Going Clear

by Lawrence Wright

 

I try to steer away from religion. In conversation, in life, and certainly on the net. But sometimes, just once in a while, a man reads a book about religion. And that man has a blog about books, and feels obligated to document what he reads, all to satisfy his adoring public.

Scientology. I certainly know more about it than I did before. I don’t want to get into their doctrine; I’d just fuck it up. Here’s South Park to explain it for you. Go ahead, I’ll wait. I know you like South Park. If you hate following links, and you can stand a significantly shittier Youtube video, here you go:

So that’s part of Scientology, but Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear isn’t really about Scientologist doctrine, and it’s hardly about the religion at all. Instead, Wright takes it upon himself to meticulously document the life of the religion’s founder, L. Ron Hubbard, and the birth and growth of the Church itself. It’s a pretty remarkable story, and Wright takes his task seriously.

The story starts with Hubbard, a man who, from his early days, seems to have exhibited that great American trait, the gift of bullshitting. Other, less profane, people, might call this gift ‘imagination’. And for a science fiction writer such as Hubbard, not only is there nothing wrong with this, it’s actually essential for success. Given how much pulp science fiction existed in the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s, an outsized imagination and a strong work ethic could help one emerge from the pack. L. Ron HubbardHubbard had plenty of both, and used them to become one of the most prolific and successful authors of all time.

Of course, the flip side, the ‘bullshit’ side, has to come out sometime. Hubbard’s recollections of his childhood are often, to put it mildly, of dubious accuracy. His military record doesn’t back up his own account of his experience in World War II, and he appears to have lied his way into the Navy in the first place. According to Wright, Hubbard sent false recommendations along with his application, and he embiggened his qualifications as a seaman and a scientist. Having secured his appointment as an officer, it appears that he bounced around from post to post, with his superiors often wondering how the hell they got stuck with a man who seemed to have no business in the military.

His military experience- as told by him- served as the foundation for his first stab at self-help, published in 1950 as Dianetics. The techniques outlined in this text allegedly helped him cure his war wounds, including blindness, though his records document no combat-related injuries. From what I can tell, the book itself is a jumble of pseudoscience that’s pretty much a ripoff of old school psychoanalysis, which is ironic given Hubbard’s and Scientology’s view of psychotherapy as an evil profession.

Dianetics evolved into Scientology, a set of beliefs and practices whose adherents would fight for decades to be considered followers of a legitimate religion rather than a cult. Hubbard would lead the Church of Scientology through persecution, exile, legal battles, and personal struggles, till his death in 1986. He was succeeded by David Miscavige, who leads the Church to this day. Though recognized in the United States as a religious organization, and therefore tax-exempt, Scientology continues to have a worldwide perception problem.

Wright weaves this history with the personal stories of Scientology ‘defectors’, including high-ranking Sea Org members as well as acclaimed film director Paul Haggis. Each of these people tells a different story, but all of them relate their enchantment, frustrations, and growing disillusionment with Scientology’s leaders and institutions. Haggis, for example, takes issue with the Church’s stance on homosexuality, and his fury when the Church stonewalls his inquiries into the matter leads to his resignation.

(The Church’s view of homosexuality is especially interesting in light of its desire to be associated with Hollywood, not exactly a homophobic culture; indeed, one of the Scientology’s early celebrity converts, John Travolta, strongly supports the gay community and has had his own sexuality called into question. According to Wright, the organization even helped Travolta maintain his straight public image. Additionally, several Church members, including L. Ron Hubbard’s son Quentin, are alleged to have been gay.)

Other ex-Scientologists describe what happens when one joins the Sea Org, Scientology’s clergy. In the 1960’s, feeling unwelcome in many countries, Hubbard and his followers took to the open sea- hence, the Sea Organization. Going ClearScientologists who join the Sea Org sign billion-year contracts, dedicating their mortal lives and a good chunk of whatever comes after to serving their Church. Though one might think that Scientology’s clergy and management would be treated better than most adherents, Wright and his witnesses claim that the opposite is the case. The Sea Org overworks and underpays its recruits, using their total faith and dedication to keep them in line. Wright describes horrifying conditions, including disgusting housing and meals that consist of scraps. These conditions only get worse for the Sea Org member who fucks up somehow, as they can be sent to the Rehabilitation Project Force, or RPF. Jesse Prince, one of Wright’s interviewees, claims that he was “incarcerated” in the RPF for threatening to leave the Sea Org, and made to work there for an indefinite amount of time, in his case a year and a half. And from the looks of it, the RPF is not somewhere you’d wanna be sent.

