The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau by Graeme Macrae Burnet

adele

I had a secret dream when I started reading this novel. I was hoping that perhaps it’s going to be as good as Macrae Burnet’s other novel, His Bloody Project, which was one of my favorites last year – I was starving for something to really blow my mind because I haven’t read anything like that yet this year.

And there’s no sad and dramatic turn coming here, because this novel did manage to blow my mind, and I dearly hope that Macrae Burnet will write many more novels, because I could read any number of books by someone who can write in such an intelligent and darkly funny way, and who knows the possible ways humans work this well and can write about these ways with such sensitivity, precision, and effect.

So, as for the novel – like His Bloody Project, this novel also seems to be a simple (not really) mystery novel, set somewhere in the countryside, far from the noise of the world, in a secluded environment.

The protagonist, Manfred, is an eternally awkward outsider, he suffers from all kinds of repressions and he’s completely at loss when it comes to any kind of casual (or other) human interaction. Manfred is following a routine in every moment of his life, and he’s convinced that the slightest diversion from the routine would immediately be noticed by everyone and would throw the shadow of some dark suspicion on him. It’s not as if anyone suspected him of anything originally, and it’s not as if Manfred (who is, by the way, a well-groomed and respected office worker, but not of the Patrick Bateman but rather, the Meursault kind) was doing anything wrong – still, he struggles with an eternal sense of guilt, and he’s forever waiting for the moment when someone – anyone – will accuse him of something – anything.

The moment of a sort-of accusation arrives when Adèle, the waitress of a bistro frequented by Manfred, disappears without a trace, and the detective investigating the case interviews Manfred. The detective’s only doing his job, and he doesn’t really accuse Manfred of anything. Yet, for a reason that only becomes clear(er) later on, Manfred lies to the investigator, and from this moment on, his paranoia goes into full swing – after all, he’s really kind-of guilty now, and he’s really kind-of pursued by someone now.

Later on, though, Adèle’s disappearance becomes more like an excuse than a main plot driver because Macrae Burnet is, again, less concerned with the investigation as such, and more deeply interested in what goes on in the characters’ mind. Slowly, therefore, we learn some details that can (partly) explain where Manfred’s awkwardness, alienation, paranoia and eternal distrust stem from – but Macrae Burnet is an extremely smart writer, and he doesn’t make the mistake of using some cheap pop-psychology to establish direct connections between Manfred’s youthful traumas and his behavior as an adult. And this is immensely enjoyable – that the author leaves questions open, that he dares to fill his text with delicate ambiguity and multiple possible meanings.

Moreover, his writing is amazingly alive and visceral. Even though he uses a third person narrative, he manages to give the illusion of being inside Manfred’s mind – which is deeply disturbing, because Manfred’s inner monologues, doubts, fears, and conspiracy theories follow a very strict and rational logic, and they are so convincing that after a while I also start developing my own conspiracy theories, and start to entertain weird fears about what my colleagues would say behind my back if the next day I went to the kitchen for my morning tea not at 8:10 a.m., but, say, at 8:13, thereby disrupting a well-oiled routine.

As you can guess, this novel is not action-driven – the plot hinges on the characters, and the most important one is, of course, Manfred. But all the other characters are sharply drawn, too, and it’s a relief that the focus sometimes shifts to them – if I had to see everything through Manfred’s eyes only, I would end up being even more paranoid than I am now.

The most interesting character besides Manfred is the detective working on the case – he’s also an eternal outsider, forever worrying about what others might think, forever battling with a bad case of impostor syndrome. Like Manfred, he also tends to envision apocalyptic scenarios in his mind, and he’s also a gently ironic example of the mystery novel convention that the detective must intuitively enter the mind of the possibly culprits or suspects. In this case, the detective isn’t exactly intuitive, and he doesn’t have a whole lot of empathy, either – it’s only that the way his mind is messed up is very similar to Manfred’s own messed-upness.

And I could go on still, and describe how Macrae Burnet again creates intriguing extra possibilities of interpretation by pretending that the novel was written not by him but by someone else. This time he pretends that he translated the cult novel of a French author, Brunet, into English – and this Brunet just happens to be a lot like Manfred, and also happens not to like it when someone assumes that his novel is autobiographical. What can I say – it’s very exciting, dark, disturbing, and weirdly funny. For me, a perfect read.

