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Posts from the ‘self-worth’ Category

29
Mar
Shame by Libertinus Yomango (Wiki Commons)

Good Friday and the Crucifixion of Shame

I sometimes wonder whether the pendulum has swung too far. People are too quick to reduce societies to guilt- or shame-cultures, on the convenient premise that both concepts are relative and subjective. Thus we can evolve beyond such antediluvian notions. However, while it’s true that in western Protestantism we spend a great deal of time facing up to the realities of guilt (and rightly so, where it is genuine rather than subjective or self-imagined), what of shame? We can’t hide behind not being a shame-culture. Read more »

15
Mar
dorian-gray-ben-barnes

Bursting the Self-Esteem Bubble once and for all? Glynn Harrison on a Big Ego Trip

It’s easy to forget the psychobabble jargon that is now so part of  everyday parlance had its origins in serious academic discourse. It’s pretty obvious when you stop to think about it, because all terms, metaphors and concepts must have their origins somewhere. It only takes a few decades or even years before what starts confined to the lecture room ends up on the street (whether the discipline be philosophy, theology, or psychology). What is scary is how many of the psychological assumptions that we take for granted today are built on such flimsy foundations. That is the main thrust of the first half of Glynn Harrison‘s important new book, The Big Ego Trip. Read more »

29
Sep
community_pic

Struggling to find a New (Sexual) Identity

I read Jenell Williams Paris’ remarkable book, The End of Sexual Identity (published by IVP US), over the summer, and have been cogitating on it ever since. It is a brave book, not least because it wouldn’t surprise me if it invites potshots (and worse) from all sides. It doesn’t take a degree in political science to gather that the cultural climate in the west has shifted significantly in recent years. Read more »

10
Aug

Friday Fun 23: Hobbes knows the answer to the Meaning of Life

It speaks for itself…

19
Jul
Anorexia - I will not eat

Anorexia is bigger than biology: Emma Scrivener gets A NEW NAME

Given the deeply traumatic nature of this book’s subject, this word seems entirely incongruous. But I can’t it out of my head as I try to sum up Emma Scrivener’s new book. And that’s the word beautiful. This is not because of a superficial or white-washed treatment. Far from it. In fact at times Emma is searingly, wincingly honest. And as she writes, we weep. Read more »

16
Apr
28-5

Why forgetfulness brings joyful freedom: a new booklet from Tim Keller

The chaps at 10 of Those have taken the initiative to produce a number of shorter and cheaper, but decent quality, booklets, and the first of these are now out. There’s a brief introduction to the doctrine of The Cross by Andrew Sach and Steve Jeffery (well-qualified to write on this having worked on the mammoth but important He was pierced for our transgressions). But the other is a lovely new outing from Tim Keller (who’s come up here on Q a number of times): The Freedom of Self-forgetfulness – The Path To True Christian Joy. Read more »

25
Jul
Sandra McCracken

I can’t help myself…? It’s time to deny the denial

It’s an ambiguous title. It can mean two very different things. Either I can’t stop myself (e.g.I have little self-control when it comes to resisting temptation, whatever that might be) or I can’t rescue myself (and I’m stuck). It seems to me that western culture is in denial about both. Control and autonomy are our post-Enlightenment mantras (in the name of personal freedom of course). And much to our frustration, neither are truly attainable. Read more »

21
Jul
Computer brain

Dawkins, ‘Pragmamorphism’ and the scientific vandalism of executing Saddam

When a fellow-scientist brands Richard Dawkins naïve you sit up and notice. But that’s exactly what Emanuel Derman has done. I didn’t know anything about Derman before, but it seems that he has rather an intimidating CV: he is a theoretical physicist, economist AND successful businessman originally from South Africa. All of which gives him a rather unique angle on a topic to which I’ve frequently returned on Q: the nature of being human (e.g.see Fritz Kahn’s Industrial Palace or the Nothing Buttery Rant). Read more »

8
Mar

So you want to be a better person…?

