Monthly Archives: July 2013

Everyone who believes in books, or has (or has been) a child, should read Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree

Far From the Tree

A quarter of Americans read zero books per year.  The Onion, as usual, put it best: “Print is Dead at 1803.”  I know this is a blog. You’re reading it on a screen.  And I like blogs, and websties, and Facebook. (Twitter, however, is too scary. Mean people.) I read articles and sites online every day, sometimes for hours.  I teach online classes and collect and respond to student papers, even in face to face classes, electronically.  But books are different, and special.  People need to read more of them.[1] Andrew Solomon’s book Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity demonstrates precisely what a book, and no other form or medium, can still do.

Greatly exaggerated

Greatly exaggerated

What it’s about: children who are different from their parents.  That, of course, would be all children, but a simple recitation of the chapter titles alone reveals something of the book’s scope and depth: Son, Deaf, Dwarfs, Down Syndrome, Autism, Schizophrenia, Disability, Prodigies, Rape, Crime, Transgender, Father.  The first and last chapters refer to Solomon’s personal experiences and bookend the other the chapters.

Of course, it takes nearly a thousand pages to cover the material.  Solomon frames his discussion of seemingly disparate groups in two main ways.  First, he talks about parents and children as having both “vertical” and “horizontal” identities.  Parents default toward the vertical—that is, what is the same between parents and children, and what is passed down (the language itself suggesting verticality) directly from parent to child.  Hearing parents, heterosexual parents, cis gender parents expect and assume their children will be the same as them.  But often, children are radically different, instead having what Solomon calls horizontal identifies, therefore becoming part of a new, horizontal community outside of the biological family —the deaf community, the dwarf community, the disabled community.  And sometimes, there is only the identity without the community: prodigies, children born of rape, children whose disabilities prevent them from any form of communication, who, unlike other groups, have not coalesced into an identifiable horizontal identity.

But even the idea of identity itself is complex, which brings Solomon to his other framework. Drawing upon his own experience as a gay man and the cultural trajectory homosexuality has taken during his lifetime, Solomon suggests that his subjects can each be understood as operating on a kind of spectrum.  On the one end of the spectrum is illness, which requires intervention: homosexuality, and various kinds of disability, were believed to necessitate cures, treatment to establish the vertical identity of the parents.  But on the other end of the spectrum is identity: a meaningful difference that is not perceived as undesirable, one not to be taken away, pitied, or, for that matter, admired.  Where different syndromes and orientations fall on this spectrum, however, is subject to contentious debate.

Not surprisingly, the book is exhaustively researched and extensively documented: over 100 pages of notes alone, so it felt nutritious—I learned more on every page.  But it is not just a synthesis of academic articles, or the more than three hundred interviews that Solomon conducted himself. The tensions between these ways of understanding children who are not like their parents—vertical/horizontal; illness/identity—inform each chapter, and my summary cannot do justice to the overall intelligence, nuance, morality, and warmth that comes through.   It is a long book that easily moves back and forth between individual case studies—no, not case studies, people, since “case study” sounds more clinical than the human, and humane, portraits that emerge—and academic analyses spanning literature, psychology, history, and medicine, navigated and negotiated by an author who places himself, and his well-informed beliefs and ideas on the page.  By the time I was done, I felt as though I had been through something, and gotten to know, and love, Andrew Solomon himself.  I didn’t agree with everything I read, but I considered everything I read.  Nonreaders are quick to create a false dichotomy between books and life, but they are wrong. The best books provide a deep, meaningful life experience for the reader.  Books, like births, create horizontal communities and identities as well.

One of the few 1-star reviews on Amazon.com, for me, helps explain the book as well as one of the many 5-star reviews: “The author talks 2 much- and he is super boring and actually sounds like he just took a class in college and is repeating what the professor said- very disappointed.”  This reader, unwilling to put in the time, retreats into the worst cliché, boredom.  (The part about “repeating what the professor said” baffles me, though, as through Solomon somehow didn’t write it.)  Reviews like this help me to understand the zero books per year number.  A good book, unlike other popular forms of reading, to say nothing of other forms of entertainment, makes the reader work, but feel as though the work is worth it. Even if I did not work as hard as Solomon, who took over ten years to write Far From the Tree.