What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell

belong

Garth Greenwell’s novel is beautiful, tender, and very lyrical – even though it’s about awful sadness and brutality.

The sadness and brutality of desire, and all the emotions connected to and growing out of it, all the emotions the narrator, an American teacher living in Sofia feels for Mitko, the extremely attractive hustler he picks up in a public toilet.

The nameless narrator has an immediate crush on Mitko. This is at first only about Mitko’s body, but the narrator would also like to learn about Mitko’s soul, if it were at all possible (it’s not), and he soon wants to have Mitko forever by his side, wants to save him, redeem him, spoil him – and so on. But – again – this is impossible, a fact which is clear from the very beginning: that no matter how beautiful it would be for a real relationship to develop between a middle-class university teacher from the US and a penniless Bulgarian hustler, this is not meant to be.

For about a million reasons. For one thing, even if their relationship was based on something other than money and „gifts” changing hands, even if there was equality between them, they still wouldn’t understand each other. And it’s not only because of the lack of common language – it’s also because of their wildly different backgrounds and cultural heritage, and because they both want something else, their feelings are completely different, and they use their relationship for different things.

Just one example to show the difference of worlds Mitko and the narrator inhabit: at one point, Mitko thinks he’ll frighten the narrator when he threatens him with revealing that he’s gay. In Mitko’s hyper-masculine world, saying that someone is gay is still a serious insult, it still means something, but for the narrator, who’s already come out, this doesn’t mean anything serious anymore (not that revealing his sexual preferences had been met with universal acceptance, and not that it had been easy for him to get over all the betrayals of family and friends he had to suffer in consequence). So when Mitko threatens him with destroying his life, for the narrator that’s all just a weightless threat.

This is not something they can discuss, though – and they can’t discuss anything else – at all. This is not love, after all. This isn’t a relationship in which the partners can talk things over. This is a relationship based on buying and selling, a relationship in which the partners are mutually using each other, a relationship that contains lust and erotic pleasure (from the narrator’s side certainly – and we don’t see Mitko’s side of the story), and a relationship the narrator infuses with emotions, which only cause him pain and suffering. And how would they not – there’s no place for emotions here, but of course they just develop on their own sometimes – and they are the basis for the novel’s beauty.

Because the narrator’s feelings are real – it’s real when his heart is breaking if he thinks about leaving Mitko; it’s real when he’s jealous and angry because on their first night together, Mitko spends the time speaking with his friends or clients on Skype; and it’s real when he’s disgusted by Mitko, when he desires his touch, and when he’s afraid of him.

Reciprocity?

This isn’t a relationship where there’s reciprocity.

And the beautiful title of the novel (which was the main reason I wanted to read this) means this to me. What belongs to you, what is yours is what you feel. And what you remember, what you desire, what you are afraid of. The other person, though – the eternal unknown and unknowable – can never belong to you.

Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin

rosemary

Roman Polanski’s film of the same title is one of my all-time favorite fear-of-the-unknown movies, I’ve seen it several times. While I was reading the novel, I automatically pictured the images of the film in my mind, and for a while I was struggling to decide how good the book is on its own. After a while, though, I concluded that it’s good.

As for the story: young and bohemian Rosemary and her husband, Guy, an up-and-coming actor suddenly get a chance to move into the most prestigious, most elegant apartment building of New York City. This is such a famous and posh apartment building that it’s enough to tell the cab driver: „To the Bramford, please” – and the driver will immediately know what you’re talking about. So yes, living at such an address is surely a much more trendy thing to do than to tell the driver to take you to a nameless street in the suburbs and then guide him carefully among hundreds of identical houses.

Anyway, I’m digressing.

Rosemary and Guy, of course, gladly take the chance to move to this famous address, even though an old friend tries to warn them, saying that the house doesn’t exactly have the best reputation, and many dark deeds had been committed there. And as it usually goes with evil houses, the troubles start shortly after the couple settle in. The tenants of Bramford slowly start to mentally devour the young couple, and when Rosemary gets pregnant, things really start to spiral out of control.

Rosemary’s Baby is a delightfully multi-layered novel. First, it works as a horror/haunted house story – as an urban haunted house story, where hell isn’t the house itself, but the people who live there. (As for me, I can hardly think of anything more terrifying than an old house, with old-fashioned and dangerous-looking elevators and with a bunch of curious and gently overbearing pensioners for neighbors, who keep insisting on inviting you to dinner, and who knock on your door six times a day just to bring you a little dessert and to kindly ask whether you need anything from the shop.)

