Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Book Review: "Bad Behavior" by Mary Gaitskill

Bad Behavior (1988)
Mary Gaitskill (1954)

204 pages

If someone wrote about your life, describing the drama and action in it, you might wish it could be more exciting or at least more interesting, but I expect you wouldn’t be all that embarrassed to have it appear in print. But what if that story, instead of focusing on the events of your life, captured the jumble of thoughts and images that flare up uncontrollably to disrupt your concentration at work, or keep you awake at night staring at the ceiling? Having those often chaotic and irrational mixtures of secret desires, fears and rationalizations appear in a story for anyone to read would be mortifying indeed.

Fortunate it is then for the characters in Mary Gaitskill’s collection of short stories Bad Behavior that they are fictional, and so incapable of suffering from the revelation of their most private thoughts and bitter realizations about themselves.

These nine stories in fact contain little direct action. Instead, most of the drama occurs in the character’s thoughts, as Gaitskill examines the psychological impacts on people of what are often seemingly minor events. In some stories, for example, a chance meeting triggers an avalanche of memories that carries characters back into a painful and buried past that they suddenly find haunts their present. In others, what might seem to be an encounter of little significance causes characters to suddenly question their most fundamental assumptions about themselves. Gaitskill lets us peer into the minds of her characters, revealing how quickly and easily memories and dreams can dissolve someone’s carefully constructed image of themselves into a roiling turmoil of uncertainty, doubt and regret.

In the opening story, Daisy’s Valentine, a married man whose world is organized around a three day drug binge he and his wife engage in weekly finds himself attracted to a woman at work who has moved from one disappointing boyfriend to the next. When the pair begin going out they find themselves mired in misunderstanding, connected by little more than their mutual desire to move beyond the dismal present of their lives.

A woman agrees to go out of town on vacation with a man she’s just met in A Romantic Weekend. Attracted to his forceful behavior, she has revealed to him her masochistic tendencies, and so triggered his sadistic fantasies. But when they finally head out on the trip, the two struggle to understand why the exciting plans they had each imagined for the weekend fail to materialize, and why the other has suddenly become so different from the person they expected.

Something Nice opens with a man visiting a brothel while his wife is out of town on a several week trip. When he chats up the prostitute during his session in the room, he finds her willing to engage in the conversation as if he had just met her casually somewhere. Returning to see her the following nights, he feels he is building a relationship with her different from the typical one between a john and a prostitute, and begins to imagine that she views the situation the same way, and that their relationship could carry on outside the brothel.

Despite a good job in Manhattan and an active dating life, the main character in An Affair, Edited begins to question the direction his life has taken when, walking a different route to work one day, he passes a girl he had dated back at the University of Michigan. Their relationship had ended badly, but after seeing her he finds his thoughts drifting back to memories of their time together and of his life back at school. Erotic fantasies of her mash together with others of girls he has met since, only to clash with moments of clarity about what he may have missed out on.

A woman momentarily mistakes a street beggar for an old girlfriend as Connection opens. The friendship had ended bitterly, but memories of their time together now coming flooding back to the woman, forcing her to reevaluate her assumptions about why it had ended at all.

In Trying To Be a woman who came to New York to be a writer instead drifts in and out of clerical jobs, which she occasionally quits out of boredom to work as a prostitute for brief periods. During one of her stints in a brothel she meets a john who seems genuinely interested in her; when they begin meeting outside of the brothel, he continues to pay her, leaving her confused and reflective about where her life is taking her.

In Secretary --- turned into a feature film released in 2002 starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader --- a young woman with a dim and uncertain view of her future begins a job working as a receptionist and secretary for a lawyer in a small, stand-alone office building. When the lawyer discovers errors in some of the letters she types up, his methods for punishing her take a startling twist, leaving her both appalled and aroused.

A woman runs into an old friend on the street, in Other Factors, someone she has not seen for a couple of years. He triggers unwelcome memories for her of someone she had thought of as a friend, but who she felt had unexpectedly turned on her, and with whom she had therefore abruptly cut off contact. Since that time she has built a comfortable life for herself, having found good work and a stable relationship, but when an opportunity to see her former friend comes up, she struggles with how to handle the sudden resurrection of past disappointment.

