June 17, 2011

Based on a true story

Not so very long ago, a fellow named James Frey published a book called, "A Million Little Pieces". I haven't read it, and I have no intention of reading it, but if someone drops a copy in my lap someday I'll probably give it a go and then write a review. It's what I do. I bring it up now because most everyone who knows the title also knows there was a pretty fair scandal that erupted when people learned the book was not a true memoir at all, merely an elaborate fiction based on his time in a rehab clinic. From the moment I read the first review I knew something was not right. I assumed then, and later learned, that the book was not true at all, merely "based on a true story".

Growing up in America through the sixties and seventies I was beseiged by talking heads demanding my attention. From my parents to my teachers to church pastors and the politicians pretending to run the country, everyone who was anyone was trying to tell me how to live my life and almost none of them agreed on anything. Almost every country in the world other than the United States is built upon a firm cultural foundation that provides a national identity, a shared value system, and a long history of repetitive mistakes and mismanagement. Our delightful and confusing American chaos befuddles outsiders to no end while also infuriating both extreme leftists and extreme rightists within the country itself. We can't agree on anything! The reason we can't is because America is the place where all of the homogeneous cultures of the world come together in a brilliant and somewhat insane heterogeneous cultural "melting pot".

"Diversity", that delightful buzz word granted to us by European intellectuals in the mid-eighties, is a way of life here in America. There is nothing more ironic, or more hypocritical, than an American academic quoting European scholars as they teach "diversity training" in American companies and on American campuses. We don't need "diversity training"! We only need to recognize the diversity that exists all around us every single day of our lives. My father, proud descendent of both English aristocrats and Scotch-Irish rebels, has spent his life madly in love with Mexican culture. That, my friends, is real diversity and real tolerance. You don't learn that in a one-day seminar taught by academics who learned their expertise reading books written by scholars from homogeneous cultures. You learn diversity and tolerance through constant exposure to a different way of thinking while having enough of an open mind to recognize the strengths that different way of thinking entails without ever once abandoning your own.

So it was with some trepidation that I accepted the challenge from a liberal friend of mine to read the book, "Einstein's Shutter" written by Vincent Yanez. I don't know who Vincent Yanez is, but the Kindle version of the book was only $1.99 (and is free at the moment) so I bought it, downloaded it, and read it. The story is supposed to be a true memoir, but I'd bet my dollar to your dime that it is "true" only to the extent that Frey's book was true. It might be "based on a true story", but that is a far cry from being a factually true memoir.

You see, my generation has a real problem distinguishing between "true" and "based on a true story". Our current President is a very good example of this. Half the time he acts from a ideological foundation that has no basis in reality. For example, there is his obvious and overt preference for "Palestinian rights" over Israel's right to exist as a nation and as a people. Another good example is his using the EPA and other regulatory agencies to make off-shore drilling virtually impossible in American waters while giving Brazil a "loan" of $20 million to develop oil platforms all along their Pacific coast and then a few days later giving a speech decrying our "addiction" to foreign oil. This is exactly the same kind of thinking that led to Frey calling his book "a true story" rather than "a novel based on a true story from my life". Such thinking is completely delusional and it comes from my generation's obsession with television and movies. For many people in my generation "News", "documentaries", "docudramas", and "action flicks" get all mangled up in our subconscious and it is only through deliberate effort at fact-checking and verification that we can distinguish between fiction and reality. As alzheimer's set in during his second term in office, even President Ronald Reagan began to confuse World War Two movies with World War Two histories and in one speech attributed a fictional quote to a real pilot. "Einstein's Shutter", at least to my reading, appears to be suffering from the same confusion but since it is far less popular than Frey's "Million Little Pieces", I doubt anyone will call him on it.