And Rosemary also starts to find this state of affairs oppressive, she gets suspicious about the oh-so-kind interest and care the neighbors show in her well-being – but the chances for getting away get slimmer and slimmer, and the world out there slowly recedes to a distance that’s completely out of reach.

It’s truly a horror, make no mistake – and we might even just ignore the accidental little detail that the enchanting tenants of Bramford are supposedly serving Satan. (I think this whole occult-mystical-satanist story-line can be interpreted as symbolic, and all the evil practices of the neighbors can be interpreted as some good, old-fashioned manipulative psychological games.)

And the other layer of the novel is just as terrifying: the story of a marriage crisis. Even though Rosemary and Guy look like the perfect couple, their relationship is tainted with suspicion, distrust and quiet frustration from the very beginning. Rosemary’s and Guy’s marriage games are centered around the topic of having children, and there’s everything here you can imagine to make your blood run cold: a wife who wants to have a baby so badly that she’s half-planning to accidentally get pregnant; a suspicious husband who would prefer to postpone the business of family-making for a few more years to concentrate on his career, so he follows his wife’s periods with the utmost vigilance to avoid any nasty surprises, yet, in a weak or remorseful moment says, OK, let’s make a baby; there’s sex with a sleeping/drugged wife; and then there’s a terrible coldness and growing distance between Rosemary and Guy during the pregnancy, coupled with anger, pain, and silent accusations. Like I say – it could hardly get more dreadful than this.

There’s no need, after all, for any kind of satanist practices here – if I read this novel only as a possible story of a marriage and pregnancy, it’s already more than enough to freak me out.

And what makes the novel especially good is that it’s not easy (or downright impossible) to decide what really happens, and who is in their right mind and who isn’t. Does Rosemary just go a little crazy during her pregnancy? Is it all in her mind? Is it just paranoia? Or is the house and/or its tenants truly evil? Everything is obscure, deliciously ambiguous here. In the end – it’s a dark delight to read this novel, but delight it is.

Where Angels Fear to Tread by E. M. Forster

angels

I’m hardly an expert when it comes to Forster’s works – I’d only read A Room With a View earlier, but at least I’d read that countless times – and this lack of expertise might be the reason this novel was a big surprise to me.

First of all: I’m always intrigued to see how writers develop, how they enlarge upon their main themes and how they improve their favorite motifs from one book to the next. (This isn’t the main point here, so I’m not going into details now, but my theory is that in fact, everyone has only two or three really interesting things to say in their life – but it can take a good while until someone finds the best possible form, genre or mode of expression for that two or three amazing thoughts. And I like to read the experimental, voice-finding pieces of someone’s life work, too, not only the masterpieces.)

And it was interesting to compare this novel with A Room With a View (I don’t mean any kind of deep and involved parallel reading – I only mean that I’ve read A Room With a View so many times that I almost know it by heart), and to encounter a huge number of motifs and themes Forster must have found so irresistible and enchanting that he quickly put them not just into one novel, but two. Just a couple of examples: the charm and dramatic and dramatizing power of Italy; the view (yes!) you can enjoy from the balconies of Italian houses and from the walls of Italian towns, the view that’s more than enough to completely change someone’s direction in life; the purple flowers blooming all over the Italian hillsides every spring; little babies (real or otherwise); and so on. And further, it’s interesting how the same motifs can have such a different effect in different novels.

The reason this novel surprised me is because I had no idea Forster’s writing could be so dark. (I had no idea that A Room With a View is supposed to be his lightest novel, and all the others are way darker.)

And I didn’t suspect anything at first – this novel, too, starts out lightly enough: with two young English ladies embarking on the Big Italian Adventure, which around 1900 wasn’t supposed to involve getting romantically entangled with attractive Mediterranean demigods – but as it is, exactly this happens here, while all the relatives and neighbors back in England watch with horror as the events unfold, and then decide to send a rescue team to save the hapless ladies from the misfortune – a misfortune they got into out of their own free will. (Of course, Italy is attractive only as long as the English tourist can observe and admire it from behind the safe wall of the Baedeker. The approved plans of „learning” Italy never involve any real, non-touristy interactions with the locals, and if any such interaction occurs, Italy immediately becomes a barbaric country whose inhabitants all harbor evil plots to rid the innocent English ladies and gentlemen of their money and good morals.)

