More on Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings

Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings is not wholly devoid of value, though. It allows us to see with greater clarity what the new era we are entering into will be like. Everybody in The Interestings is a throwback to the past that is now gone and cannot be brought back.

The novel’s characters share one defining feature that completely takes over their lives: they have no capacity whatsoever to look inside themselves for solutions to their problems or even for an insight into what these problems are. This is all the more shocking given that the novel’s protagonist Jules is a psychotherapist. Even that, however, doesn’t make her aware of the existence of psychological problems either in herself or in anybody else. Like the rest of the characters, Jules spends her entire life beating her head against the same old issue that bothered her in adolescence without moving an inch in the direction of resolving it or progressing to the next stages in her development.

As Ulrich Beck once pointed out, we are entering an era where there is no alternative to looking for “biographical solutions to systemic contradictions.” This means that the only thing you can do to improve your lot in life is changing yourself, simply because there isn’t much more that it is in your powers to change. One could refuse to accept this new reality or one could try to adapt to it. Both are valid life choices, in my view, although for myself I have very obviously chosen the latter. What I do find unacceptable is a profound incapacity ever to recognize the existence of these choices. I don’t get people who spend their entire lives in the state of staring in shock at their own existences, asking “And what the hell was that?” 

Wolitzer’s characters are the perfect example of people who live in the state of a deadly lack of self-awareness. This is a way of being in the world that was maybe possible 20 or 30 years ago. Today, this option is no longer available. And when I look at the characters in The Interestings, I can’t avoid thinking that maybe that’s not such a bad thing at all.

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Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings: A Review

The most interesting thing about The Interestings is how addicted the author is to every single trite and boring cliche known to humanity. The fascination of the book, to me, resided in trying to guess if there was going to be an authorial wink, signaling that Wolitzer knew that these cliches were stupid and possibly even offensive to some people. I missed any indication that she was aware of what she was doing.

Here are some of the cliches that organize the novel’s plot:

1. Jews are brilliant at making money. They make tons of it. And they help each other in secret ways to make money.

2. Nobody but Jews can make money.

3. Even half-Jews are incapable of making money. But they can always try to attach themselves to money-making Jews and leech off them.

4. Jews can’t have good marriages because they are too fucked up by their parents.

5. It’s a woman’s lot to bear in cheerful silence any ridiculous antic that her husband might throw and any form of torture he might subject her to for decades. But it’s not a husband’s role to do anything like this for his wife.

6. Few things in life are worse than having an autistic child because those autistics are just useless and icky.

7. Dancers of any age, gender or race are extremely sexual in a way that non-dancers can’t hope to be.

8. Hippies are horrible parents and immoral drug addicts.

9. Everybody wants to be an artist. But you are only a real artist when you make tons of money. But you won’t manage to make tons of money because. . . see cliches 1 and 2.

I also have positive things to say about the book but they will have to wait until the next post.

A College Degree Does Not Lead to a Better Job

My sister is coming to give a talk to my students about their career prospects. She will tell them that a college degree does NOT lead to a better job or a higher salary.

Instead, it leads to a better career. Faster promotion, greater lifetime earnings, better prospects. And this is something that recent graduates really need to know: people with college degrees should start thinking of their lives in terms of fashioning a career, not just finding a job.

College graduates will probably find the same job and get the same starting salary as people who didn’t go to college. However, college grads will have a completely different life strategy which will be about life-long projects, not solving a temporary need of the moment. They will not get stuck in those first jobs for nearly as long. And that’s the whole point: not being a helpless toy of forces beyond your comprehension.

OK, maybe I also need to give a talk. Of the motivational kind, possibly.

Between Addictions

A great thing about one’s husband beating his gaming addiction is that one gets a really powerful gaming computer to feed one’s blogging addiction.

Update on the Anniversary Thread

Thank you, everybody who posted in the Anniversary thread. You are good people, and it was helpful to know you were all here, waiting for me to come back.

I am now posting answers to the comments in that thread.

When Translators Speak

Translators rule:

Dutch literary translator Hans Boland has refused to accept an award from the Russian authorities for his work, in protest at ‘president Putin’s behaviour and thinking’, the NRC reports. Boland should have been awarded the Pushkin medal by Putin himself on November 4, the NRC says. The Pushkin medal is the highest cultural award Russia can bestow and was to have been given to Boland for his highly praised translations of works by Dostoyevsky, Pushkin and other Russian greats.