Just love it – by one of my favourite cartoonists, William Haefeli – from the New Yorker, Oct 2009

7
Jul

Breaking the chains of consumerism

My boss Hugh has just completed an epic 4-part series at All Souls entitled “Cash and the Christian“. Each talk is based on an episode in Luke’s gospel (for Luke is especially concerned both for the marginalised and the pitfalls of wealth).

In these straightened times (and all the more so if we ever return to boom times), we are all forced to consider what our finances are truly built on and building for.

I was particularly struck by this simple point which came up more than once in the series: every time we give, we take one more step in the process of releasing the grip of materialism

14
Jun

A profoundly encouraging book about a pastoral minefield

This is a review I’ve just written for Themelios, out next month. Tim Chester is an old friend who writes with great clarity and compassion. His is not an easy book – it is not an easy subject. For many in our culture, the very notion of why one might actually want to live porn-free seems utterly ridiculous. It’s as harmless an activity as riding a bike or reading the newspaper. But for others, it impairs relationships and even destroys marriages. This is not a neutral business.

We desperately need there to be some countervailing voices out there who are not shrill, self-righteous or smug. Tim’s voice is none of these things, for which I’m hugely grateful.

It is a brave man who talks openly about sexual sin. It is an even braver one who writes a book about it! But Tim Chester now has an established track record of writing well-crafted, profoundly theological but deeply pastoral books. This book, specifically tackling the blight of pornography head on, follows naturally from his 2008 publication, You Can Change. That Captured by a better vision is needed and timely should not be in doubt. The statistics for pornography usage and the sex industry’s profit margins are truly terrifying. Porn’s repercussions (for users, for those involved in the sex industry and for society as a whole) hardly bear thinking about. Its pervasive presence amongst Christians is the western church’s vast, unspoken secret – in one survey quoted by Chester, it is suggested that out of every 100 adults, twenty-five men and ten women are struggling with regular porn use (p. 11). Yet, despite its prevalence, it is a problem of such shame that it is confined to the shadows and never properly addressed.

So how to tackle it? That is the painful question for pastors who minister to such people, not to mention those who themselves struggle. The age-old resort of the well-directed rebuke, or naming and shaming, has never worked. Many caught up in pornography are wracked by crippling shame as it is, but that is barely enough to halt their indulgence. Furthermore, such an approach falls headlong into the trap of legalism, which can never bring transformation (only pride and defeat or both) and which is fundamentally incompatible with the authentically Christian gospel of grace.

This is something that Chester understands deeply – which is precisely why he is able to navigate so successfully through this pastoral minefield. His tactic seems to be as much about displacement as it is pastoral diagnosis. As his quotation from an anonymous article makes clear, porn addicts ‘need something more than mere information: they need to be wooed by the true and pure lover that their heart secretly seeks.’ (p. 76)

Chester is determined to offer precisely that. This does not, of course, mean he is afraid to provide important information or to speak very frankly (as he warns in the introduction) – a topic like this demands straight talking. He thus rightly begins, in the first of his five sections, by piercing porn’s façade of consensual pleasure and ‘harmless fun’. He ruthlessly exposes what the sex industry actually does to people at every level – his list of twelve reasons to give up porn is brutal in its trenchant but indisputable analysis. It thus easily achieves his aim to make pornography abhorrent.

Fortunately, however, this is not the book’s exclusive agenda – as the title suggests, Chester has a far more encouraging and inspiring concern. He wants to move us from abhorrence to adoration of God, with its resulting confidence of forgiveness and determination to battle sin. He has sought to understand, at a deep level, what insecurities and idols cause people to get hooked in the first place – and then proceeds to expose why the gospel is both infinitely better and far more compelling. Especially powerful was his articulation of the new confidence brought about by a believer’s justification in Christ. He nicely applies the apparent paradoxes of this divinely-granted status: we are freed by Christ to be free, we are cleansed by Christ to be clean, we are  made holy so that we can be holy (pp. 90-94). As he says, ‘battling porn in our lives is not an exercise in denying pleasure. It’s about fighting pleasure with greater pleasure.’ (p. 76) ‘So with every false promise of porn there is a true promise of God. Whatever porn offers, God offers more.’ (p. 51)

