Law of Desire, by Andrej Blatnik

Law of Desire, by Andrej Blatnik
Translated by Tamara M. Soban
Publisher: Dalkey Archive Press
ISBN: 1628970421
208 pages, paperback
Expected Publication: 14th July 2014
Source: NetGalley

True to its title, Law of Desire is a collection of short stories revolving around the condition of desire. The inclusion of the word ‘law’ implies the controlling influence that desire has over the characters and situations in the stories. Desire is something beyond control, immutable and compulsory. The type of desire explored in each story varies from the physical to the abstract and the stories themselves vary from short, surreal vignettes to more nuanced and longer explorations of character.

The longer stories tend to have distinct plots rather than simply prose that conveys a state of being, and I found I appreciated these the most. Among these, “Electric Guitar” is perhaps the most powerful, a ‘gut-wrenching’ subtle story of abuse that extends beyond a simple meditation on the collection’s theme.

However, “What We Talk About” is the leading, and most effective story in the collection. Here, a man meets a fascinating, but mysterious woman and the two have a rapid connection. The desire between the two (particularly from the point of view of the male protagonist) is palpable, but extends beyond mere sexual desire or even a desire for friendship. The two dance those steps of relationship that balance sharing and keeping secrets, where the man becomes compelled to discover the exact nature of the woman’s job which involves clients paying to talk to her on the phone.

These interactions reveal the corollary to the desire featured in all these stories, and that is ‘dissatisfaction’, a state of being that almost by definition must be present in order for engendering desire. The characters in Blatnik’s stories all exhibit some degree of intense dissatisfaction, sometimes internal, or sometime coming from external factors. Either way, this dissatisfaction ultimately arises from that theme that generally characterizes modern ‘literature’: a failure to communicate.

Thus, Blatnik’s stories all focus on some part of a circular chain that defines humanity. Failures to communicate (honestly to oneself or between individuals) leads to dissatisfaction. Dissatisfaction leads to desires. If unmet, desires continue to compound dissatisfaction. Yet, even if attained, these desires at best only lead to greater desire. Additionally, even if attained, one desire often doesn’t coincide with the desires of others (or conflicting desires within oneself). This failure of desires to exist in harmony (to communicate properly in other words) leads us right back to the start of the circle. The desire can never be fulfilled.

Exploration of this vicious circle seems Blatnik’s desire as writer, and he successfully achieves that goal as far as possible – though as art primarily, not always in the most ‘entertaining’ of fashions. In interviews with Blatnik he discusses the freedom that writers within formerly Communist portions of Europe now have to focus on this modern literature of every-day conflict within and between individuals rather than producing works that have some specific political or cultural role (subversive or not). Interestingly though, this shift in Slovenian (and related) literature follows the same pattern of theme that Blatnik explores in this collection. The dissatisfaction of what was possible or relevant to artistically produce under a relatively oppressive regime has led to a desire to write simpler, modern literature of people failing to communicate. Given the enormous popularity of this collection in its native language, the desire to consume this kind of work is also abundant.

Within the confines of its culture and origins, Law of Desire likely resonates in the continued uncertainty of the future. Several of the stories even seem to take the characters out of time and place (out of plot) to represent something extremely relevant to the condition of its audience. For the general reader of the English translation, this poignancy may be lost, but the universality of that central dissatisfaction-desire loop make this a worthwhile literary read for those that appreciate more artistic writing. Even if not all stories connect, a few brilliant ones in this collection make it worth checking out.

Four  Stars out of Five

I received a free electronic advanced reading copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Don’t Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style, by Randy Olson

19419200Don’t Be Such a Scientist:
Talking Substance in an Age of Style
, by Randy Olson
Publisher: Island Press
AISN: B0057QCSL6
216 pages, Kindle Edition
Published August 2009
Source: NetGalley

The original Star Trek and its reboot delighted in the contrast between the stoic, logical Spock and passionate, instinct-driven Kirk or McCoy. Not long before that, over fifty years ago, C.P. Snow gave his famous lecture on “The Two Cultures” and the divisions between Science and the Arts, providing voice to sentiments that existed long before then. So, the topics of Olson’s book aren’t exactly new. But they are still necessary. Graduate schools continue training scientists to ideally immerse themselves completely into a scientific framework, devoting themselves to their research in the lab and thoughts about their research out of their lab. Little to no emphasis is put on education or communication. Sure, one learns communication of results to fellow scientists, but not to the general public, a completely different beast.

Olson’s book seeks to point out this issue and encourage scientists to pay greater attention to communicating to the world at large. In a series of four parts he waxes on how scientists should not act (too cerebral, too literal-minded, bad storytellers, and too unlikeable), and then closes with a fifth chapter encouraging scientists to take an active role in culture, not unlike Carl Sagan or Neil deGrasse Tyson. The short book is a quick read, and probably could even stand to be shorter for the amount of ideas it conveys. Olson writes very informally, injecting humor throughout. At times that humor works, but at many points it seemed awkwardly forced or inappropriately off-color.

Olson’s major points are that the world is increasingly style-ridden. People aren’t convinced by facts, but by the show. Style has become the new substance. While trying to reverse this and encourage rational, logical thought is important, people are never all going to become ideal scientists, we aren’t Vulcan. Nor should we be. The skills needed for ideal science are not the skills needed for human relationships or communication with the general public. Olson does a very good job convincing the reader of this, but doesn’t offer much in the way forward other than a general directive that scientists need to realize this and adapt or implement public-engaging considerations, as they are most naturally fit.

I find it interesting that what Science communication comes down to is Evangelism, the similarities to religious communication are numerous. Both cases are attempts to translate an understanding of truth to the general public, a public that may be unfamiliar with these understood truths and ignorant about how these are arrived at. Some may argue that science is ‘rational’ and thus ‘truth’, while religion is the reverse, but that is unimportant here. In both case those wanting to convey the information believe they have some sort of truth and want to spread that truth to an audience that at some level may be hostile and skeptical. When scientists act too cerebral, literal-minded, superior, and spout off facts with no story, this is basically the exact same thing as a piss-poor Evangelist who acts too emotional and illogically, reading their Bible as literally and senselessly as possible, an air of moral superiority, and spouting off Bible verses and condemnations.

In that sense, Olson’s arguments in a larger context are more universally applicable on how humans should act to try and communicate anything they have strong opinions about to the general public. Olson bases his recommendations for the infusion of style into the substance of science with stories from his experiences in Hollywood. At times these asides or examples are useful and appropriate, but often they also appear to primarily (or at least equally) be present to promote his own productions and career. Doubtless, these are examples he is most familiar with, and given his scientist/Hollywood background his examples also involve science. Still, it felt self-serving at points and extraneous.

I think more and more younger scientists are aware of the problems in the system of training scientists to be better communicators. But with employment and advancement having NO ties to these factors at all, it is hard to change. One most go above and beyond normal efforts, with no compensation in sight, to teach oneself to be a better communicator of science. And, as Olson points out, risk disdain or jealousy for having done so. Without a change in professional recognition and the demise of scientists who seem to think we should all be like Vulcans devoted in our entire being to science, I can’t see what will change. Olson doesn’t touch on this professional issue much at all other than acknowledging it vaguely exists. Thus, this book may be a good reminder to scientists who already realize the problem, or may further open one’s eyes to the issue, but I’m not sure what audience will be reached beyond that or what change it can affect beyond a preaching to the choir.

Three Stars out of Five