To be honest, Going Clear reminded me a lot of Nothing to Envy, Barbara Demick’s account of North Korea from defectors’ perspectives. North Korean defectors claim a reluctance to defect out of fear for their families’ safety; the ex-Scientologists Wright interviews often worry about being labelled a Suppressive Person (SP), preventing future contact with their families and perhaps bringing the wrath of the Church down on family members. North Koreans recall a mix of fear, awe, and acceptance that keeps them in line; the former Sea Org members describe sticking with Scientology in similar terms.

While Wright is meticulously detailing the foundation and growth of Scientology, he continuously explores the reasons someone would join the religion, commit to the Sea Org, tolerate the abuse that members are put through. According to several sources, both Hubbard and Miscavige subjected their underlings to physical abuse. How can people trust a leader who at any point may give in to violent rages? When the FBI raids Scientology offices in 1977 and stumbles upon over a hundred RPF members in a dark basement, none of them try to flee; Wright wants us to ask ourselves why. Were they brainwashed? Or was it simply dedication to their beliefs?

For Wright, it really comes down to this question: how do we define the differences between a religion, a cult, and a criminal organization? Does that distinction matter?

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His Dark Materials

by Philip Pullman

 

Actually three separate books, His Dark Materials is a sci-fi/fantasy epic centered around two children from different worlds. The Golden Compass, set in an alternate Europe, introduces Lyra Belacqua and follows her from Oxford to the Arctic as she searches for her friend Roger and her Uncle Asriel, both of whom may be in danger. The second book, The Subtle Knife, brings Lyra together with Will Parry, a resident of our world who stumbles into another. And in the finale, The Amber Spyglass, a bunch of crazy and inexplicable shit happens.

While I’m reviewing these books together, it should be noted that each of them has a unique tone. His Dark MaterialsCompass, definitely my favorite, is an innovative fantasy adventure, and manages to introduce wholly new concepts without confusing the audience. Spyglass, on the other hand, at times seemed to suffer from the same affliction that many final installments have; namely, there’s too much going on, and Pullman seems to be trying really hard to make everything meaningful. (Think Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, or Mockingjay.) Meanwhile, Subtle Knife, while not without its charm, serves mainly as a bridge between the other two books. So we end up with a somewhat uneven series, in quality as well as tone, but Pullman always manages to come up with something new and exciting to bring you back in.

Generally, he’s able to do this because he has a talent for coming up with cool shit, in which His Dark Materials is not lacking. Probably the coolest idea in these books shows up halfway through Compass: the armored bears, or panserbjørne. These are sentient polar bears that hang out up north and do awesome things. Lyra encounters one of these bears, Iorek Byrnison, on her travels through the north, and attempts to help him usurp the throne of the bear kingdom. Iorek has to fight the current king in paw-to-paw combat (of course he does) while Lyra and the rest of the panserbjørne watch. The two bears fight to the death and I don’t want to give away too much but they beat the shit out of each other and one bear punches the other bear’s jaw clean off! Just typing that last sentence got me excited. Sorry.

While it’s inconceivable to me that anyone wouldn’t enjoy an armored bear death match, sometimes Pullman invented stuff that just didn’t do it for me. In Spyglass– remember, this is when all the crazy shit happens- one of the characters enters a world where deer-like beings have evolved wheels, instead of legs, as their means of propulsion. This makes absolutely no sense, but Pullman tries to make it seem cosmically significant. The wheels come from the trees, the creatures use the wheels, eventually the wheels break, the seed pops out and grows to be another tree, etc. Circle of life. Honestly though… it’s just not that cool. The books contain some fantastic stuff, like panserbjørne, daemons, the alethiometer, the subtle knife, Dust- and then there are the less interesting characters and concepts, or cool ideas that never really panned out.

