in solitude, without the risk of getting caught up in groupthink. Unfortunately, we have no mechanism for giving bachelor's degrees to people who study on their own, and no intellectual tribes that are prepared to admit as colleagues those who did not jump through all the hoops that they had to jump through.


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