You Can’t Review That: Life

The novel opens with a prologue called “Conception” wherein two inebriated characters have desultory sex following a blackout. Then we jump forward to a lurid set-piece involving blood, screaming and pain in which the main character, You, enters the world in one of the most grotesque literary introductions to a character since Snowden lay dying in the back.

The book has an interesting structure, with each day (a sentence) running fluidly, sometimes imperceptibly into the next; each week (a paragraph) containing at most one new idea; adding up to the 75 years (chapters) that contain the whole narrative. This was a bit long. 75 chapters is sort of a bit nineteenth century, somewhat Dickensian — and in fact Life is a bit Dickensian, with its eccentric minor characters, moral weightiness and throngs of poor people.

The early chapters get bogged down in the bodily functions of the idiotic lead, who sees the world like a character from a Faulkner novel. Chapters 5–12 are harder to recall, but made for pleasant reading, despite a barely perceptible, yet haunting feeling of dread. The tragi-comic sequence covering chapters 13–18 ranges from poignant to just uncomfortable to read, as You, surrounded by gawky and self-conscious peers, somehow manage to standout as even gawkier and more self-conscious.

Chapters 18–30 promised to be the most interesting but while the writing hinted at some revelatory insight, what we actually got was some pretty mediocre material about You trying to find themselves in university, Europe and hobby cooking — in that order. After a string of exploitative casual sexual trysts, You settle down with a demographically appropriate partner who doesn’t piss Your parents off too much and who has the same views on how frequently one should clean the fridge out. Then You propagate some side characters and the next ten chapters fly through a staccato sequence of barely conscious vignettes involving changing nappies, taking kids to soccer training and the occasional promotion at the inconsequential bureaucracy You settled for working at.

The middle passages were pretty dull, lacking the vibrancy and anticipation of the earlier chapters. They seemed mainly to be concerned with the drinking of wine, the renovating of bathrooms and the curating of superannuation schemes. The final section winds down and devolves into a repetitive, bucolic account of retirement in Somewhere Bay and makes for lazy holiday reading, until the agonising final few chapters which are poignant in their melancholy.The story ends with a whimper and while some people were hoping for an epilogue — there was none.

Some have called Life a sub-Joycean bildungsroman and it’s true that there wasn’t as much sex as one might hope for and there are long passages that simply devolve into maudlin self-reflection from the neurotic protagonist. But there are plenty of laughs all the way through and You, although flawed, is lovable. To anyone looking for an extended read I’d recommend Proust, of course, but Life  always seems to get in the way whenever you try to read something really epic.

Better than non-existence, three stars.

This article originally appeared in Woroni in 2011.

Faking It With Freestone: Indie Music

The key to this is not music but music genres. You should know the significance of Marvin Gaye and Kraftwerk and should also be able to throw an example artist up for various sub-genres: trip-hop, ska, lo-fi, prog-rock, the Seattle sound and others.

If this sounds like a lot of research don’t worry, it isn’t. Simply consult some helpful list (bless the Web) like Rolling Stone’s top 100 albums of all time or something. They should provide you with a couple of sentences summarising the significance of each artist, grouping them into time periods and genres.

Still a general “alternative” lineage can be traced through modern music and these artists have formed the basis of garage band imitations, student dreams of self-knowledge and poseurs’ comparisons at local gigs. In order of initiation you need to know at least the following bands and their major albums: Radiohead, The Smiths, Jeff Buckley, Bloc Party, Sigur Ros, Lou Reed, Beck, Arcade Fire, Tom Waitts, The Pixies.

If you’ve ever read a music review then you’ll appreciate that there is certainly no level of musicological expertise required to comment on contemporary music. No one has ever discussed a specific aspect of music. The use of an instrument, the technical aspects of composition, the choice of lyrics are all secondary characteristics. For the indie music fan only the primary characteristics of sub-genre and similarity to other acts matter. But there is a standard vocabulary to adopt as per Rule 3 of being a PI: vocabulary is nine tenths of an impression. Thus a song becomes a track, album becomes LP, a band’s previous album was their previous release and so forth. Read a couple of reviews on MetaCritic and you should get the gist.

There are also no wrong opinions as long as you play within the rules. You can’t say Katy Perry is better than Radiohead but you can say that Radiohead are better than The Smiths, that The Smiths were better than Bloc Party or that Bloc party were better than Radiohead — in fact you can make all these claims in the same conversation. This is known as the property of indie music non-transitivity. Remember: it is not the quality of your opinions that will matter, but merely the quantity of the opinions and the breadth of artists you name drop.

