Writer re­vis­its youth­ful quest for mean­ing

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Richard King

Liv­ing With a Wild God: A Non-Be­liever’s Search for the Truth about Ev­ery­thing By Bar­bara Ehren­re­ich Granta, 237pp, $29.99 IN a ca­reer span­ning nearly a half cen­tury, Amer­i­can jour­nal­ist Bar­bara Ehren­re­ich has sought to ex­pose eco­nomic in­equal­ity and to cri­tique the utopian and delu­sional character of the ar­gu­ments used to jus­tify it. In Nickel and Dimed (2001) she re­vealed how the lives of un­skilled work­ers gave the lie to ‘‘trickle-down’’ eco­nomics, while in Bait and Switch (2005) she turned her at­ten­tion to the US’s shrink­ing mid­dle class, not­ing how in­creas­ing job in­se­cu­rity had spawned a mo­ti­va­tional mar­ket pop­u­lated by frauds and huck­sters.

A mor­dant critic of the Amer­i­can Dream,

ASeptem­ber 6-7, 2014 MER­I­CAN jour­nal­ist Evan Osnos lived in China from 2005 un­til last year, dur­ing which time he wrote the col­lec­tion of 24 es­says that make up Age of Am­bi­tion. This col­lec­tion is a thor­ough and sen­si­tive por­trait of post-Deng Xiaop­ing Chi­nese so­ci­ety, and the con­se­quences of China’s wild and un­ruly cam­paign for global eco­nomic dom­i­nance in the past 30 years.

Osnos tells the story through a group of char­ac­ters, some high-pro­file Chi­nese and some or­di­nary peo­ple. There’s Lin Yifu, a sol­dier who de­fected from Tai­wan in 1979 and ended up vice-pres­i­dent of the World Bank; Gong Haiyan, a fac­tory worker who founded the big­gest in­ter­net dat­ing ser­vice in China; mag­a­zine ed­i­tor Hu Shuli, a stu­dent of Western phi­los­o­phy who be­comes a fer­vent Chi­nese na­tion­al­ist; artist Ai Wei­wei, a popular blog­ger and nov­el­ist; and Nobel Peace Prize lau­re­ate Liu Xiaobo.

The character who brought me to tears in the fi­nal chap­ter is a young English teacher from the coun­try­side, Michael Zhang, whose wild and earnest am­bi­tions to­wards a re­spectable mid­dle-class life seem to keep him just out­side of suc­cess and ful­fil­ment, as though by mag­netic force. For mil­lions of Chi­nese, myths of fer­vent self-cre­ation, fu­elled by self-help books, business plans, English cour­ses and ob­ses­sive ma­te­ri­al­ism, have, in many ar­eas of the vast map of Chi­nese so­ci­ety, be­come an aspi­ra­tional life­style — though the in­sane lev­els of wealth that China has reached re­main con­cen­trated among the rul­ing class. At ev­ery point of ev­ery story, there is a tow­er­ing sense of scale.

Where Liao Yiwu in The Corpse Walker (2008) told sto­ries from the re­cesses of China, Osnos man­ages to cap­ture the gen­eral. Most poignant and sad are the sto­ries that demon­strate the feel­ing many Chi­nese on the lower ech­e­lons of so­ci­ety have of be­ing locked out of pros­per­ity and dig­nity, or of the de­hu­man­is­ing out­comes of so­ci­eties in which peo­ple don’t trust each other, or the state.

To us in Aus­tralia, China feels close but dis­tant, a whirring, stri­dent and un­ruly force we at once wish to be close to and far away from. The awk­ward­ness of the ‘‘pivot to Asia’’ the US and Aus­tralia are try­ing to per­form is ex­posed by the sto­ries Osnos tells. The ques­tion of how to in­ter­act eco­nom­i­cally and diplo­mat­i­cally with a to­tal­i­tar­ian state that im­pris­ons and si­lences its cit­i­zens re­mains loudly and un­com­fort­ably unan­swered.

