Essential Reading for Understanding Today’s World: The Corporation

thecorporation_bakanJoel Bakan’s The Corporation is a must-read for anyone who is hoping to make sense of the world that is North America right now. Published in 2004 alongside a documentary film of the same name, the book explores how corporations have become the most powerful institutions in the world and how we should be more than a little suspicious of them. I knew going in that corporations were far from benevolent, but Bakan’s book makes clear just how problematic they are. As he argues, if a corporation were actually a person (as they are legally but not literally), they would be classified a pathological psychopath because of their obsessive desire to seek their own self-interest in the form of profit. Lest you think that a nice CEO makes a company better, Bakan continually reminds us that all CEOs are legally required to act in the shareholders’ best interests, meaning that they must always choose the ethically wrong choice if it means more profit.

The Corporation is  very readable and Bakan does an admirable job explaining what can be a complicated economic realm. He uses a wealth of examples that illuminate his points and push a reader’s understanding of the corporate world today. While it could be easy to sink into cynicism given the disturbing amount of influence corporations currently hold, Bakan’s final chapter does give some key strategies and thoughts on how there is still hope for us today. I appreciated this honest assessment of our future and found it quite inspiring.

Overall, I don’t have a lot to say about this book beyond the fact that you should go read it (or, at the least, go see the film because it is also quite good). Corporations are threatening to derail the democratic gains made in the 20th century, and we are all liable for standing by and letting it happen.

Bakan, Joel. The Corporation. Toronto: Viking Press, 2004. Print.

Ninjas, The Apocalypse, and Mutant Creatures: The Gone-Away World

goneaway_080808040151153_wideweb__337x500And just like that, I’ve read 100 books this year. I’m a little stunned and more than a lot tired. Nick Harkaway’s The Gone-Away World somehow ended up being the last book I read this year. And I regret that because it clocks in at a hefty 498 pages. And it is a sprawling book to say the least. As my title alludes, this book contains among other things: ninjas, kung fu, satire on the British education system, satire on the war in the Middle East, benevolent pirates, satire on weapons of mass destruction, zombie-like mutant beings who come out of the fog, an evil corporation, satire on corpocracy, various funny comments on global politics, and a disquisition on the use of sheep in war. All in all, it is a rambling book that really needed an editor to help clarify and condense the narrative. Of course, it’s also a lot of fun to read because it refuses to follow narrative rules of thumb.

Even saying that, I should be clear that it took me a while to get into the narrative. I think I was a solid 200 pages in before I had a handle on what was going on and was emotionally invested in the novel. I suppose when the novel is 500 pages, this is okay on some level, but for me this was not good. It meant that this book sat for a few days and most of it had to be read yesterday. Harkaway is clearly a talented writer with a good eye for satire and poking fun at post-apocalyptic narrative and science fiction’s seriousness. At the same time, I could not help but identify various parts of the novel which could have been cut to make the novel less bulky. For instance, the first chapter sets up the narrator and his gang of Civil Freebooters being asked to step in and save the world by putting out a fire on the Pipe, the magical object that keeps the bizarre and surreal fallout from a high-tech war out from the small piece of land that humanity now lives in. The second chapter and several more that follow then step back and introduce the narrator meeting Gonzo, his best friend and lifelong ally, as a child in a sandbox. It moves forward all the way up to the present so that by the time we return to the end of the first chapter we are at page 302. That`s a 275 page flashback. In fact, flashback is not the right word at all because a flash is brief …

What I most liked about The Gone-Away World is how Harkaway sets up various set pieces of action including the final battle between the narrator, Gonzo, and his friends and the evil (almost video-game like) corporate honcho that has nefarious plans to rule the world. The scene is like a mish-mash of kung fu movies, westerns, science fiction, and James Bond thrillers all shaken together. Others include the evacuation of a town in the middle-east in the face of a gas attack, the battle between Ben Carsville (the war movie buff who is useless in actual war) and his anti-self in a former airbase ruled by a now-insane dictator (and also riffing heavily on Indiana Jones), or the attack on Gonzo`s parents that is defeated by Old Man Lubitsch`s bee-keeping skills. This was a fun read, but I`m not sure that there is much to take from the novel intellectually. If you wanted to read the book as some sort of meta-critique of pop culture, you probably could, but I think that the novel is held back too much by its length and rambliness (a good precise critical term, right?).

I would recommend this book to fans of Kurt Vonnegut, satires of pop culture, and kung fu-movie aficionados.

Harkaway, Nick. The Gone-Away World. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008. Print.

Taking Stories Where Stories Have Not Gone: Pastoralia

PastoraliaMy friend had really hyped up George Saunders and his work, so I was excited to pick up Pastoralia. I was also a little sad because this is the last collection of short stories that I will read this year. There is something about the shortness and conciseness of this narrative form that I really like. I guess I only have a month and week or two before I can read them again anyways. Pastoralia was something completely unexpected and I guess I am having an ambivalent reaction to it. I think Saunders is very clearly performing satire and critique on a number of levels, but after reading Munro I felt like the stories in Pastoralia were not quite as satisfying. Perhaps this comes down to character as Saunders is much more interested in satirizing contemporary North American culture than writing genuine characters with problems, emotions, depth and complexity.  Perhaps I am being too sweeping in this judgment because it is not as thought there are no memorable characters in Pastoralia (Morse in “The Falls” and Mickey the barber in “The Barber’s Unhappiness” are complex and enjoyable characters) or that there is no satire in Munro’s Dance of the Happy Shades (her whole collection is quite critical of the small-mindedness of rural Ontario).

