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American rust

by Philipp Meyer

  Print book : Fiction  |  1st ed

Tough times in land of steel, ELC review   (2014-03-25)


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by vleighton

This novel chronicles a small industrial city south of Pittsburgh in the formerly steel-making corridor of the area. The plot is not bad and the writing is okay. I didn't buy into the motivation of some of the characters. Perhaps they were true to the culture of that time and place, but I didn't warm to them. Meyer acts out explicitly a scenario from the Prisoner's Dilemma in economic game theory which is also relevant to evolutionary psychology, so there is a little bit of intellectual meat to this dish. In the end, the characters redeem themselves a litle too much.


The two main characters are about 20 years old, and neither has yet gone to college. Isaac English, one of the more intellectually gifted students from his high school class, starts the plot by stealing money from his disabled, retired father and by trying to hop the rails to start a new life. He imagines that he can show up in Berkeley, CA, and start at the University. The other character, Billy Poe, was Isaac's only friend in high school. Poe is not smart. Instead, he is tough and not afraid to get into a fight. He befriended Isaac to be able to shag his sister.


At the beginning of Isaac's adventure, he and Billy get into a fight with hobos in which Isaac kills a man. The two of them run and pretend they didn't have anything to do with it. The physical evidence and the witness can link Billy to the crime, so he is charged and must be in prison until the trial. There are scenes of Isaac's life on the rails and Billy's struggles in prison. When Billy explains the truth to Isaac's sister, who did go to college, she thinks to herself that this is a classic case of the Prisoner's Dilemma. Will Billy defect and accuse Isaac? Will Isaac turn himself in and save Billy? Can they both keep their mouths shut?


Other characters draw out the story, including Billy's mother, Grace, and Harris, the chief of police, who is "friends with benefits" with Grace. Harris tries to help Billy, and he is in danger of being dragged into scandal by his association. Harris regularly thinks to himself that the economic collapse of the steel industry is what is driving the upswing in crime and violence, so the reader gets a sociological gloss to the action within the story. Not only does the Prisoner's Dilemma show up for Billy and Isaac, there are variations of it scattered in the relations of the other characters.


I found the book generally adequate, but I did not feel that Isaac's sister's behavior was plausible, nor was her relationship to Billy Poe well-crafted. I didn't find Grace well-rounded either, so the author may have issues with female characters. I didn't find the overall story compelling. The ending was too neat, with the tough guy Harris possibly taking the fall for everyone else. It is a macho book, with Harris in the end being even more macho than either Isaac or Billy.


Evolutionary Literary Criticism


Because I have been reading evolutionary literary criticism, it has occurred to me that I should be trying to apply it at every turn. So here is my attempt with this text.


Evolutionary Literary Theory Boilerplate


For theory, I will be drawing primarily on the collection "The Literary Animal" (abbreviated below as TLA) edited by Gottschall, Gottschall's own book, "The Storytelling Animal" (TSA), and the William Flesch book "Comeuppance." One problem with offering an evolutionary interpretation of a text is that there are three different versions of evolutionary literary criticism (ELC). So we need to comment on the story's relationship to each of the three versions.


The first (ELC1) simply observes that humans are fascinated by stories featuring survival, social status, and mating themes (boy loses girl, maiden guarded by dragon, boy hangs from cliff, etc.). To be an effective story, a page-turner, the text should play out a behavioral strategy that would be valid from an evolutionary point of view. So we might learn as much about evolutionarily valid strategies from the text as we learn about the text from evolutionary theory. And we could profitably study the common themes of a genre, not just this particular text. In TLA, this line is promoted by McEwan, Nettle, Carroll, Nordlund, Fox, Gottschall himself, Kruger, and Salmon. 


"Comeuppance" by Flesch critiques the above argument that we are fascinated by mundane evolutionary strategies. He points out that human behavior is driven by a struggle between individual selection and group selection. Human societies need some members who are willing to punish the selfish, even at a cost to themselves, actions which are called altruistic punishment. According to this theory, seeing evil punished at great cost is a behavior that generates enormous emotional interest and is a large factor in stories we deeply value.


The second version (ELC2) is to emphasize that storytelling itself is an adaptation, and that humans are wired to enjoy and transmit stories. In TLA, this position is presented by Boyd and Sugiyama, and it is the thesis of Gottschall's own book, TSA. Flesch would argue that the hard wiring runs through the part of the brain tuned to altruistic punishment. 


ELC2 also allows one to explore the degree to which the author intentionally (or perhaps unintentionally) tries to conform to or challenge the expectations of a genre. In other words, how good of a job did the author do telling the tale, and how was it received by the readers or listeners? 