Anyway, up until this point, the novel is lighthearted and funny enough – then the mood turns gradually darker, and I don’t even realize how we suddenly get to topics such as gender equality; the cultural differences between countries, and how these differences might be insurmountable; and the possibly mortally dangerous English stiffness, cold blood, and hysterical regularity. To illustrate these points, Forster makes rather brutal things happen to his characters, and he doesn’t stop at being just nicely ironic and gently sarcastic. (He does these, too, of course – and with such wit and charm that he immediately climbs right next to Jane Austen on my fictitious list of top English authors who can make the most devastating remarks while maintaining a perfectly innocent face.)

I don’t mind, by the way, that this novel is pretty sombre. What I do mind a bit is that Forster doesn’t always seem to be in control, and it feels as if he wasn’t exactly sure what he wanted with his characters and what road he wanted them to take. (Additionally, it seems he wasn’t sure what the characters want from each other, either.) But perhaps this is again the effect of Italy – that someone who used to be a moderately boring, moderately annoying, not particularly attractive neighbor in the good-natured world of rural England magically becomes a goddess in Italy. It’s possible, I guess – it’s only that Forster doesn’t manage to convince me how these things occur.

(If I ever found myself in Monteriano, though, I’d make sure to look for the places mentioned in the novel because even if Forster seems somewhat uncertain about his characters, he is absolutely sure about the magic of Monteriano. It’s a pity that Monteriano probably doesn’t exist.)

Misbehaving by Richard H. Thaler

misbehaving

I’ve never thought I’d once read a book about economics that I’d have to violently pry from my own hands at 1:00 a.m to force myself to go to sleep, after promising myself three times that I’d definitely sleep after just one more chapter, and failing to keep this promise three times.

What’s more, I’ve never thought I’d ever willingly read about economics. I used to have this weird prejudice against economics and economists that economists are probably like one of my high school classmates who was preparing for a career in this field and who once borrowed a 500-page volume of poetry from the library (perhaps in an attempt to attain a rounded education) and read through it from beginning to end while I watched in horror. Anyway, based on this I thought that economics must be an awfully regular and cold and logical field of study, and those always make me want to break down and cry.

In hindsight, I think this classmate of mine must have been an Econ – a homo economicus, who – based on this book’s definition – is a human who behaves rationally in all circumstances, makes all the right choices based on knowledge and facts, knows what’s advantageous for him, and doesn’t suffer from issues with self-control and will-power, so he can always act according to what’s in his best interest. According to Thaler, though, Econs – even though for a long time they served as models for all kinds of theories in economics – don’t really exist. Instead of Econs, the world is mostly filled with Humans, who tend to make irrational decisions based on impulses; who prefer to eat one Oreo cookie now instead of eating three 15 minutes later; who sometimes go all the way across town to get something for a couple of dollars less while in other situations cheerfully ignore those same couple of dollars; who know in the depth of their hearts that they should finally start saving money for retirement but still tend to postpone dealing with this question because setting up a retirement fund or taking out a pension insurance is complicated and involves filling out various forms.

And what a relief to read about Humans, not Econs.

Because don’t get me wrong: Thaler doesn’t say that it’s the Humans’ fault that they don’t behave as if they were Econs. He says it’s economics to blame when it bases its theories and models on the impossibly predictable behavior of beings who don’t even exist. And Thaler spent his life trying to change this false belief economics had about Humans.

Richard Thaler is one of the founding fathers of behavioral economics. Right from the beginning of his career, he liked to misbehave a lot, he had a penchant for studying all kinds of anomalies (phenomena where Humans didn’t behave in the way they were supposed to behave based on the tenets of economics based on Econs), and he liked to team up with psychologists and social scientists during his work (which, again, didn’t endear him to the supposedly precise and data-driven bunch of economists).

The book is partly a professional autobiography, and partly the story of the birth and development of the field of behavioral economics – and it’s certainly an exciting story. There’s a whole lot of entertaining debates and fights here between professors of different elite universities, and it’s exhilarating to watch all these duels between old-school economists who hang on for dear life to the old economical models while the misbehaving economists of Thaler’s kind go on to demonstrate that the old models don’t work.

