When men are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other.
~ Eric Hoffer, The Passionate State of Mind
Should we find this dismaying? Our habits of imitation may be explained on the one hand by the uniformity of human desires and, on the other, by the diversity of human interests. Nature in each of us wants the same things. Food, shelter, sex, influence, books; the catalog isn’t long. And no matter how far afield our curiosity moves us (even so far as the gut flora of dust mites), we can be sure that someone else has already cut a path. We inevitably find company, even when we don’t want it.
“I’ve got a couple skulls down in the crypt,” he said, “come and see those. Oh, do come and see the skulls! You are a young man out for a holiday, and you want to enjoy yourself. Come and see the skulls!”
~ Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat
My idea of a good time generally does not involve skull viewing, but perhaps that’s only because the opportunity so rarely presents itself. And who wouldn’t, deep down, like a human skull for his work desk, where he can sit alas-Yoricking to his heart’s content rather than slave away at that damned presentation?
The secret, he said, was to hold a ten-pound weight behind your back to keep from falling forward.
Oscar Mathisen, Norwegian Skater, 1915-1920; Library of Congress.
Station Eleven, Emily St John Mandel
This is a very fashionable book. For example, it deals with a worldwide apocalypse (viral in this case) and its aftermath, which is nothing if not fashionable these days. It also has a character list of exemplary diversity, such as no single person’s circle of acquaintance is likely to reflect. These are authorial choices with more than a hint of market-consciousness to them. Being fashionable, however, does not prevent a book from also being good. Is Station Eleven a good book? It’s not a bad book. It’s by no means a great one. The prose (which smells suspiciously of MFA programs and writers’ workshops) is inoffensive if rarely interesting. Mandel creates suspense and doles out her horrors with some skill. Her characters, however, I found generally uncompelling. The figure of the “prophet” is especially weak. The book touches – but barely touches – on several interesting questions about the nature and value of art in an age of brutal necessity, and on the philosophical issues involved in the annihilation of 99% of the world’s population. Published reviews of Station Eleven will tell you that Mandel’s apocalypse is more reflective than those we’re used to nowadays. I’m afraid I disagree. For all its fireworks and brutality, The Walking Dead has more depth to it. In this reader’s opinion, if you want an atypical apocalypse novel that deals thoughtfully with the questions it raises, open a copy of Canticle for Liebowitz or, even better, Watership Down.
I reflect on my failed attempts to become a smoker over at The Dabbler today.