Thursday, 29 September 2011
Before I start this post I guess I better clarify that I work in a basement office with glass walls, cheap carpeting, very little sunlight, and even less people. There is a drinks machine directly outside that occasionally spits out sour, tepid coffee (not a day goes by that I don’t wish it was gin) and an angry-looking cleaner who half-heartedly vacuums the floor and always managed to catch the back of my heels when I walk past. This job isn’t due to choice (not in the way we usually define it, anyway) but rather a lack of money, lack of direction, and lack of any tangible skill or talent. It is definitely, completely, one hundred percent a ‘McJob’ as defined by Douglas Coupland in the seminal 20-something life-angst handbook, Generation X.
A McJob just about covers bills and the occasional cheap bottle of moonshine, but is ultimately menial, dull, undesirable, and unsatisfying. In Coupland’s book, which focuses on three friends who have come of age during the ‘baby boomer’ era and the subsequent downfall of this area, scenes of the characters either working or drinking or complaining about their McJobs are contrasted against short ‘end of the world’ type scenarios in which love and sex and death are all discussed in uncomfortably close proximity. To me, these scenes of disaster and destruction (and perverse excitement! after all, who hasn’t had fantasies concerning the ultimate demise of the only world they know?) further the contrast between the dull, repetitive, conveyer-belt feeling of working at a McJob and the secret longing we all have of desperately wanting to be taken away from a life that doesn’t change. At its core, Coupland’s novel focuses on the most basic human connection, that one thing we have in common- the idea that we’re all waiting for the future to happen, and that if something destroys us or if the world ends before the future comes along, then at least we are not to blame for the shitheaps that our lives are/were. Our shitty McJobs and 20-something graduate pipe dreams that will remain pipe dreams and our inability to ditch the former for the latter can therefore not be given the terrifying description of being a choice, a conscious decision. Or, worse of all, the word that strikes fear into the heart of every 20-something: a 'lifestyle'.
If something invariably out of our control changes our lives in an unexpected way, then it cannot be our fault that the future we longed for never arrived. It’s the same as dying young, in some kind of horrible accident – instead of being pathetic, you’re an inspiration. Instead of being lazy or scared, you’re tragic. A huge, definable event happened to you that took away your choice and that makes sense to us – it is a solid excuse, a reason, unlike the small, indefinable things that ruin us every day.
Because (and this will make me sound even more perverse than before, I don’t doubt it, and I’m really sorry you guys), I'm certain that the majority of people with McJobs wake up some days praying for disaster. A freak accident involving the photocopier. a sinkhole that opens directly underneath the Burger King. Sometimes, when I'm sitting at my desk and inputting data into my 50th mortgage application of the day, I find myself thinking about what I would do in all of these strange, unexpected scenarios. It's easy to completely live in your own head when you're working a McJob and while I'm more than happy to do this, a lot of people aren't. And here, due to this ultimate basic human need for contact, for connection, I present to you something that I like to call McCulture.
McCulture, to me, is something born out of offices and staff rooms and stock cupboards and McJobs. McCulture is the kind of thing discussed over cheap coffee on monday mornings, during cigarette breaks, on the shared bus journey home with an almost-stranger. McCulture is what society usually deems to be 'low' culture - it's the x factor on saturday nights, it's Take A Break instead of The Times, it's fast food and the top 40 and anything that is cheap and easily accessible to the mainstream. It appeals to the majority and this is why it cultivates and survives so well in McJobs.
The idea of McCulture and its importance in the workplace first because apparent to me a few fridays ago when I was discussing the weekend with a colleague (yeah, that old stereotype). I said that I would mostly be doing the usual, which in my life seems to consist of drinking too much gin, napping a lot during the day, and eating jalapeno sandwiches. However, I added that this weekend I would be deviating from this slightly - I would be watching the X Factor on Saturday! Before my colleague could reply, another one turned to me, almost flabbergasted, and said "Why the fuck would you want to do that?"
Maybe it's important to go slightly backwards at this point. The idea of McCulture and its importance in general first became apparent to me when I was fifteen years old. I was sitting in my year 11 Religious Studies class, the only class I attended religiously (hah!) and cared much about. We were discussing ethics, the general concept of what is 'good' and what is 'bad', and my teacher opened up a pre-made powerpoint display on the projector. It featured two men, old looking, with funny wigs and extravagant clothes. One was stern and hard-faced, the other plumper and almost smiling. Perhaps there is some truth to the idea that what people believe on the inside influences how they appear on the outside (this life lesson courtesy of The Twits', thx Roald Dahl) because the first guy, the hard-faced dude, is named John Stuart Mill and next to his picture, my teacher had listed the quote "Better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied". I could picture John Stuart Mill saying this, and I didn't doubt that he meant it at all (the term 'pig' teamed with his facial expression seemed exceptionally grim and awful to me). Next to Bentham, however, were the words, "Pushpin is as good as poetry."
