“Our Tragic Universe” & the Fiction of Perfection – The Self-Help Industry Exposed

In Scarlett Thomas’ new novel, Our Tragic Universe, heroine Meg concludes that self-help books succeed by first making us feel bad about ourselves and then giving us the perfect fix.   It’s rather like Humpty Dumpty being pushed off a wall and broken so someone can make a fast buck putting him back together again.  According to Meg, the arenas in which we need help are endless:

“You could learn, from a book, how to snare someone with an ‘exclusive smile’, how to set the agenda for any conversation you wanted to have, how to be the ‘chooser’ rather than the ‘choosee’, how to become ‘magnetic’ and attract the people and objects you want, how to harness the power of ‘Screw you!”, how to read other people’s minds via their body language and also use your own body to communicate, and how to use ancient secrets of creativity to give your PowerPoint presentations more ‘zing’.”

Apparently this approach works because we’re all so eager to be ‘perfect’.   Just like a character’s situation at the end of a novel, we insist on our lives being as emotionally, aesthetically and psychologically neat and tidy as a ball of virgin yarn.

“The whole of Western society seemed to be turning itself into a reality TV show in which everyone was supposed to want to be the most popular, the most talented, the biggest celebrity.”

But what if this wasn’t what you really wanted?

What if instead of being a cultural King Midas, you wanted to be an anti-hero?  What if you did not desire riches, success, and syrupy romance straight from a fairy tale?   What if you just wanted to be a nice person – a good friend?  What if instead of spending your time making zingy PowerPoint presentations, you took up bird watching or knitting?

“…people who wanted to reject these ideas of perfection and individualistic heroism should get a pile of books that help them learn a new skill, or perhaps another language, not in order to become successful or fit or better, but just for the hell of it.”

If you did this, undoubtedly societal movers and shakers would write you off as hopeless – just not ‘with the program.’

But might some want more from  life than to be ‘programmed”?

I suggest that underneath our glossy exteriors a good many of us do.  Indeed fiction writers know their heroes and heroines can’t be too ‘perfect’.  Some flaw or weakness is mandatory for them to be lovable – to be someone with whom readers wish to relate.

So why do we want  fictional heroes to be imperfect while at the same time insisting on perfection for ourselves?

I suggest we give this paradox serious consideration or as Meg suggests, we run the serious risk of becoming little more than a fictional character for the entertainment – and profit –  of someone else.

Lessons to learn from Anthony Trollope

I just finished reading Anthony Trollope’s brilliant novel The Way We Live Now.

Although written in 1872, Trollope’s portrayal of the ultra-greedy businessman, Melmotte, has much to show us about the way we really do in fact live right now.  As another character comments, Melmotte is ‘a sign of degeneracy’, not the cause.

Not unlike bankers and (some) politicians today, Melmotte’s claim to fame was that he ‘manufactured’ money from issuing more and more (bad) debt.  In pursuing this career, he almost manages to crash the markets in the City of London.

The interesting thing is that rather than being the worldly and elegant gentleman he professes to be, in reality he’s a no-body from no-where trying to make the world believe he’s something that he’s not.

Perhaps a lesson to be learned is that ‘money doesn’t make the man’ and that such a lesson is as important today as it was in 1872.

So ladies and gentlemen, what should we make of this?