The lead character in Heaven is wife, mother, sister and aunt, with these roles sometimes bringing her joy and happiness, and other times buffeting her life with struggle and pain. Perhaps most challenging are the unexpected twists, the moments when what seemed to be going well suddenly turns bad, and through it all finding a way to keep moving forward.

Reading any of the stories in this collection is a bit like staring at a slow-motion accident: we are bewildered and disturbed, but we cannot look away. It can be a struggle to know whether to feel pity, empathy or outrage for the characters in these stories, and a part of deciding which of these feelings is appropriate can be recognizing in some of these characters our own weakness and failings.

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Book Review: "Making American Foreign Policy" by Ole R. Holsti

Making American Foreign Policy (2006)  

Ole R. Holsti (1933)

390 pages

American public opinion has been characterized by some analysts as unstable and incoherent, and having little impact on foreign policy; but is such a view supported by actual evidence, or does it simply represent an unsubstantiated assumption? More generally, how has the foreign policy environment in the United States changed since the relatively strong consensus that existed during the first two decades after the end of WW II, when the Cold War focused the minds of political leaders and the public alike? And, Classical Realist models of international relations assume that nation-states are unitary rational actors, that is, that they can be considered as single entities that make rational choices; but should foreign policy decisions by the US government be made based on such a model of international behavior, ignoring the varied and particular characteristics of any nation’s leaders?

In Making American Foreign Policy, Ole R. Holsti, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Duke University, examines these and other questions concerning American foreign policy over the past half-century.

Holsti opens the book with two chapters in which he argues that the analysis and understanding of decision making in political contexts can benefit from considering the behaviors of the leaders involved; he refers to this as a cognitive approach to political science, and differentiates it from the unitary rational actor model mentioned above. To understand a leader’s behavior, he begins by characterizing their Belief System, which he defines as a set of lenses through which a person perceives the world, and with which order is brought to an otherwise unmanageable amount of information. In a data-driven approach that he follows throughout the remaining chapters of the book, Holsti parses, categorizes and analyzes the public comments about the Soviet Union made by John Foster Dulles, US Secretary of State from 1953-59, in order to understand Dulles’ belief system. Holsti begins by developing a hypothesis that describes Dulles’ opinions regarding the Soviet Union, and then demonstrates the validity of the hypothesized belief system by analyzing Dulles’ public statements. Thus, Holsti does not simply rely on an arm-chair psychological evaluation of Dulles, he instead quantifies the nature of Dulles’ beliefs, and shows that a consistent pattern can be found in his public declarations.

Having established the importance of taking a cognitive approach to analyzing and understanding foreign policy behaviors, Holsti uses the next eight chapters of the book to examine how the beliefs and opinions of American leaders and the public have affected foreign policy decisions and behavior. Holsti begins from the premise that for the two decades after the end of WW II a fairly consistent, coherent and broadly-held consensus existed in American foreign policy, one shaped principally by the Cold War with the Soviet Union. He then uses survey data that he and his team gathered, as well as data from other researchers and organizations, to quantifiably chart public and leadership opinion in the US, as well as the trends in these opinions since the mid-1960’s, a period of dramatic change encompassing Vietnam, several rounds of d├ętente, the end of the Cold War, the post-Cold War era, and the events and aftermath of 9-11.

Whether it’s the “Almond-Lippmann Consensus” (that American public opinion is volatile, incoherent and has little impact on foreign policy), the popular notion that Americans will not support foreign involvement once casualty figures begin mounting, or Arthur Schlesinger’s statement in 1995 that Americans are becoming more isolationist in the aftermath of the cold war, Holsti does not simply argue for or against these propositions. He instead goes back to the survey results and shows us what an analysis of actual data says about the validity of these assumptions --- or general lack thereof in the case of the three listed above. In doing so he is careful to describe the limitations of the survey results he presents, and also where the data do not allow a clear distinction.