I'm gonna try and simplify this now, in order to explain it to you guys and also to prove to myself that I still have some basic philosophical knowledge in my brain that hasn't been punched out by alcohol.
When Mill stated that it is better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied, he was obviously referring to the philosopher Socrates, well-known for his admonition that "I only know that I know nothing". By saying that he would rather be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied, Mill is saying that he would rather be constantly striving for intelligence and answers that would lead him to being unhappy or unsettled with his life, than to take pleasure in simpler things and be happy. Basically, he fancied up the phrase that "ignorance is bliss" a whole lot, which makes sense when you consider that his opinion is based on his own idea that some pleasures (aka the intelligent ones) and hobbies are more beneficial and 'good' than other, simpler ones.
Bentham, however, believed wholeheartedly that pushpin really was as good as poetry. By this, he meant that one should not differentiate between 'intellectual' and simpler pleasures, and should not place higher importance on those that are intellectual rather than simple. Bentham was my kinda guy, really - he believed that as long as a pleasure wasn't harming someone, then it didn't matter whether it lead to intellectual gain or just provided fun. Basically, Bentham defined McCulture.
A lot of people seem to agree with the Mill version of culture, though - the idea that the only culture that is valid or marks you as a worthy member of society is one that is intellectually driven. To accept this as right, and to believe that some people hold more weight than others due to their interests being of a 'higher' culture, is extremely problematic to me. Without getting too school-sociology-textbook on you, it assumes that everyone has the same access to intellectual and simple materials - that someone who reads Take A Break will have had the same education and upbringing as someone who reads The Times. That someone who watches the X Factor does so because they are lazy and incapable of absorbing anything more intellectual. To say that the only valid culture is that of fine food and not junk food, good wine and not cheap beer, literature and not teen fiction, 'real' tv and not reality tv, is to deny that culture is more than just a choice. That it's more than just deciding to read a magazine because it's easier than a novel. That it's not a matter of class and money and access and privilege and all of those other buzzwords, but personal choice. And that's bullshit.
I don't mean to suggest that i'm against intellectual culture - I like books more than people and I appreciate a good documentary from time to time. I just don't think that it should be seen as better than McCulture, just because McCulture is more accessible - a culture that is directed towards every class rather than those who can just afford it.
So, to the dude who asked me why the fuck I'd want to subject myself to the x factor on a Saturday night, I say - why not? Pushpin is as good as poetry, after all, and I'm gonna make sure that I enjoy both. This weekend I'll be watching the X Factor with a bottle of Gordon's finest gin resting in my lap. I'll be eating pizza and reading John Fowles. I'm not trying to prove how much of a special snowflake I am, how much of a contradiction - because these cultures, these higher and lower pleasures, should not be contradictory in the first place. It all comes down to the basic principle of 'Do what you love and fuck the rest' - a modernisation of Bentham's philosophy, in my opinion. Eat junk food. Drink fine wine. Watch the Cartoon Network. Watch the Geography Channel. Read gossip magazines. Read poetry. And always, always, play pushpin.
Wednesday, 7 September 2011
So lately I seem to be regressing inexplicably back to my teenage years in every single way (fashion sense, emotional maturity, eating habits, pop-culture references) and due to this I just finished reading a stack of John Green books, as well as fitting in a quick re-read of The Perks of Being a Wallflower (and to the doubters, the naysayers, all I have to say is shut up shut upppp I will always have a place in my heart for good YA fiction).
The John Green book I completed most recently was read in a night and is called Looking For Alaska. It was the first book Green wrote and it focuses on angsty 16 year old Miles and his search for what he calls 'the great perhaps' - a search that leads him to boarding school, a roommate with poverty-ridden blood, and the first love of his short life, a girl named Alaska. The idea of 'the great perhaps' comes from writer Francois Rabelais's last words - at death, he believed that it was what he was going to seek. The ambiguity of Rabelais's last words, the lack of conviction, is almost delightfully morbid to me.
Back to the book. Miles, our 16 year old protagonist, is obsessed with last words. He reads biographies of famous authors, poets, musicians, etc, and he classifies these biographies as failures if they do not include the words the various subjects uttered on their deathbeds. Add to this a kickass philosophy teacher, a lot of teenage alcoholism and heavy petting, and references to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and you have a winning combination. I mean, awesome. A 16 year old as idealistic and alcoholic and death obsessed as I used to be. How could I not fall in love with this book?
