Hawking Up Hairballs

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

A Fraction of the Whole

I'm reading the novel A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz. It's a nutty, comedy of epic proportions about the odd Martin Dean, and his equally odd son, Jasper. I'm only about halfway through it but so far I'd say that it's a good, but not great, novel. Anyway, at one point, Jasper is talking about the way his father had educated him, mainly with the works of history's dissident intellectuals. Here's the passage.

In this way I was not self-educated so much as I was force-fed, and in truth I liked them all well enough. The Greeks, for example, had fine ideas about how to run a society that are still valid today, especially if you think slavery is wonderful. As for the rest of them, all unquestionable geniuses, I have to admit that their enthusiasm for and celebration of one kind of human being (themselves) and their fear and revulsion of the other kind (everyone else) grated on my nerves. It's not just that they petitioned for the halting of universal education lest it "ruin thinking", or that they did everything they could to make their art unintelligible to most people, but they always said unfriendly things like "Three cheers for the inventors of poison gas!" (D.H. Lawrence) and "If we desire a certain type of civilization and culture, we must exterminate the sort of people who do not fit into it" (G.B. Shaw) and "Sooner or later we must limit the families of the unintelligent classes" (Yeats) and "The great majority of men have no right to existence, but are a misfortune to higher men" (Nietzsche).

That passage really struck a chord with me. Those of us who are intellectuals do tend to hold those who are not like us in contempt. We shake our heads at the very idea that someone would prefer to watch American Idol instead of reading a good book, and we lament the fact that someone could be intimate with NFL statistics while living in utter and chosen ignorance of the facts about global warming or the crashing economy. This sense of superiority on our part has hurt too. The masses know what we think of them, and the right is quick to exploit it. One of the ways that they attack various progressive and scientific positions, like those on abortion and stem-cell research, is by smearing their proponents as liberal elites. It works too, as eight years of George Bush has shown.

As for A Fraction of the Whole, I find it hard to judge these sprawling works that go running off in all directions. Their architecture seems to be like that of a growing city. You've got a downtown business district springing up here, a Chinatown there, a shanty town slum on the margins, and a Little Italy where you least expect it. There's no coherent structure and, unless the writing is brilliant, as it is in Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, such works don't really grab me. I prefer works with an architecture like a well-constructed building. But that's just me. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that I got a degree in mathematics. I like a novel where one scene seemingly proceeds from the one that preceded it with the inevitability of a mathematical proof.


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