Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Social Animal

BROOKS, DAVID. The Social Animal. New York: Random House, 2011. ISBN: 978-1-4000-6760-2. Pp. 424. $27.00.

On a personal note, I learned from reading David Brooks's The Social Animal that I am living with some kind of psychopath. Earlier this afternoon, during a last-minute reading frenzy to finish the book, I read this paragraph: "Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia provides example after example of this sort of instant moral intuition in action. Imagine a man who buys a chicken from the grocery store, manages to bring himself to orgasm by penetrating it, then cooks and eats the chicken. Imagine eating your dead pet dog. Imagine cleaning your toilet with your nation's flag. Imagine a brother and sister who are on a trip. One night they decide to have protected sex with each other. They enjoy it but decide never to do it again...most people have strong intuitive (and negative) reactions to these scenarios". I read each example with the "natural" reaction of disgust. Except for the one about using a flag to clean my toilet. I honestly see no problem with that. So I said to Koch, "Can you believe this guy compares eating your dead pet dog to cleaning your toilet with the American flag?" To which Koch replied, in earnest, "Yeah! That's preposterous! I don't see anything wrong with eating my dead pet dog." To which I shrieked, "What the hell is wrong with you?" Then I listed the other examples (sex with chicken, incest). To which Koch, who doesn't have a sister, said, "Well, if the brother and sister are into each other and rape isn't involved, what's the big deal?" At which point I think I must have lost consciousness. When I awoke, Koch had prepared a delicious meal of some exotic meat. On an unrelated note, I haven't seen my cat Claudius since this morning...

David Brooks's new book is hard to describe. He claims to have borrowed Jean-Jacques Rousseau's method for writing his work Emile, which employed hypothetical characters in a manual on education. I haven't read Emile, so I don't know to what lengths Brooks's piece emulates this earlier work, but I can't imagine The Social Animal enduring quite as long as its model. Perhaps because this isn't an out-and-out novel, The Social Animal will become dated almost immediately, given that the entire thing is based in the immediate, early twenty-first century present, even as the narrative spans several generations. This is probably a useful trope in describing all the current social stimuli that play a part in our lives, but its heavy reliance on research (psychological, economic, social) means that this piece would potentially need to be updated every few years or so to remain current.

Which isn't to say that this isn't a fascinating study on (strictly American) social trends. Brooks covers most bases, including having one of his two lead characters become an aide to a presidential candidate (and eventual president) in order to explain voter trends. My main problem is that Harold and Erica, the two main players, are only developed to a certain point. Once they reach college and graduate school, Brooks no longer treats them as people. His keenest interest in his subjects endures from the mapping of their disparate childhoods to young adulthood. Then he loses interest, moving away from them as players, and leaning more and more heavily on the hundreds of studies cited in this book. Fortunately, Brooks is incredibly good at recapitulating research, and while Harold and Erica become less dynamic, the author deftly manages to compensate this one deflation by the zest he uses in describing research studies. Such as, did you know that if you remind an Asian American woman that she is Asian American, she will do better on a math test? But if you remind her that she is a woman she will do worse? Or that Southern states are twice as likely to have the word "gun" in the name of a town, and that Northern states are twice as likely to have the word "joy"? Similarly, Southern men experience an aggressive hormonal surge when you bump into them in the street. Northern men don't.

The problem that eventually arises from this book is the amount of success both Harold and Erica experience. Erica comes from an unstable background: Hers are a bipolar Asian mother and an inconsistently present Mexican father, neither of whom are terribly good at holding down a job. Erica's childhood housing and economic status vacillates between lower-middle-class and poverty, but she manages to overcome these setbacks and eventually marries Harold, a white, upper-middle-class male, and becomes the organizer of a successful presidential campaign that leads to tenure in the White House. Before her success, Brooks spends an acceptable amount of time on the failure of her parents, but once Erica goes off to college, failure is never really touched upon again. Although the consulting company Erica founded eventually went under, she got a job as a higher-up at a cable company, eventually becoming CEO. According to Brooks, all failures are just stepping stones on the road to success. Somehow this seems a little unrealistic, given that earlier on in the book, the author was contemplating the causes and effects of poverty in the United States. People fail. Just not as much in Brooks's hypothetical world. As he says in the introduction: "This is the happiest story you've ever read." Not so, though it is one of the most optimistic.

1 comment:

  1. Sorry! I can't keep up with the blog as much as I want to, on account of limited internet time. But now you'll have at least one hit from inside Russia, and I'll try to catch up soon.