Weirdly, Looking For Alaska offered me a lot more than the rose-tinted nostalgia I expected. It comforted me. At first, I felt weird and slightly perverted at feeling this about a book aimed at teenagers - as if it's just further proof that I'll never turn 'fully adult', that I'll never obtain the life I wish due to the ultimate failure of not being able to grow up properly. Looking for Alaska is the kind of book I needed when I was 16, not just for its tragic undertones and realistic/optimistic psalms on teenage life, but for its constant mention of death and what happens when we die. 'The great perhaps'. It's fair to say I was death-obsessed as a teenager. Who isn't? 16 years old was probably my turning point, the year I realised that I was not invincible.
I spent a lot of time listening to The Smiths, having 3am existential crisises, setting my alarm clock to ring habitually through the night so that I would know if I was gonna die in my sleep and successfully be roused from it (how a ringing alarm clock would ward off death if I truly was at its door, I obviously never really gave much thought to...). It was dark, it was miserable, it was unhealthy and it was morbid as fuck. Most of these feelings stemmed from embarrassment, the very English school of thought of keeping a stiff upper lip and Not Talking About It. I wrote about death and its effects constantly for english and philosophy assignments, turning the essays into Chuck Palahniuk-esque one shoulder shrugs about the futility of life, its utter banality and lack of importance (I was 16, okay, and I'd never read anything as blase as fight club before in my life).
Therefore, Miles' obsession with death in Looking For Alaska is, to use that familiar cliche, a breath of fresh air in teenage literature. I was recently reading through a list of banned books aimed at teenagers and was interested (but not surprised) to see how many of them were banned due to being sexually explicit or pornographic. I noticed that hardly any of the books, if any at all, were banned for containing death and death-related topics. This isn't because these issues are accepted by the book-banners (what an ominous name for them, by the way - I didn't mean to make it sound quite so ominous, but I think it sums up the ridiculousness of these people pretty well) and society, but simply because hardly anyone is writing about death, not least specifically directed at teenagers and their obsession with death. It's often been said that sex is the last taboo in our society and, looking at the above list, this may appear to be true until you realise that these 'pornographics' books are only plentiful in being banned because so many authors are desperate to write about these issues. So maybe sex isn't the last taboo - death is. This is why I wish Looking For Alaska had been around when I was 16 - sex was intimate and awkward and everywhere, and death was just as intimate and awkward, only we didn't have a guide written by Jacqueline Wilson on how to deal with it.
Basically, the point of this (long-winded, rushed, haphazard) post is that many people who consider themselves true readers may eschew the YA genre and stick only to their penguin copies and their modern classics. I remember a year or so ago, I got the craving for some good YA fiction that only a copy of The Perks of Being a Wallflower could solve. I dug out my copy (which is really a lie, I didn't have to dig very far) and read it everywhere except in public. On the bus to work, I carried a copy of White Noise' instead. On the train, I read a collection of poetry by Richard Siken. I was ashamed to be seen with a teenagers book, to be marked out as illiterate or slow or uneducated. I could delve a lot deeper into this, write an essay about how the problem with this situation lies within those judging the reader and not the reader him/herself (or his/her choice of reading materials) - but basically, my point is that people who believe young adult fiction is only for teenagers, and therefore both the teenagers and the books are gossipy and bland and throwaway, are doing both the authors and the readers of YA fiction a great disservice.
My days of reading YA fiction may mostly be behind me, and I might now spend most of my time on amazon browsing the adult fiction section, but YA fiction is what guided me through the first awkward stages of adult life. David Foster Wallace is one of my favourite writers, but I learnt about the Pixies and escaping town from Brave New Girl. Richard Brautigan is the only man I'll ever love, but Hairstyles of the Damned coached me in teenage fumblings and punk music before I even cared about love. Bukowski taught me how to drink like a fish, but The Perks of Being a Wallflower taught me how to drink poetically and be good to my friends. And then there's the big one, the behemoth, the novel that all future YA writers secretly aspire to write the sequel to - The Catcher in the Rye, and it taught me about loneliness and how to cultivate it, perhaps the most important lesson you can learn at 16.
A lot of people think that YA adult novels don't teach anyone anything new and instead rehash the past and present it to more impressionable audiences, therefore rendering the genre useless. The truth is that they do teach us, and more than that they're also a reference point for us as we get older - they keep us in check and offer us a place to reflect on where it all went wrong or right.
To quote John Green in Will Grayson, Will Grayson', "Unrequited love can be survived in a way that once-requited love cannot". Thankfully, my love for YA fiction is both unrequited and neverending. How's that for a lesson?