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Book Review: The Social Animal

The Social Animal:
The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement

by David Brooks
Random House, 2011

Readers coming to David Brooks’ new book The Social Animal expecting a reprise of his sharply funny 2001 classic Bobos in Paradise will be scrambling for reappraisals before they’re a chapter along. Our author has decided to try something a bit different in his new book. Instead of presenting reams of sociological research in sequential categories accompanied by acute observations, in The Social Animal he tries to personalize his data by creating two fictional characters he hopes his readers will find more or less representational of great demographic sweeps of the educated, upper-middle-class city-dwelling Americans who are still his subject. Rather than giving us categories and then snarkily commenting on them, Brooks here gives us people: a young man named Harold and a young woman named Erica, and the various friends, enemies, bosses, and co-workers they have as he follows them from childhood to old age.

I’m all in favor of authors trying new things, and I can appreciate at once the appeal this new approach must have had for Brooks as a way to put human faces on all the information he was assembling and laying out – as a way for his readers to more fully identify with that information. It’s an essentially middle-brow marketing strategy, designed to get readers saying something like “Hey, I know somebody just like Harold!” or even “Hey! I am Erica!” That this approach might result in the sale of more books might also have crossed an editor’s mind at some point in the book’s gestation.

Those sales will be helped, certainly, by the things The Social Animal has in common with Bobos in Paradise – and the chief of these is all that sociological research. On every page, Brooks includes some factoid-laden digression genetically designed to prompt water-cooler conversations, as when he talks about communal status-gluttony:

At restaurants, people eat more depending on how many people they are dining with. People eating alone eat least. People eating with one other person eat 35 percent more than they do at home. People dining in a party of four eat 75 percent more, and people dining with seven or more eat 96 percent more.

Or the tendency of the human brain to act, as he puts it, as an “overconfidence machine”:

Ninety percent of drivers believe they are above average behind the wheel. Ninety-four percent of college professors think they are above-average teachers. Ninety percent of entrepreneurs think that their new business will be a success. Ninety-eight percent of students who take the SAT say they have average or above-average leadership skills.

Granted, even in Brooks’ skillful hands, this can teeter perilously close to Superfreakonomics levels of absurdity – never more perilous than on matters of race:

If you bump into a man on the street in the American North, the testosterone level in his bloodstream will not rise appreciably. But if you bump into a man on the street in the American South, where a culture of honor is more prevalent, there will probably be a sharp spike in cortisol and testosterone production.

(A ny readers who are tempted to believe that the tension-levels in the South are elevated not by plain old race hatred but instead by a, what was it again? “culture of honor,” that’s right, are encouraged to contact me about lucrative real estate opportunities in North Dakota)

Still, in terms of mirror-gazing interest, this sort of stuff never gets old – there are digressions like these on an almost limitless array of subjects, from food-shopping to car-driving to suburb-living to music-listening to college-attending, and they’re all fascinating. No, the problem with The Social Animal is that its central innovation was doomed to failure before it ever got out of the first draft, and the fact that it did get out of the first draft (and into print, and shipped in bulging crates to every bookstore in the country) is, I suppose, testament to the fact that the book-selling industry isn’t really disposed to tell a hugely successful columnist and author that his central conceit is unworkable. Even Maxwell Perkins bit his tongue and let some doozies float by the plate.

The key failure here, of course, is the invention of Harold and Erica.

Brooks deals in the stock-in-trade of generalizations, and he’s a master of teasing out arresting patterns from mounds of statistical correlations. These are strengths to stick with, and although, as noted, it’s understandable for even a successful author to feel like trying new things, the minute you say that two individual people are their collective generalizations, you’ve slipped from demography to demagoguery. The former can be instructive and even enlightening; the latter is always and only contemptible.

Here’s Harold:

Harold had grown up in a culture that, for forty years, had celebrated expressive individualism, self-fulfillment, and personal liberation. But he sensed that what he needed was community, connection, and interpretation. He couldn’t bring out the best in himself alone. He could only do it in conjunction with other people.

If these conclusions were presented generally, about the socio-economic strata to which people like Harold belong, they’d be interesting as a springboard to more discussion. Presented this way, as individual description, they only serve to tell us that the single character Harold is a moron.

