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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
September 11, 2014

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

Naked Dating, Lies, Thorns

Naked Dating is a "reality" series whose title could not be more accurate. Two contestants, one male and one female, are brought together, wearing no clothing, a condition that persists pretty much throughout the "date."

Then each is also presented with a naked alternative date, and each chooses between their two potential partners.

Socially, this can seem harder than the situation in Naked and Afraid, where a naked man and a naked woman struggle for survival without anything but their own bodies and whatever they can make use of in the surrounding forest.

That's because the naked contestants in Naked and Afraid have urgent tasks and must cooperate in order to get water, food, and shelter. They quickly get used to each other's nudity and generally concentrate on the tasks at hand.

But in Dating Naked, the task at hand is the same unnatural, awkward project involved in every first date: How do I make a good impression, while also figuring out whether this person is romantically interesting to me?

The premise is that being naked gets all the ridiculous nonsense of concealment and enhancement out of the way. Naked, people can really "connect."

In fact, however, the show simply puts more emphasis on the stupid and deceptive things that people say.

There's no way to know if people really are what they say they are -- but it's easy to see how they present themselves verbally with all kinds of spin and slant, in order to appeal to the other person.

That makes it really, really sad that the participants so often present themselves in ways that make them repulsive to any sane person. Only someone who is also naked on camera and eager to make the episode work well would let some of the moronic self-claims go unmocked.

But then, this is a world in which Bill Clinton's smarmy "I feel your pain" was treated by the media and many other people as if it were anything other than an utterly phony, self-serving, sappy line.

And apparently the contestants on Dating Naked are the kind of people who not only use, but also fall for phony, self-serving, sappy lines.

Which brings me to the most important -- and crippling -- fact about the series: The only people who appear on it are the kind of people who would want to be filmed naked, in the company of other naked people, and then have the video broadcast throughout the known universe.

Let's just say that the blurring effects do not hide any potential body flaws except male genital dimensions and degree of immediate interest. But then, not much more is revealed than we see with many of the costumes on Dancing with the Stars.

Not everybody has perfect bodies (though some certainly think they do). And they scrupulously avoid open close examination of each other's body. At least, the editors only show us scenes in which the contestants are making continuous eye contact.

Some of the contestants seem to have been chosen from the reject line at American Idol tryouts -- exhibitionists with appalling insensitivity to the reactions of others. There was one woman with a laugh so grating that I would not have been surprised if her date had stuffed something in his ears just to silence it.

Then again, stuffing your ears with napkins or leaves or mud might have counted as "clothing." Not sure of the rules here.

One thing is certain: The nudity does accomplish part of its purpose. With provocative body concealment off the table, all that's left is personality.

The problem is that the personalities of people who would be on this show are sadly lacking in any qualities that would make them interesting to me. The "deep" conversations are the kind of thing you would expect from lonely underperforming high school students.

Yet Jerry Springer and Judge Judy make decent ratings with a continuous parade of social maladroits and obliviots like these.

If you enjoy watching reality shows for the "train-wreck" effect -- mocking people who have no idea how absurd they are -- then this show is right up your alley.

If you're hoping for titillation, and you are older than 18, this show is more likely to sadden than arouse you. But we must give them credit -- the bodies look more real than the surgically ballooned bodies generally on display in late-night R-rated premium-channel sex comedies.

Years ago, in Rotterdam, my wife and I went to a museum display on the human race, which consisted mostly of human-made artifacts, but also included a half dozen naked people sitting or standing inside acrylic boxes. You could talk to them, though almost no one did; instead, the setting led most of us to view their bodies as artifacts, if not as art.

Something like that begins to happen rather quickly as you watch Naked Dating. Unless you actually find them likeable -- something that never happened for a moment for me, at least -- then you might view them as people.

Otherwise, they become mere artifacts: Ah, this is what happens when you take the clothes off of shallow, pathetically needy people who think they have pretty good bodies, and then tell them to chat with each other.

The curiosity factor -- they really date naked? -- passes away almost at once. The pity factor -- don't they understand what they sound like? -- lasts a little longer. Then the contempt and annoyance begin to take over, and you switch to a show that doesn't make you quite so desperate to change to another species.

Of course, I can imagine someone from the show -- contestant or producer -- taking one look at me and saying, "You're just jealous."

But in all honesty, I would rather have my overweight, middle-aged, clothing-dependent body than to spend even five minutes trying to make conversation with any of the people on the show, naked or otherwise.

This show has its audience, of course, as does lingerie football. But I hope it is not a very large or long-lasting audience. Not because I think it does some deep moral harm, but because it sets a standard of social interaction so appallingly low that I fear our public conversation will deteriorate even further because some percentage of us will be avidly glued to Naked Dating.


The novel Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty isn't really about lies. Oh, lying is important in the story, and a lot of people are doing it. But telling the truth is also potentially lethal.