Along the way, some inevitable pastoral conundrums need handling with care. What of the struggles of those who are not married? Chester tackles this, though probably not as fully as some might hope for (that is the remit of other books). Still, he makes clear how great the gospel compensations are for all, married or not. Or what of those who are in Christian leadership and struggle in this area? He was especially sensitive here. He does not pull his punches and explains how detrimental porn can be for ministry. Yet he reminds us that ‘using porn doesn’t disqualify you from serving God. For one thing, you were never qualified in the first place!’ (p. 87) This is something everyone in ministry needs to hear, porn or no porn. His advice is to keep battling but earnestly look to Christ for our righteousness.

Chester’s writing is always lucid and biblical but, in this book, his compassion is even more evident (as it needs to be). He makes frequent use of personal testimonies and experiences, from other books or from the anonymous research he carried out. These ground the book in reality.

Above all, though, the book is encouraging! I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised by that; but I was. The presenting issue of the book is a crucial and painful one, and his critique and analysis are relentless. Nevertheless, I found myself swept up by a refreshed enthusiasm and excitement for the gospel as he spoke with relish and delight about the grace of God, the glories of Christ and the wonders of sex in its right context. To my mind that clearly demonstrated he had fulfilled his aim of capturing us with a better vision. I certainly was.

It just so happened that Anne Jackson, who’s blog I regularly read, has made a video for XXXChurch talking about her addiction – very honest, down-to-earth and helpful.

30
Apr

The Undefended Life

I’m fascinated by new attempts at publishing and distributing media. And when it is done to spread good stuff, all the better.

So it’s good to plug the blog of an old friend of mine, Simon Walker, with his Undefended Life blog. He’s written a few books before – including the Undefended Leader series. But this time, instead of a trad printed version of his book, he’s publishing a new chapter every week, over 17 weeks.

This is what he says:

Over the past six months I have written the draft of my new book, The Undefended Life. It’s a substantial text addressing what an undefended life actually looks like. It questions whether the church has fundamentally misread the nature of sin; it looks again at the death of Christ and the centrality of adoption in the Gospel; it re-evaluates the nature of idolatry and the act of repentance and faith. It questions our understanding of personal identity and dismantles the kind of moral reform we associate with the Christian faith. It considers how we can refind a place for St Paul’s difficult language of the flesh/spiritual life. And it proposes that we must radically relook at our theology of God as trinity if we are to rediscover the freedom that God offers us. Overall, it is the most radical, challenging piece of writing I have ever produced.

I am in conversation with a conventional publisher about production of a print version of the book to come out in early 2011. But the publishing world is changing rapidly; authors also need to take different routes to reach their audiences.

I’ve not had the chance to read everything Simon has added to the blog so far. But I know that much of what he has said about leadership is a vital antidote to what I wrote a few days ago about ecclesial autocrats.

7
Jan

Trueman on Fools and Monkeys in the Blogosphere

He’s nothing if not forthright.

But Carl Trueman is a scarily close to the bone in this (largely justifiable) rant about the absurdities, conceits and self-promotions prevalent in the Christian blogosphere – not unrelated to the subject of a couple of days ago.

Fools Rush In Where Monkeys Fear To Tread

Wince away, fellow bloggers… (HT Julian H)

12
May

Bonhoeffer – Who Am I?

Read this the other day. Was stopped in my tracks and struck dumb by its simple power. Written by Bonhoeffer while in a Nazi prison for his part in a failed attempt to assassinate Hitler. He was executed in Flossenburg Concentration Camp only a matter of days before the end of the 2nd World War.

WHO AM I?

Who am I? They often tell me
I stepped from my cell’s confinement
Calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
Like a squire from his country-house.

Who am I? They often tell me
I used to speak to my warders
Freely and friendly and clearly,
As though it were mine to command.

Who am I? They also tell me
I bore the days of misfortune
Equally, smilingly, proudly,
Like one accustomed to win.

