Saturday, September 05, 2009

AJ Jacobs' The Guinea Pig Diaries: My Life As An Experiment - a book review

Ever hear about Radical Honesty? I'm not much versed in it, either as a movement or a personal practice. The founder, Brad Blanton, apparently trained with Fritz Perls and Milton Erickson, two esteemed names in psychotherapy with whose work I am only vaguely familiar. I don't generally trust self-help movements, which seem in part motivated by the desire to make money by finding disjunctures in modern life, squeezing themselves in, and finding a way to make them pay (and to keep their customers coming back for more and signing up all their friends and relatives, of course). But on the other hand, Radical Honesty seems a pretty benign and useful movement, compared to some; people - myself included - can bend themselves into very odd shapes concealing simple truths that would be better communicated, and contemporary lies, convolutions, manipulations and self-serving self-censorships ultimately often seem to do more to impoverish human communication than facilitate it. Plus, lies don't just stop with other people: one of the few people in my life who I would describe as a "spiritual teacher" - a Lakota Sioux who I knew in my 20's, who had a huge impact on me, in part by being very, very honest about his perceptions of me - made the point that whether or not one chose to lie to others, one must never lie to oneself. Self-deception is fundamentally damaging, sets you up for all sorts of trouble when reality comes to call. I think this is true - I know it. So while I won't be joining any Radical Honesty workshops and trying to sign up my friends, on the surface of it, I don't think these guys sound that bad.

Radical Honesty is one point of view taken on as an experiment by AJ Jacobs, author of The Year Of Living Biblically and The Know-It-All, in his new book The Guinea Pig Diaries, which collects and updates various essays he wrote for Esquire. Subtitled My Life As An Experiment, each chapter has Jacobs trying on some new movement or identity-configuration. (At one point he decides to outsource his less important daily tasks to help in India; at another he decides to live by reason alone - which somehow involves him struggling to find the most rational brand of toothpaste). I received it in the mail last week from Simon And Schuster, who asked me to review it. To be (radically?) honest about matters, I agreed to review it because:

a) It flattered my ego that Simon And Schuster, an established publisher, would notice my blog and ask me to review a book.

b) I like the idea of receiving free stuff in the mail (tho' I have an unfortunate backlog of reviews to write at present).

c) I didn't want to discourage future offers of unusual swag by saying no.

d) The book description resonated against other fairly interesting stuff I've read: Robert Anton Wilson, for instance - who suggests various experiments for transforming your awareness of yourself in the world, say by going through a period of time - a week? - without using the word "I;" or Luke Rhinehart's wonderful novel, recently reprinted (and, last I checked, available new at Pulp Fiction), The Dice Man, which has a bored psychotherapist - named after the author, or at least using his pseudonym - decide to start experimenting with his identity by living his life according to the throw of a die. Anytime he has a choice to face he ascribes the first six options that come to his mind as to how to deal with it, rolls the die, and then goes ahead and does whatever the number dictates; as you may imagine, this creates all sorts of problems for him - while also spawning a sort of cult, which the book itself did. (Peruse Amazon reviews here). It's very darkly funny, but also in an odd way liberating and inspiring. It will make quite an impact on you, if you brave it.

It turns out, however, that both Wilson and Rhinehart, for all their humour, are much more serious about their experiments in identity than AJ Jacobs. Jacobs' book is, by comparison to their works, a light confection, in which none of the experiments are apparently allowed to interfere with the author's own comfortable middleclass position, presumed with great complacency throughout (thereby reassuring Esquire readers of their own positions in society, I suppose; perhaps that's Esquire's primary social function?). The tone of voice is humorous and light, the insights he garners from his experiments are more "cutesy observations" than life-changing revelations, and anytime his experiments verge on the uncomfortable - at least in the part of the book I've read - he abandons them and instead writes about why he didn't pursue them further.

And indeed, I have not finished the book. Before you chide me, note that I never promised to: when Simon and Schuster asked me if I'd review it, I wrote them a note explaining that I was a bit overwhelmed by recent events in my life and could not promise a review, but if they wanted to send it, I'd see if the book were of interest. It wasn't exactly a commitment. The next week, to my surprise, it turned up in my mailbox.

