Monday, February 24, 2014

Selfishness Shouldn't Be A 4-Letter Word

Believe it or not, you're selfish. (Or as the kids today might tweet, "bro ur selfish af.")

So am I.

I mention our selfishnesses because I believe the word "selfish" is being unfairly represented in modern American usage, and I'd like a moment of your time to see if I can get you to agree with me on a redefinition that might give us all a more accurate phraseology for discussions of The Human Condition.

First, I need you to understand that selfishness is important. That is not my opinion, but rather a fact, for if you were not in some way selfish, you would do absolutely anything anyone ever asked of you (or nothing at all whatsoever). (And by the way, if you're female and you do absolutely anything anyone ever asks of you, hit me up right now, because that means you're a no-cost whore, and I want to try some crazy shit.)

Even Catholic nuns are selfish in that they themselves wish to give their lives to the church's service, which means there's some sort of self in there that is church-inclined and would not automatically submit to an invitation into my sexual crucible. Mother Teresa, for instance, was selfish in that she felt that being around the dying made her feel closer to God.

Do you think she would have kept doing it if it made her feel bored and spiritually disconnected, just because some missionary had told her to? And even if so, should we be championing and sanctifying the bored and spiritually disconnected? The miserable? That's the right direction?

Like it or not, her actions were based on a form of selfishness.

The key to me seems to be somehow finding a selfishness where you are capable of invigorating self-navigation but where you don't veer wildly into becoming a greedy pirate asshole bastard.

Much-loved/much-hated philosopho-author Ayn Rand's writings introduced a concept to me that I've been turning over ever since: Rational vs. Irrational Selfishness.

I believe the difference between the two concepts accounts for why some people are wonderful and some people are loathsome. 

An easy way of explaining the difference is like so: You are playing basketball, and there are five seconds left on the game clock. Your team is losing by one point, and the ball is passed to you, but you are being covered by two players on defense, which means one of your teammates has a wide-open shot. The irrationally selfish person forces a bad shot in the hopes of claiming both the victory and a great proportion of the credit for the victory, and is willing to risk a low-percentage shot and his own team losing in that pursuit, whereas the rationally selfish player zings a pass over to the open teammate, for the much more likely, and much easier, but less personally glorifying, victory.

Please understand, however, that there is a story about basketball legend Larry Bird, where he took such a shot himself, with permission from his teammates, based on this paraphrased assertion and assurance: "There's nobody else in this gym who practiced taking 200 of these shots every day this summer."

I believe that, too, stands for rational, rather than irrational, selfishness.

In a team sport, the rational goal is the team's victory, whereas the irrational goal is personal glory. Larry Bird made the shot and received both—team victory and personal glory—but only because he was rationally selfish enough to practice harder than everyone else in the league.

Or maybe you could look at it this way: The aforementioned Ayn Rand—who wrote a book called The Virtue of Selfishness, to show you just how much she believed in this stuff—said in an interview once that she would rather herself die than her beloved husband, because she loved her husband more than herself. In that way, it is a selfish choice, even though it ends in literal selflessness.

Anyway, that's pretty much the gist of it. When I say someone is a good dude, it's because he takes care of his own shit and has an empathy for the existential plight of his other human teammates, whereas when I say someone is a fuckin' dick, it's because he's irrationally selfish enough to disregard accountability and empathy in a hollow, lifelong search for fleeting narcissistic reassurance. And a similar split, with different terms, can be found with women.

The problem is that life is both an individual and a team sport. You pilot a unique self, but you are also a member of the family of humanity. You are the most important person in the world to yourself, but everyone else is in the same position.

Life is a walk on a tightrope—it's very easy to fall on either side, into slavish selflessness or reprehensible selfishness. (As St. Augustine said, "Complete abstinence is easier than perfect moderation.") Thus, the challenge is in finding a balance that can bring you (and me) closer to the rationally selfish goal of a better life for the self and a better world for all.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Book Review: Kafka on the Shore

Kafka on the Shore

Dear Reader,

I received your breathless request, so here are my extended thoughts on author Haruki Murakami's 2002 novel Kafka on the Shore

Right up front I feel it's important that I specifically mention that I've only read this book once, which I bring up because I have a friend who once said something wise: "I try to never review a book until I've read it twice." And to that end I cite the fact that at one point in Vladimir Nabokov's lectures on literature the brilliant author and prose snob talks about the kinds of deep minds that haven't read a great number of books, but have instead read a few books a great number of times. And so like my friend and one of my heroes, I agree that more readings of this book would create a more comprehensive review here, so I wanted to make it clear that this review is based on a single hermeneutic lap around the track, for in my life right now I'm more interested in the next text than the last, and unfortunately my current towering book-reading queue is much too Babel-ish to do any backtracking now, especially for an unpaid review on my blog

You see, I've literally never written a book review before, and yet despite my having gone through 32 years of life with an intact reviewer's hymen, I seem to have found myself having finally been successfully seduced and penetrated, by this novel. 