Am I then really all that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I myself know of myself?
Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
Struggling for breath, as though hands were
compressing my throat,
Yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
Thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,
Tossing in expectation of great events,
Powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
Faint, and ready to say farewell to it all?

Who am I? This or the other?
Am I one person today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
And before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army,
Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am Thine!

Taken from Letters & Papers from Prison

It evoked in my mind a poem/song written of course in entirely different circumstances but which grapples with the same human reality: I AM ONE by my sister-in-law, Miriam Jones. And while we’re on the case, check out her website for new songs in the process of creation as we speak…

31
Mar

The Depression Epidemic (at CT)

And while we’re on Christianity Today (see previous post), the focus this month has been on what they’ve provocatively headlined ‘The Depression Epidemic’. There’s actually quite a lot of helpful stuff there. The main article is interesting, but i found the accompanying pieces particularly useful:

22
Feb

Euthanasia in Oregon: Rights or duties?

Is this alarmist rhetoric or a salutary lesson from Oregon?

Euthanasia is a tricky one. It is emotive. And it is hard to gain a hearing for theological arguments in a secularising society. But any good case needs a hearing. Whether it is a religious one or not. So a very interesting leader from Saturday’s Telegraph, written by Wesley Smith.

This is how it begins:

Imagine that you have lung cancer. It has been in remission, but tests show the cancer has returned and is likely to be terminal. Still, there is some hope. Chemotherapy could extend your life, if not save it. You ask to begin treatment. But you soon receive more devastating news. A letter from the government informs you that the cost of chemotherapy is deemed an unjustified expense for the limited extra time it would provide. However, the government is not without compassion. You are informed that whenever you are ready, it will gladly pay for your assisted suicide.

Think that’s an alarmist scenario to scare you away from supporting “death with dignity”? Wrong. That is exactly what happened last year to two cancer patients in Oregon, where assisted suicide is legal.

Read the rest here. Also check out the comments: the range is as one would expect…

24
Dec

Keller on Advent Humility – HAPPY CHRISTMAS one and all!

The wall in BETHLEHEM

The wall in BETHLEHEM (c/o 360east.com)

Christian humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less, as C. S. Lewis so memorably said. It is to be no longer always noticing yourself and how you are doing and how you are being treated. It is “blessed self-forgetfulness.”

So says Tim Keller in his article THE ADVENT OF HUMILITY. I’ve been waiting for it to come online for days, ever since reading it in this month’s CT. It’s vintage Keller – providing a very helpful distillation of his thinking on how the gospel impacts the worksy moral performers and the works-shy (if I can put it like that!). But by linking this all into the issue of humility, Keller comes out with this real pearl:

I do hope to clarify, or I wouldn’t have written on the topic at all. But there is no way to begin telling people how to become humble without destroying what fragments of humility they may already possess…

…So let us preach grace till humility just starts to grow in us.

Happy Christmas everyone – and may the wonder of the Incarnation thrill you afresh with that ground-breaking, life-changing, God-revealing Grace.

5
Dec

What did Mrs Zebedee want for her boys? Falling into our own prosperity traps

I can’t remember who was being referred to, or by whom (which is probably just as well). But I was recently told of someone who described one of their own spiritual gifts as the ability to discern error and heresy. Well, that is of course an essential requirement, as even the vaguest study of the NT and of church history demonstrates. But I have to say that it did rather send shivers down my spine. I mean, yes, we all have to be discerning and on our guard. The most vulnerable Christian has to be the most gullible Christian. But to make a big deal of it, almost as if taking pride in it? Well that is certainly a very risky business. If you think you are standing firm, take care that you do not fall.