The third version (ELC3) is that stories have been a method of storing cultural information throughout human history, and as such, they preserve cultural entities and allow for cultural evolution. Stories here include religious texts and political histories. This position is argued by David Sloan Wilson's essay in TLA and by Gottschall in TSA to a limited degree. Wilson's position allows for a sort of historicism or ideological critique of a text, in which the subtext of a narrative or of its reception might be to support the current cultural status quo or to advocate for a different cultural state. So the cultural meaning of a text might be quite different from what the author had in mind when it was written. Culturally powerful factions within a society may promote a story that justifies their own hegemony. So one can ask: what cultural norms are promoted by this text, even if indirectly?


ELC3 should also encompass the use of a storytelling tradition to indicate group membership. Knowledge of a canon of stories, or the proper form of a storytelling genre, can act as the sign of worthiness for membership as much as any other demonstration of mastery of a behavior or belief system. To be knowledgable about a large canon of stories, whether it is Proust's In Search of Lost Time or the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you must have the ability and the inner motivation to learn the details, a motivation often achieved by accepting the value system of a group that considers them worth knowing. Establishing one's worthiness for membership in any group or social class potentially allows one to share in the tangible benefits of the group. For example, the shipwrecked Odysseus was treated as noble because he demonstrated mastery of a particular behavior—an aristocratic form of address. So one can ask the question: does appreciation of this text denote membership within a human social group?


Rust via ELC1


So how can the major themes of the book demostrate valid behavioral strategies within evolutionary psychology? 


American Rust addresses the Prisoner's Dilemma of rational decision-making which features prominently in evolutionary psychology. The Prisoner's Dilemma constructs a situation in which the optimal solution for the two parties collectively is at variance with the rational self-interest of each party individually. So it is a mathematically simple dichotomy between cooperation versus self-interest. Depending on how the scenario is constructed, it can appear that cooperation never makes sense. Some evolutionary theorists have used this logic to argue that human altruism is impossible and an illusion. Other philosophers and theologians have used it to argue that evolution is immoral. Other theorists argue that the proof of impossibility indicates that the scenarios are wrong and must be more sophisticated.


Nevertheless, many works of fiction have offered critical assessments of self-interested rationality. For example, Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment praises the irrationality of religious faith and charity over cold, rational self-interest. In Rust, there are multiple variations on the problem of trust and cooperation. In the main plot story, Isaac and Billy would be collectively better if they did cooperate, but each has self-interested motives not to, especially if they cannot trust each other. Isaac's sister left home and Isaac felt he had to stay to care for his father. Poe's father is a cad rather than a dad, regularly taking advantage of Grace. Political forces in the town jockey to threaten Chief Harris. Even in the homeless camps and prison yards, there are calculations of trust and defection.


The ending of the book conforms to the theory of altruistic punishment. In the main plot, the "innocents" are Isaac and Billy. The "victimizers" are the hobos who first attack them and then are prepared to testify that Isaac and Billy committed the crime. The heroic "punisher" is Harris, who rescues the innocents at potentially great cost to himself. The plot is carefully structured to maximize our sympathy for the good guys who actually kill people (and the women who love them) and minimize it for the victimizers, who had nothing and who end up dead. The author could have given us a more well-rounded protrayal of the victimizers and the women.


Rust via ELC2


ELC2 deals with the human need to experience narratives. This novel does not delve so much into the issue of we humans constructing our reality out of narratives. Isaac has a self-image as "the Kid" in which he outsmarts the world, all the while he is failing miserably. But the book in general is rather sociological. Characters reflect too much on the issues that the author is clearly thinking about rather than their own plausible views of life. 


The second point of ELC2: is the narrative a well-told tale?  In my humble opinion, it is not that well-told of a tale. Perhaps I am missing a great deal. I didn't miss the fact that the father had selfishly put pressure on Isaac to stay and care for him instead of going to college--an obvious reference to Abraham being prepared to sacrifice Isaac in the Bible. There are lyrical descriptions of southwestern Pennsylvania and the scenes of the rail yards, but when I didn't buy the actions of the characters, that didn't help.


Rust via ELC3


ELC3 deals with what cultural significance the narrative has in terms of group selection and cultural evolution. 


What cultural norms are promoted by this text, even if indirectly? The author clearly wants to show the impersonal, economic forces on the workers of the steel industry in the early 1980s and the personal and social consequences of the economic collapse of the area. That does not help me like the book any more. The brave man as the enforcer of justice is also a subtext to this tale. 


And does appreciation of this text denote membership within a human social group? Perhaps it denotes sympathy with the plight of the workers and their communities in Pennsylvania's rust belt. Also, it explicitly affirms a human defiance of rational self-interest, but the tragic recognition of the existence of that rational self-interest. It also seems to justify violence when the social structures are not going to resolve to justice. 


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