And then there’s a lot of down-to-earth and entertainingly presented examples of everyday economics: why we feel regret if we have a ticket to a concert but decide to stay at home on the big night because of a snowstorm; why we feel it’s grossly unfair if the hardware store sells snow shovels at twice their regular price on the day after the big snowstorm; why we tend to choose a small reward we can be sure about instead of taking risks but why we tend to take bigger risks in a losing situation; and how cleverly we convince ourselves that if we buy a bottle of expensive wine now, which we want to drink ten years later, then this is not really an expense but an investment, and ten years from now we can drink a bottle of special wine for free. (Of course, none of these forms of behavior conform to the way an Econ would behave.)

So all in all, this is a very educational and interesting book, and it’s very humanistic in its approach. And Thaler is a funny, ironic and self-ironic natural-born storyteller, someone who – believe me – can even talk about pension insurance in a way that you want to read one more chapter about it. And then one more. And then you feel like you want to take out an insurance policy first thing next morning.

The Rachel Papers by Martin Amis

rachel

This is the most disagreeable coming-of-age novel I’ve ever read. This is one of my favorite genre – for some unfathomable reason I’m still deeply interested in what it’s like to grow up, and of course I’m aware that some of the main themes of growing up are sex and our own wonderful, special, one-of-a-kind snowflake personalities which we are positively dying to exhibit to someone, but the protagonist of this novel is so disgustingly self- and sex-centered that my usual powers of empathy don’t seem to work here.

Charles, the 19-year-old protagonist makes it his goal in life to have sex with an older woman before he turns 20. The older woman in question is only about a month older than him, but so be it. Charles develops a crush on Rachel and he’s determined to get her. He employs quite a nerdy method for this end, by the way – he wants to win the heart of his lady with quotes from Blake’s poetry, with whole conversations and mini-presentations prepared before their encounters, and with books, vinyls and magazines arranged in his room in masterly and artful disarray that’s supposed to indicate how irresistible and tasteful he is.

Does he succeed? I won’t go into that. In any case, during his big Rachel-siege, Charles learns a lot not just about Rachel but about himself, too, and – supposedly – he gets somewhat wiser by the end.

Is this a good novel? On the one hand, it’s absolutely infuriating, because this story is exclusively about how Charles feels, what happens to him, and how he’s unable to accept the humanity of anyone else besides himself. I’m not sure how such things work now among teens, but I think/hope this must have changed since the 1970s when the novel is set. Anyway, this here is still an era where contraception is something only the girl is supposed to worry about, where it’s still unmanly and embarrassing for a guy to buy and use a condom, and where it’s cause for a major relationship crisis if the male finds out that girls also poop. (Naturally, girls don’t crap or take a shit – but according to Charles’ world view, they shouldn’t even poop.) And the reason I’m only talking about the bodily aspects of a relationship is because there’s no other aspect mentioned here in this novel. As regards the mind and personality of Rachel (or anyone else), the closer we come to that is Charles indicating that the girl probably doesn’t have a personality, and even if she does, it’s surely not very interesting.

On the other hand, though – if I look at this novel from a literary perspective, it’s not bad at all. I believe Amis when he says that this is one kind of life as a teenager: this nightmare of hormones, this huge desire to fit in, this posh-English elitism, this machismo, this constant smart-assery, this insensitivity to every other human, which means that even while you’re trying to win your girl, the only thing that matters to you is how you look in the other’s eyes, while not giving the least shit about how the other person is. So yes – it’s written convincingly.

And I understand and feel that this novel is satirical. Charles wasn’t meant to be a likeable teenager. (Which is a pretty big feat, by the way – creating a teenage character I hate. I like basically every teenage character in the history of teenage novels, starting, naturally, from Holden Caulfield right up to Charlie from The Perks of Being a Wallflower.)

But even if  it’s a satire, and even if it’s written decently, it’s still a hateful novel for me. It’s not entertaining, not satirical enough to make me forget about its detestable sexism.

Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit

wanderlust

It’s usually difficult to mention this important fact casually in the post about whatever book I’m writing about, so probably I haven’t mentioned it too often on this blog yet that I love to walk. I don’t mean ambling, strolling, or hiking. I mean walking. Walking to reach a destination, or walking just for the sake of walking. Mostly in cities, but anywhere else for that matter.

I don’t have a car (nor do I have a driving license), I don’t have a public transport pass, and I don’t have a bike. I go wherever I can on foot, and when I can’t go somewhere on foot, I take the public transport, preferring the slower and more earth-bound options because I like to be in close contact with the ground I tread, and I like to go as slow as possible because the journey is usually more interesting than the arrival.