The story is really about bullying, including the schoolyard variety, since the novel is built around kindergartners at a public school in a high-prestige Australian waterfront community.

The story begins when, at "kindergarten orientation," a fragile little girl accuses a little boy of choking her. The adults handle the situation with appalling stupidity -- but it's also completely believable. The boy, Ziggy, denies that he hurt the girl, but the girl's career-monster mother will not even consider the possibility that the boy is telling the truth.

Thus begins a campaign of punishment and persecution against Ziggy, not by the girl -- they in fact become good friends -- but by the girl's mother. It is quickly obvious to the reader, though (as with all good writing) nobody actually says so, that the most pernicious bullying at the school is being done by this mother and those who ally with her to make life so miserable for Ziggy that he will finally be driven from the school.

Ziggy's mother, Jane, is a single mom who has refused to divulge to anyone the identity of Ziggy's father. But it's clear that she has some kind of antipathy toward the man who sired the boy in a one-night stand, and fears that Ziggy might have inherited some kind of bullying impulse from him.

Issues of inheritance, of what passes from parent to child, keep coming up in this book, as we watch Jane's first good friend in this town, Madeline, deal with her firstborn child's attraction to her birth father's new wife.

Madeline finds it galling that the man who walked away from the girl as an infant is now able to lure her away from the mother who raised her alone for so many years; especially because his new wife is into all the annoying new-age fads and, most infuriating of all, seems to be a sincerely nice person that Madeline keeps almost liking.

A third friend also becomes a sometime ally of Jane in her effort to protect Ziggy from the adult bullies in the kindergarten community. Celeste is the kind of drop-dead gorgeous woman that stops traffic without meaning to. She's beautiful even without makeup. Perhaps especially without makeup. Add to that the fact that her husband is awash with money and prestige, and Celeste probably shouldn't have any female friends at all.

Only she does, because she's a good and kind person. She also happens to have a dark guilty secret. Quite early in the story we learn what it is -- though no one but a therapist finds out about it until the end: Celeste's husband now and then gets angry and beats her. She lives in fear of him; and yet she also loves him, and holds herself partly responsible for his violence against her.

Thus her life, which seems so idyllic to others, is actually a nightmare of dread and pain. And to her it makes a lot of sense when if finally comes out that Ziggy's father has the same unusual name as Celeste's husband's cousin. Again we have to wonder if tendencies toward violence run in the family. Could sweet little Ziggy really be tormenting other children at school?

The whole story is interlaced with a police investigation -- scraps of testimony from police interviews with all the characters in the story. We constantly look forward to "Trivia Night," the annual costume party at which, apparently, somebody died. We aren't told who, and we aren't told how, but the police are investigating it as a murder, and in order to uncover motive, they're probing every nasty little thing that has been going on among the kindergarten moms and dads.

As it all comes together, it's clear that while Liane Moriarty definitely knows who the good guys and bad guys are, she doesn't turn anyone into a monster -- especially not the children. Everybody is trying to be a good person, or at least wants to be good. But for some of them, the need to seem good (or strong, or right) keeps getting in the way of actually being good, strong, or right.

And what do you do when your teenage daughter, caught up in compassion for children throughout the world who are bought and sold for sexual purposes, decides to raise awareness by offering to sell her virginity online to the person who can prove he's made the largest donation to Amnesty International?

Often funny, always truthful, Big Little Lies is a moving and powerful novel. It is an easy choice for book groups that don't mind an assortment of rough language -- F-word derivatives are apparently more acceptable among respectable ladies in Australia than in North Carolina.

There's certainly plenty for a book group to discuss. Domestic violence, yes, but also how far it's legitimate to go in the effort to protect your children; the attitudes of the women toward their husbands, ex-husbands, and lovers; how you deal with a morally ambiguous crime; and how lies designed to shelter and protect can make things worse in the end.

And even though this book has all the earmarks of "chick lit," I hope male readers will give the book a try. For one thing, any man who doesn't read chick lit is deliberately blinding himself to the concerns and attitudes of women -- which seems to me to be a counterproductive move.

Most important, Big Little Lies is a terrific story, for men as well as women -- even though nothing explodes and nobody fires a gun.

The audiobook is powerfully performed by Caroline Lee, whose reading suggests an Australian accent without ever being hard to understand. Maybe her warm reading is part of the reason I liked everybody -- even characters whose actions I hated.


Mark Lawrence's fantasy trilogy is billed as "The Broken Empire," but you're never going to remember that and it won't help you find the books. Instead, think of it as the "Thorns" series: Prince of Thorns, King of Thorns, Emperor of Thorns.

If you thought George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones (series name: "Song of Ice and Fire." Like anybody actually refers to it that way) was full of appalling acts of barbarity, I assure you -- Lawrence's Thorn books make Game of Thrones feel a bit like a picnic.

