Sunday, June 05, 2011

The Most Challenging Thing I've Ever Read

I don't know about you, but I tend to blog in waves in which certain themes pop up with some regularity until I feel like I've exhausted everything I have to say on the subject. Hopefully I don't exhaust those who read this blog in the process.

So, going along with the trend I started with Literary Deal Breakers and continued with the subject of Rape in Fiction, I began to think about the most disturbing book I ever read. I've talked about books I choose not to read once certain things occur within the story, but that doesn't mean I walk away from everything that makes me uncomfortable.

I read a book about three years ago that left an indelible mark on my psyche-- so much so that I don't ever have to think twice about which book I would say was the most troubling thing I have ever read. Surprisingly it wasn't something that was full of graphic violence. It wasn't a horror novel like something written by Stephen King. It was a psychological thriller called "Neuropath" by Scott Bakker, and it pushed the boundaries of what I'm able to tolerate so much that I wanted to scrub my brain when I was done.

As I look over the review I wrote for "Neuropath" (shown below) I realize that, if I were to try to read this book now, I'd probably walk away. But then again... The thing is, the content that really bothered me didn't show up until I was at least halfway through the book; and by then I HAD to know what was going to happen. Not gonna lie-- I should have just put it down.

Have you ever read anything that left you feeling as if you ended up with a bruised psyche? Something that kind of...hurt? That's what this book is to me.

What stories, if any, have scarred you?

Ignorance is Bliss.

If I could come up with one phrase to sum up my feelings after reading Neuropath by Scott Bakker it would be ignorance is bliss.


Because Bakker's novel is relentless in that it won't let us sit back and accept all the assumptions we have made about ourselves. Not just ourselves as individuals, but us as human beings. If you have ever sat back and thought about all the big questions: What is consciousness? Are we more than a bundle of bone, muscle, nerve endings and brain tissue? Do we rationalize an existence beyond this life simply because we are too afraid to contemplate the alternative? Are emotions like love, shame, fear and desire real, or are they simply evolution's way of making sure we, as a species, continue to procreate and survive?

Those are all questions that Bakker weaves into a novel that is by turns thoughtful and horrifying.

"Neuropath" follows the story of Professor Thomas Bible, a psychology professor at Columbia, who is still trying to pull his life together after his divorce. One night, his best friend and college roommate Neil Cassidy, drops in with a bottle of whisky and a confession; he's been secretly working for the NSA interrogating terrorists with a new science that allows him to turn off neural switches in the brain that literally makes the terrorists want to tell him all their secrets. These revelations renew discussions about The Argument that Neil and Thomas had debated throughout their college career. The Argument is, at its core, the idea that free will is an illusion. That we are nothing but meat puppets who believe that consciousness is real and that we will rationalize our self awareness no matter how much evidence we see to the contrary.

After a drunken night of disturbing revelations, Tom manages his bleary way into work the next day where he is confronted by FBI agents who have a video of a crime that is beyond heinous-- and Neil is the main suspect. After that Tom's life is literally thrown down the rabbit hole. All the assumptions he had made about his life, his marriage and his friendship to Neil are turned inside out. And not only does Tom have to confront a lot of uncomfortable truths, he has to help the FBI get inside the head of Neil Cassidy; something Tom is uniquely qualified but reluctant to do.

The Argument isn't a new philosophy, but Bakker doesn't let it lie as nothing but an abstract discussion, he brings science to the conversation to back him up. The book takes place in a not-so-distant future, though Bakker doesn't specify exactly when. So the science that may or may not prove The Argument is more than simple philosophy isn't fully developed; but it is developed enough to put most of our assumptions about existence into question.

In many respects this is the hardest book I've ever had to review. There's no question I highly respect what Bakker has done here. This is a book that makes you think, hard. It is also totally uncompromising. Let me explain.

The villain in "Neuropath" is not only convinced that we have no free will, he's on a mission to prove it. High profile people who stand for something, whether it be religion, politics or even sex, are kidnapped so that they can be used as living examples that demonstrate the truth of The Argument. I was often reminded of the movie Se7en as each kidnap victim, and the results of their torture, is revealed. The only difference here is that instead of making a statement about sin, Bakker is making a statement about free will. But Bakker's statement goes beyond the shocking images we saw in the movie "Se7en" because he brings children into the mix.

I understand why Bakker chose not to exclude that which most of us find completely repugnant-- children as victims. If one is to fully give in to The Argument, as we are to believe the villain in "Neuropath" has, then there is no reason that children would be exempt from the atrocities committed. There is no moral high ground here because morality is an illusion, just as every part of consciousness is illusory. However, by using children as part of mix, Bakker takes the book to whole different level of disturbing. I have children myself and seriously considered putting the book down because it hit too close to home.

But I continued to read. Why? Because I wanted to see how The Argument ended; at least within the context of the story. But Bakker isn't about Hollywood endings I can't claim to have walked away from the book satisfied. Instead I walked away disturbed.