In a letter to the cultural attaché at the Russian embassy in The Hague, Boland wrote of Putin: ‘He is a very major danger to peace and freedom on our planet. Every relationship between him and me, between his name and that of Pushkin, is disgusting and insupportable.’

Thank you, dear fellow translator! It appears that in the world of wimpy, mumbly politicians and useless, stupid journalists only we, the translators, can tell the truth. It’s so great that finally somebody spat in Putin’s ugly excuse for a face.

Monday Link Encyclopedia and Self-Promotion

Yale built an enormous School of Management building. This project was, of course, a lot more urgent than trying to make sure that Yale undergrads actually get to talk to a real professor at least once in their entire college career.

When the Russian attack on Ukraine started, there were many predictions that the West, with its huge advantages in money and military power would have little trouble brushing Putin aside. But so far it has been Putin’s Russia that has outclassed and humiliated the West’s divided, slow moving, and deeply unimaginative leaders.

An East Tennessee woman convicted of child neglect in her teenage daughter’s cancer death is asking the state Supreme Court to declare that she is innocent because she relied on prayer to heal the girl. Jacqueline Crank was sentenced to unsupervised probation after her 15-year-old daughter died of Ewing’s sarcoma in 2002.” Yet another indication that children are not people. I’m horrified that we still consider it not really a crime for parents to eat their children.

My conclusion is that, once we add “get good student evaluations” to the mix of requirements for our country’s teachers, we are asking for them to conform to their students’ wishes, which aren’t always good. Many of the students in this country don’t like doing homework (in fact most!). Only some of them like to be challenged to think outside their comfort zone. We think teachers should do those things, but by asking them to get good student evaluations we might be preventing them from doing those things.” I have no idea how one can despise students this way and still claim to be an effective teacher.

Your harangue on how privilege allowed someone to get somewhere they otherwise would not have might sound in the swim to you, but all your unlucky listener will ever hear is: “Your life is a sham, you don’t deserve what you have, and you are personally evil.””Exactly.

In the last few years, he reports, “scientists have begun to think that procrastination might have less to do with time than emotion. Procrastination ‘really has nothing to do with time-management,'” Thompson quotes Joseph Ferrari, a psychology professor at DePaul University, as saying.” This is why I keep repeating that there is no such thing as laziness. What we call laziness is, in reality, a very traumatized psyche.

Corruption and the resulting government weakness and incompetence are the core reasons Ukraine is in trouble today. If Ukraine had managed to build a strong economy and effective government in the 25 years of independence since 1990, Vladimir Putin would have no hope of breaking up the country.” Putin still doesn’t have a hope of “breaking up the country.” The so-called East vs West division in Ukraine is a myth concocted in the Kremlin and joyfully embraced by brainless Western journalists who are too lazy to research anything before publishing.

Funny: “The SAT “is a blatant class indicator,” Green tells me. “The entire system of standardized tests and higher education is completely ridiculous and ludicrous. But colleges haven’t found any other way to objectively evaluate the merits of a student. You have thousands of students applying to your school — there has to be a way to compare them to one another in terms of math and language and writing skill.”

It is true that as a small child I was very ashamed of being such a deficient and also inadvertently mean person. I was afraid of being thrown out on the street if I made any further errors at all, or if I did not manage to function entirely at the service and for the pleasure of my caregiver. I knew that nobody else would put up with me, and my death on the street would be long and painful. I was willing to give a great deal of myself in exchange for avoiding that.” Hello, sister. I’ve had this exact same experience. Did we grow up together by any chance?

The Obama administration this week declassified papers, after 45 years of top-secret status, documenting contacts between Jerusalem and Washington over American agreement to the existence of an Israeli nuclear option.” Gosh, what a huge surprise.

Birth control cupcakes.

Astronomical bedclothes.

Sanctions will have no short-term impact on Russian behavior at this point. Vaunted Western “soft power” has been run over by Russian tanks. The decision for war has been made in Moscow, and it will be prosecuted until Putin achieves his objectives or the cost — rising numbers of Russian dead — becomes politically prohibitive. . . If the West wants to prevent more Russian aggression and save Ukraine from further Kremlin depradations, it must offer Kyiv armaments, logistics, training, and above all intelligence support without delay. Nothing else will cause Moscow to back down.” Putin reads “soft power” as simply “soft.” It is high time somebody understood that.