But basically, I think it’s a pretty good series. There is one thing I should mention: these books are somewhat infamous works of atheism, and something of a counterargument to The Chronicles of Narnia series by C.S. Lewis. The premise of both series is essentially the same: some normal kids go to strange worlds and find themselves fighting in an existential conflict.

But whereas Lewis builds the Aslan-as-Jesus allegory, in which God is a badass lion and basically the hero of Narnia, Pullman portrays God and the church as malevolent, ignorant, and sometimes evil. Compass started off with Lyra questioning religious teachings, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but Spyglass really goes hard with its atheism. Of course, I think you can enjoy Narnia without buying into all of the religious themes, so you can probably enjoy His Dark Materials and just ignore the anti-God stuff. I just thought I should mention it.

If you can get over that, and you’re not embarrassed reading a ‘young adult’ series, think about checking it out. Warning: they made a film out of The Golden Compass. It was terrible. But because it had Eva Green, I feel obligated to share the following picture with you.

Totally necessary picture of Eva Green as the witch Serafina Pekkala

Totally necessary still of Eva Green as the witch Serafina Pekkala

A bear punches another bear’s jaw off. That alone would warrant my recommendation.

American Gods

by Neil Gaiman

 

A lot of people think religion is on the decline in the United States; that we brought our gods with us and are now casting them aside. Neil Gaiman thinks we’re simply trading old gods for new. Instead of worshiping Scandinavian and African and Indian gods, we worship the gods of television and the internet and drugs and sex. Instead of sacrificing in Odin’s name, we make blood sacrifices to the gods of highways and railroads. Our hero, Shadow, is introduced to this reality immediately after his parole from prison, entering the service of a man called Mr. Wednesday.

You might suppose that this is a combination of fantasy and Elmore Leonard-type crime fiction. It is, in a way, but it’s hard to explain how it actually reads. There are parts of the book that focus on Shadow trying to adjust to a ‘normal’ lifestyle, and there are parts that seem to have no relation to the real world. No matter what’s going on, though, both of these elements are present throughout the novel, and are pretty seamlessly woven into the story.

It helps, of course, that Gaiman can write. I tend to hate the stoic tough guy character, but Shadow is given depth that I’ve rarely seen in crime fiction. One of my favorite passages from the book features Shadow deciding to take a walk by himself, despite the ridiculously cold weather. Minute by minute he realizes that he underestimated the danger, or perhaps he overestimated his ability to tolerate the cold, and his mild annoyance is slowly replaced with panic. This human moment could’ve taken place in a world without magic, but it fits perfectly with Shadow’s character and Gaiman’s writing style.

I should add that, in addition to fitting in with the crime and fantasy genres, American Gods is a novel about the open road, which seems to be a American Godsuniquely American theme. I was shocked to find out that Gaiman’s a European; he really seems to understand American localities and cultural quirks. Shadow bounces all over the country on what can only be described as road trips, and Gaiman perfectly captures the freedom, the fatigue, and the anxiety that come with them. The journey to Cairo, Illinois has all of these things, as Shadow starts out alone and is joined by a hitchhiker named Sammi (sans smiley face over the ‘i’). What starts as an awkward situation (I think 70% of hitchhikers end up murdered by psychopaths) ends up with both characters recognizing one another as a kindred spirit, even if they don’t quite understand each other.

The road is just a part of what makes this book so ‘American,’ though. I mean, yea, there’s the title. American Gods. Good look. But each of the characters has a quintessentially American background. Shadow’s family history is never revealed, and he seems to not worry about the past or even the future all that much. All the gods in the book came from other lands, though many admit (or complain, depending on how you look at it) that America is not a good place for gods. I dunno how to explain, but I don’t think it could’ve been the same story if it had been set anywhere else.

Admittedly, American Gods has a weird plot and a weird structure, but Gaiman really makes it work. He’s able to introduce Shadow and the world of the gods simultaneously, and he also interrupts the narrative with occasional ‘Coming to America’ vignettes. The story of African twins who are sold into slavery in America- which has nothing to do with the rest of the narrative- was incredible to read. It might not contribute to the plot of the novel, per se, but it definitely added to its feel.

