BOOKS: Sep 05. AU Edition

This month: sickos, school shooters, and English-language abusers – plus a great sea tale
books_Mr  Muo's travelling couch.jpgMR MUO’S TRAVELLING COUCH
By Dai Sijie
Chatto & Windus, $39.95, ISBN: 0 7011 7739 X
Dai Sijie’s first novel, Balzac and the Little Chinese Mistress, was a delightfully written fable which showed how appealing forbidden Western literature (Balzac, Tolstoy, Dickens) could be to people living in an oppressive regime. Sijie’s second novel, also exquisitely written, similarly deploys the encounter of a strand of Western thought with Chinese culture, but this time Western psychology – i.e. psychoanalysis – is depicted to satiric and ironic effect. Mr Muo is a French-educated travelling Freudian psychoanalyst but his dream interpretations are considered by his listeners to be either fortune telling or greeted with howls of laughter. Freud and psychoanalysis are easy targets to mock (Nabokov never spared the ‘Viennese witchdoctor’) and at times I found myself chuckling along with the mockers and knockers.
The plot also oozes satiric mockery towards Chinese society and government. For Mr Muo’s real quest in China is not to spread the ideas of Freud but to find a virgin with which to bribe a corrupt judge to free his first love who has been imprisoned for selling articles to the West that describe scenes of Chinese torture. Believe it or not, Muo has trouble finding a virgin – the villages are filled with old women and young girls – the eligible young women having moved into the cities. In other words, the plot is fanciful and Mr Muo is something of a Chinese Quixote tilting at windmills.
Dai Sijie, let me note, writes safely in Paris and in French. I am reasonably confident this book will not be on sale in China, a land of widespread corruption and censorship, anytime soon. The richly elegant style and the multiple layers of irony (Mr Muo is himself a virgin) make this very much a writer’s book. But it also clearly has a political message – albeit one couched in an ironic fable of folly.
Despite its excellence of style, some of the monologues seem inordinately long and discursive though I suspect Chinese readers (hopefully it will find some) may locate more resonance in them than an Occidental one. Also the basic plot engine is left unsatisfiedly unresolved (a Kafkaesque touch, perhaps) or yet another irony? Readers must decide.

books_I choose to live.jpgI CHOOSE TO LIVE
By Sabine Dardenne
Virago Press, $29.95, ISBN: 1 84408 2105
In recent times few crimes have been more shocking than those perpetuated by Mark Dutroux, the Belgian paedophile who kidnapped, raped and murdered several girls, two as young as eight.
Sabine Dardenne, a slightly built pre-pubescent twelve-year-old, who by her own description looked about ten, was cycling home from school one day in May 1996 when a van pulled alongside her. She was quickly abducted then chained up naked in a small dirty dungeon-like room where she became prey to Dutroux’s psychopathic lust.
As well as being her physical tormentor, Dutroux played havoc with her fears. He kept referring to a mysterious boss, who, if he was let loose on the hapless Sabine, would torture and murder her. By contrast, Dutroux’s treatment was self portrayed as ‘kind’ – he even tried to portray himself as her saviour and brainwash her that her parents had not paid the ransom asked for her life.
Being young and in fear of her life, Dardenne believed him. His physical power over her was absolute yet he never broke her spirit.
Eventually, desperate with loneliness and thinking she might spend the rest of her life chained up in that dismal room, she asked if she could have a friend. When another girl barely two years older than herself turned up, drugged and chained, she was beside herself with guilt. But this is one contemporary horror that has something of a happy ending for Dutroux was caught and told the police about the two trapped girls. The two eight year olds were not so lucky – they starved to death behind that massive concrete door that secured the makeshift prison.
Dardenne tells her own story in simple direct prose – and it is all the more moving for that simplicity. If there is any reader seeking titillation from these pages they will get absolutely none: there are no descriptions whatsoever of the sexual humiliations Dutroux inflicted on the two girls.
At the time the story broke, speculation was rife about a vast underground network of paedophiles in Belgium. Dardenne always believed that Dutroux was the main protagonist (though he had a couple of accomplices including, incredibly, his wife). Subsequent information indicates that Dutroux did not have a secret boss and his attempt to make out he was a humble cog in a large network, who procured for others, was an attempt to lessen his own guilt.
That the two girls survived was a small miracle; that Dardenne’s resolute strength of character carried her through to a normal adult life and a normal relationship without any help from psychiatrists is perhaps the biggest miracle of all. Her body may been violated, her mind temporarily downtrodden, but her soul stayed pure and strong.