Nowadays I’m preparing mentally for a long walk, and while I was reading up on my intended trip, I came across this book. I wanted it immediately.

And I wasn’t disappointed – this book is just like a walk.

A walk taken by someone else, therefore not precisely as enjoyable as my own walks.

Solnit’s walking style, rhythm and speed don’t always match mine; she doesn’t always stop for a break at the places I would stop at, sometimes she wanders around for hours at places I wouldn’t even stop to look at, and sometimes she rushes by things I find enormously exciting. Despite all this, it’s mostly very interesting. Solnit’s thoughts about the beauties of walking are similar to mine, and she writes about her passion for walking in a way that I immediately start to plan my next all-day walk.

For instance, she says that walking, the speed of 3 miles per hour is somehow perfectly matches the speed of the mind, which is the reason why you can do a lot of wonderful free association, thinking, and remembering during a walk.

Another attribute of walking she finds attractive, which I find very attractive, too, is the slowness of it, and the fact that walking is one of the best and most accepted ways of doing nothing while still doing something. Sure, walking is slow. But one of the reasons I walk everywhere is that my daily walking time is often the only part of my day when I’m free to do seemingly nothing, when I’m not required to be efficient or seem efficient – and this is great because nothing could be farther from my mind than a desire to be efficient 24 hours a day.

Of course, everyone walks all the time. Everyone used to walk throughout history. And even though the book deals with Solnit’s own walks and her corresponding theories about walking, too, it’s still mostly a book about the interesting bits of the history and development of walking. It’s not a definitive history of walking (writing such a thing would probably be impossible), it’s one history of walking – and it’s a strange topic: what kind of history could such an everyday activity have?

Turns out walking does have a history, and not only that – it also has a lot of cultural, political and social aspects, and the answer to the question of who, when, why, where and how much could walk isn’t that everyone everywhere could walk just as much as their legs desired.

Solnit touches upon a whole array of topics and fields of sciences – there’s literary history here, together with anthropology, cultural history, feminism, philosophy, climbing, landscape architecture, art history, city planning, urbanization and suburbanization, and countless others.

She really goes in so many directions that I have to contend myself with mentioning only a few interesting bits.

For example, Solnit talks about the connections among the rise of automobile traveling, suburbanization, the decline of walking, and alienation. It’s not only that everything is far away in an American suburb so you can’t possibly get anywhere on foot – the reason you can’t go anywhere on suburbia is that there are no destinations there and that everyone goes by car anyway, so walking is suspicious. And another reason is the lack of sidewalks – and by the way, the lack of sidewalks or any kind of walkable spaces for that matter is terrifying for me, and I’m glad that in Europe it’s still possible to walk at most places. Of course, the lack of walkable spaces also entails that the street as a space for public discourse ceases to exist, and everyone just moves from one private space to another in the privacy of their car, while the street becomes ever more dangerous and scary.

Another exciting topic Solnit deals with is the male and female presence on the street – it’s a fascinating topic of gender studies – why the street is more dangerous and more forbidden for a female than for a male, and this is one of the topics I would have liked to read much more about.

And then Solnit also talks about walkable and unwalkable cities; about metaphors and similes connected to walking; about Elizabeth Bennet’s scandalous two-mile walk across the muddy fields which resulted in getting her gown dirty; about revolutions, festivals and peace marches, all of which involve people getting out there on the streets, walking there alone or together with others, creating traffic obstacles or just having fun; about walking clubs and walking movements; about the cult of nature; about the accidental beauties of walking and the unexpected meetings it can lead to; about walking-as-art; about the (literary) figure of the flâneur; and about a million other things.

This book is like what happens when you set out in the morning and you know that you will spend the whole day walking, you will cover several miles, you will see and think many things, and though not everything will be fascinating or even interesting, a lot of things will be like that. And this is another great aspect of long walks – if the walk is really long, than you can easily spend 3 miles thinking about finally reaching a spot where you can pee – because there’s time enough for this, for something completely mundane to fill your mind for miles. Because there will be all the other miles for all the other kinds of thoughts.

