Field Notes: Outliers, The Invention of Morel

OUTLIERS

SYNOPSIS: Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 account of how our existing notions about genius are flawed, and how successful people actually emerge from a confluence of opportunity, talent, and lots and lots of hard work.

CONDITION: Picked up from the overflowing shelves of The Georgia Straight in December ‘08. (I also got a second copy that Christmas—thanks, Katie! [I returned it.])

THOUGHTS: Backlash is never fun. And once the public has figured out a particular artist’s signature tricks, it tends to get grumpy fast—even if the new variation is just as good as its predecessors.

This is why movie reviewers were lukewarm to The Darjeeling Limited, and why rock critics had little time for Room On Fire. It’s also, I suspect, why Outliers was met with such a collective shrug upon its release in 2008 (at least from reviewers; I’m sure it sold rather well). After the runaway success of The Tipping Point and Blink, had Malcolm Gladwell hit a tipping point of his own?

Maybe I’m just immune to it because this is the first of Gladwell’s books I’ve read, but I think Outliers is underrated. In fact, I think it’s pretty great—a deft takedown of myths about genius, and a convincing (if disheartening) argument for how ultra-successful people are able to succeed because of a complicated mix of factors. Bill Gates and the Beatles only became “geniuses” after they’d logged 10,000 hours of hard, thankless practice. They were also given unprecedented opportunities along the way—which may or may not have seemed like such good deals at the time.

It’s a book that will, at the very least, improve your dinner-party cache. There’s all kinds of fascinating nuggets about hockey players, railroad tycoons, and summer vacation. Gladwell’s research and citations are all tidy and persuasive, too. I found myself giving my partner nightly “Here’s What I Learned In Outliers Today” lectures.

I guess my quibble with the bookis that its premise is obvious. Gladwell’s original concept of genius seems like a straw man, who is then torn apart a little too easily. In his enthusiasm, Gladwell also has a tendency to go hip-schoolteacher on us (“Do you see why this is so amazing?”).

These aren’t the complaints people were making back in 2008, though. They were mad because Gladwell synthesizes so many other people’s work; they were mad because they were able to think of counterexamples (congratulations); and they were mad that… well, I don’t remember. Because everyone else likes him, maybe. Or because it’s so predictable when New Yorker staff writers turn out clear, incisive, impeccably structured non-fiction. You tell me.

I don’t think consistency is a vice. Nor is taking dry academic studies and polishing them into a fizzy magazine format. If Outliers were someone’s first book, it’d have made their career. I like The Darjeeling Limited a whole lot. Backlash is the worst.

THE INVENTION OF MOREL

SYNOPSIS: Adolfo Bioy Casares’s 1940 novel (translated from the Spanish by Ruth L. C. Simms) about a man shipwrecked on a mysterious, semi-abandoned island where nothing is as it seems.

CONDITION: New. Powell’s.

THOUGHTS: I don’t remember how I first heard of The Invention of Morel, but it probably had something to do with Jorge Luis Borges’s declaration that it is a perfect novel. It’s also published by the illustrious New York Review of Books Classics (my first!). Either way, the novel ended up in my notebook’s jam-packed “BOOKS TO BUY” page, and when I was rushing through Powell’s this summer, palms sweating, I decided to seek it out.

The problem with declaring something perfect, of course, is that all future readers will inevitably spend all their time searching for holes, no matter how minute. So let’s hedge our bets a little, shall we? The Invention of Morel is an excellent little slice of pulp that manages to deftly walk the line between adventure yarn and psychological treatise. It’s also a modernist ghost story, or, if you prefer, a sci-fi tale told by candlelight.

Written in 1940, Casares presents the text as the diary of an unnamed convict who has fled Venezuela by boat and landed on a mysterious little island. It has three buildings—a museum, a chapel, and a mill—as well as a decrepit swimming pool and some strange machinery in a basement, but that’s about it. The novel opens with the man waking up one day to the sounds of other people playing a phonograph nearby. So he flees into the nearby marsh to figure out who they are and where they came from.

Borges’s big claim about the book is that, in an age where plot was sneered at (has much changed in seventy years?), it has a complex, exceedingly tricky one placed front and centre. And it’s true: the way Casares teases out the scientific wonder at the heart of his novel is impeccable. I won’t say much else about it, for obvious reasons.

But even more impressive is how Casares is also able to place so much literary ribbonry overtop of the well-oiled machine of his story. It’s a sleek and elegant book to read, full of ideas, despite being narrated by a filthy beardo who’s developed a stalker-like crush on one of the female visitors.

And—again, without giving too much away—at the heart of it is a gorgeous metaphor for storytelling itself. The narrator becomes obsessed with watching footage of this woman and the titular Morel, an inventor. He can’t figure out the extent of their relationship, and so analyzes every aspect of their every encounter: the one time their feet accidentally touch under a table, what the particular kind of silence that hangs between them means.

In the end, though, it’s just a story, sealed off and remote. Which means that he’ll never know for sure. Slowly the man makes peace with this fact, and eventually realizes that the only way to fill in the blanks is for he, the reader, to fill them in for himself. As any undergrad who’s had to perform a close reading can tell you, this is a bittersweet feeling—both satisfying and unbelievably frustrating, all at once.

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