You see, I was acutely conscious of the dangers of spiritual pride after talking about the prosperity gospel the other day. As I said at the end of original talk, there are plenty of things that those who reject prosperity thinking fall into. Which is why it was very helpful to receive this tip from Emma Park: Our Secret Heresy Revealed, an article by John Sandeman in Sydney, Australia. For the irony is that what we reject with our lips, we subtly subscribe to with our aspirations:

Study hard, keep your nose down, go to university, work even harder, make a respectable but not vulgarly excessive amount of money: that’s the Sydney Anglican unspoken prosperity doctrine. And it has one chief advantage over the more Pentecostal prosperity gospel. It works, almost all the time. Unlike the happy clappy version this prosperity thinking is no doctrine. We don’t claim a Bible justification for it. Rather it is the triumph of pure pragmatism.

…It comes out clearly in the messages sent out by high profile Anglican institutions that have the money for marketing. “Leadership” is the headline for as campaign run by our highest profile Anglican school. Yes, parents want their boys to be leaders, to end up in charge of other people. That’s what Mrs Zebedee wanted for her boys, too. It is good marketing that like all good advertising plays on at least one of the still deadly seven sins. Yet if we were truly Biblical wouldn’t there be a “servant-hood” advertisement too?

Read the rest – it’s heady, provocative stuff. I fear that London Christians share more with their Sydney fellows than we should. For the article has reminded me that our need for discernment comes not out of the mindset of heresy-hunting, but from humility rightly borne out of our own temptations and gullibilities. It is perhaps because I see myself so wanting the prosperity gospel to be true that I am so aware of its peculiar dangers. If I’m honest, I would obviously prefer a pain-free and successful existence. I don’t want to suffer – it’s just that I can’t avoid the realities of this present age. But it is only because of confidence in the realities of the age to come, as well as the firstfruits enjoyed in the present, that this is at all faceable.

In case you’re worried about what Mrs Zebedee has to do with this (because, dear reader, this has nothing actually to do with the Magic Roundabout), check out her story here.

 

2
Nov

Picasso’s & Van Gogh’s self-portraits – all rolled into one

It seems that the genius who is eggman913 has done it several times (he was the one to bring 500 year’s of women in art to youtube) and I was just slow on the uptake. But here is his compilation of Picasso’s portraits (including some of his self-portraits) – which brings the points made a few days ago into even sharper relief, but also brilliantly helps the viewer to understand what was going on as he developed his cubist portraits – they seem far less alien as a result.

And for good measure, he has done the same thing for Van Gogh’s self portraits – which reveal a profoundly troubled person struggling with life, faith and death. Very powerful indeed.

31
Oct

coupland’s THE GUM THIEF – some rather random reflections

Well – I enjoyed it… but not perhaps as much as some of Douglas Coupland’s others. I have my favourites – Girlfriend in a Coma, Hey Nostradamus and of course the one that got everything going, Generation X.

The book starts relatively (frustratingly?) slowly – and is set in territory that is all too familiar to Coupland fans. This is suburban mall-land, the seemingly endless, soulless sprawl of North American retail parks (incidentally, I once started counting all the different UK chains that have imperialist pretensions by claiming the world. There are simply LOADS, ranging from: Eyeworld, Leatherworld, Petworld, Kitchenworld, Craftworld not to mention PC world and Phone world – if you have any others, post them here!!). The sprawl, like most of the rest of Couplandland, is populated by the high school dropouts and middle-aged losers still enslaved to McJobs – as illustrated by the setting of this book: a store in the stationery megachain, Staples.

Roger has lost so much in life – marriage, child, direction and purpose. His frustrated spiral even puts his job at Staples at risk. He doesn’t want to be an ‘aisles associate’ (!) overseeing the tidiness of the ballpoint pen display for the rest of his life – he wants to write. So he writes – a diary which bizarrely he leaves lying in the staff room – that is asking for trouble, especially as he writes about colleagues. He seems to understand them though – and puts words into the mouth of Bethany, the store’s resident Goth. When she reads an entry in her own name, she decides to add her own and thus begins a very peculiar relationship, about which they agree never actually to talk. It is only carried out on paper (hence is akin to the ‘friendships’ enjoyed by the Facebook generation). From the start, there is a slightly unnerving sense of reality though. For while we are told that Bethany’s second entry is from the ‘real’ Bethany, we are never subsequently told who is actually talking – the real or the figment. The lines of reality are blurred from the start. This all points to the book’s central conceit: the meaning of the written word (presumably the reason for the setting in a stationery store) and its (in?)ability to describe reality. More on that in a mo. But like all Coupland’s heroes, these people are troubled – troubled about their lives, their relationships, and even about God. That is what makes them so intriguing (especially to someone trying to understand our culture) because they purport to be representatives of the (post)modern everyman and everywoman.