Blink by Malcolm Gladwell

blink

There’s this wonderful section in José Saramago’s All the Names (translated by me from the Hungarian, so it probably doesn’t have too much in common with the official English translation):

„The decision popped out of Senhor José’s mind two days later. We generally don’t say that a decision pops out of our mind, people guard their personality carefully no matter how plain it is, and their human poise, no matter how insignificant it is, so they’d rather tell us that they thought things over before taking the final step, considered the benefits and the drawbacks, pondered the chances and choices, and after intense mental work they finally decided. We must say, things never work this way.”

Blink illustrates in 300 (breathtakingly interesting and un-putdownable) pages the point Saramago makes in a single paragraph. Which just underlines the fact that (good) fiction understands the essence of things and the working of humans just as well as (popular) psychology, and it doesn’t even have to provide lengthy explanations. Anyway, like I say, Gladwell’s explanations and stories are fascinating so I don’t mind the length at all.

Blink is about how decisions pop out of us – about how in the blink of an eye, armed with only the most minimal information, without carefully considering the pros and cons we suddenly make a decision or evaluate a situation. Whether, for example, we find someone likeable of disagreeable; whether a work of art is genuine or fake; whether the person coming in our direction on the dark street is potentially dangerous or harmless; whether someone’s lying or not; whether a musician plays well or not; and so on.

According to Gladwell, our instant decisions and evaluations of situations are often more precise than the decisions we make after scrupulously investigating every facet of the matter. The reason for this is that our brain, without us being consciously aware of it, continuously senses and interprets millions of morsels of information, and is able to come up with a decision or answer in a matter of seconds. In other words, this is the famous gut feeling, which in fact doesn’t have a lot to do with feelings. These premonitions and unconscious decisions are also based on real information, already existing knowledge, details and patters observed unconsciously – and not on some whim or fancy.

Gut feelings are thus very useful, and according to Gladwell, it’s worth placing greater trust in them. Which is, of course, difficult. Partly because our premonitions and instant recognitions are inexplicable, and as we are humans, we like to explain everything away because it makes us feel safer. Therefore, we tend to trust those things more for which we can line up lots of supporting facts and hard data – things we can put into words, but turns out we sometimes do more harm than good with this attitude.

A good example for this is the phenomenon of “verbal overshadowing” mentioned in the book. This is the case when our attempt to verbalize something harms our ability to recognize it. Face recognition is an example of instant recognition: we don’t ponder consciously what makes someone’s face recognizable but when we see a familiar face, we recognize it immediately. According to certain studies, though, if, for example, we try to describe in words the face of a criminal whose crime we witnessed, this makes it less likely that we’ll recognize the face in a police line-up.

This is one difficulty. And then there’s the other one, namely, that our ability to make instant decisions is far from being infallible. Our instant decisions are strongly influenced by prejudices, by what we want to see into a situation, by extreme stress, or by the situations in which we have to make quick decisions too quickly. Even making instant decisions takes some time, and without sufficient time we will simply decide imprudently.

The good news is, though, that the ability to make instant decisions is by no means some kind of magical ability only possessed by a select few. It’s something almost everyone’s brain is capable of, something we automatically use every single day, and something that can grow strong on its own in our areas of expertise.

The first chapter of the book is about this exactly. The chapter deals with an antique sculpture in miraculously good condition that’s offered for sale to a museum by an antiques dealer. The museum carries out all the usual checks and examinations before committing to the purchase, and they decide that the sculpture is genuine. A little later, however, a couple of real experts take a look at the sculpture and they immediately, without any kind of examinations, see that it’s a fake. They can’t say why they think it’s a fake – all they have is a vague, instinctive reaction which comes down to the general feeling that something’s not okay. As it turns out later, the sculpture was really not okay.

This is not magic, though. It’s more like that anecdote I’ve read once somewhere, where someone asked a painter or an art historian how he knows whether a painting is good. He said: That’s easy. First you look at one million paintings, and then you’ll know.

I’ve long been fascinated by this anecdote, and Gladwell says it actually works this way. It really only takes this much for people who know their craft, people with a lot of experience, because their brain already contains all their previous knowledge and information necessary for making instant judgments. (And of course not even these people are infallible.)

I could go on and recount more stories from this book – Gladwell is an excellent, exhilarating story-teller. The review quoted on the front page, which says that Blink is great material for cocktail party conversations, is certainly true. I don’t really attend cocktail parties, but this book is also awesome for pub conversations. It’s entertaining-popular psychology at its best.