Friday, June 11, 2010

Tag, You're It

What is reading all about? Expectations - the expectation that you will be amused, entertained or maybe enlightened, and come away happier, however fleetingly, for having read. I like books the way I like my ideas - elegant, precise and symmetrical. I believe in context, but also in containment. I expect a book to inhabit its' own world, close its' own loops and stand for itself. Which is why it annoyed me a little when some of the books I'd been reading over the past couple of months seemed to miss something. In spite of their 200 + page resplendence, and their fulsome-blurb-endowed certainty of self, these were books that filled in all the blanks. Bar one.

It occurred to me much later that at least 2 of these books made perfect sense when they were read in light of one another; the difference in content, literary styles and dates of publication notwithstanding. All of which led me to think about how ideas can work unexpectedly - bleeding into one another without muddying each other's waters.

And so I thought it would be interesting to attempt a literary 'tag,' an exploration of the unexpected and unlikely connections between books.

No Logo,’ by Naomi Klein

I must confess that I came to this book a little late in the day. When I was an undergraduate student, Klein was heralded as the anointed heir to Chomsky, and very many of the bright people on campus clutched copies of her book. In 'No Logo,' Klein focuses on the colonization of cultural and public spaces by brands. She also explores the exploitative and oppressive labor practices on which the sparkly edifices of brands are built. Klein portrays brands as being at the heart of personal, social and economic change.

Unfortunately, at a certain point, Klein's thesis begins to sound like a single-note statement of the obvious. To say that brands are 'everywhere' is a bit like saying 'technology is everywhere.' We can never be sure if this is for better or worse, and even if we were to be sure, that would be completely irrelevant. Brands, like technology, seem almost like essential elements of the globalized human condition - possibly ugly, but almost certainly unavoidable.

While most of Klein's research is painstaking and detailed, I remained dissatisfied with the exploration of the financial ascendancy of brands. Why (not how) did these intangible assets rapidly come to hold sway? Why did the preservation of the 'brand' come to legitimize lay-offs, restructurings, and the outsourcing of labor?

Weeks later, I found some of these answers in ‘Liar's Poker,’ by Michael Lewis. It’s a much lauded look at the world of investment banking, its hubris and excesses. Lewis traces the rise, the inner workings and the eventual decline of his firm, Salomon Brothers.

As you read the book, it becomes apparent that the rise of the bond industry and mortgage trading set the stage for a brand revolution. These developments changed the terms on which money could be made and companies would be run. Risk was commoditized and converted into a financial asset. Fairly profitable and low-profile companies were targeted by bankers for corporate takeovers. In some cases, these companies would be overhauled. In most cases, they were leveraged and stripped of their assets. The entire ethos of business and industry began to change.

It’s not surprising, then, that with ‘corporate raiders,’ (Lewis’ term, not mine) at the door, companies began reducing costs and clinging onto the brand as their last line of defense. The brand couldn’t be dissected into pieces and sold. It was an intangible entity that needed a certain amount of cohesion in order to survive. But the enabling factors behind the brand (facilities and production) could be sliced and diced, and so they were. Add to this the hysteria around Japanese production techniques, and globalization, and you have a recipe for brand building coupled with job flight.

Lewis deals with a tricky and potentially dull subject. After all, how many of us truly understand financial jargon, and how many of us are concerned about the financiers themselves? But he manages to remain self-deprecating and candid, and the book is consistently amusing (indeed, inhabited by characters such as ‘the Human Piranha,’ ‘Dash Riprock,’ ‘the Opportunist,’ and the omniscient ‘Alexander’ how can it fail to be?).

But Liar’s Poker is more than just a hatchet job on a former employer. It’s an engaging look at a specific psychology and culture, and also manages to decode the machinations of modern finance. If you’re looking for clever and unflinching ‘industry insights,’ look no further. If you’re looking for a how-to manual on negotiating your first banking job, you may just have found it.

But if the industry of interest is dog breeding, and if you’re likely to be content with insights that are more in the nature of musings, you should read ‘The Story of Edgar Sawtelle,’ by David Wroblewski.

Set in small town America, it charts the story of the Sawtelle family who breed a unique species of dogs – dogs reared for companionship, for intelligence and for personality. The Sawtelles - Gar, Trudy and their son Edgar - live the sort of bucolic life most of us fantasize about every once in a while. They have a large and beautiful farm, a successful dog-breeding business that they are passionate about, and dogs – many, many dogs – each with their own abilities and quirks. You know almost instantly that this self-contained and harmonious bubble is likely to burst. Enter Claude, Gar’s long-lost brother, who brings with him resentment, bitterness, betrayal and tragedy.

At the heart of the novel is Edgar, who seems unusually self-contained and observant. Edgar is mute, and communicates with his parents and his dogs using sign-language. He thinks of himself as a Mowgli-of-sorts, surrounded as he is all day by his canine companions and a dog who ‘bears the imprint of his soul,’ Almondine. Edgar truly believes in the mission of their kennel, to help breed dogs that are capable of making choices and therefore engaging with the world in distinctive and meaningful ways.

I personally found the relationship between Almondine and Edgar to be the most compelling part of this book. It isn’t surprising that Edgar, the protagonist has a vivid personality and voice, but so does Almondine. This is a book that requires patience – it takes time to grow on you, but stick with it and you will find yourself being genuinely moved. 

Reviewers have highlighted the links between Hamlet and Edgar Sawtelle. Another key influence is Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The Jungle Books,’ a collection of stories about the boy-wolf Mowgli, his adventures his companions.

I’m still reading the second book, but it is already apparent that Kipling had an astonishing imagination and more importantly, an astonishing ear for local conversation and dialect. I think dialect is at the heart of the Jungle books – all the people and animals featured here are memorable not only because of what they say, but how they say it. Mongooses sound suitably mongoose-y; panthers – pantherish; wolves, wolfish; jackals, sly and snakes, sibilant.

It’s almost as if Kipling created these characters from the outside in, using inflexions of speech to flesh out the character and personality of each animal. Surprisingly, I found Mowgli to be the clumsiest character in the stories – but perhaps his inconsistencies and unconvincing dialogues are a result of his circumstances.

Add to the potent linguistic mix the verse that companies each chapter, and the sonorous tone of the Jungle Law, and I’m ready to forgive this particular burra-sahib all the colonial chips on his shoulder.

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