Here's a critique on modern Islam for you to Wolfe down
The books that should be on your radar this week
The recent murderous spree at a Shi’a mosque outside Verulam in KwaZulu-Natal has raised concerns that Islamic State-inspired sectarian violence could possibly become a feature of the South African Muslim discourse.All of which provides a telling urgency to an important new study, The House of Islam: A Global History by Ed Husain (Bloomsbury). It is a powerful, critically-acclaimed book, and it pulls no punches when it comes to skewering Saudi extremism, or Sunni fundamentalism, which appears to regard Shi’as non-Muslim and whose blood is therefore permissible to be shed. Saudi Arabia, he maintains, has essentially killed Islam. Its narrow, hateful, literalist and intolerant ideology has eschewed older traditions of tolerance and pluralism and has poisoned the Muslim world.
It is difficult to argue this point when Husain, in a chapter on women, recounts the extraordinary incident in March 2002 when Saudi religious police — or more formally, the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice — allowed 15 teenaged girls to be burnt alive in a Mecca school that had caught fire. First, they wouldn’t allow them to leave the blazing building because they were not wearing Islamic dress. Then they prevented firefighters and rescue workers from entering the building because there were immodestly attired girls inside. Finally, parents were prevented from rescuing their children.Husain, a Brit, first made headlines in 2007 with his memoir, The Islamist: Why I Joined Radical Islam in Britain, What I Saw Inside and Why I Left (Penguin). His flirtation with youthful extremism now replaced by an advocacy for moderation and coexistence with other faiths, he laments not only the Muslim world’s lamentable record in education, healthcare and job creation, but also the Islamists’ utter lack of nuance in their thinking. And, of course, it wasn’t always like this; the Islamic world did once wholly embrace innovation, uncertainty and the thirst for new knowledge. And sex and alcohol.Husain’s book is intended for the general reader, but for those wanting a deeper understanding of the issues here may want to consider reading Professor Bernard Lewis, the historian who died last week aged 101. His 2002 collection of essays, What Went Wrong?: The Clash between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East, and 1993’s Islam and the West, are particularly recommended.
It was Lewis’s contention that the once-brilliant Islamic civilisation, which had led the world in science, art and literature for more than a thousand years, ended with the Ottomans’ failed siege of Vienna in 1683, a defeat that presaged three centuries of increased hostility against the West.
REREADING TOM WOLFEPerhaps it’s the hack in me, but I’ve always considered Tom Wolfe, who died last week, aged 88, a better reporter than novelist. I thoroughly enjoyed his fictional debut, The Bonfire of the Vanities, a modern morality tale of 1980s New York described by one critic as a “noisy satire on Manhattan’s Wall Street cash-bloated plutocracy”.Who could ever forget Wolfe’s description in the novel of a hangover? Journalist Peter Fallow wakes after an epic bender and his fragile skull feels like the membranous sac of an egg with the shell peeled away; if he so much as moves, “the yolk, the mercury, the poisoned mass, would shift and roll and rupture the sac, and his brains would fall out”. We’ve all been there.
I struggled however with the novels that followed, and would gladly pick up Bonfire again rather than attempt to finish 1998’s A Man in Full, Wolfe’s take on the new South, or 2004’s I Am Charlotte Simmons, which details a naive first-year student’s disillusioned experiences at a liberal arts college fuelled by sex and alcohol.The latter, embarrassingly, earned Wolfe the Literary Review’s Bad Sex award that year. His “winning entry” read in part:
“Hoyt began moving his lips as if he were trying to suck the ice cream off the top of a cone without using his teeth … Slither slither slither slither went the tongue, but the hand that was what she tried to concentrate on, the hand, since it has the entire terrain of her torso to explore and not just the otorhinolaryngological caverns …”
Wolfe’s journalism, on the other hand, was magnificent. An unabashed contrarian with a pitiless eye, he delighted in tearing apart the affectations of others in reportage characterised by meticulous accuracy, creative use of pop language, verbal pyrotechnics, a perfect ear for speech patterns and a punctuation style that appeared to have been produced by an electric typewriter on steroids.
One critic summed it up thus: “His prose style is normally shotgun baroque, sometimes edging over into machine-gun rococo, as in his article on Las Vegas which begins by repeating the word ‘hernia’ 57 times.”Here, for example, from his debut collection of magazine articles, 1966’s The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, is a description of an audience at an early Rolling Stones concert:
“Bangs manes bouffants beehive Beatle caps butter faces brush-on lashes decal eyes puffy sweaters French thrust bras flailing leather blue jeans stretch pants stretch jeans honey dew bottoms éclair shanks elf boots ballerinas Knight slippers, hundreds of them these flaming little buds, bobbing and screaming, rocketing around inside the Academy of Music Theater underneath that vast old moldering cherub dome up there — aren’t they super-marvelous?”
In June 1970, Wolfe penned a 20,000-word piece for New York magazine on a fund-raiser for the Black Panthers thrown by the conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein and his wife, actress Felicia Montealegre, in their Park Avenue penthouse — a cocktail party attended by the Bernsteins’ leftish, rich and mostly famous friends.“Do Panthers like little Roquefort cheese morsels rolled on crushed nuts this way, and asparagus tips in mayonnaise dabs, and meatballs petites au Coq Hardi, all of which are at the very moment being offered to them on gadrooned silver platters by maids in black uniforms with hand-ironed white aprons?” Wolfe wrote.
Asked to comment on the article, a Black Panthers minister told Time magazine: “You mean that dirty, blatant, lying, racist dog who wrote that fascist disgusting thing in New York magazine?” Wolfe couldn’t have been more pleased. The “fascist disgusting thing” in New York magazine was extraordinarily funny and one of the one of two lengthy pieces in Wolfe’s 1970 book, Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers.
Wolfe’s best book on the Sixties was 1968’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, a riotous cross-country jaunt through the counterculture fuelled by psychedelic drugs in the company of Neal Cassidy, hero of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, and Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Many critics regard it as the definitive book on the hippie era.This was a golden age for magazine writing, and Wolfe would argue, in an anthology he edited with EW Johnson, 1973’s The New Journalism, that journalism and nonfiction had “wiped out the novel as American literature’s main event”. That book, which contained pieces by Jimmy Breslin, Gay Talese, Hunter Thompson, Joan Didion, Michael Herr, Terry Southern and others, is an essential introduction to long-form reportage and feature writing.
His “straightest” non-fiction, if we may put it that way, was 1979’s The Right Stuff, an acclaimed account of Project Mercury, the first manned American space programme. Wolfe was clearly in awe of the bravery of these astronauts, and this was one of the few times that he didn’t satirise his subjects. The book was adapted into a film in 1983 with a cast that included Sam Shepard, Dennis Quaid and Ed Harris that went on to make the test pilot Chuck Yeager a cultural hero. It won the National Book Award. Thereafter came what Wolfe referred to as the “big challenge”, the novel.
Later this month, Vintage Classics will be reissuing The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby to coincide with the 50th anniversary of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Hopefully his other books will be reissued as well.
CRIME & THRILLERSThere’s an interesting and rather original premise to Araminta Hall’s Our Kind of Cruelty (Century), which has been showered with critical praise and touted as the “most addictive psychological thriller of 2018”.
Mike and Verity were lovers who got off playing a simple but rather dangerous game, which they called the Crave: Verity would flirt with whoever approached her in crowded, popular night clubs while Mike looked on as things got interesting. At a given signal, Mike would then muscle in on the action and scare off Verity’s would-be suitor. Now, however, the relationship is over, and Verity is marrying another man. Trouble is, Mike still thinks they’re playing the Crave. The more Verity informs him to the contrary, the more he’s convinced the game is still on.
Unusually, Hall has explained in an afterword that she had “wanted to change the perspective away from all the brilliant damaged women I’d read in the last few years and reveal a damaged man”. Which Mike, the product of a dreadful childhood, certainly is; as a stalker he is creepily unnerving — particularly as he is the first-person narrator here.
CRASH COURSEWant a happier life and to live in a more just and peaceful world? Get off Facebook and ditch Twitter. Immediately. This urgent advice comes courtesy of Silicon Valley guru and philosopher Jaron Lanier whose forthcoming polemic, Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now (Bodley Head), has been receiving reams of publicity and advance praise in the UK and North America in the past fortnight.
In an attempt to demonstrate the damage that social media has done to news, Lanier suggests we imagine a situation where the content of podcasts — which he claims are the only form of online media untouched by algorithms and other “manipulators” — were transcribed by bots, then scanned for the keywords du jour, then had only those bits spliced together before being read out by some mechanical voice. This, he argues, is what it’s like getting “news” from social media.
True, it is fashionable to bash the technology, but Lanier — a virtual reality pioneer who runs his own research laboratory at Microsoft — is a little more heavyweight than the armchair critics who emerged in the wake of recent data harvesting scandals. In his provocative 2010 book, You are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto (Penguin), he warned that the Internet was deadening personal interaction, stifling genuine inventiveness and even changing us as people. He has been on this for years, then.At the heart of his present concern is the coupling of our smartphones and advertising. “Everyone,” he writes, “who is on social media is getting individualised, continuously adjusted stimuli, without a break, so long as they use their smartphones. What might once have been called advertising must now be understood as continuous behaviour modification on a titanic scale.”
You may believe this is just a tech-savvy Madison Avenue going about its business, but Lanier sees this all as a weapon of mass social destruction. And, as he told the London Sunday Times Magazine, his conviction is based on insider knowledge.
“I actually know the algorithms,” he said. “I’m not an outsider peering in and criticising. I speak as a computer scientist, not as a social scientist or psychologist. From that perspective, I can see that time is running out. The world is changing rapidly under our command, so doing nothing is not an option.”
