A Review of “A Visit from the Goon Squad” by Jennifer Egan

Time, you old Gypsy Man,

Will you not stay,

Put up your caravan

Just for one day?

               – Ralph Hodgson

“Time’s a goon, right?”

             – Bosco, a character from A Visit from the Goon Squad

 

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan is a unique book which defies analysis, probably because it breaks all conventions of storytelling. In fact, it does not tell a story at all. It tells many stories, not by traditional narration but by cameo glimpses into the intertwined life of a handful of characters connected with the rock and roll scene.

There is Sasha, kleptomaniac and former junkie; who is assistant to music producer Bennie, who is struggling with a failed marriage and an erectile dysfunction. There are Bennie’s rock-and-roll buddies, Rhea who’s in love with him; Alice, who he is in love with; Scotty, whom Alice loves; and Jocelyn, whom Scotty loves but who is having an affair with Lou, a middle-aged music producer who is married with kids. Then there are Lou’s children, Charlene and Rolph; Bennie’s former wife, Stephanie and her disturbed brother Jules, a journalist who has served time for the attempted rape of up-and-coming starlet Kitty Jackson.

There’s Dolly, publicist and Stephanie’s one-time employer whose career has collapsed after a disastrous party, and who is trying to restructure her life by promoting a South American dictator and her dead-serious daughter Lulu, who is currently working for Bennie. There is Rob, Sasha’s lover from her teenage years who commits virtual suicide by trying to swim in the East River while totally stoned. There is Ted Hollander, Sasha’s uncle on a mission to Naples to locate his niece who is wasting her life as a junkie and a hooker. There is Alex (who has spent a random night with Sasha once), who is trying to garner some unethical publicity for Bennie’s event featuring Scotty, trying to rejuvenate the failed careers of Bennie, Scotty and himself. And there are Sasha’s children, Lincoln who is slightly autistic and Alison…

…Plus a host of other characters, adding to a tapestry stretched out over time and space.

The novel (?) twists and turns in and out through the lives of these people, whose lives and destinies meet and intersect at various points. The structure (or lack of it) brings to mind Paul Haggis’ award-winning movie Crash: but whereas the movie is focussing on a single incident which brings together disparate people and all the events leading to it, the book lacks any such focus. It moves back and forth in time, sometimes breaking the conventions of traditional narrative. Consider the following passage:

The warrior smiles at Charlie. He’s nineteen, only five years older than she is, and has lived away from his village since he was ten. But he’s sung for enough American tourists to know that in her world, Charlie is a child. Thirty-five years from now, in 2008, this warrior will be caught in the tribal violence the Kikuyu and the Luo and will die in a fire. He’ll have four wives and sixty-three grandchildren by then, one of whom, a boy named Joe, will inherit his lalema: the iron hunting dagger in a leather scabbard now hanging at his side. Joe will go to college at Columbia and study engineering, becoming an expert in visual robotic technology that detects the slightest hint of irregular movement (the legacy of a childhood spent scanning the grass for lions). He’ll marry an American named Lulu and remain in New York, where he’ll invent a scanning device that becomes standard issue for crowd security. He and Lulu will buy a loft in Tribeca, where his grandfather’s hunting dagger will be displayed inside a cube of Plexiglas, directly under a skylight.

 

Note the technique: time is suddenly telescoped, forcing the reader to lose focus and move back and survey the picture from a broader perspective. Also note the interesting fact that a major character, not yet formally introduced into the story [Lulu] makes an appearance here: it’s not clear on the first reading. In fact, this action happens outside the novel, and reinforces the impression the reader gets that he is only peeking into a cross-section of an enormously long and endless narrative, part of which is captured and laid out before him by the author.

The chapters are more of standalone narratives rather than parts of a coherent whole-yet they are inherently connected. Each tells part of the story from the viewpoint of a different character; some (for example, the fourth one) from the viewpoint of multiple characters. The narrative is sometimes in the past tense, sometimes in the present: sometimes first person, sometimes third person and once (chapter ten), second person. And chapter twelve leaves linear narrative by the wayside altogether – it is a PowerPoint presentation (in fact, this presentation is the key to the novel – but more about that later)!

