Cycle of lies: should Armstrong have been condemned?

lance
*Opinion formed from the excellent Cycle of Lies by Juliet Macur*

As a society we fundamentally value those who persevere in the face of adversity with unparalleled guile and strength. Think of people revered today: Usain Bolt, Steve Jobs, Hilary Mantel, Emmeline Pankhurst and Albert Einstein. They all had to push past some sort of boundary to become renowned in their field, and each thus achieved success in their own right; whether it was a world record, a Man Booker prize or a ground-breaking mathematics theory.

So, it makes sense that Lance Armstrong would be seen as the embodiment of the American dream and that he would take the world by storm with a never-ending list of cycling wins – including seven Tour de France titles. Take his domination in the sport and couple it with his cancer survival story (and the Livestrong charity that followed), and it should come as no surprise that he was embraced by the world. And if his success was unbelievable, then his fall was even more inconceivable.

At the time of his (in)famous Oprah Winfrey interview, there were media outbursts, there are news-grabbing headlines and there were far, far too many rumours. Reams of people ripped off their yellow Livestrong wristbands that were as ubiquitous amongst the public as drugs were in cycling. Everybody was shocked and all they knew was that Armstrong had cheated the public of their dream. The masses had relied on him, with posters above their office desk, to make incredible feats seem achievable for people with mundane lives like them. To lose that credulity cut them deep, and no-one was interested to hear the whole story. This was because it was so easy to condemn Armstrong. To point the finger and say that he was the evil, malicious ring-leader who shoved EPO into people’s veins. Problem solved, turn your back in shame at the lie you had so carelessly bought into.  But of course, it is never as simple as that. Nothing ever is.

To realise the intricacies of cycling at that time and Armstrong’s career, it is crucial to realise just how systemic drug use was. Everyone was on it. Everyone. The most impactful part of a book that I read on Armstrong (Cycle of Lies, Juliet Macur) is when Armstrong had been accused of cheating. That he had cheated the world of their dream and the other cyclists of a fair competition. Armstrong subsequently looked up the word “cheating” and saw that it meant getting an ‘unfair advantage’ over other competitors. He shook his head; he couldn’t believe his legal sentence. Doping wasn’t unfair, and it certainly wasn’t an advantage. As drugs become more prolific in the sport,  it became more a leveler than anything else. People didn’t inject themselves with brightly coloured liquids to guarantee victory; it was to ensure that they could just keep up.

This is where opinion comes in. To simplify the process, consider that you were a professional endurance runner. Imagine that there is a pair of shoes that can make any runner instantly 20% faster. The authorities are looking for the shoes, yet struggle to identify them despite the fact that all your competitors are wearing them. Without them, you are getting left behind because suddenly the whole field is miles ahead. What do you do? Do you sit in the dust, crying? Or do you pick yourself up, find yourself the shoes and know that the next time you toe the line, the best runner will win, because now everyone is faster, it makes no difference?

Because when everyone has drugs, there is no advantage.

It makes sense that Armstrong still considers himself the winner of the 7 Tour de France titles he originally won, even after he was officially stripped of them. Who else could they have actually gone to instead? Who wasn’t cheating? This isn’t like one outlier in the Olympic Games, where medals are re-awarded years later.

Of course, his attitude towards his teammates and the media was at times horrendous and outrageous. Often, the way he acted was absolutely horrific and no-one can condone that kind of behaviour. But that is not the point; the point is whether in a culture of doping, are there any real victims? Once it is omnipresent (and by the sound of it, it was) then doesn’t it just become another tool, like a streamline swimsuit in swimming or a type of aero-dynamic helmet in cycling? Another thing to make you faster?

A debate has existed in this vain for a long time. As we reach the limits of what humans are physically capable of, the question arises of whether drugs should become legal in sport, so that records can be crushed once more, and excitement injected into sport again. This was even discussed on the renowned BBC podcast “A Running Joke, with Rutherford and Fry”. But the problem with drugs is that unlike creating a lighter hockey stick, these substances alter the human body in ways which are unnatural to the extreme, and therefore highly dangerous. Athletes are the most motivated and competitive people on Earth; they already do shocking things to their body to win, so doping would pose no health-related qualms for them. And with all the sports competitions now being televised, athletes are quickly becoming accessible role-models and icons. Children should not in the future be looking up to steroid filled sprinters, wanting to be artificially muscular like them, if you see what I mean. And with the athlete’s health in mind, too, there is no way that the IOC could condone doping, given how risky and experimental it can be.