Here is Roger, right at the start:

ROGER: A few years ago it dawned on me that everybody past a certain age – regardless of how they look on the outside – pretty much constantly dreams of being able to escape from their lives. They don’t want to be who they are any more. They want out. This list includes Thurston Howell the Third, Ann-Margaret, the cast members of Rent, Vaclav Havel, space shuttle astronauts and Snuffleupagus. It’s universal.
Do you want out? Do you often wish you could be somebody, anybody, other than who you are – the you who holds a job and feeds a family – the you who keeps a relatively okay place to live and who still tries to keep your friendships alive? In other words, the you who’s going to remain pretty much the same until the casket? (p1)

As ever in Coupland’s books, the Damocles sword of human mortality is ever present. However, as this next excerpt illustrates, that may well be preferable to the interminable drudgery of an aisles associate.

ROGER: The last while has been kind of rough and, yeah, I’m having trouble these days, but Joan [ex-wife] isn’t what you’d call a fountain of sympathy. I can make up all the excuses I want, but the fact is, I merely lie in my bed in the morning and don’t get out. Especially at this time of year. I ask you, why do we even bother having wakefulness? Dreams are way more interesting than real life, and in dreams you never have to get out of bed. For that matter, why does life bother going forward? No matter what organism you look at… an amoeba or an elk or whatever, it does everything it can to advance itself – it tries not to be killed, it tries to mate, it tries to not be eaten. What’s the nature of this divine computer program that drives everything to go forward? Why doesn’t DNA sometimes say to itself, ‘You know what? I’m tired of this survival shit. I think I’m going to pack it in. It ends here.’ (p187)

It is not just present circumstances or an unknown future that Roger yearns to escape. His searing, wry honesty gets to the heart of the matter: his own heart.

ROGER: It’s amazing how you can be a total shithead, and yet your soul still wants to hang out with you. Souls ought to have the legal right to bail once you cross certain behaviour thresholds: I draw the line at cheating at golf; I draw the line at theft over $100,000; I draw the line at bestiality. Imagine all the souls of the world, out on the sides of highways, all of them hitchhiking to try to find new places to live, all of them holding signs designed to lure you into selecting them as a passenger:
… I sing!
… I tell jokes.
… I know shiatsu.
… I know Katherine Hepburn.
I don’t deserve a soul, yet I still have one. I know because it hurts. (p22)

But Roger’s not alone – Bethany is similarly afflicted. Throughout her life, those closest to her have died – hence the Goth affectation and cosmetic obsession with death and the ‘dark side’. She eventually snaps out of that – but of course that doesn’t remove her core fears and anxieties.

BETHANY: Oh God, I’m sitting here and my inner voice won’t shut up. Do you ever get that? All you crave is silence, but instead you sit there and, against your wishes, nag yourself at full volume? Money! Loneliness! Failure! Sex! Body! Enemies! Regrets!
And everybody’s doing the same thing – friends, family, that lady at the gas station till, your favourite movie star – everybody’s skull is buzzing with me, me, me, me, me, and nobody knows how to shut it off. We’re a planet of selfish me-robots. I hate it. I try to turn it off. The only thing that works is if I try to imagine what it’s like to be inside someone else’s head, try to imagine what their inner nagging is. It cools my brain…
…God, I’m so sick of myself.
Oh Roger, I truly wish I’d had religion growing up, because believing in something might shut off my inner voice – and maybe also so that I could feel like I shared something with my family, a common vision. All I got from my family is death, divorce and desertion. Please come up with ideas to share with Zoë [Roger's daughter]. She’ll probably hate you until she’s twenty-one, but after that she’ll thank you forever. You’re so lucky to have the chance to not screw somebody up. (p248)

I’m probably blinded by my own presumptions, but isn’t that getting rather close to a biblical analysis of human nature? Sure it doesn’t cross any theological t’s, but it achingly seems to illustrate the yearning to overcome the sinful nature. I was really knocked back when I read that bit.