Two themes run through the novel – time, and music. And it does not take great cerebration to connect the two together. Music is essentially an art form which is sculpted in time (to borrow from Tarkowski) but unlike the narrative arts, it is non-linear, with themes spanning out and spreading forth. And the pauses are as important as the beats. This is the theme of chapter twelve, the presentation prepared by Alison, Sasha’s twelve-year-old daughter.

The presentation is about the Blake family in general, Sasha, her husband Drew, and children (Lincoln, who may be slightly autistic and Alison, who is the author of the presentation). It is titled: “Great Rock and Roll Pauses”. The presentation talks about many things: Alison’s quarrels with her mother, Lincoln’s inability to communicate, Sasha’s reluctance to revisit the memories of her youth… all analysed with respect to Lincoln’s obsession with the rest pauses in rock-and-roll songs.

Lincoln is interested in the pauses to such an extent that he times them to the microsecond and records and loops them again and again. He knows each of them by heart: the music is his only connection to the world. Drew is worried about it: he does not understand this obsession-while Sasha, more attuned to the world of music, does to a certain extent. But it is Allison who is perfectly in sync with her brother, and can trace the tortuous connection in his mind when he says “Hey Dad, there’s a partial silence at the end of ‘Fly Like an Eagle’, with a sort of rushing sound in the background that I think is supposed to be the wind, or maybe time rushing past!” in place of “I love you, Dad.” It is she who graphs his pauses, thus providing spatial representation to his sculptures in time.

The beats and the pauses, which together creates music as they flow through time, is applicable to human lives also… or so the novelist seems to tell. For the actual protagonist of this novel is time: at once the ephemeral moment and the eternal ocean. Time, which can be measured only while it flows, and gets consumed in the measurement. Time the goon, destroying empires and civilisations in its relentless march; time the healer, healing any wound, however deep it may be.

Many of the characters in the story talk about the “movement from A to B”, while describing how their lives have changed (many a time in unexpected ways) as they progressed in life. But on the wider canvas of the novel, it is soon apparent to the reader that the movement is illusory: it has no meaning outside the mind of the person experiencing it. I have always asked this question to myself: will time exist if there are no changes happening in the universe, and no memory to record its passing? The question has always remained tantalisingly unanswered.

The novel starts with Sasha on a one-night stand with Alex in New York City: fittingly, it ends with Alex in New York, looking for Sasha. Of course he does not find her – as Bennie hopes, she has found a good life.

 

Alex closed his eyes and listened; a storefront gate sliding down. A dog barking hoarsely. The lowing of trucks over bridges. The velvety night in his ears. And the hum, always that hum, which maybe wasn’t an echo after all, but the sound of time passing.

th blu nyt

th stRs u cant c

th hum tht nevr gOs awy

A sound of clicking heels on the pavement punctured the quiet. Alex snapped open his eyes, and he and Bennie both turned – whirled, really, peering for Sasha in the ashy dark. But it was another girl, young and new to the city, fiddling with her keys.

 

So time goes on.

Highly recommended, especially for those readers who enjoy the unconventional.

A Review of “Snow White, Blood Red” by Terri Windling and Ellen Datlow

[M]ost fairy tales were never initially intended for nursery duty. They have been put there, as J. R. R. Tolkien so evocatively expressed it, like old furniture fallen out of fashion that the grown-ups no longer want. And like furniture banished to the children’s playroom, the tales that have been banished from the mainstream of modern adult literature have suffered misuse as well as neglect.