So here's my review of the parts I've read:

Chapter One of the book, "My Life As A Beautiful Woman," is illustrated with a photograph of Jacobs in drag. Though Jacobs is far from beautiful, I felt excitement on seeing this: for a straight guy to take on cross-dressing for any length of time, and to do it well enough that he could see what it would do to his sense of self to be perceived as female, would be a fascinating, ambitious, and daring experiment indeed - and one I would not dream of taking on myself. Through Jacobs, I could find out what it was like to live in drag without actually going near a pair of nylons (or shaving off my beard). I started the chapter with eagerness, to find my hopes quickly dashed: the chapter merely details Jacobs' efforts at answering his nanny's personals ads responses - assuming her identity as a female for the purposes of doing so.

The results are, for anyone who has used a personals site, much as you would expect, but entertaining to read no less. One feels Jacobs' perceptions of internet dating are fairly accurate (tho' one wonders if he quoted at length from actual personals responses men sent him, believing him to be a woman; there's something that bristles ethically about him this, if so - he shares some pretty intimate correspondences). It is wittily written and entertaining. It can be read without any mental strain. It will make you smile and/or chuckle as you read it. And it will occupy so small a chunk of your brain that you will not find it intruding in the course of your day, since there is nothing in the chapter that cannot be fully processed and forgotten within the hour of reading it. In fact, a few hours after I'd read it, I'd forgotten whatever objections it stirred in me; it passed through me like a chai latte. And therein lies the trouble: Jacobs doesn't actually seem to want to learn or teach anything serious by virtue of his experiment. He seems like he just wants material for an easy-to-read, entertaining article, and takes his "experiment" only as far as he needs to to write the piece. His conclusions are pretty predictable: that it's quite flattering, but also requires quite a bit of careful moral navigation and bullshit-detection, to be on the receiving end of a great deal of male attention, and that men will often embarrass themselves, make themselves ridiculously vulnerable, and sometimes flat out set themselves up to fail, in their attempts to reach out to the opposite sex. No, really?

Chapter Two, at least, takes on a more serious subject: outsourcing. Entitled "My Outsourced Life," it has Jacobs assign two assistants in India - Honey, of the Bangladeshi firm Brickwork, and Asha, of Your Man In India. Once hired, they answer his emails for him, compose thank you notes for him, order flowers for him, and serve as intermediaries between Jacobs and his boss - and even, during a domestic dispute, between Jacobs and his wife. Honey, in particular - the younger and prettier of the two - completely charms him, and performs her tasks so well that Jacobs finds himself briefly and glibly considering the possibility that even his job at Esquire will someday be rendered irrelevant due to Indian ingenuity. "We high-end types will be as vulnerable as assembly line workers," he muses, imagining himself on a streetcorner with a WILL EDIT FOR FOOD sign. Indeed, Honey, in particular, comes across as intelligent, dedicated, and ambitious - you like her more than Jacobs, in fact, even though you only get a brief, much-filtered peek at her. At least she isn't sheathed from experience by a smirking ironic distance - she does her job well and even seems to be smirking back at her new employer a little. A vague moral objection flickers here, too: that Jacobs is not-so-subtly taking advantage of his new "assistants," treating them (and their ever-polite but recognizably Indian English grammar) and indeed the whole of globalisation as a source of amusement. At one point, testing the limits of his power, he makes unreasonable requests of them, just to see what will happen - asking Asha to "play the card game Hearts for me, since I was wasting too much time playing it myself on my PDA." Again, all this is funny enough - but rather trivial. I begin to resent Jacobs for his leisure, his privilege, his complacency, and his presumption that I, as a reader, am so leisured, privileged and complacent that his writing will somehow resonate with me.