The inciting event of the series, though we only discover it partway through the first book, is that Prince Jorg's mother and younger brother were dragged from a carriage and brutally murdered. Jorg is an unwilling witness, because someone threw him from the carriage into a particularly nasty briar patch.

The thorns go deep into his skin and muscles, and they inject an excruciating poison. He had no choice but to remain pinned, doing nothing to help the others -- even when he's rescued, it takes him a year to recover from the injuries and poisons of the thorns, and he is covered with scars.

What hurts even worse, though, is the fact that his father, the king, instead of seeking vengeance against the man who ordered the assassination, accepts "compensation" -- a treaty, a few advantages.

So as soon as he is able -- and while still a child -- Jorg frees a band of thieves from the king's prison, runs off with them, and eventually becomes leader of the band, using them to exact his own personal vengeance against the murderer of his mother and brother.

And, because the murderer was his own uncle, after Jorg kills both of the man's sons, he becomes a plausible heir to his throne.

The story itself is fascinating and often moving, but it is made all the more intriguing because it takes place in a future Europe, one in which civilization is only just beginning to make a comeback after nuclear war.

Most of the "magic" is really the machines of the Builders -- who are basically us plus a century or so. The Builders were developing technologies that allowed the human will to alter reality directly -- a pretty good description of what most of us mean by "magic."

But some of the surviving computers are trying to save the world from what will happen if the human will ever becomes omnipotent, able to change anything to what the person needs it to be. And through the process of the trilogy, Jorg comes to realize how much his life has been manipulated by the surviving machines -- which are themselves divided into warring factions.

Ultimately, it comes down to Jorg's own will -- which we have already learned is unflinching and relentless. His father raised him brutally, cruelly -- and Jorg does not want to be the heartless tyrant his father trained him to become. Yet in some ways he is even more heartless than his father probably wanted.

Well, not heartless. He feels everything -- he just doesn't let his feelings stop him from doing some pretty terrible things.

Reading the Thorn series is an unforgettable experience. It feels like a remarkably inventive fantasy -- even after you come to understand that it's actually even-more-inventive science fiction. Lawrence is a research scientist in the field of artificial intelligence, which is why the lingering computer intelligences in the novel are so compelling and interesting.

Just keep in mind that if you think George R.R. Martin is willing to kill off his characters, Mark Lawrence is perfectly happy to kill all of his. Well, not all -- the story is told in first person, so unless this is a monologue from hell, Jorg himself somehow manages to live through everything.

Lawrence is a very good, clear writer. This is a hard story to make understandable, since the viewpoint character can't understand things that would have been perfectly clear to us, with our understanding of technology. But every step along the way, Lawrence allows us to follow the action -- even when the characters are confused and the rules of reality are shifting before our eyes.

I started reading Prince of Thorns in book form -- I picked it up at Barnes & Noble because it looked intriguing. But I got so involved that I couldn't keep reading it in print -- because I can only read books when I'm holding still and doing nothing else.

So I downloaded the audiobook, powerfully read by James Clamp. That way I could keep reading even while driving, shopping, exercising -- I don't have to set the book down.

The irony is that while I'm moving around through perfectly sunny, cheerful days in Greensboro, what's playing in my ears (and therefore running through my mind) is a tragedy of astonishing bleakness and emotional devastation.

And yet there is always hope -- without hope such stories would be unbearable. Maybe the world can be saved; maybe Jorg himself can lay his own guilt to rest and carve out a realm in which people have a chance of happiness. Maybe it's not too much to hope that he might behappy.

If I have one frustration with the books, it's that the correspondence with the map of Europe is never quite clear. Some names remain unchanged; some seem weirdly misplaced. Ancient European names are revived; many modern ones are gone.

It's pretty clear when we go to Spain and North Africa, and Austria is plain enough, but are we in a world with higher or lower sea levels? Are we actually going by land from Ireland to the continent? This puzzlement is probably peculiar to me -- certainly it never interferes with the story itself. I'm unusually map-sensitive, that's all.

The series also ends in a way that I repeatedly warn my writing students never to do. But I also tell my students that you can break any rule as long as you're willing to pay the price. Lawrence pays that price, so the ending works; instead of feeling like a cheat, it is absolutely fulfilling and right within the rules and history laid out in the books.

I'm not sure how to recommend these books. What kind of person thrusts a book on his friend, saying, "This is the story of a life utterly filled with violence and cruelty, in a violent and cruel world, where almost everybody is faithless, and the faithful people are almost always rewarded with brutal death"?

But I can also, truthfully, say, "This is a book about trying to make something better out of a world of chaos and suffering; a book about trying to please a parent who is unworthy of honor; about trying to find redemption in a world without a redeemer."

Or maybe I just have to say, No matter how painful this story is along the way, it's all worth it -- worth reading, and worth Jorg's having to live through it all.

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