Now, I won't say I lost any sleep over this book. I didn't. I think this is because I put the book down frequently in order to ponder the philosophy within. As Bakker himself states his belief in free will in the Afterward of his book, I also choose to believe that we have free will. I choose to believe that our consciousness is more than an illusion. I can't claim to have any proof to back up my belief, but after reading the book I don't believe that science or the book "Neuropath" have proven, yet, that we are nothing more than animated bundles of firing synapses. In fact, that is what I think is the fundamental flaw in an otherwise exceedingly well thought out book. There is no real opposition put up against The Argument.

I don't know about you, but I need to hear both sides of an argument to pick a side--usually. I won't accuse Bakker of creating a straw man argument here though, there's too much science and philosophy to back the assertions made in creating The Argument. But every time it is presented in "Neuropath" it is presented almost as a fait accompli. Which is a shame because there is no character more perfect to show the contradictions between belief and action as Thomas Bible. In fact, there are many times that he, despite his apparent belief in The Argument, beseeches God to intercede on his behalf-- despite an absolute belief in the futility of prayers. The contradictions in human nature and science are never demonstrated as clearly as in those moments. But the moment that I really was waiting for, the moment where Thomas abandons his reasoning, his Argument, out of desperation for his family, never happens. Therefore The Argument loses some of its impact because of its lack of opposition, and that lack left me feeling the culmination of the book was missing the full-circle it could have had.

This is a work that is worthy of respect though. The amount of philosophy packed within it's pages is profound, though overwhelming at times, but it will force you to think. It will disturb you for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that Bakker creates characters that are relatable and you will connect to them; making the tragedies they suffer more powerful. "Neuropath" is a thinking man's thriller and there's no doubt it will make you question some of your most fundamental beliefs.

Perhaps leave you with the feeling that, indeed, ignorance is bliss.


Yona said...

sounds interesting, the book really got to you. though i must say, from your description i would not be as impressed i think. the consciousness-discourse is a lot of babbling. the word "illusion" does not make sense to me in such a discussion.

still. i cant remember the most disturbing book ive read. but last year i read "ubik" and it really made me feel uncomfortable all the way through...

SQT said...

Yona-- I don't think I could get across in a review how much this book got under my skin. It sounds innocuous enough but it's framed in a way that it really gets to you. And once you bring kids into the equation...

Scott said...

Yeah, I am free with my opinion that I personally think that Bakker is a messed up individual. From his fantasy that, while good, is so misogynistic that it borders on cliche...and pisses me stuff like this which I heard about and decided I didn't want to subject myself to such a premise....which I don't buy anyway.

I like your intro to this though, as it's the classic "You can't UN-SEE it" thought. Like that movie 8MM said, you will see things that you can't unsee. I'd rather not have those sorts of things imprinted on my brain...and that's not because I believe that man isn't incapable of such abhorrent violence...but because on a core level I read to be entertained...not to be disturbed on a level that upsets me enough to be imprinted on my brain. To me that's not entertainment at all.

Great post though!

SQT said...

Scott-- I never read any more of Bakker's work after this. It pretty much turned me off of exploring his work. I've read that this one is bleaker than his other work, but I'm not ready to take that chance.

The un-seeing part is tough. When I reviewed this initially I wasn't getting the review copies I do now, so I was in that eager-to-please stage of accepting everything. Now I'm way more choosy because it's not worth putting myself through that to promote someone's work.

ShadowFalcon said...

Will be staying clear of this title.

It probably seems like a cliche but I had to stop reading American Psycho - just a certain point, too sick to carry on.

Okay not a book but - Splice was too horrid for me as well I wanted to remove it from my mind, still do! and there is the bit in SinCity where the girls alive and holding up her hand as her fingers have been eaten, I still forward that bit.

Prehaps I'm too sensative

SQT said...

Shadow Falcon-- I'm with you. I've never tried to read Brett Easton Ellis because his works seems like it would be too disturbing for me. And I couldn't do Sin City either. Who needs those images in their head?

Jason said...

I loved reading Neuropath. The best psychological thriller that I have read in quite awhile. Creepy, thoughtful and well written.

While Neuropath was creepy, it didn't have anywhere near as much of an effect on me as Mark Z. Danielewski's "House of Leaves".

I would highly suggest reading Bakker's fantasy work. Frankly, I think it is a must read if you have interest in fantasy (especially epic fantasy). It is complex and extremely well and beautifuly written. In regards to comment that Bakker's fantasy work is " misogynistic that it borders on cliche," I think that is to easy of a label to put on something that is much more complex. I will say that his female characters are strong, fully developed characters who exist in a complex world. Yes, he does depict misogyny in these novels, but that does not make them misogynystic.

I would also suggest checking out his novel Disciple of the Dog. It features Disciple Manning, the cynical PI who suffers from hyperthymestic syndrome (a condition that gives a person perfect (or near perfect) recall of autobiographical events) who's hired to find Jennifer Bonjour, by her parents, after she has gone missing from the end-of-days cult she joined. This novel made me laugh any number of times and the character Disciple Manning is a fascinating character (think Dr. House and Sam Spade had a love child who even more cynical).

Snow Princess said...

"From his fantasy that, while good, is so misogynistic that it borders on cliche"

The books are not misogynistic - the world is what we would live in if books like the Bible were not fictional - Bakker's stark confrontation of the religions we give way too much credit to is to be lauded.

If he was a woman with the last name of Atwood crowds of liberals would sing his praises.