By the end of the book I was totally drawn into this world. Despite the side stories, there is no part of Gods that felt extraneous to me. I was completely satisfied by the conclusion, and every time i thought that a loose end hadn’t been tied off, or that a subplot was left unexplored, Gaiman settled it, in a way that felt completely natural. He wrapped it up about as well as any book I’ve ever read. Almost every character, living, dead, or somewhere in between, finds his or her resolution.

This is one of the most unique books I’ve ever read, in plot and in style. Though the whole idea may seem a bit ridiculous for an adult novel (not that kind of adult novel), I can almost guarantee that you would enjoy American Gods, even if you’re not all that into crime or fantasy.

Things Fall Apart

by Chinua Achebe

 

(Rant/sidetrack: I’ve been meaning to read Things Fall Apart for a while and I actually tried to read it for an assignment in high school. My Unnamed Teacher basically told me I’d read it before and called my a liar when I said I hadn’t. Unnamed Teacher, you are a dick. You played favorites, ridiculed kids, and generally got too involved with students’ lives. I’m pretty sure you advised my girlfriend that she was hanging out with the wrong crowd- referring to me and a couple of friends. And you called me a liar, without basis. You may be smart and successful, but being a good teacher should be more than making sure your students read the right books; you should probably not be using your position of power to play students against each other. Just my opinion, guy.)

The title and epigraph of Things Fall Apart come from the W.B. Yeats poem “The Second Coming,” the epigraph reading:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.

I’ve never read the full poem, nor any others by this poet whose name I consistently mispronounce (it apparently rhymes with ‘gates,’ not ‘beets’), and I generally don’t read too much into epigraphs anyway. I also tend confuse epigraphs with epitaphs. But in this case, the epigraph primes you for the whole novel. When I consider the themes of Things Fall Apart, they’re all there, in those four lines.

The story begins by describing Okonkwo, whose ambition and sense of self-worth come from his distaste for his father’s laziness and poverty. Things Fall ApartAs such, Okonkwo strives to become one of the most powerful men in his village of Umuofia. That chip on his shoulder allows him to become a champion wrestler, a successful farmer, and a leader in his community. His demeanor, however, sets him a bit apart from his village; he’s impulsive and quick to anger, and he resists change and scorns compromise. In the end, the attributes that Okonkwo sees as his virtues are revealed as his weaknesses.

It’s hard for me to say whether Okonkwo brings on his own downfall, or whether he’s brought down by forces he can’t control, primarily in the form of British colonization. Perhaps it’s both equally, and I could certainly see Okonkwo’s story playing out the same way regardless of the outside influence. If this was an English essay, I’d probably have to take a stand on the matter, but it’s not. It’s not for me to decide whether one’s personality defects qualify as tragic flaws.

I also wonder what political message, if any, Achebe means to send with the book. Half of the story takes place before Okonkwo’s people encounter the British missionaries, when ‘white men’ referred to lepers and not Europeans. This was probably the more interesting part of the book for me, watching Okonkwo navigate a society that he understands pretty well, though maybe not as well as he thinks. He plays by the rules, for the most part, and experiences successes, but every once in a while he runs afoul of societal norms, and must pay the price.

When the Europeans do arrive, Okonkwo reacts in his Okonkwo-like fashion, but many others take a more conciliatory and inclusive stance. To Okonkwo and those like him, the loss of the clan’s cohesion is the real tragedy, even though the missionaries don’t attempt to coerce the clan into adopting Christianity. Okonkwo sees that his ideals are becoming less relevant all the time, and doesn’t understand how other people don’t see it. He’s lived his whole life by his own code, and it’s served him pretty well so far, so how else is he supposed to deal with these new problems?

So there’s really two ways to frame the story. You could see it as Okonkwo’s story, set during a particularly difficult period of history, or you could see the story of the invasion, colonization, and proselytization of Africa, as seen through the eyes of one man. I think I prefer the former; it seems more interesting, and more universal. Okonkwo is a man who thinks he understands the world better than the world understands itself. Whether you call it confidence, or arrogance, or something else, we can all relate to that feeling. Nobody wants to go to bed understanding their place in the world, only to wake up completely lost.