Within this bizarre paper-bound relationship, Beth & Roger share their own private universe: through Roger’s attempt at a novel, Glove Pond. Beth has her own attempts at creative writing too, all featuring the life of pieces of toast! But Glove Pond is the focus – and it is excruciatingly, but wonderfully, bad! A narrative about a drunken loser novelist, Steve, and his hopeless actress wife, Gloria. Another couple comes to dinner (successful writer Kyle Falconcrest and his medic wife Brittany) but there is a simmering rivalry and tension between them all. Part of Roger & Beth’s fun is that the characters’ names correspond to other workers at Staples. In Glove Pond, Steve & Gloria are living empty lives, with everything masked by not particularly convincing façades. This is especially apparent when the conversations turn to their son. Does he exist or not?

Coupland is playing games with our minds at this point. He is writing a book about Roger who is writing a diary; and including excerpts from the novel that he is writing about a writer called Steve who peeks jealously at Kyle’s latest manuscript about a loser called Norm! Yikes. Trying to clarify what is going on there hurts the brain. But I think that is precisely the point. It is a vortex of meanings and references – so complex that one completely loses ones sense of place and reality. What on earth is going on here?! And yet, despite our confusion, there is a real poignancy even here – because the character Kyle does see what could really be going on with Steve & Gloria. They are lost souls, covering profound grief (like Roger himself in ‘real life’):

KYLE (in Glove Pond): What, he wondered, could have happened to two people to damage them so badly? What sort of event could warp them, or any of us, to the point where they became mere cartoons of the real and whole people they once were?

This world of personality smoke and mirrors is reflected by Bethany’s view of the world. So what if you can’t tell what’s real or not? What’s real anyway? The Goth thing for her was just a certain fashionable lifestyle statement , which she can easily be discarded when it doesn’t suit. Hence her comic approach to a complex medical ethical issue like cloning:

BETHANY: Speaking of biology, I think cloning is great. I don’t understand why churchy people get so upset about it. God made the originals, and cloning is only making photocopies. Big woo. And how can people get upset about evolution? Someone had to start the ball rolling; it’s only natural to try to figure out the mechanics of how it got rolling. Relax! one theory doesn’t exclude the other. (p7)

Bethany is no fool though – while her approach might be pretty idiosyncratic, her perceptions of the absurdities of modern life are acute:

BETHANY: But what was the universe thinking when it came up with Christmas? Hey, let’s wreck six weeks of the year with guilt and loneliness and unnecessary cheesy crap! And then let’s invent office superstores where they can take everyday stuff like pens and glossy printer paper and commit an emotional travesty by suggesting these items as gift ideas for loved ones! (p233)

Coupland has the last laugh though in the book’s conclusion (which I won’t reveal!). I didn’t see it coming (but that’s probably because I’m a bit dense and read the book too quickly). But it certainly explains why so many of the book’s boundaries between ‘truth’ and fiction are so blurred, why the aches endured by so many of the characters were echoed or paralleled in their colleagues. Coupland thus even further distances the reader’s perception of reality. For who actually is Roger at all? We never really discover.

The book ended up being much more satisfying than I expected in the early pages – and throws up Coupland’s same old questions about truth, identity, hope and meaning, but in an innovative and provocative way. Still, this is Coupland’s 12th novel. I can’t help wondering whether or not he will ever find the answers he is looking for. If not, his characters will presumably have to endure their endless, and thus fruitless, search in the burb malls of North America. Heart-breaking when there are at least some answers out there, even if not all the answers.

[As a total aside, the aerial photo of Los Angeles above, comes from a revealing little essay about the american suburbs - click on the photo for more.]

 

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