books_rampage.jpgRAMPAGE: The Social Roots of School Shootings
By Katherine S. Newman, Cybelle Fox, David J. Harding, Jal Mehta, and Wendy Roth
Basic Books, $32, ISBN: 0 465 05104 9
I recently read a book called We Need to Talk About Kevin, by Lionel Shriver, a fictional work which made it plain that Kevin, a fifteen-year-old murderer, was basically an evil kid and his mother’s failings as a parent could not be blamed for his horrible deeds – even though she tortured herself psychologically with the possibility. In Kevin, the psychological, let alone the social, causes of youthful carnage were not presented as the explanation for psychopathic behaviour. Rampage examines psychological factors but seeks to place more emphasis on overlooked sociological factors.
School killers, as the name suggests, perform their mass murders at school. They are disturbingly young and getting younger – Andrew Golden was just eleven when he teamed up with 13-year Mitchell Johnson to shoot dead five people and injure a further ten at his school in Arkansas. Although like most mature men I tell myself I am not easily shocked, an eleven-year-old shooting dead or wounding several people does appal. At that tender age, I was doing projects on tea or sugar, and had never been exposed to a gun more powerful than an air pistol.
Quite often, there aren’t many clues to forewarn. Johnson had been rejected by a girlfriend and Golden was cruel to cats. Hardly sufficient reason or motivation to shoot fifteen people. They, like several such killers, came from a small town. The multiple contributors have tried to find a commonality among school killers by a series of graphs that list factors such as age, ethnicity, urbanity and aspects of social marginalisation such as being a loner, being teased or bullied, or indeed even just feeling marginalised. They also looked at mental illness or family problems, disciplinary history, violent writings, trouble with the law, issued threats, mental illness, suicidality, and depression. Finally, they considered access to guns. Summing up their findings, the authors says that there is not enough commonality to compose a reliable or predictable profile. Depressing news, isn’t it?
My gut instinct is that the sociological explanations offered (structural secrecy, institutional memory loss, loosely-coupled systems, counsellors having too many roles to fill) are weaker and more abstract than the psychological ones. Small towns and being loners seem to figure prominently but also, alas, there are plenty of school killers who had friends and even mentioned their intentions to create havoc – which were of course often not taken seriously.
The authors seem to contradict themselves on pages 268-269 when they write ‘… and they weren’t all bullies or teased either’ which is followed three lines later by the statement, ‘And nearly all of them were bullied or teased.’ So which is it? Were they bullied or not? The table on pages 312-313 shows each of the shooters were either bullied or that there was ‘no evidence’. I know it’s not strictly kosher to say so, but if every known case shows bullying, isn’t it reasonable to suppose that a healthy percentage of the remaining teenagers were also bullied? Not that being bullied is sufficient cause for wholesale murder.
The chapter on prevention offers some cautious measures: keeping better records, more school resource officers, challenging notions of masculinity, zero tolerance policy of disciplinary breaches (how is this ever possible?), encouraging kids to report threats. All very well and good. But I am left with the lingering feeling that this is a study from the inside of American society and to an outsider three factors which, though they are in part included in the book, have a peculiarly American flavour – (a) the wide ownership, obsession and ready access to guns; (b) the status anxiety which makes Americans (especially socially marginalised ones) willing to do anything to achieve fame; (c) a society which accepts adolescence as a zone of complete freedom and independence. America, one could say, is paying a high price for its freedoms.

books_passage.jpgPASSAGE TO TORRES STRAIT: Four Centuries in the Wake of Great Navigators, Mutineers, Castaways and Beachcombers
By Miles Hordern
John Murray, $39.95, ISBN: 0 7195 6496 4
This is a book to stir the salt in the blood of even the most landbound reader. Isn’t that what shipping clerks and ‘customer sales representatives’ (receptionists, bank clerks, office workers) secretly yearn for – to sail off on a blue ocean and anchor in remote and gorgeous lagoons there to parley with beautiful bronze-skinned inhabitants? In days gone by, your best security measure to obtain a benign reception by the locals was to be alone – a lone survivor is no threat – and not be part of group (certain to be bumped off).
So off we sail with the Waiheke Island-based author and his 28-foot sloop for high adventure and re-exploration of history on the high blue seas. By the way, this is how it starts: ‘At lunchtime I finished a bottle of rum’. That I assume was the dessert – and not the aperitif – following a lengthy journey. Horden’s adventurous sojourn was to take him north of Auckland to the Melanesian islands, west across the Coral Sea to the Great Barrier Reef and into the dangerous maze of Torres Strait, wrecker of ships, killer of men.
In Dillon’s Bay, Eerromango – south of Vanuatu – Hordern outlines the protocol of the Melanesian approach to a lone vessel. ‘They would circle the boat in perfect silence…when ready they made a deliberate noise, slapping the paddle against the surface or clearing their throats. Then they waited for an invitation to come alongside’. After boarding they would make requests, in this case for tobacco.
This happened three times and just as Horden was tiring of the one-way traffic after an exhausting journey, the Erromagans returned with sixty pieces of fruit. Erromango may seem an out of the way place now, but in the nineteenth century these waters saw a brisk trade in sandalwood, used for soap and cosmetics. At first, sandalwood was traded for beads, fish-hooks then saws, tomahawks, carving knives and butchers’ cleavers and still later muskets, powder and tobacco.
Some of the castaways or survivors of shipwreck were treated like kings. For in times of early contact, white sailors were assumed to be spirits or supernatural beings. One character known as Big-Legged Jimmy was plied with feasts, kava and young women and left hundreds of grandchildren. By contrast, others like Leonard Shaw, who survived a massacre in the Kilinailau Islands, New Guinea, was kept as a pet and tortured by children who pulled out his facial hair. Hordern describes the enthralling survival tales of the like of William Lockerby on Fiji, John Young on Hawaii, and Peter Dillon on remote Tikopia, even today without airstrip, wharf, white residents, electricity or telephones. Both Conrad and New Zealand castaways get a look in.
All around the vastness of the South Pacific, Horden narrates, the castaway, mutineer or beachcomber was often the envoy of European culture. First encounters were not as we so often fondly imagine – a high ranking officer (Captain Cook, say) with a formidable well- equipped ship meeting a noble chief on white beach and exchanging gifts, but rather a lone and miserable survivor often seeking advantage and sometimes getting it, sometime not. The somewhat throwaway term beachcomber has been immeasurably enriched for me by reading this book. So we are on double journey with Horden, the still adventurous present – the difficult and complex passage through Torres Strait is thrilling reading – and the even more adventurous past.
I have left the best wine (or swig of rum) to last. Horden, a proven sailor, can also write like the roaring forties. Graham Billing is probably our best naturalist writer but Hordern (English now settled in New Zealand) is running him close. ‘Tepid strings of spray spun into the cockpit as if coughed up from the belly of a waking beast.’ On virtually every page there are descriptions as fine as this. This is an ideal book for either sailor or landlubber.

