For a little over a decade now, we have crowded into bookstores and swarmed around stacks of attractive hardcover books so that we could witness Conventional Wisdom Being Turned on Its Head before our eyes. In the process, we have turned a very small selection of titles into best sellers, which has in turn transformed a smaller-still group of authors—Malcolm Gladwell, those Freakonomics douches—into a league of rarefied gurus who specialize in some sort of amorphous, flabby social science. Their work is couched in the language of science and discovery, but really it consists of a string of generalizations padded with statistics. These generalizations often confound our first impressions (which Gladwell puckishly announced were almost always correct in his magazine-article-pumped-into-a-flimsy-manifesto Blink) and so leave us slack-jawed at their contrarian wisdom for a moment or two. Then we set the book down and promptly forget everything about it except for that brief moment of wonder we felt when Conventional Wisdom Was Shot Dead, and so the legend of the book grows.
One of these penny-ante magicians of general interest is New York Times columnist David Brooks, whose 2000 book Bobos in Paradise struggled to tell us The Way We Live Now. Even though the recessions of the early and late aughts conclusively proved that the new social class he supposedly discovered—the Bobo, an upper-middle-class bohemian-minded consumer that Brooks insisted was growing in population at a steady and significant rate in America—was an illusion, Brooks joined the Gladwell Club as an all-purpose expert in human nature, the kind of media-loving guy you call if you need a quick, broad statement about America for a documentary or talk show.
Brooks's latest book, The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement, is his attempt at writing the War and Peace of this genre of glossy sociological jaunts. It is a novel about the entire life of a man and woman—"the happiest story you'll ever read," Brooks effuses on the dust jacket of his own book, "about two people who lead wonderfully fulfilling lives"—that attempts to explain their various achievements and desires (school, career, sex, retirement) with scientific data culled from "thirty years" of work by various "researchers." By looking behind the motivations of his characters—by Turning Conventional Wisdom on Its Head and viewing his characters as social-minded animals—Brooks believes he can illustrate a blueprint of how the audience can live happy, fulfilling lives. (Presumably, Brooks is himself one happy, fulfilled motherfucker, although one wonders whether a grown man who believes trivia is the way to enlightenment is someone who should be in a position to give advice to millions of people.) It's like one of those guidebooks that teaches how to hack your digital camera or Facebook account to maximum efficiency and productivity, only the product being hacked in Social Animal is human life itself.
Brooks sketches out a scene of the man, Harold, sitting at home in his apartment in the first blush of a relationship with Erica, the woman. A novelist would have Harold look around, taking in his surroundings. Brooks allegedly tears the facade away, revealing the ape-brain scaffolding beneath:
All human beings go through life with a fully operational status sonar. We send out continual waves of status measurement and receive a stream of positive or negative feedback signals that cumulatively define our place in society. Harold looked around at his loft. PING. A plus signal came back. He loved its open space and high ceilings. Harold contemplated his abs. PING. A negative signal came back. He really should go to the gym more... when Harold imagined himself with Erica, well, it was like a surging torrent of pluses.
One can almost feel Brooks's self-satisfaction as he "reveals" that his character is subconsciously aware of his status as a human being and that he considers his new romantic conquest as an additional societal plus. The problem is that Philip Roth or John Updike could have proffered this same exact information—without all the faux-scientific trappings—in a line or two, and in much more artful language. Stating the obvious as plainly as humanly possible is not a virtue for a book of this size or scope.
Brooks, simply, is not a very good writer. His illustrative metaphors are weird. He describes a wildly successful man who breaks out in a laugh every few minutes "as if he couldn't quite believe the fantastic life he was leading. It was sort of like watching Dennis the Menace wake up every few minutes and discover he was the pope." Um, sure? The bad writing is especially painful when he tries to be clever: Harold mans a photocopier during his early career, fearing that "he had become information-age Canon fodder."
And though Brooks trumpets the research that went into the book, the lack of textual attribution renders much of the research meaningless. Brooks says things like "As Angela Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania has argued, people who succeed tend to find one goal in the distant future and then chase it through thick and thin." Okay, but as who says? Why do we care about Duckworth? Brooks never explains. Scientific studies about human nature sit side by side with observations that seem to wind up in Social Animal simply because Brooks read them someplace once. On the same page as a reference to a study by David Van Rooy about the correlation between IQ and emotional perceptiveness, Brooks cites "the novelist Frank Portman" who says, "The troika is the natural unit of high-school female friendship. Girl 1 is the hot one; Girl 2 is her sidekick; and Girl 3 is the less attractive one." He blurs the line between lazy stereotypes and science, until it's all just a bunch of bullet points floating around in a half-finished novel.
Nevertheless, Brooks is excellent at moving an argument along, even if he's not making any kind of coherent sense. You can't help but breeze through Social Animal, especially when Brooks wills characters to transcend their tawdry roles as whipping posts for conventional wisdom. In short bursts, Erica becomes more than a way for Brooks to justify his own pop-psychology beliefs. When as an underprivileged eighth-grader she marches into a meeting of the founders of an exclusive private school and refuses to leave until they accept her as a student because "I need to go to the Academy. I need to go to college," she's a better example of identifiable human behavior than you can find in dozens of pages of Brooks's regurgitated, half-digested factoids. It's especially frustrating to watch him step right to the brink of real human communication and then rush fearfully back to that old saw, conventional wisdom, forcing it to somersault again and again for our bemusement.