Terri Windling

Many adults dismiss fairy tales as being too childish, too sweet and innocent, but fairy tales are far from that. The ones that touch us most deeply are often blunt about the darker side of human nature, filled with violence and atrocities…

– Ellen Datlow

IT WAS the middle of winter, and the snow-flakes were falling like feathers from the sky, and a Queen sat at her window working, and her embroidery-frame was of ebony. And as she worked, gazing at times out on the snow, she pricked her finger, and there fell from it three drops of blood on the snow. And when she saw how bright and red it looked, she said to herself, “Oh that I had a child as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as the wood of the embroidery frame!” Not very long after she had a daughter, with a skin as white as snow, lips as red as blood, and hair as black as ebony, and she was named Snow-white. And when she was born the Queen died.

  • “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves”, collected by the Brothers Grimm

For me, the above paragraph represents the quintessence of fairy tales: the purity of white versus the feral beauty of red, and blackness that hides just beneath. Because fairy tales are not the “sanitized” stories which we have read in comic books and children’s collections; they are far removed from the bowdlerised fantasies presented by Disney. Fairy tales are primal: they are frightening: they talk of taboo subjects like childhood sexuality, cannibalism, mutilation and the link between pain and pleasure. Blood features in them as prominently as snow – because fairy tales are not meant for children, but adults.

My first experience with the serious analysis of fairy tales was Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment; I considered that the definitive work in the field. Now, however, I am better informed. There are a lot of dissenting views from that of Bettelheim (see the SurLaLune website for one example). Ellen Datlow, one of the editors of the book under discussion, says (in disagreement to Bettelheim’s specifications as to what a fairy tale ought to be): “We ought not underrate the subtlety of fairy tales, for their power emerges from the lack of a single, unique ‘meaning’ in each tale. Every listener finds within it something different and personal. Perhaps we must let fairy tales define themselves through the infinite variety of commonalities among them.”

It is to Bettelheim’s contention that a fairy tale must necessarily end happily that Datlow makes the above reply. She confesses herself to be an admirer of the disturbing and distressing aspects of fairy tales. Terri Windling is also of the opinion that fairy tales cannot be limited to saccharine tales for kids: “One significant result of the bowdlerization of the old stories is that the term fairy tale, like the word myth, can be used, in modern parlance, to mean a lie or an untruth. A proper fairy tale is anything but an untruth; it goes to the very heart of truth. It goes to the very hearts of men and women and speaks of the things it finds there: fear, courage, greed, compassion, loyalty, betrayal, despair, and wonder. It speaks of these things in a symbolic language that slips into our dreams, our unconscious, steeped in rich archetypal images. The deceptively simple language of fairy tales is a poetry distilled from the words of centuries of storytellers, timeworn, polished, honed by each successive generation discovering the tales anew.”

This collection is yet another instance of that new discovery. Windling and Datlow have collected tales from a fair cross-section of today’s foremost fantasy authors – most of them retelling old favourites in new light. It is a testament to the strength and endurance of these stories that one can still discover new angles. You will come across many old favourites such as Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel as you travel through these pages: also many of the lesser known characters will make their appearance. However, whatever be the story, there is always the lofty white sky of fantasy above and the blood red earth of horror below; and the guilty pleasure of sex in the hidden crannies and crevices. As the editors say:

It is this interplay of light and shadow that we have sought to explore in creating this collection of stories, combining the Snow White of “high” fantasy fiction with the Blood Red of horror fiction. Some of the stories contained herein fall easily into one or another of these camps; others choose instead to tread the mysterious, enchanted path between the two—both bright and dark, wondrous and disturbing, newly fashioned and old as Time.

***

As with any collection of stories, this one too, is a mixed bag. I found some really excellent ones here, along with some indifferent fare: to be fair, none of the offerings are very bad. The authors have been faithful to the cause – these are indeed fairy tale retellings (except for the first story – “Like a Red, Red Rose” by Susan Wade – which is a sort of “meta-fairy-tale” combining many motifs). The emphasis is on an alternate point of view, or a subtle (or not-so-subtle, as in the case of “Little Poucet” by Steve Rasnic Tem) enhancement of dark sexuality or horror (“I Shall Do Thee Mischief in the Wood” by Kathe Koja). The editors provide a brief introduction to each story which allows the reader to understand which fairy tale is being retold. This helps a lot with the less familiar ones, as Charles de Lint’s retelling of The Dead Moon (the story “The Moon is Drowning While I Sleep”).