Here’s Erica:

She also learned that not all cultures are equal. She knew she wasn’t supposed to think this. She had been at Denver long enough to know that she was supposed to think all cultures were wonderful and they were all wonderful in their own unique way. But she wasn’t some rich kid from a suburban high school. She couldn’t afford that kind of bullshit. She needed to know what led to success and what led to failure. She looked at the world and at history, looking for clues and useful lessons she could use.

Presented demographically, this might mean: cultural sensitivity is often a luxury of affluence. Presented as a character sketch, it means: Erica is a bitch.

The flaw dogs the whole book, constantly undermining our confidence in the otherwise objective information Brooks is disseminating, constantly making us wonder if it really is objective. Creating individual characters and imbuing them with lives, quirks, and motivations is the work of novelists, not sociologists, after all, and if a sociologist is arrogant enough to think he can casually co-opt that work in order to gin up his data, he almost deserves to produce the scatterbrained and crucially misleading mess that is The Social Animal. And that mess is made all the worse when it raises the reader’s suspicion that either a) the author isn’t really in all that much control of his central conceit or b) he’s in much too much control. Take Harold’s ruminations on politics in Washington. They start out in the voice of our organizing motif:

Harold found that in Washington the highest status went to those who studied things involving guns and banks. People who wrote about war, budgets, and global finance strode around like titans …

But only four sentences later there’s a paragraph break, followed by this:

Politicians themselves were intensely social creatures. They’d made their way in the world with these brilliant emotional antennae, but when it came to thinking about policy, they ignored those faculties entirely. They thought mechanistically, and took seriously only those factors that could be rigorously quantified and toted up in an appropriations bill.

I suppose we might be expected to think that this is still Harold’s viewpoint being narrated for us – but that sure as Hell isn’t made clear, and the only explanation for that worse than ineptitude is proselytizing. Either way, the intelligent, curious readers who are Brooks’ main constituency are misserved.

A worse misservice comes from a far less expected quarter: the book is littered with exactly the kind of blind sociological assumptions it purports to uncover (in this sense it’s much lazier than its predecessor: Bobos in Paradise is a glowingly self-aware book from start to finish). “Then there is the problem of stereotypes,” we’re told at one point. “The unconscious mind finds patterns. It even finds them where none exist and makes all sorts of vague generalizations.” And sometimes not so vague, as when Harold, hurt by Erica’s vicious, screaming refusal to have children (as mentioned, you’ll read the passage and then say, out loud, “What a bitch”), starts drinking and then mopes his way to an AA meeting:

Harold had spent most of his life with the affluent and well educated, and here he was thrust into a room with clerks, salesmen, and bus drivers (a surprising number of bus drivers, actually).

That slur against bus drivers would work if this were a novel describing Harold’s observations at one particular AA meeting, but it’s undocumented, so what’s it doing in a purported nonfiction study of anything? And what about the ‘vague generalization’ in the implicit impossibility of finding well-educated clerks, salesmen, or bus drivers? Again, if it were the snobbery of Harold, the character, that would be one thing – but it clearly isn’t, and that’s something else entirely. Some bus drivers read poetry; some salesmen play bluegrass; some clerks write book reviews – but not in Harold’s orderly money=intelligence world … nor in Brooks’?

Harold and Erica live the whole of their lives before our eyes, him believing a person’s worth is based on who they are (or so we’re told – as noted, other viewpoints creep in), she believing it’s based on what they do. But because Brooks has enlisted the tools of a novel, what his characters believe is secondary to what we believe about his characters – and in this case, nothing we believe is good for the narrative. We’re told that Harold is a second-tier writer of popularizing history books, but he never comes across as anything more than a feckless idiot. We’re shown over and over again that Erica is a driven businesswoman, but we’re given no indication why anybody, even a feckless idiot, would love her for decades (one of life’s only sure-fire compensations is that driven businesswomen die early, in great pain, and completely unmourned). These are defects for which we would normally hold a novelist responsible, but it’s a mystery whether or not they can be used to chastise a social behaviorist. But if they can, they should.

 

 

 

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