To note just one of the intriguing results that comes out in these chapters: Holsti charts how the opinions of American leaders and the public have been affected and changed by the significant international events of the past 50 years. Analyzing the extensive survey data that he and others have collected, he demonstrates how Vietnam sundered the Cold War consensus that had existed since WW II, and from the data he demonstrates the quite divergent and highly partisan viewpoints that have developed, and how an alignment arose between domestic and foreign policy opinions on each side of that partisan divide. He also examines the trends in opinion over the past five decades, noting that even such dramatic events as the end of the Cold War and the 9-11 attacks have not led to the development of a new consensus, and that in fact the partisan and ideological divides in politics have only become deeper. Surely it would be difficult to argue with the impression --- even without data --- that in the decade since the book was published these trends have only intensified.

Holsti concludes with two chapters that discuss more broadly the analysis of international relations and foreign policy. In the first of these, he summarizes the main approaches, or models, used in the study and understanding of these areas, discussing their principal features, and some of the shortcomings critics have raised against them. One element of the discussion that particularly stood out for me was the realization that these models and their respective supporters tie back to Holsti’s opening chapters on Belief Systems and their impact on an individual’s perception and ordering of information about the world. Classical Realism, according to Holsti, is grounded in a pessimistic theory of human nature, and a focus on the causes of war and conditions of peace; it’s not difficult to see how a person’s view of the world could lead them to favor this model. Similarly, the model that Holsti lumps together under the title of Global Society, Interdependence, Institutionalism acknowledges that issues of war and peace are important, but believes too that nation-states can have other motivations for their behavior, which can lead to institution building between states, and so to a non-zero-sum structure; again, one can imagine that a person’s belief system might lead them to accept the validity of such a model. Other approaches, such as Marxism, World Systems, Dependency (built around the idea that conditions arising from modes of production, such as poverty and exploitation, are key elements) and Post-Modern (negating the idea that a general model for the international system can even be developed) fit the same pattern. As in so many areas of science, and beyond it for that matter, how one views the world --- one’s belief system --- inevitably affects how one imagines (models) it.

In the same chapter, Holsti discusses Decision Making structures, such as bureaucratic/organizational, small group and individual leader models. These approaches link back to a fundamental criticism of the Classical Realism (unitary rational actor) theory, that nation-states cannot be considered to act either as singular units or rationally because their actions come down to the beliefs and behaviors of individuals or groups. Holsti also points out that there has been a growing movement to consider multiple levels of models at once in order to more fully understand and make sense of international relations and foreign policy; so, for example, to use a classical realism or global systems model, but in conjunction with (more detailed) decision making-based models.

Holsti concludes with a final chapter that summarizes his take away from over forty years of studying American leadership and public opinion and its impact on foreign policy behavior and decisions. He states that “by conventional measures of power and status power” (p. 345) the United States continues to dominate the international arena, but that we have lost much of our ability to guide and influence foreign relations --- the soft power that helps a country to avoid having to resort to military force to further its interests. He also laments (perceptively one could say, from the perspective of 10 years on) the continuing trend toward an ever more partisan and ideologically driven foreign policy debate, from which our influence on international relation can only suffer. He finds that the United States continues to pay a heavy price for the way our government executed the Iraq War --- from its attempt to coerce allies into participating or lending support, to its misleading statements made to justify the war --- which he feels has been particularly damaging to our standing and influence in world affairs.

The chapters in Making American Foreign Policy consist of a dozen or so published papers from Holsti’s five decades of work in the field of analyzing international relations and foreign policy.  Their origin as stand-alone papers leads to some level of overlap in the results and discussion from one chapter (paper) to the next, which Holsti addresses in part by including an introduction in which he describes the overarching themes of the book, and provides a brief outline of the individual chapters and their place in the whole.  The choice of issuing the book as a collection of papers does have an advantage for the reader: with the chapters arranged in roughly chronological order, covering papers he published between 1972 to 2005, we can evaluate and understand the results and analysis in the context of the dramatic changes that occurred over that period.   In addition we benefit from an authoritative, data-driven analysis of American foreign policy over the last half-century.  This is not purely a work of one person’s opinion, like so many books on domestic and international politics can be. Instead Holsti summarizes and analyzes the results of several decades of surveys of both the American public and American decision making elite, to help us understand how their opinions have evolved, and to allow us to evaluate which popular assumptions about their opinions and beliefs stand up to scrutiny, and which are misguided, or worse, wishful (often for political purposes) thinking.

Read quotes from this book

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf