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Friday, 2 August 2019

Book review: Fake, Stephanie Wood (2019)

This is the third in a series of drafts prepared for this review. The first was microscopic and harsh. The second was critical and measured. Then I picked up the book again and finished it and found that it delivered on its promise of a strange tale. And it was well-told.

This book is one of a number of nonfiction books that have appeared in recent years that deal with people’s private lives. There seems to be a growing appetite for this kind of writing in the community. Not all of them are of equal quality, however. At least I have found this to be true.

The two sentences above were in the second paragraph of the second draft. That draft also contained a short discourse on the well-used idea of the constructed self. What follows was in the second draft, and I keep it now as a reminder to myself that some of my misgivings about this book from my initial reading survived the completion of it.

For people of my generation (this author and I are about the same age) blaming your parents for your own failings was a kind of trope when we were young, at the time when we made the formative relationships and life choices that would to a certain degree decided who we were. “My mother made me a lesbian,” read some graffiti on the Devonshire Street tunnel near Central Station when I was a young man growing up in an inner city enlivened by punk music bands. “If I give her the wool will she make me one too?” someone else had written underneath the first message in a display of humour that has not, in my view, been surpassed on this subject in the years since.

So, even back then, people were making light of such claims but Wood seems never to have reconciled her own character – mostly no doubt the product of genes, rather than of upbringing – with her destiny. At one point in her book, Wood describes in detail how the brain is changed by such emotions as love, which can alter our perceptions so radically that we are, for all intents and purposes, a different person once we are in its throes. But then she curiously turns around and points a finger of blame at her mum. This jarred.

The idea that anything as complex or deeply-rooted as sexuality or the personality are circumscribed by the circumstances of our upbringing – except for very unusual cases where there is actual criminal abuse involved – is probably, along with eugenics, the largest single fraud that the academy has ever perpetrated upon an unsuspecting world during the past 200 years. Postmodernist thinkers are in the vanguard of this dismal parade and constitute, for truth, a case of fakery.

Having said these things, there is still reason for people to pick up this book and give it a go. About half of the book is consumed in recounting Wood’s relationship with a malignant narcissist she names Joe. The rest of the book is mainly about how she processed that experience including, in her role as a feature writer for the Sydney Morning Herald, writing about it and publishing the account. Wood then met up with at least two people whose lives had been changed by Joe’s actions. She ends the book with a philosophical digression on ocean swimming.

The colours blue and green appear at different times throughout the book, most notably in the plaid of a shirt that Wood bought for Joe at some point in their relationship. It’s not entirely clear what the colours are supposed to mean for Wood or for the reader. There is a prosaic murmur in the background throughout the narrative that makes you wonder about the author’s level of insight into the circumstances of the relationship she survived and even into the meaning of art. And I wasn’t overly encouraged by the attempt, near the end of the book, to try to classify the personalities of women who had been taken in by frauds and fakes. I felt also that she was on safer ground when she was describing what Joe did to her than when she was cogitating blithely on the character of Donald Trump.

This kind of rationalising is unsurprising considering the depths to which Wood sank in response to Joe’s callous manipulations. It does however seem surprising that such an intelligent and educated woman could be so completely taken in by the man, and part of the author’s job, as she sees it, is to understand how it could have happened.

This book offers readers a bit of a mixed bag of treats. Male readers who have themselves been exposed to narcissists, if not outright fakes, might not find it entirely comforting to see Wood getting emotional support from such activists as Clementine Ford. (I fully expected Wood to start corresponding with Van Badham in an effort to assuage her feelings of incapacity brought on by the ravages of exposure at close quarters to a truly toxic personality.)

The sea serves Wood better as guide and counsel. I grew up next to the water and so know that it can cure many ills. Sailing boats on Sydney Harbour from the beach where my parents had their house made the sea a constant presence in my life until I left home and went to university. At night from my bed I would listen to the sound of the wash made by the pilot boat coming home to moor, having returned from guiding a container vessel through the Heads and down to the port that existed in Darling Harbour, one that has since been removed. In the place where the port was located they are now building a casino. Times have, indeed, changed.

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