As for the latter (the novel about the clash between British and Ibo cultures), I think that could be interesting as well, but I don’t really know much of the actual history. In fact, I’d never heard of the Ibo culture before reading Things Fall Apart. Achebe does a good job, I think, of presenting an African perspective on this confrontation, through the eyes of Okonkwo; then again, he also sets Okonkwo apart from the rest of his tribe, which makes it harder for me to see him as representative of Africa or of the Ibo. So I prefer to see colonialism as a backdrop, providing context for our protagonist’s attitudes and actions, and making his story all the more tragic.

Things Fall Apart is a great book. A real think-piece. As I sat here writing this, I realized that Okonkwo is one of the most interesting literary characters I’ve seen in a while. So read it.

The Alchemist

by Paulo Coelho

 

The Alchemist is the story of a young Spanish shepherd, Santiago, who seems satisfied with minding his flock and reading his books. His routine is broken when he dreams of a treasure buried at the Pyramids in Egypt, which a Gypsy woman tells him he must pursue. Santiago continues to receive signs that he must follow his dream, and he sets off for Africa to fulfill what he comes to regard as his Personal Legend.

I was only introduced to this book a few days ago, and had never heard of Paulo Coelho. The person who lent it to me compared it to Le Petit Prince, a comparison I saw echoed all over the inside cover. Now, I read Prince for French class in high school, and I remember not liking it at all. That might’ve been because a) I read it in French, and b) I read it for class. Those factors have never increased the likelihood of me enjoying something, so I thought that, reading The Alchemist in English rather than Portuguese, on my own time, I’d be able to understand and enjoy it.

Aside from the Prince comparison, I was warned by the aforementioned lender that I might find it a little bit shallow. Now, I have no problem with shallowness- I liked Iron Man 3– but I can’t stand superficiality masquerading as depth and meaning, which is what The Alchemist was starting to sound like. I wish I could’ve read the book without any preconceived notions, but it’s too late. In my head the whole time I was reading was the fear that it would turn out to be fun, whimsical and meaningless.

I can’t say that any of that is true or untrue. I think anyone can read The Alchemist, and everyone takes what they will out of it. My thoughts:

The Alchemist was a relaxing, serene experience. It often reminded me of the serenity prayer, actually. Santiago’s mentors encourage him to follow his The Alchemistdreams, but remind him that he shouldn’t get discouraged by setbacks. I think that’s a good approach to life; don’t worry about things you shouldn’t worry about, and work hard at the things you want to achieve. I didn’t need the book to tell me that, but it’s nice to be reminded sometimes.

The book’s prose is easy to read, and not in a bad way. Coelho (and his translators) cut out all the unnecessary language that would just muddle the message, which is beautiful in its simplicity. He writes as if he is relaying a parable rather than a novel, and I got the impression that every word in every sentence could be meaningful, even if I did not find it so. The boy, Santiago, constantly learns and comes to realizations about life, and his lessons build on each other and result in a sense of constant climax (not in a weird way, or in a cliffhanger way).

While The Alchemist is a pretty thinly veiled religious allegory, I don’t think that the God stuff was overdone. Compared to, say, Crime and Punishment, I didn’t feel like I was being beaten over the head with the idea that life’s all about faith and redemption through Christianity. Perhaps I’m missing something, but I kind of thought the book was more about belief in oneself and one’s own dreams than about belief in God. I sometimes felt as if Dostoevsky was standing over me, yelling “CHRISTIANITY IS THE PATH”; comparatively, Coelho was sitting across from me saying, “It’s all good, dude.” God was a part of the message, but I didn’t feel like he excluded atheists/agnostics/other religions.

Partially because it’s so short, I imagine that I might find myself reading The Alchemist again someday. I don’t know whether my understanding or appreciation for it will be affected. For now, I will say that it is enjoyable and poetical. In my case, I’m glad I spent the time to read it.