Take this test to find out which Yiddish word describes you. Apparently, I’m a kvetcher.

The Nuclear Option

Not to freak anybody out or anything, but:

. . . President Vladimir Putin, at a youth forum north of Moscow last week, reminded the world that “Russia is one of the most powerful nuclear nations. This is a reality, not just words.”

Fifteen days earlier, on Aug. 14, at a conference in Yalta, the Russian president had told the assembled factions of the State Duma that he soon planned to “surprise the West with our new developments in offensive nuclear weapons about which we do not talk yet.” This came as Russian strategic nuclear bombers and fighter jets have been accused of violating the airspace of the United States and Western European countries with mounting frequency, while under the surface of the world’s seas Russian and U.S. nuclear submarines have been involved in confrontations recalling the worst days of the Cold War. As NATO leaders convene for their summit in Wales, Russia just announced that its strategic nuclear forces will hold exercises of unprecedented dimensions this month. And the Kremlin, for its part, just declared that it will amend its military doctrine to reflect Russia’s growing tensions with NATO. What this means exactly remains unclear, but in view of the rising tensions with the Western alliance, it cannot be good.

Putin is winning his war against the West, which is precisely the goal he set himself in Ukraine. His soldiers in Ukraine are convinced they are fighting Americans. The news that there is not a single US or NATO soldier in Ukraine has not been able to penetrate the thick haze of Putin’s propaganda. In their minds, not only has the Cold War been revived, it has turned hot quite a while ago. And a hot war between Russia and the West always raises the scariest question of all.

I’ve been fearing a nuclear strike from Russia since Putin brought troops across the border completely openly, without trying to mask them any longer, in August, and the West still did absolutely nothing. Putin has been trying to palpate the boundaries of what the world allowed him to do. He’d do something, wait for a reaction, not see any, and proceed to do something bigger. 

Unlike the author of the linked article, I don’t believe Putin will strike at Poland or any of the NATO countries. My fear is that he will strike Ukraine. Of course, this will all be presented as an unfortunate mistake, a terrorist plot, an instance of idiot Ukrainians nuking themselves, or all of the above. Obama will make another speech, everybody will flap their wings and say that now for sure and sure and sure Putin will realize how badly he is losing this conflict and stop. 

And then Russia will realize that the boundary still hasn’t been reached and will take another step.

I don’t want to fear-monger but it preoccupies me that nobody outside of Russia realizes to what a scary extent paranoia, rage and resentment are consuming the people of that country. Russia will continue moving ahead on its route because it has been given no reason to stop.


How We Walked Away From the Nation-State

Let’s be honest, people, we turned our backs on the nation-state first and now can’t act all surprised that it shrugged its shoulders and started waking away from us, too.

A society of consumers is neither willing nor capable of participating in the sort of give and take that the nation-state model requires. Just look at how we engage politically. Our main political tools are a protest, a petition, and at the very best, a public collective action where we detail our complaints but never offer anything, not even a list of actual requests. More often than not, we can’t even be bothered to figure out what it is we want. Remember #Occupy? The movement kept declaring how proud it was of not having the slightest inkling of its own goals.

As you surely remember, protester was declared the person of the year 2011. A protester is a person who protests, who addresses a list of what he or she finds unacceptable to some nebulous authority. A protester is actually proud of having no vision of what an alternative would look like. Abolish greed, ban bossy – these lists of infantile demands directed to some all-powerful magical authority are the only way in which consumers are willing to engage in politics.

The basic contract between the state and the people in a nation-state was, initially, that the state would ensure the well-being of the people and the people will be ready to die defending their state. Of course, we are not prepared to die for the state’s goals. But somehow the model has transformed into nobody being willing to do anything at all, tolerate the slightest bit of discomfort to make this state model function.

The great political movements of the nation-state have degenerated into Twitter wars, trigger warnings, and endless inane discussions of how everybody is feeling. Even the Salaita affair, which should have given academics a great opportunity to discuss the principles of academic freedom, has been bogged down in ridiculous childish speculations as to what Salaita’s emotional state was like and what his area of specialization is.

We have put an enormous burden on the nation-state and refused to carry even a small portion of the load. How can we be surprised that the nation-state cracked?