By Francis Wheen,
Harper Perennial, $24.95, ISBN: 0 00 714097 5
I’ve always liked books that take a wide overview (it saves me work) and authors that debunk – for there’s lot in this world that needs debunking. Francis Wheen does rather nicely in both categories. Wheen is firm but fair: he’s tough on everyone. Madame Thatcher, Reagan and the George Bushes cop heavy flak. So do Anthony Robbins and Deepak Chopra. As do Ayatollah Khomeini and Milton Friedman. And readers will be pleased to hear that Holocaust denier David Irving gets a roasting.
On the evidence of quotation, Chopra sounds the daffiest: ‘People who have achieved an enormous amount of success are inherently very spiritual’; this must make Bill Gates the holiest man one earth apart from the Pope and the Dalai Lama. How about, ‘Ageing is simply learned behaviour’? Demi Moore agrees, and she hopes to live to 130. Wheen can be unfairly cruel, as when he quips, ‘Why the longevity formula failed to work for Princess Diana, with whom [Chopra] lunched shortly before her death remains a mystery’. Whether it’s Wess Roberts’ The Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun or Mars and Venus’ John Gray or ‘Six Hats’ de Bono, Wheen wraps them all up in a chapter entitled ‘Old Snake Oil, New Bottles’. Wheen summarises them all as writers of ‘lucrative twaddle’ and blames Dale Carnegie for starting the vogue back in 1948. Whereas Carnegie contented himself with phrases like, ‘If you want to gather honey, don’t kick over the beehive’, today’s gurus use ‘neologistic jargon’ like ‘re-engineering’, ‘demassing’, ‘downsizing’, and ‘benchmarking’ in an attempt ‘to give their twee clichés an appearance of scientific method and intellectual rigour’. Right on, Francis.
But if the gurus are mouthing clichés and twaddle, how come top management pays them so much to talk to their staff? Good question – and apparently there is an answer. One executive manager explained, ‘What he’s saying is a lot of common sense and not new really. But if I pay him $15,000 to say it, my general mangers and my people listen’. So there you are – it’s not really the message but the messenger – and the high fee.
Moving on from self-improvement, he sideswipes the‘boa-deconstructors’ (Derrida and his ilk) and includes the twitty Luce Irigray who referred to E=mc2 as a ‘sexed equation’ that privileged the speed of light over less masculine speeds. When Allen Sokal, author of the most famous intellectual hoax of our time (and someone of whom Wheen wholeheartedly approves) accused Julia Kristeva of using mathematical terms she did not understand, she conceded she was ‘not a real mathematician’. Derrida cops it for asserting that Paul de Man’s wartime blatant Jew-baiting was somehow an implicit repudiation of anti-Semitism. I’m surprised Wheen didn’t quote American philosopher John Searle whose demolition of Derrida was published in the New York Review of Books, but the field of debunkers – like the producers of bunkum – is richly crowded.
Wheen’s learning is formidable. He cites, usually for purposes of intellectual demolition, dozens of books and authors of which and of whom I am ignorant.
To catch up with his list of targets would mean reading for a couple of years at least. It’s easy at times to have a moment of confusion between George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush, Thomas Friedman and Milton Friedman and the two John Grays, one American and one English.
As debunkers go, I rate Francis Wheen up with the best – with Martin Gardener, or H.L. Mencken. I look forward to further books from this acid-penned guru who hates gurus.