At the same time, Saunders does show some intriguing story-telling abilities. In the title story, we are introduced to a strange amusement park where visitors can see humans from different time periods living/acting out those lives. The narrator lives and works in a pre-historic cave with a less-than-willing co-worker named Janet. The whole story mocks our desire for “authentic” reproductions of old ways of life, but also corporate culture in general. It works amazingly well because on the surface it seems to have no relation to reality but the more you dig into it, the more you see it in the world we live in. Similarly, “Sea Oak” presents a dystopian world where the narrator works at a male strip joint/restaurant. His sister and cousin live at home with their two children while their spinster aunt slaves away at a drugstore to keep the roof over their heads. However, the aunt soon dies but comes back as a re-animated corpse to help them escape poverty. With this story, Saunders is quite critical of the work world, in a very funny way, and yet I cannot help but feel like the world he paints is not too far off from the low-income areas of many cities. Like Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, the narrative straddles the line between the fantastical and the real, constantly asking readers to question our own reality.

In writing this, I realize that what Saunders is doing is very subtle and extremely effective. He is speaking to our world in the way he knows best: by creating a magical place that seems like unreality but is in fact far too close to reality. I can see why he has won many awards – including a MacArthur “genius” grant – but I am still not sure where I stand in relation to his work. This is more a question of taste, but at the least I can say that Saunders is a prophet preaching his message to a world that desperately needs to slow down and think twice about the place we find ourselves in.

I would recommend Pastoralia to fans of Vonnegut and other satirists.

Saunders, George. Pastoralia. New York: Penguin Group, 2000. Print.

Still Want to Eat a Big Mac?: Fast Food Nation

200px-Fast_food_nationApparently I missed the boat on this book by a good 12 years … Erich Schlosser released Fast Food Nation in 2001 and made waves throughout North America as he revealed the world behind the counter of America’s fast food restaurants. And it’s not a pretty world. There was a 2006 film of the movie directed by Richard Linklater (of Dazed and Confused fame), but judging from Rottentomatoes, I would stick to the book. Schlosser’s book is thick with facts but remains surprisingly readable throughout its 290 pages. In fact, I would say this book is essential reading for all North Americans right now. Want to know what’s wrong with the world today? Fast Food Nation will fill you in pretty quickly. Now, I’m not saying he provides all the answers or even addresses all the right questions, but this book has a pretty good handle on the problems of the 21st century corporate/consumer world.

One of the things that makes Fast Food Nation so readable is that Schlosser uses stories throughout the book to introduce, illustrate, and summarize the points he makes about the fast food industry. This does not mean he skimps on facts (consider that McDonalds has replaced Coca-Cola as the world’s most famous brand and Ronald McDonald is now only second to Santa Claus in widespread fictional character recognition 4), but rather that he uses narrative to enliven the facts. One of my own problems with reading non-fiction is that facts tend to be dead ends for me. I’m often left feeling like I cannot relate to numbers or that they lack a relatable context. In Fast Food Nation, Schlosser has done a great job with narrative to make his material come alive without sacrificing the integrity of his investigative research. This book should be a case study in how to write successful investigative non-fiction.

I am going to avoid getting into the details of Fast Food Nation because I think everyone should read it. However, the book’s primary message is that our current obsession (and it is a global one now) with fast food is not just making us less healthy and more obese, but it also has a ripple-on effect in the way food is produced. Corporations now control most of the agricultural industry and are driven by profit, not health, good will or any other sentiment. This means that the quality of food the average North American has access to has gone quickly downhill while the risk of food-borne pathogens like E. Coli or Salmonella has sky rocketed. The chapter “What’s in the Meat” is a particularly frightening read that will make you think twice about eating ground beef. Schlosser is quite clearly anti-corporate and with very good reason. Corporations know no loyalties to place or people and instead are driven by the need to increase the bottom line, a position that has produced huge inequalities and injustices across the world. If I were a social analyst, I would say the 21st century is going to be defined by the battle against corporations as the stakes of globalization have now prevented any nation, community, or place from escaping this battle. If there’s one problem with Fast Food Nation, it is that it is relentlessly American both in its focus (despite some work on the global fast food industry) and in its solutions. This is not Schlosser’s fault so much as it is the necessity of selling to an American audience. The Canadian context in which I live is different, so there has to be a translation act of looking into Canadian food policy and corporate culture (props to my father-in-law for pointing this out).

I would highly recommend this book to any and everyone I know. Consider it essential reading for the 21st century.

Schlosser, Eric. Fast Food Nation. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001. Print.