Because indie music is the field most populated by poseurs, dilettantes and outright phonies, it is fertile ground for the PI. The key fact is that you will at no point need to listen to any of the music you talk about.  If you like you could try listening to the odd song and even the 30 second free samples on iTunes will give a rough idea of what these people actually sound like. But what is important is merely referencing the bands and artists at the appropriate time. If someone asks you if you’ve heard Bright Eyes’s latest album, just say yes and that it wasn’t as good as their previous release. That’s all you need to do. Congratulations, you just became someone who listens to cool music.

This article originally appeared in Woroni in 2011.

Faking It With Freestone: Literature

Of all the many great topics one could learn about, I pretend to have learnt the most about literature. This is the home wicket with predictable bounce for the pseudo-intellectual. Pretending to know about this or that branch of science always allows room to be caught out with some googly of jargon or the flipper of “facts”. Happily literature is devoid of facts, figures, findings, theorems and axioms. This means that it’s very hard to say something incorrect and so the trap for young players is in not saying enough.

Even more happily there is no overlap between what people should read and what they have read. Everyone knows there are a bunch of French, Irish and Russian blokes who wrote long novels about 100 years ago that deal with The Human Condition. But everyone reads Eat, Pray, Love or, at best, something by Ian McEwan or Margaret Atwood.

You’ll get a few runs for rattling off some respected contemporary authors, but that’s really just rotating strike. Life at uni is a Twenty20 match and you’ve got to hit intellectual sixes to stand any chance of impressing the attractive hipster boy/girl you’ve met at that party. You need to Proust over the short square leg boundary, or get on the back foot and Joyce behind square, or dance down the wicket and Dostoevsky that shit over long-on.

This cricket metaphor broke down a while ago but if I’ve taught you anything it’s that content, precision and coherence don’t matter as long as there are a lot of words and they sound good. Specifically, use a lot of words that are names of novels and authors and simply lie about what you’ve read. Freestone’s First Rule is first for a reason: it’s not how much you’ve read or what you know, but how much people you know think you’ve read.

Here’s a simple recipe for reading great literature: buy second hand copy of The Brothers Karamazov with pre-dog-eared pages. Carry round with you at uni, commenting on its profundity. Each night advance bookmark inside the novel 30 pages while watching How I Met Your Mother DVDs. When bookmark reaches end of novel, place in bookshelf in prominent place in living room for people to see. Add to list of favourite books on Facebook profile. Repeat with remainder of Western Canon.

This article originally appeared in Woroni in 2011.

Faking It With Freestone: Climate Change

Climate change is perhaps the most important issue of our time and undoubtedly involves complex science, geopolitical implications and subtle moral and ethical arguments. Owing to its inherently interdisciplinary nature, it is impossible for any one person to be an expert in all the relevant fields. So Rule 9 of being a PI applies here: the more difficult something is to understand, the easier it is to pretend to others that you understand it.

Climate change will be brought up in conversation in one of two contexts: (1) someone decides they are a denier after reading an article by Freemon Dyson, Bjorn Lomborg or some other twonk; or (2) someone argues that we should be doing more to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. Luckily a very small amount of factoids will cover you in both instances.

First off you need to get used to mentioning the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) and their Fourth Assessment Report (2007). Rule 7 of being a PI is that acronyms are worth double the value of actual words; but Rule 7 subsection 7.2 notes that further expanding the acronym if someone asks you what it means, is worth double that value again. Don’t read the report but tell people you have and that it contains all the information they need to learn more about climate change — don’t worry, you won’t get caught out because they won’t read it either. Rule 18 of being a PI is one of my favourites and is relevant here: it’s not who’s read the most things, but who’s heard of the most things that should be read.

The tricky bit is memorising the following technical phrases which can be jumbled around a bit and if deployed will exude the sweet, false odour of erudition: solar forcing (the sun getting hotter or something), aberrant volcanic activity (volcanoes pumping bad gasses into the air) — actually that’s about it. Then you can just say that all the factors which are known to have affected the climate in the past can be ruled out today, leaving only human industrial activity and our production of CO2 and other gasses like methane (always say “and other gasses, like methane” even if you don’t know any others). Then explain that simply cutting emissions is futile and that we need larger interventions (throw in “carbon sequestration” and “geo-engineering”). This will show that you are gravely concerned, but it will also absolve you from actually doing anything unpleasant like protesting about emissions targets.

This article originally appeared in Woroni in 2011.

Faking It With Freestone: Political Philosophy

Here’s the scenario: you’re at a party and some pol-sci nerd, or B.Econ wonk busts out a libertarian screed that demolishes one of the many institutions you hold dear in your vaguely socialist, bourgeois, liberal outlook. It happens a lot and you might think it’s no place for the budding pseudo-intellectual to try and fake their way out. Wrong.