However, with all of that behind us and all of my doubts plain to see, there are still some very good qualities to this book. Just for starters, Vincent Yanez is the first American writer of the 20th Century that I have yet encountered who actually understands Buddhism. He refers to it often, quotes its precepts correctly, and takes time to point out where true Buddhism differs from the popular Buddhism practiced by celebrities and college students trying vainly to display the "cultural tolerance" they learned in "Diversity 101". In a very real sense, "Einstein's Shutter" is a modern Buddhist parable illustrating the lessons of Buddhism that the protagonist slowly and reluctantly learns through a series of personal failures and cosmic tragedies. If the writer had marketed the book as "a Buddhist analogy based on a rough period in my life", then I would happily shower him with accolades. But he didn't, and because he didn't, I can't give him the praise he is so obviously craving. Apparently he still has a long road ahead of him if he is going to overcome the self and attain enlightenment.

The story itself revolves around a very narcissistic young artiste who follows the love of his life to New York. Once in the city the woman gets a good paying, full-time job while the protagonist makes do working part-time for a high end furniture store as a customer service representative where he earns just enough to cover his half of the rent. Like any good Joyce wannabe, the writer's protagonist spends most of his time wandering around the city, sitting in a coffee shop watching people walk by, and letting his relationship with the love of his life disintegrate right before his very eyes. If this is a real memoir and this is the reality of how Vincent Yanez spent a fair portion of his youth, then in all honesty I cannot summon up even the tiniest shred of compassion for him. Watching a heroin addict self-destruct (as in Frey's book) would pull more compassion from me than this book did by forcing me to watch the protagonist wallow in his own narcissistic daydreams as his world implodes. I have spent my entire life fighting against the selfishness and sheer collectivist dependencies that this book spends 80% of the story glorifying before quietly discrediting in the last couple of chapters. It reads exactly like any one of hundreds of Buddhist parables about a rich prince who only attains enlightenment after losing everything that gives his life meaning. If that is the writer's intent, then he has definitely succeeded. However, if the writer's intent is to mold his life experience into a parable, then why is this book marketed as a "true story" rather than "modern fiction based on a difficult period in my life"?

In some distant future, scholars will struggle to define the post-World War Two era in American history. They will pull up Frey's book, Oprah's success, 9/11, and a succession of delusional presidents in an attempt to give meaning to the insanity of the past four decades. I don't know what they will conclude, but I do know that having lived through it my conclusion is pretty simple: for a short while, we went culturally insane in a vainglorious battle to recover from the psychic shock of multiple major military defeats right on the heels of World War Two's intoxicating victory.

One day we were running the world and the next a bunch of peasants threw our army out of their rice fields. It was only a couple decades later when another group of peasants from the opposite side of the world successfully destroyed the beacon of our proudest financial achievements. After defeating one of the most powerful military forces the world has ever raised, we got our ass kicked first by an army in black pajamas then by a ragtag bunch of camel jockeys equipped with weapons we paid for.

Our heterogeneous culture has spent four decades trying to figure out what went wrong. Extremists from both sides of our political spectrum (which, by the way, is completely different than Europe's political spectrum!) blame their opponents. In reality, the core problem we struggled with is the same problem every powerful civilization has struggled with and, not at all coincidentally, is the same problem the protagonist of "Einstein's Shutter" struggles with: narcissism. Each of us individually spends far too much time looking for someone to blame while praying desperately for someone to come save us from ourselves. The one thing Yanez does get right appears in the very last few pages:

"I am the only one able to give me what I need and I am the only one who can give me what I'm destined for."

We are supposed to learn that lesson during adolesence, because if we don't, if we only finally learn that lesson in our early thirties after a failed marriage (or at least a failed long-term romantic relationship of some kind) and three presidential elections, then the damage done to our society is so extreme that we as a people might never recover from it. Which is, by the way, exactly the position our country finds itself in right now. Four decades of self-indulgence, political ignorance, and cultural immaturity by our citizens has put our government on a self-destructive path of permanent financial ruin and political overreach. We are so far down the road to tyranny that the only question remaining is when will the tyrant appear and how will the world respond once he does.

I am not optimistic.