By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
With plot hooks aplenty, Rayner’s novel is an engrossing read. Its pleasures, though, are guilty ones. History is reduced to cliché, love inflated beyond anyone’s wildest supermarket fantasies. Milan Kundera famously defined kitsch as the denial of excrement. You’ll find no shit in The Cloud Sketcher, though in the non-epic world, which is plenty romantic enough, it’s shit that gives substance to both history and love. â
In this brief catalog of sins against history, we might also include determinism, which, under Darwinian guise, has reared its head repeatedly for the last century or so, declaring contemporary social phenomena to be inexorably set in genetic stone, more often than not thereby justifying, and eternalizing, the injustices of the status quo. It took its ugliest and crudest form at the beginning of the last century in the eugenics movement, but has cropped up with newfound vigor over the last decade in a burst stretching from Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve, which explained low minority test scores by declaring blacks genetically inferior, to last year’s A Natural History of Rape, by Randy Thornhill and Craig T. Palmer, which pronounced rape to be a natural, genetically programmed impulse.
A far friendlier ancestor of this genre (in a Barney sort of way) is Mean Genes, by Harvard’s Terry Burnham and UCLA’s Jay Phelan. Burnham and Phelan — or Terry and Jay, as they chirpily call themselves — have penned an “owner’s manual for your brain” that imports insights from evolutionary genetics to explain such modern ills as overeating, infidelity and compulsive day-trading. Mean Genes, they write, “is not some stuffy academic tome.” Indeed, brimming with easy-to-read examples from ethnobiology, neurology (something about “special cells called neurons”) and animal behavior (“let’s check in with our animal friends . . .”), personal anecdotes and quotes from the likes of Goldie Hawn, it is maddeningly, pedantically accessible — written, apparently, for the 48-year-old business traveler with a third-grade education.
Though Burnham and Phelan have a far more balanced understanding of cultural influences than many pop geneticists — particularly when it comes to race, which they all but dismiss as a genetic category — they nonetheless engage in the time-honored tradition of finding ancient evolutionary underpinnings for historically contingent outlooks, in this case for the consumerist, worker-bee ethos of their own caste, the white-collar suburban middle class. Thus we read that “Our emotional systems are designed to encourage us to work,” and that we have trouble putting money away because “we evolved to consume everything in sight,” as if our hunter-gatherer ancestors’ need to be on the move and store up food reserves in times of plenty explains the odd compulsion to spend 10 hours a day in fluorescent-lit cubicles in order to hungrily amass PlayStations and SUVs.
Explaining infidelity as an attempt by males to spread their seed as broadly as possible, and by women to secure more resources for their offspring, they offer this astonishing bit of 1950s marriage counseling: “A husband who provides a constant flow of gifts cements the marriage vow . . . Women should also give gifts to men, but remember, the best gift may be unrestricted and enthusiastic sexual access.” Burnham and Phelan offer lots more practical advice, from saving money (leave your credit card at home when you go to a casino), to avoiding binge eating (throw out half the bag of chips before you begin snacking), to finding a mate (“anyone can become significantly more attractive by being considerate, staying physically fit and being fiscally responsible”). Let’s optimistically take Mean Genes, in all its harmless banality, as a sign that America’s most recent outbreak of genetic determinism has at last run its course.
PINOCHET AND ME: A CHILEAN ANTI-MEMOIR | By MARC COOPER Verso | 141 pages | $22 hardcover
THE CLOUD SKETCHER | By RICHARD RAYNER | HarperCollins 434 pages | $25 hardcover
MEAN GENES | By TERRY BURNHAM and JAY PHELAN | Perseus | 280 pages | $24 hardcover BRUCE ERIC KAPLAN “I just feel as women we should scratch and bite one another.”