I believe that this has happened—that I have finally caved into a critic's position—for several reasons, the main one being that I honestly very rarely have more to say about a book than, "Hmm."

Or, "I am jealously furious about how good that was."

Or, "Well, there you go—that was fun."

Which limited responses are weird to me because I really do love reading and thinking.

(Maybe I've never reviewed a book because I simply have a dull mind is a thought I'd rather not dwell on.)

This time, and for several reasons that I will get into, I have found myself filling with something to actually say about a book—I have been impregnated with critical thought! But you know what? Let's stop worrying about the reasons as much as just getting to it.

So let me start by saying that I zipped right through this book—and in my opinion any story that I can eagerly zip through at least deserves a bronze star. I've read "easy" books that were impossible for me to read because the author's writing didn't find any logical credibility or aesthetic flow in my mind, but here, and standing as the opposite of what I just described, Mr. Murakami's novel Kafka on the Shore easily pulled off both.

In my page-ripping zip I found the prose in the book—the aesthetic and cognitive literary brainflow—to be as smooth and forceful as the male/female Oshima's graceful navigation of the dreamy highways in author Murakami's/protagonist Kafka Tamura's Japan. The words glided on by, and while I don't know Japanese, I assume that this was a very well done translation, indeed, because in my mind the writing was able to create the wonderful reading-sensation of what it must be like for a bird to be held in flight without the effort of flapping—rising and coasting on the big breezes alone.

Good prose.

But all right, enough about that, because I've come across plenty of pretty prose that was nothing more than a hot red thong on a big-testicled old donkey, so clearly prose ain't enough to silver- or gold-satisfy this unabashed bibliophile: WHAT OF THE ACTUAL STORY?

Aptly named, the novel's story is thoroughly Kafkaesque—wherein a mysteriously disabled old man can speak intelligently with cats; a boy (taking on the pseudonym Kafka Tamura) follows some bizarre and at times incestuous impulses that he can't exactly define; seemingly immortal spirits communicate with the living by taking on the forms of pop-culture icons, etc.—and was therefore right up my otherwise-easily-bored alley.

I've written enough stories in my life to know that Mystery and True Crime are dependable genres for creating briskly enjoyable reads, because a narrated mystery is a delicious carrot dangled in front of the reading mind: What's the answer? I must follow this story and find the solution. There must be justice and closure!

I'm convinced that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was such a profitable success because at its heart it was a sexual, murderous, Nazi-related mystery that promised to be solved and resolved by the book's end (as it turned out, only to some extent—I didn't bother reading the others). In my opinion the prose in TGWTDT, or at least the English translation I read, was some pretty stupid shit that I found disappointing given the book's vast $$$$$$$$$. (But perhaps, to get cynical as a hell for a moment, perhaps pretty stupid shit is to be the new standard in times filled with pretty stupid shit.)

This book is much better than that. Kafka on the Shore ends up promising the resolution of several curious, deliciously dangled, Kafkaesque mysteries, and as a lover of mysteries and koans I followed the narrative through to its conclusion with such speed it was like I was driving a nice car through a bad neighborhood.

And maybe that last image is particularly fitting, because here come my complaints about this book. I am an avid fan of the now dead, formerly despairing Franz Kafka's writings. I have devoured the lion's share of his mind-bending oeuvre, and while I can see the wonderful similarities between FK's and Murakami's writings in this book, they are also very different. 

Franz Kafka didn't dangle a terrible number of carrots, or you might also say he was absolutely all carrots everywhere. What I mean is that reading Kafka, to me, is like seeing a sculptor painstakingly shape out some sort of abstract form that, the more you look at it, the more you can see that this shape is simply unlike anything else you've ever seen before. You don't know what to call it—other than, of course, Kafkaesque—but you do know that some part of  your mind has been expanded.

For me, most commercially viable stories are a series of shapes—like squares and triangles and circles, etc.—that must be moved around and placed into their proper slots in order for the story to be successfully told—the game won—by book's/movie's/story's end. But with Franz Kafka, I see the author set down a shape for which there simply is no ready-made slot, and instead of fitting into anything, the beautiful fucker just sits there on the game board, with no home, which might normally disappoint a player/reader/viewer/author, but with Kafka, to me, it almost feels like he's gone beyond the game.

Next-leveled that shit.

But not everyone can do that. In fact, very few people can even come close to pulling it off without looking like smelly amateurs—screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and filmmaker David Lynch come to mind as succeeding where many talentless, lazy-minded, irrationally selfish artists have failed.

With Kafka on the Shore, though, I instead ended up getting the impression that Murakami simply played the same game most commercially viable authors play (because, let's remember, Franz Kafka barely got paid shit for his writings during his life, and even today it's not like all the book clubs and publishers and teenage girls are swooning over poor ol' Franz). The difference between this book and the standard bestseller sort is that Murakami used unusual shapes instead of the standard. A somehow Kafka-ish triangle. A spheroid rather than a circle. A resolution that is itself a riddle. 

But they all ended up having a slot on the game board, where they fit enough to call it closure when I finally set the book down.

To me, KOTS ultimately ended up feeling like a mysterious dream that was edited and crafted to be commercially viable. 

And perhaps I shouldn't begrudge what Murkami has done in combining the commercially-viable-but-standard-Mystery game with an introduction of "the bestseller reader" to Franz Kafka and his literature snob–celebrated uniqueness. It's just that the more I've thought about it, the more I feel like there is a connection between this book and the Charlie Kaufman screenplay Adaptation. I believe Kaufman ended up requiring an adaptation for his very weird screenplay, and he pulled it off by having what turns out to be a fairly conventional ending be written by his nonexistent brother Donald, who was always more interested in commercial viability. Charlie/Donald Kaufman had to add that adventurous, car-chase ending or the beautiful weirdness found in that screenplay otherwise wouldn't have survived. And in a way it's the same with Kafka on the Shore: Mr. Murakami crafted some Kafka-shaped shapes and slots, and he created enough of a resolution for people not to dump on the book when it ended, with a healthy remainder of curiosities to consider, but which left me with an odd, partially betrayed feeling, because . . .

Franz Kafka rarely if ever produced any tyings-uppings like there are in this novel—and, when he did, it was usually in a fleeting way, at the end of an interminably long paragraph, where the tying-upping would be something so suddenly profound it felt like I'd been kicked in the chest. Whereas in KOTS, something happens with the old man at the end where nothing might've happened with the old man if it were Kafka (the author, not the character) at the narrative wheel. In fact I feel dirty for even momentarily trying to channel what FK might've done (besides not finishing the manuscript—that's the one thing we know for sure), but what I'm trying to get at is that I didn't feel like I was kicked in the chest when all the game pieces were finally in their appropriate slots. 

So there, for whatever it amounts to, is my disappointment in this book. But let's not forget that my sweet loverboy Franz Kafka died an unheralded, miserable, tubercular fuck, whereas author Haruki Murakami seems to be enjoying quite a successful ($$$$$$$$$) life, so maybe I'm doing a disservice to HM's decision-making. 

And you know what? It's dawning on me that perhaps my disappointments with this book rest more within myself than the text itself, for indeed this book is on the shores of Kafka—the periphery, the fringes—whereas I'm a person who's more interested in Kafka's mainland.

But trust me, it's been my experience that most people prefer the shores of anything, where it's relatively safe because there's plenty to live on. Most people like it real—I just happen to like it real and weird.

Which demographic breakdowns make sense, because who, after all, besides masochists and martyrs, likes to be kicked in the chest?

Anyway, there's no point in dragging this all out, so here's my attempt at a final, condensed review: In my mind books either make the podium or not, and this one made the podium. I place a silver star upon this novel, and I thank the author for the pleasure of the read and the good work he has done towards keeping things unusual in a time when most books are so insipidly similar that I skulk past them sadly, occasionally shuddering, with a snobbish pinch to my nose, casting accusatory glances, as if to say, "YOU are why so many people don't like reading anymore!"

But anyway, your letter to me said that you have been casting about for an untraditional-yet-smooth read to ease you back into possibly giving a shit about reading again, and so bingo-bango: I hand you this novel.

Be well,


Daniel Donatelli is the author of four books, including The Great Anti-American Novel, and is currently speaking in third-person on his blog.