I don’t know how he finished it so quickly.

Time: 50 minutes, not counting reading the book.

In Comments, feel free to share a book that you felt to be a meaningful life experience.  While Far From the Tree is of course nonfiction, any genre is fine.


[1] I’m not going to get into the electronic vs print book issue here, except to say that I still read books only in hard copy, and I can’t imagine having read this one on a screen.

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Breaking Bad; or, the Superhero Uncertainty Principle

breaking_bad

I am several years late to the Breaking Bad party.  I tried watching it two years ago but lacked the fortitude to see how Walt and Jesse were going to dispose of the dead body and get themselves out of trouble in just the second episode.  But having spent the past three weeks catching up—I want to use the word “binging”—on Seasons 1 through 4 (so no Season 5 here), I’m struck by the ways in which the show—about how down on his luck high school chemistry teacher Walter White turns to cooking meth to provide for his family when he’s dead, having discovered he has late stage lung cancer—thoroughly borrows from, and just as thoroughly subverts, all of the stale ingredients of the superhero story to cook something new and powerful.

There’s the basic Superhero 101 stuff: Walter White has an alliterative name : Clark Kent, Peter Parker, Reed Richards, ad infinitum; he has a sidekick who is younger and physically smaller, Jesse Pinkman, whose own name is superheroic, although The Adventures of Pinkman may not appeal to the target demographic.  (Jesse also has a sketchpad full of superhero drawings, each, according to his late gf, a version of himself).  Walter has an identifiable vehicle (although, like Pinkman, it’s not exactly awe-inspiring—it’s an Aztec), a secret lab (with a 60s style Batcave entrance—a secret staircase behind a secret door), a disguise (hat and sunglasses count), and most importantly, a dual identity: Heisenberg, the nom de guerre he takes that, like Batman, reveals something important about who he is to the viewer but somehow not any characters—Batman’s legend of the bat flying through the window as a way to inspire fear; Heisenberg, as one of the key thinker in quantum physics but known in the popular consciousness for the Uncertainty Principle, which could have been the name of Breaking Bad itself.  And like Batman, Heisenberg has no superpowers, just his superbrain and whatever gadgets and plans the brain can come up with.

aztec car

But what BB really borrows from the superhero story is less the outer trappings than the inner workings of the dual identity conceit.  In a show obsessed with secrecy, it’s not surprising that Walter has more in common with Superman than the newest version of Superman himself (except for the good and evil thing, which I‘m getting to).  Instead, what Walt is hiding is neither the meth nor the money, but something that harkens back to the earliest symbolic and dramatic appeal of superheroes themselves: that there is something special, wonderful, and necessarily hidden about Walter that only he and his closest confidants—including the viewers—know about him.  The Walter that the world knows is a regular guy at best and a bit of a loser at worst. In devising a cover story for a multiple-day disappearance, Walter lays out what he knows he looks like to the world for a psychologist (and here I paraphrase from memory): having seen all of his peers surpass him and make millions, Walt now makes $44,000 a year, has a disabled teen-aged son, a baby on the way, and a terminal disease.  Ouch.  But secretly, he is fearless, awesome, and superhumanly capable—everything he is not on the surface.  He synthesizes the best crystal meth ever, improvises explosive and poisonous chemicals, charges his RV’s dead battery out of the pocket change lying around, and takes on and takes down crime kingpins.

Like Superman’s Clark Kent, the Walter White that the world knows, and who he used to be, becomes the hapless alter ego, the disguise of normalcy he wears for protection so that no one knows who he really is. Even Hank, his DEA brother in law, so often superheroic in his own cop instincts, cannot fathom that lame ol’ Walter is Heisenberg, just as Lois Lane, star reporter, cannot connect that Clark is Superman.  Despite staring them in the face, the notion is too preposterous to take, even when Walt jokes, on several occasions, that he is a super criminal. “Got me,” he says to Hank, who laughs, and to the audience, who laughs for entirely different reasons.