By this point, you're ready for Brad Blanton and Jacobs' experiments with Radical Honesty. (I actually wrote Blanton via his website and asked if he had any comment on how he is depicted in this book, but received none. I was really just trying to reduce my own workload; perhaps Blanton sussed that out). Jacobs, on hearing about the movement, tries it on, painting Blanton as a bit of a wingnut; he prompts him in the course of an interview, for instance, to see how honest he will be, to go into detail about his sexual past - for instance, asking him about women, then men, then animals (Blanton answers without apparent embarrassment, "I let my dog lick my dick once.") Another high point is where Jacobs - trying on Radical Honesty - informs Blanton, "I'm glad you picked your nose right now... because it was funny and disgusting, and it'll make a good detail for the piece." Blanton, not to be outdone, responds, "That's fine. I'll pick my ass in a minute," which is about the point one starts to feel more fond of him than his interlocutor. Various amusing episodes follow where Jacobs returns to his normal life, except being a bit more candid than normal, and recounting what happens. Nothing too serious, until an older man Jacobs knows shows him some poems, which Jacobs deems atrocious; but he lies, to spare the old man's feelings. He feels convinced in this case that the lie is right - that there is no point in breaking the guy's heart with the truth - but, having signed up to be honest, also feels conflicted about his deception. He engages in an email exchange with Blanton about the situation, where Blanton advises him that telling the old man the truth would be more compassionate than lying, showing "the authentic caring underneath your usual intellectual bullshit and overvaluing of your critical judgment. Your lie is not useful to him. In fact, it is simply avoiding your responsiblity as one human being to another. That's okay. It happens all the time. It is not a mortal sin. But don't bullshit yourself about it being kind."

Blanton continues in his email, with Jacobs quoting: "I don't want to spend a lot of time explaining things to you for your cute little project of playing with telling the truth if you don't have the balls to try it."

Jacobs dubs him a "condescending prick," and continues on for a few more pages half-following the precepts of Radical Honesty, when it's not too challenging - just enough so that he gets enough material for his article. One begins to wonder if there's some underlying theme emerging - that Jacobs, much like Woody Allen, is subtly ridiculing his own limitations by making the people around him seem more virtuous and intelligent than he is. Jacobs is not without the capacity for self-criticism, and does poke fun at himself on occasion; perhaps we're not meant to like him very much? This would make him worthy of more credit than I've been giving him; maybe it's not just a coincidence that I ended up pretty much on Blanton's side by the end of Chapter Three, just as at the end of Chapter Two, I liked Honey more than her employer?

But any sense of a developing pattern or deeper theme seems to be lost in the next chapter, "240 Minutes Of Fame," in which Jacobs, who apparently looks a great deal like Australian actor Noah Taylor (of Shine) attends an Oscars ceremony in Taylor's stead, impersonating him to see what it feels like to be really famous. This was the chapter that lost me. While it might be interesting for a person to take on an experiment like this him-or-herself, for the perceptual shifts it might engender, reading about someone else's experience of the same seems almost entirely pointless. I don't care what it feels like to attend the Oscars, and I don't care what it feels like to attend the Oscars as an imposter; there's nothing serious at work here at all, that I can notice. I'm reminded in reading it of Jeff Goldblum's character in The Big Chill, snidely commenting that part of the requirements of his job as a writer for People was to write nothing that couldn't be finished during the time period of an average crap. Jacobs' articles seem to be a bit longer than this, but on the same level of seriousness. Two craps' worth of entertainment per chapter.
Which might not be so bad, I suppose. If you LIKE light reading material of this sort, you would probably find the book entertaining. You will smile. You will grin. You will chuckle. And you won't have to worry about being provoked to serious thought at all (at least not for the first few chapters - like I say, I haven't finished the book and don't intend to).
On the other hand, if you want to read an engaging and thought-provoking book on experiments with identity, go pick up Luke Rhinehart's The Dice Man, or explore some of Robert Anton Wilson's nonfiction. These are far more worthy of your time, and will entertain you while actually - potentially - changing how you view the world and/or challenging your values.

That's exactly as far as I'm prepared to go in my review of The Guinea Pig Diaries. I've found this really interesting recounting of the arrest and trial of the West Memphis Three - the subject of the Paradise Lost documentaries - called Devil's Knot, that is far more compelling and significant, and it has replaced Jacobs as my evening reading material. The WM3 - youths railroaded into prison for a triple murder during the height of America's "Satanic panic" - are apparently in need of funds for their current appeals - see here for more.

AJ Jacobs will talk about The Guinea Pig Diaries at Bolen Books in Victoria on September 12th. Admission is free.

PS: Hey, does anyone want my copy of The Guinea Pig Diaries?

1 comment:

Vins said...

hey i want a copy