This dis­com­fit is well summed up in the story of Chen Guangcheng, a blind ‘‘bare­foot lawyer’’ and hu­man-rights ac­tivist who fled the house ar­rest un­der which the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment held him, tak­ing refuge in the US em­bassy. His tim­ing was bad, how­ever: Hil­lary Clin­ton was com­ing to visit China that week, and both sides hoped for am­i­ca­ble deal-mak­ing. Yet the em­bassy could not, on prin­ci­ple, throw him out.

Richard Nis­bett, of the Univer­sity of Michi­gan, breaks down the East-West di­vide Ehren­re­ich is the chron­i­cler of what her fel­low jour­nal­ist and pro­gres­sive George Packer has re­cently termed, in his book of the same name, ‘‘the un­wind­ing’’: the recog­ni­tion that the so­cial con­tract as en­vis­aged in plu­to­cratic Amer­ica is not worth the pa­per it was never writ­ten on.

It is not un­usual, in reviews of her work, to find Ehren­re­ich likened to George Or­well, and for once the com­par­i­son is not out of place. Like Or­well, she com­bines anal­y­sis with ob­ser­va­tion, of­ten go­ing un­der­cover to ex­pose the nas­tier as­pects of life in post-in­dus­trial Amer­ica.

Also like Or­well, she is an old-fash­ioned ra­tio­nal­ist to whom facts, and only facts, are sa­cred. Her 2010 book Smile or Die, an anal­y­sis of the cul­ture of pos­i­tive think­ing, is at once an indictment of an ide­ol­ogy that places the re­spon­si­bil­ity for fail­ure firmly on the in­di­vid­ual and an at­tack on the semi-mys­ti­cal no­tion that we can have to­tal con­trol of our des­tinies.

That Ehren­re­ich is also a sci­en­tist — she stud­ied chem­istry at Reed Col­lege in Ore­gon and later re­ceived her PhD in cell im­munol­ogy — is no doubt partly re­spon­si­ble for this out­look. Her im­mu­nity to new-age non­sense and mag­i­cal think­ing could not be more ro­bust.

It is thus with a cer­tain de­fen­sive­ness that she opens her lat­est book, an ab­sorb­ing and beau­ti­fully writ­ten mem­oir in which she pro­poses to de­scribe and an­a­lyse a se­ries of ‘‘mys­ti­cal’’ ex­pe­ri­ences she had in her youth.

But this awk­ward­ness is pre­cisely what gives the book its sinew. De­spite its some­what breath­less ti­tle, Liv­ing With a Wild God is a hard-boiled ex­plo­ration of what hap­pens when a dyed-in-the-wool ma­te­ri­al­ist is con­fronted with anoma­lous data.

To a large de­gree the book is based on a jour­nal Ehren­re­ich kept from her early teens. Earnest to the point of self-par­ody, this jour­nal cov­ers 10 years and is an at­tempt to frame and un­der­stand what its au­thor calls ‘‘the sit­u­a­tion’’, more com­monly known as the mean­ing of life.

Start­ing with the ba­sics — Can I know that I ex­ist? Can I know that other peo­ple ex­ist? — she lends cre­dence to Tom Stop­pard’s view that the se­ri­ous ques­tions of phi­los­o­phy are just the or­gan­ised ver­sion of the thoughts that oc­cur to the or­di­nary per­son as they lie in their bath­tub try­ing to turn the tap off with their toes. But her de­sire to un­der­stand the world is also, at some level, a protest against it. Even as an ado­les­cent Ehren­re­ich was de­ter­mined not to swal­low such ex­pla­na­tions as were prof­fered by au­thor­ity.

One thing she knows, or thinks she knows, is that there isn’t a God or tran­scen­den­tal realm to which we can turn in our search for an­swers. And so it comes as a rude shock when, at 13, the world as she knows it seems sud­denly to dis­solve. The oc­ca­sion for this rev­e­la­tion is a horse show in the town of Hamil­ton, Mon­tana. As her teenage co-au­thor is stub­bornly un­forth­com­ing on the na­ture of th­ese ‘‘fis­sures in re­al­ity’’,

For many Chi­nese, myths of self-cre­ation have fu­elled an aspi­ra­tional life­style

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