Heisenberg-e1316393225858

Which takes me to the other significant superhero trope that Breaking Bad appropriates: dramatic irony mixed with suspense.  That is, the audience, but almost none of the characters, knows all about Walter.  We know what Walt knows, which means that we can see how the tensions between his identities and secrets will play out.  It’s a great device that seems to have fallen out of favor—witness Man of Steel’s  jettisoning of the classic Clark Kent/Superman/Lois Lane triangle of dramatic irony, as well as the many excellent movies of the last decade—the Bourne movies, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Memento, and more—that use the what used to be tired trope of amnesia to reverse the very premise of dramatic irony (undramatic irony? Dramatic sincerity?).  Instead of knowing more than the characters, we know as little as they do and learn as they do.  It’s interesting and maybe fun, but it can be exhausting.

Yet even though we know what we know, one of the show’s addictive qualities for me is the suspense, even back to that second season 1 episode that almost put the brakes on the Bad for me. We know Walt is the smartest, most resourceful, and most desperate guy in the room. We know he has to get out of whatever craziness the particular episode focuses on—disposing of dead bodies, disposing of live bodies, getting out of a trap, luring someone else into a trap, breaking into one building, breaking out of another—and whatever Walt has now gotten himself into, he somehow has to get out of it.  Until the very last episode—sadly, coming up soon—we know that Walt somehow has to walk away mostly unscathed.  (Unlike in, say, Game of Thrones.) But again and again, we need to see how.  In a form pioneered by superhero comics, the show continues the best tradition of the serial narrative.  It has a larger, longer, season-wide arc that shifts and varies, but also a single-episode, smaller arc that never changes: Walt gets into trouble, Walt gets out of trouble, seeming to restore the status quo, but the getting out must somehow create newer, even worse trouble for next time. It’s 60s Batman with a meth twist.

The big question, then, is the moral one.  Aren’t superheroes the good guys?  Isn’t Walt really a villain, not a hero?  The bald head he decides to keep post-chemotherapy, not to mention the way that Brian Cranston is able to change his face from fake kind to real evil like it’s a special effect, puts him in firm Lex Luthor territory (sorry, Professor X).  It’s been the perennial post-Sopranos TV problem.  Walt is a lot like a combination of Tony, or the dad version of Nancy from Weeds, an regular guy version of Jax from Sons of Anarchy,  or, at times, Dexter.  And since my time is up, I’m not going to resolve the idea of narrative sympathy, subjectivity, or evil here (which I talked about a greater length for Game of Thrones anyway), as much as to say that it reminds me of a large-scale version of a dopey old Jerry Seinfeld routine:

I love these nature shows, I’ll watch and kind of nature show, and it’s amazing how you can always relate, to whatever they’re talking about. You know like you’re watching the African Dung Beetle and you’re going “Boy, his life is a lot like mine.” And you always root for whichever animal is the star of the show that week — like if it’s the antelope, and there’s a lion chasing the antelope you go, “Run antelope Run! Use your Speed, Get away!” But the next week it’s the lion, and then you go “Get the antelope, eat him, bite his head! — Trap him, don’t let him use his speed!”

But instead of a lion and the antelope, we root for whoever is on screen.  Go, Walt! Get away from Hank! Hank, you can get Walt! He’s right there! Walt, get away from Gus! Gus, kill the cartel guys who killed your old partner! Jesse, get back at Walt! Walt, stay away from Jesse!  We are simply suckers for the point of view characters, morality and uncertainty be damned.

Time: 80 minutes. Darn.

BONUS HOURMAN!  It’s been a while since a major show had a character named Jesse (which is my name.)  Dukes of Hazard, Full House, and Rick Springfield ruined my childhood, but Breaking Bad seems not to have had any effect, other than the weirdness of hearing my name so many times on TV. In Comments, feel free to post about your own experience sharing a name with someone or something famous or in the media.

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