To enumerate a few: there are two retellings of Rapunzel, one in tragic vein and one in comic; two of Little Red Riding Hood, one highlighting the traditional sexual angle of the story and the other, the horrific but with a twist. There is the Frog Prince on a psychiatrist’s couch and Thumbelina. There are Andersen’s Wild Swans on a baseball field, a vampiric Puss-in-Boots (“Puss” by Esther M. Freisner, where the hero of the original story is turned into a despicable villain), a licentious Jack (of the Beanstalk fame) and the Snow Queen.

The stories which stood from the rest (for me) were:

  1. “Troll Bridge” by Neil Gaiman: A retelling of the “Three Billie Goats Gruff”, the tale is given a twist in the way only Gaiman can do it. It is a fantasy, and at the same time a statement of the human condition.
  2. “Snow-Drop” by Tanith Lee: Here, in a futuristic SF-fantasy setting, the grim story of death and sex between the evil queen and the innocent girl is played out. However, the queen is not so evil, and the girl is not so innocent. This new take on Snow White fascinated me.
  3. “Like Angels Singing” by Leonard Rysdyk: The POV (Point of View) is the thing. This story is a striking example of how a turning of the camera changes the movie. Very powerful.
  4. “The Changelings” by Melanie Tem: The myth of the changeling is ever present in Europe, where fairies steal away one’s human child and put one of their own in its place. This legend has always creeped me out, and so does this story.

However, if I am asked to award the crown for the best story in the collection, it will go to the last one: “Breadcrumbs and Stones” by Lisa Goldstein. This is not a fantasy, but the brutal reality of one of the darkest periods of human history – the Nazi regime. It is the story of a survivor, and her terrible loss: what Hansel and Gretel could have been without the magical elements. This story left me with a lump in my throat, and I understood how Bruno Bettelheim could survive a concentration camp on the strength of fairy tales. The last paragraph of the story captures it all:

It seemed to me that all my life my mother had given me the wrong story, her made-up tales instead of Hansel and Gretel, had given me breadcrumbs instead of stones. That she had done this on purpose, told me the gaudiest, most wonder-filled lies she knew, so that I would not ask for anything more and stumble on her secret. It was too late now—I would have to find my own way back. But the path did not look at all familiar.

Yes, we do need those breadcrumbs, so that we are never lost in the woods.

The Philosophy of Hatred

I have finished reading Godless: the Church of Liberalism by Ann Coulter. Whew! I didn’t think I would survive the ordeal.

Ann Coulter is a prominent right-wing media personality in America. However, it is not her conservative views which get her attention: it is the outright hatred she has for the “other”, and the purposefully rude way in which she expresses her opinion, that does it. Liberals hate her, and she revels in it.

I read this book to see whether Ann is as black as she’s painted. Well, she’s blacker. I did not think a human being could spew so much hate and still remain sane (unless it’s all an act to gain media attention, as some of her detractors say, which is quite possible).

Ann Coulter’s main argument in this book is against the separation of the Church and the State. As a conservative Christian, she would like to see the USA become a theocracy; however, this is effectively prevented by the constitution which is secular. So she goes on to attack secularism itself as a godless religion, rather than a logical frame work where all kinds of thoughts can coexist side by side.

The book is very badly written, with plenty of her pet peeves surfacing time and again, interspersed with snide remarks and name-calling, so there is no coherent central argument. However, the main points Ms. Coulter tries make can be summarised as:

  • Liberal thought is a godless religion, less logical than Christianity, which is being forced on Americans through public institutions and state schools.
  • Liberals want to live a life free of any moral code.
  • Liberals are hell-bent on supporting criminals who have done heinous crimes against humanity, and time and again have sent prisoners out on parole who have again committed more serious crimes.
  • Liberals are in favour of abortion, just because they don’t mind killing babies to enjoy indiscriminate sex.
  • Muslims are a danger to the world. President George Bush is right in attacking Iraq and killing Saddam Hussein. However, Liberals support Islamic terrorists.
  • Liberals support public school teachers who (in her opinion) are a bunch of overpaid slackers, responsible for Americans’ decline in the intellectual field.
  • Liberal science has no evidential support: the deleterious effects of pesticides, global warming, the fact that AIDS attacks heterosexuals as well as gays, the benefits of embryonic stem cell research… these are all myths created by liberals to further their political agenda. Anybody who speaks out against these is hounded out of the scientific establishment.
  • And most importantly – the theory of evolution (which she calls “Darwinism”) – is absolute nonsense.

Most of the “arguments” (if they can be called that) the author presents for each of the above are pretty shaky – most of them are straw men, and will convince only the already converted. She is in fact preaching to the choir. However, she purposefully misrepresents facts. These half-truths are more dangerous than outright lies; even those who dislike her rhetoric may fall for the veneer of truth in her analysis.

(I did a quick research on two cases which Ann Coulter presented as proof of the liberal penchant for loosening inhuman criminals on society. The first, the case of the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti in the 1920’s who purportedly murdered two payroll carriers, she presents as an open-and-shut case. What is more, she says that their liberal supporters were aware that they were guilty, but still lied to the authorities and public. However, it seems that there is plenty of evidence to believe that Vanzetti was innocent; and Sacco’s guilt is not proved beyond doubt. More importantly, there is every reason to believe that the defendants were not given a fair trial.

The second case is more distressing. Dennis Dechaine was convicted of kidnapping, sexually assaulting and murdering 12-year-old Sarah Cherry in Maine. The way Coulter describes it, the case is airtight: Dechaine is another monster that the liberals are trying to save. But a quick search on the net will bring out the full facts – there were at least two other people who could be guilty. Dechaine’s supporters are asking only for a retrial, not an acquittal, with newly acquired DNA evidence: however, the state is adamant that it will not budge. It seems more of a case of government obstinacy than a conspiracy to free a convicted criminal.)

If Ann had her way, lynch mobs would replace trial courts. She is angry with the drawn-out trials, the pleas for leniency, and the mounting pressure to ban capital punishment. In her opinion, harsh punishment is the only deterrent for violent crime: for all her hatred of Sharia law, one feels that Saudi Arabia would be her ideal country.

(Ironically, for a person hell-bent on the death penalty, she considers herself “pro-life”, which means against abortion. It seems that the conservatives value human life only when in the foetal stage!)

Ms. Coulter singles out some individuals for special treatment – one of the main recipients of her venom is Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis. Dukakis is the ultra-liberal: a card-carrying member of the American Civil Liberties Union (something akin to a witches’ coven in Ann’s view), he advocated furloughs for even convicted first-degree murderers during his term in office. (Dukakis also declared August 23, 1977 as “Sacco and Vanzetti Memorial Day”, to atone for their “unfair trial and conviction” – sacrilege according to Ms. Coulter.)

Dukakis lost the 1988 election to George H. W. Bush, helped in a large part due to a racist campaign focussing on the convicted murderer Willie Horton Dukakis allowed to go on furlough, and who committed a vicious assault and rape during his time outside the prison. Ann Coulter however, glosses over the campaign itself, playing down the racist angle. According her, Dukakis lost because his liberal views, especially the ones regarding the treatment of criminals, were rejected by the public (even so, Ann’s racial bias is evident throughout: at one point, she calls him the “Greek midget”).

Ms. Coulter uses gutter language to criticise many prominent Democrats including Bill Clinton and Al Gore (her sexual innuendos about Clinton are nauseating), and fawns over Republicans, especially George W. Bush, who in her opinion is a sort of divine incarnation come to rescue America. Needless to say, she considers America’s invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq legitimate – it is “protecting America”. From the hindsight of 2014, when the USA is crawling back from the Middle East with its tail between its legs, her contention that America would have won the Vietnam War had not protests at home forced the government to abandon it seems laughably silly. She writes at a point of time when Republicans are still waiting for the imminent discovery of “Weapons of Mass Destruction” hoarded by Saddam! One could feel pity for her, if she were not so contemptuous of the mothers who have lost sons in Iraq.

According to Ann, all liberals are anti-science: they use the scientific method just to push their agenda on abortion, gay rights, global warming, etc. No wonder, as the conservatives view science as a tool just to help them exploit nature and other human beings. She favours the indiscriminate use of pesticides and the uncontrolled burning of fossil fuels: the protection of environment is anathema to her, as she views it from the biblical perspective as man’s natural bounty, to be consumed at will. The view that man is part of nature will sound like common sense to most normal human beings, but not to conservatives of Ms. Coulter’s ilk. To quote an example: “We believe in populating the Earth until there’s standing room only and then colonizing Mars; they believe humans are in the twilight of their existence.” – I rest my case.

But it is when it comes to the theory of evolution that Ann Coulter really outdoes herself. According to her, evolution is only a theory, having absolutely no basis in fact that the liberals are “forcing” on Americans, by making it mandatory in schools. Creation theory is much more solid in her opinion. Ann is clever enough not to argue for the Biblical creation myth as science: she knows that she will be laughed out of court. Her theory of choice Intelligent Design (ID) as propounded by the biologist Michael Behe, which posits a supernatural intelligence behind the development of various life-forms. Ms. Coulter says despite many scientists favouring this theory, liberals are using their hold on the scientific establishment and academia to keep it out of schools.

As a person who followed the ID debate with interest, I know most of what Ann Coulter says is contrary to facts. ID was thrown out of the science curriculum in schools because it was not science: it did not present any alternative to evolution; rather, it only argued that there was a divine will behind the process. As any college student knows, such a theory can never be refuted as it is not falsifiable. The Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District judgement has become famous not without reason.

This does not deter the creationists, however: they try to sneak ID into schools every now and then. The case of Roger DeHart is a classic example. This is what Ann Coulter has to say about it:

Roger DeHart used to teach biology at Burlington-Edison High School in Washington State, where he supplemented his curriculum with newspaper stories on the Chinese fossils from newspapers like the Boston Globe and the New York Times. He never mentioned God. The ACLU threatened to sue and the school removed DeHart from his class, replacing him with a recent teachers’ college graduate who had majored in physical education. Thus were the students of Burlington-Edison High School saved from having to hear scientific facts that might cause them to question their faith in the official state religion.

This is what Wikipedia says:

In 1997 it became known to the public that longtime biology teacher Roger DeHart had been teaching intelligent design in his curriculum through excerpts of Of Pandas and People and Inherit the Wind. This event brought forth national attention and controversy. From 1986 to 1997, Roger DeHart had subtly posed the intelligent design theory in the classroom. After parents of one of DeHart’s students notified the American Civil Liberties Union, the group threatened to sue the Burlington-Edison School District if DeHart didn’t stop teaching intelligent design. The event sparked large debate, and support groups for both sides were formed. DeHart was later reassigned to earth sciences, and in 2001 he resigned and took a teaching job at Marysville-Pilchuck High School. He taught there for one year before transferring to a Christian school in California.

See the subtle twisting of facts? Goebbels would have been envious! Of course, it is possible that Wikipedia is wrong or controlled by scheming liberals, but I find it much more believable than Ann Coulter.

Richard Sternberg is another example, who as an unpaid research associate at the Smithsonian, published a controversial article about Intelligent Design by Stephen C. Meyer in Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, a journal of which he was the editor. There was a doubt as to whether the article may not have undergone the normal peer-review procedure, so the magazine disowned it. Subsequent to this turn of events, Sternberg filed a complaint against the Smithsonian for harassment; a complaint which did not stick as he had no locus standi since he was unpaid. Sternberg’s impartial credentials are also doubtful since he is an open proponent of ID. However, in Ms. Coulter’s version of the narrative, he is a martyred scientist tortured by the big, bad liberal establishment.

It is also interesting to note that most of the “scientists” quoted in the book belong to the Discovery Institute, which

…is a non-profit public policy think tank based in Seattle, Washington, best known for its advocacy of the pseudoscience “intelligent design” (ID). Its “Teach the Controversy” campaign aims to teach creationist anti-evolution beliefs in United States public high school science courses alongside accepted scientific theories, positing a scientific controversy exists over these subjects.

-Wikipedia.

The Discovery Institute, by their own admission as set forth in their manifesto, follows the “Wedge Strategy”.

The wedge strategy is a political and social action plan authored by the Discovery Institute, the hub of the intelligent design movement. The strategy was put forth in a Discovery Institute manifesto known as the Wedge Document, which describes a broad social, political, and academic agenda whose ultimate goal is to defeat materialism, naturalism, evolution, and “reverse the stifling materialist world view and replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions.” The strategy also aims to affirm what it calls “God’s reality.” Its goal is to change American culture by shaping public policy to reflect conservative Christian, namely evangelical Protestant, values. The wedge metaphor is attributed to Phillip E. Johnson and depicts a metal wedge splitting a log to represent an aggressive public relations program to create an opening for the supernatural in the public’s understanding of science.

It is hardly surprising that scientists resist the Discovery Institute’s attempts to gate-crash the science party. It has nothing to do with science, and plenty to do with religion. It is religious dogma’s last-gasp attempt to enter the science classroom through the backdoor, after reason has pushed it out of the front door. Please note that this has nothing to do with religious freedom: it is the attempt to teach religious belief as science which is being resisted. Ironically, as Ms. Coulter bemoans all these true scientists being persecuted by liberals, she is resoundingly silent about the history of the persecution of scientists by the religious establishment.

***

To sum up: the book is nothing but a polemic. It will delight the conservatives and disgust the liberals. However, I see one danger: any neutral person reading the book might believe the “facts” presented by Ms. Coulter, because of the superficial semblance to truth they carry. I would advise such readers with “open” minds to read the other side of the debate also. To balance Ann, I suggest Michael Moore!

***

One last word, especially to Indian readers:

  • Ann Coulter considers liberals’ tolerance of Muslims as treasonous, as she considers most Muslims as terrorists and Islam as a religion of violence.
  • She considers any consideration of the environment as a potential roadblock in the path of development and progress.
  • She believes Democrats develop African-Americans as a vote bank; she believes that illegal immigration is encouraged by them to swell their vote banks.
  • She believes gays and lesbians have no legal rights.
  • She believes there should not be any separation of the Church and the State, and America should be a Christian nation.

…Any of the above ring a bell?

Yes, conservatives are the same everywhere. Their philosophy is one of hatred – hate the “Other”, because they hate you. Kill them, before they kill you. If you listen to them, sooner or later fear will get into your heart – then hatred. From that to murder is only a step. It happened in Germany in the last century.

Beware.

History through Objects

I visited the British Museum last year. Due to the shortage of time, I decided to take the one-hour tour suggested by the brochure: a visit to ten objects separated across various galleries, spanning historical space and time. Even though it was a good introduction, and gave me a taste of the museum as a whole, I was strangely dissatisfied: it was rather like cramming for an exam where you end up with a lot of bits of disjointed knowledge.

As we were leaving the museum, I asked my brother-in-law (who is settled in England) what book I should buy from the museum, and he suggested A History of the World through 100 Objects by Neil McGregor. He had listened to the original BBC radio series and liked it very much. Well, I have to thank him, because this book opened up a whole new vista on how we should view objects in a museum, and why my whirlwind tour left me disappointed.

By a very fortunate coincidence, the “Hundred Objects” mentioned in the book – well, most of them, as some cannot be removed from the museum – are doing a world tour, and they are currently in Abu Dhabi. So I was able to make a tour of the collection once again, and with the experience of reading the book in mind, I was able to go back in time and look at the precious items behind glass and imagine human beings like myself handling them. Also, I could think of the everyday objects of today being enshrined as history in the future, long after I’m gone.

It gives a sense of both mortality and immortality.

How does one look at objects in a museum? I must confess that I had not given much thought to this subject until I read A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor. When I enter a museum, I usually wander around just gawking at the display and reading the info on the more interesting ones. Or, if I know about something specific that the museum is famous for (like the Rosetta Stone in the British Museum or the Narmer Palette in the Cairo Museum), I make a beeline for the object and spend some time gazing in reverential awe at it. After I spend what I consider a sufficient amount of time in the building, I come out, smugly satisfied at having “done” the museum properly.

Neil MacGregor has taught me that I have been doing it all wrong. A museum is a history book (although a taciturn one) and once you have learnt the language of objects, a really fascinating one. Because unlike history written by humans, which can be true, embellished or outright lies, the history told by objects can never be false. But we have to tease it out of them: the effort has to be there on our part. Otherwise, any trip to the museum becomes just a sightseeing tour.

This book is the written from of a series of talks given by the author, Director of the British Museum, on the BBC. In the preface and introduction, the author talks about the many challenges: the main one (absent from the book!) being the medium of the radio, where visual imagery is impossible. But then, he realised that this is also one of the strengths-because the listener is forced to use his imagination, not only for the object, but also for the story behind it.

That is what one has to do while reading this book. Let the imagination roam free across space and time: as MacGregor describes the object, puts it in its historical context, and pulls in experts from various fields like art, literature, history etc. to give their opinions on it, the mind of the reader is engaged in a continuous dialogue with history. As we trace mankind’s origins from the Olduvai gorge in Africa to the interconnected modern world, the sense of linear time slowly disappears history starts looking like a geography of time.

The book is written in small chapters of 5-6 pages each, five chapters (one working week of five days) forming a common theme. This structure is easily accessible, even to the miniscule attention spans engendered by TV shows and the internet. The book can be read through in one sitting, or savoured as small tidbits over a long period. However one does it, it does not lose its efficacy.

MacGregor starts with one of the most popular objects in the museum – the mummy of Hornedjitef –as a curtain raiser. The remaining 99 chapters are largely chronological, spanning countries and continents over defined time bands the author has selected as historical themes. In the earlier chapters, these time bands are large, spanning millenniums: then they narrow down to centuries and finally to decades as history becomes more crowded and compressed. And we see mankind, which has been existing as isolated pockets of civilisation, slowly expand and get connected.

For me, the most fascinating thing about this book was not the stories told by the objects, but what they left unsaid: I found myself musing about the people, long dead and gone, who must have handled these objects, many a time little knowing they would they would be enshrined and viewed by millions. For example, look at the Kilwa pot sherds (Chapter 60) from Tanzania: the housewife or maid who handled them- what might have they been like? What were they thinking as they washed, dried and cooked in these utensils? What would have gone through their minds when they finally threw them away? And (most importantly) the ordinary objects we throw away now – will they carry a similar message in a museum in, say, the year 2500?

Or let’s look at objects from relatively unknown cultures, like the Moche Warrior Pot (Chapter 48) from Peru or the Taino Ritual Seat (Chapter 65) from the Dominican Republic. It is obvious that these are important objects, religiously and culturally; yet the culture remains a mystery to us. Once again, we can only recreate in our mind the ceremonies which might have been conducted with these objects holding positions of importance.

Moche Warrior Pot

Taino Ritual Seat

There are also “famous” objects in these pages, like the Rosetta Stone (Chapter 33), the Parthenon Sculptures (Chapter 27) and India’s own Indus Seal (Chapter 13). Even though these objects are known to any educated person, MacGregor puts them in a new context and new light so that one learns to look at them anew.

The Rosetta Stone

Indus Seal

In the Introduction the author says that this book could have been as well called A History of Objects Through Many Different Worlds. I agree. Each object sings a solitary tune: sometimes happy, sometimes sad, and sometimes even creepy. Put together, they create a beautiful symphony – the song of humanity, separated by time and space, over a million different worlds. This book opened my ears to that music.

Museum visits shall never be the same again!