It wasn’t coincidental, he argued, that Twitter attracted extremists and bullies, or that Instagram made people sad, or that the rise of Facebook has caused social disorder. The most telling example of the latter happened in Myanmar, where the United Nations blamed Facebook of helping to spread the hate speech that contributed to the genocidal attacks on Rohingya Muslims. “Whenever Facebook arrives,” Lanier said, “we see democracy receding all around the world, whether it’s a rich country or a poor country. That’s a trend.”
An extended version of the interview Lanier gave to Danny Forstson, the Sunday Times tech correspondent, is available on the Danny in the Valley podcast. Here, in a nutshell and according to the newspaper, are Lanier’s 10 reasons we need to delete our social media accounts:
“You are losing your free will.”“Quitting social media is the most finely targeted way to resist the insanity of our times.”“Social media is turning you into an asshole.”“Social media is undermining truth.”“Social media is making what you say meaningless.”“Social media is destroying your capacity for empathy.”“Social media is making you unhappy.”“Social media doesn’t want you to have economic dignity.”“Social media is making politics impossible.”“Social media hates your soul.”
IT’S NO JOKE
Funny thing, the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction. Except maybe this year.
For the first time since the competition was launched in 2000, its judges have decided that there will be no winner in 2018.
“We just didn’t laugh,” Peter Florence, the director of the Hay literary festival, told The Times of London last week. “And it’s not that the world is not needing a great deal of mockery and subversion right now. This is the first time I can remember not having anything resembling a truly humorous, comedic response to the world in fiction.”
Florence has judged the prize every year along with publisher David Campbell and BBC broadcaster James Naughtie. Previous winners have included Howard Jacobson, Jonathan Coe, Ian McEwan, Helen Fielding, Marina Lewycka and Terry Pratchett.Despite no winner this year, Campbell felt that Britain had not yet lost its sense of humour. “We remain an extraordinarily funny nation,” he told the newspaper. While there were a lot of “very good” books, he added, they had produced only wry smiles among the judging panel.
Which is a pity. The prize is rather special: the winning author receives a jeroboam of champagne, all 52 PG Wodehouse books published by Everyman and the honour of having a rare breed Gloucestershire Old Spots piglet named after his or her novel.
FURTHER FUNNIESMore prize stuff. Writing in the latest edition of The Spectator, Wilbur Smith, whose first memoir, On Leopard Rock: A Life of Adventures (Zaffre), was released last week, informs his readers of the decision to award Nadine Gordimer the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991 and how, perhaps, the honour should have gone to him instead. Sort of.
“I was involved in the periphery of the award,” he writes, “after a fan, [engineer and columnist] Andrew Kenny, wrote to a Johannesburg newspaper, The Star, asking why I hadn’t been considered by the Swedish committee. I had never met Kenny before, but his opinion seemed to strike a chord with a great many readers, and soon letters to the editor flooded in, reflecting both sides of the debate.
“Kenny’s argument was that, compared with the number of people who read Nobel laureates like Gordimer, my novels — and others like them — had an immense reach, one that could influence many more people and contribute to their understanding of the modern world. Far from being pure escapist fun, Kenny argued, books like mine were the only ones that could hope to affect the way we lived our lives.”
It’s odd, perhaps, that Smith should regard Kenny as a fan, for in the very next sentence, he writes: “Like many critics before, Kenny didn’t hold back on what he thought were my shortcomings — my books, he said, were unsubtle, my dialogue stilted, my people caricatures; my stories were filled with unbelievable sex and far-too-believable violence.”However, Kenny did helpfully suggest that if he had to recommend a book that would explain South African politics to a foreigner he’d choose Smith’s 1987 novel, Rage.
Smith further amused The Spectator’s readers by claiming he was a person of interest to the spooks back in the bad old days; this despite the fact that he “wasn’t able to stand up in public” and tell the world of the iniquities of apartheid.
“I already had the Bureau of State Security (Boss) watching me constantly,” he writes. “I had a tap on my phone for years. Once I was walking down Muizenberg beach in Cape Town, some time after apartheid ended, and a chap came up to me. ‘I know you,’ he said in an Afrikaans accent. ‘Have we met?’ I asked. ‘Ach, no, we haven’t met,’ he said, ‘but I worked for Boss and for a year I had to sit and listen to you on the telephone. Old Wilbur, you boring!’ I said to him: ‘Well whatever you do, please don’t tell my readers.’”
Smith, coincidentally, has his own literary competition. The shortlist for the third annual Wilbur Smith Adventure Writing Prize for best published novel was announced last week. The six who made the cut: Nucleus (Bonnier Zaffre) by Rory Clements; Sugar Money (Faber & Faber) by Jane Harris; No Good Brother (Borough Press) by Tyler Keevil; A Necessary Evil (Vintage) by Abir Mukherjee; Looking for Evelyn (Saraband) by Maggie Ritchie; and Pendragon (Transworld) by James Wilde.
The winner of the £15,000 prize will be announced in London in September.
THE BOTTOM LINE
“We thought it was idiot-proof.” — Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy by Serhii Plokhy (Allen Lane)