I love a challenge, as long as that challenge doesn’t involve time and effort dedicated to becoming genuinely learned.

The straightforward, trenchant arguments your opponent on the night makes against the welfare state, against workers’ unions, against Obama and against funding for the ABC will detonate inside any group of uni kids all pretending to be smarter than they are. But here’s your chance to impress that hipster boy/girl who’s there at the party, having their leftwing worldview shattered along with you.

All you need to do is point out that this market oriented libertarian view of the world is only for middle class, white men. Your opponent might not actually be white but they will always be male. There have never been any female libertarians and that includes Ayn Rand. Once the inescapable fact that the only people who buy this stuff are generally already successful and wholly male has been pointed out, the guy won’t be able to come back without saying something sexist. If they don’t, you’ve won the argument and possibly the phone number of that boy/girl with glasses, a scarf and cardigan. If they do resort to sexism, same result but you’ll probably be able to leverage some outrage at this dude’s sexism for at least a pash on the night.

N.B. They could counter by saying you’re making an ad hominem argument, which is basically one made against the person rather than their arguments. If they do, then you’re dealing with a rival faker. Freestone’s Thirteenth Rule says: nothing can beat an ad hominem argument, except calling out “ad hominem”, which is actually the ultimate ad hominem argument, because it attacks and discredits your opponent’s behaviour, thus sidelining their valid arguments.

If this happens you’ll just have to hope that you already did enough with your fairly obvious observation that an ideology centred on individualism is only popular with men.

This article originally appeared in Woroni in 2011.

Faking It With Freestone: GFC

“I wish I actually knew how all that GFC stuff worked.” You’re chatting in a group at another party and this comes out of the mouth of that hipster boy/girl you’ve earlier wooed with faux-effortless knowledge of climate change, literature and other topics for pseudo-intellectual persiflage. Well this is your chance to seal the deal by cementing your erudition bona fides in front of him/her with some well chosen canards.

After attributing the crisis to the “increased complexity and interdependence of the global financial system” (whatever that means), you’ll have to provide some specifics.The following phrases need to be rote learned: subprime mortgage market, collateralised debt obligation, toxic assets. In particular, “collateralised debt obligation” is, unlike its referent, worth its weight in gold. Merely being able to pronounce “collateralise” will afford you status as a well-read person.

Delivery is tricky. Depending on your audience, you may want to drop it casually, as though it’s one of the many bits of finance esoterica you are familiar with, in your exhaustive knowledge of financial products and securities. Alternatively you may get extra marks if you put quote marks on it and roll your eyes at the jargon, acknowledging that you are savvy enough to know the term and indeed so savvy that you can drop it with disdain, ironically referencing its very wordiness.

You can then explain that CDOs are dodgy financial products which were bundled together and bought by investors, when in fact they were based on virtually worthless underlying assets. This explanation is not only highly simplistic, but also a bit factually wrong. It doesn’t matter. Now that you’re in the realm of intellectuals, facts don’t matter; only delivery and concept-dropping count for anything in this rarefied space.

This explanation will allow others to clarify that, essentially, what went wrong was that people passed off worthless assets as being more valuable than they were. Again, this is not true, at least not in the sense of the word true as it pertains to the truth. It is, however, the ideal position to be in as a pseudo-intellectual. From here, you can reassure people that, yes, there is a relatively simple moral message at the heart of this complex phenomenon and that one merely has to have the knowledge to wade through the technical details to understand the kernel of folk wisdom contained within this cautionary tale.

If someone probes further, then you have probably already done enough, so an exit strategy can be employed with a 95% chance of passing yourself off as an intellectual. One exit might be to simply say, “Hey, we’re at a party, I’d love to discuss derivatives [CDOs aren’t derivatives but it won’t matter] all day, but I don’t want to bore the pants off everyone”. After all, Freestone’s 8th Rule is: the more casual you are about knowledge, the more impressive it is. If you appear to be someone who not only knows the causes of the GFC, but is also so effortlessly learned that they can dismiss further talk in favour of socialising, then you are indeed a consummate smarty.

The other strategy would be to explain that there are further causes, but that they are part of a complicated series of problems involving regulatory reform and corporate governance. Again, actually use the words in a nice sentence. If you say, “Yeah, there’s more stuff about the legal side of things,” you will falter. If you are the sort of person who throws out phrases like “regulatory reform” in effortless conversation, then it doesn’t even matter if people believe you — you have already become so verbose, so smart-sounding that your diction alone will cement you as an intellectual. From here it’s simply a matter of taking the boy/girl home and shagging them. And it’s here, I’m afraid, that this advice column reaches its limits.

This article originally appeared in Woroni in 2011.

The blog of Jamie Freestone and Mathew McGann