So, once the cycle of doping had started, it was difficult not to be sucked in as a pro. It’s easy to understand how it turned into another piece of tech, to be used alongside careful nutrition and training. But the UCI needed a figurehead, someone to take down publicly to prove to the rest of the world that doping could not continue. It is unfair that Armstrong was targeted when many of his contemporaries basically got amnesty. There was no uniform punishment, and when you are the one suffering the most from a policy, naturally it’s going to hurt.

But the most important thing is that cycling is clean again. (Supposedly just look at recent allegations around Froome.) Armstrong’s forceful condemnation did indeed allow a new generation of cyclists to enter the sport without the fear of being pressured into blood transfusions and backroom injections. And that cannot be a bad thing.

It’s time to rebut, refute and refine

This is a ridiculously long and detailed response to the ridiculously problematic “The New Narcissism” article by Lara Prendergast in the 11/08/18 edition of the Spectator. This post will only make sense if you read the other article first. The issues that tackled throughout the post are structured to mirror the loose order that they are found in the original article. Any quotations from ‘The New Narcissism” are underlined for ease of recognition.

The date that went wrong

Perhaps the biting anger and resentment that Prendergast exudes throughout stems from the rejection and confusion her friend feels on a date because his partner “didn’t eat”. Of course, it is a bit embarrassing to be the only person chewing, to have every mouthful watched and to try and eat whilst maintaining a meaningful conversation. But if she must take her friend’s emotions to heart, then maybe next time Prendergast should just colour in some nice mandalas instead and not channel that negative emotion into a poorly structured article.

Huel, narcissists and fads

The offered notion that Huel (a company that primarily offers nutritionally-complete food in powdered form) is a “fad” is one which is deeply misguided. It is an idea that appears to be thrown into the article to be more inflammatory and flippant than actually useful. A fad is something people quickly latch onto, something that becomes a craze before it is carelessly discarded to make way for the next trend. Fidget spinners was a fad. As were loom bands.

Huel, on the other hand, was launched three years ago, and is one of the fastest growing companies in the UK. It earned over £14m in 2017 alone. So assuming Prendergast is correct, Huel is not only one of the most prosperous and popular but also one of the longest-lived fads ever. Thereby undermining its epithet.

However, perhaps the reason that the journalist thinks that Huel’s stellar success is fleeting is because she believes that the trend of caring for future generations and the planet is short-lived? Either way, she isn’t correct, because she rightly notes that the “world’s population is growing”, suggesting that she realises that with the population increase there follows consequences that require increasingly complex solutions. Huel is one of those solutions. There is no doubt that as resources become rapidly more limited, its role (along with similar companies) in preventing world hunger in a “post-apocalypse” environment will become more prominent.

But we are luckily not there yet. In fact, one of the actual main aims of Huel is to have  “minimum impact on animals and the environment”. This sounds a lot more virtuous than many other companies in this day and age, where the urge for a profit no matter the environmental cost is the only driving force.  Bearing this in mind, it seems strange that this so-called fad can be attributed to a “new sort of narcissism”. Narcissists are, as Prendergast correctly notes, interested in the “self all-round”. But buying from a sustainable brand is the least narcissist thing one can do. After all, no one today will be alive to see the truly catastrophic effects of global warming, and yet here are so-called self-obsessed consumers investing in a future they won’t see. Funny that.

New Narcissism?

A narcissist is someone who has an “exaggerated sense of self-importance” and is “extremely self-centred”. It is very clear that no one, least of all a narcissist, can be  “vain and virtuous at the same time”. With only one pair of eyes, humans cannot look outwards to help and inwards to indulge in self-obsession simultaneously. I understand that perhaps Prendergast was trying to comment on society today and contemporary morality, but that’s not how psychology works. Psychology does not change even when theories are dressed up in a satirical and biting way. Science sends you their sincerest apologies. Now that the entire premise of “New Narcissism” has been thoroughly destroyed, let’s pretend that this is possible so that the rest of the article is not just dismissed as they all rely on this central theme.

The supposed death of masculinity?

One of my favourite parts from this article is this: ‘Traditional masculine pursuits are being abandoned in favour of more ethical ones. Pubs are closing down and gyms are opening up.” Oh no. Not the slow death of typically patriarchal activities. Save us at least that. Bring back the leering men! Bring back the 11AM drunks! Bring back- and this has been the patriarchy’s firm favourite for millenia- more lazy afternoons where subservient housewives do the chores as (some) men sprawl in dimly light pubs.

The demonisation, firstly, of gyms over pubs is laughable, because Prendergast is suggesting that this is a symptom of nation-wide narcissism, where “more ethical pursuits” are becoming more common as beer pong slowly fades out of fashion. What a pity. I don’t need to tell you that it gyms are hardly the cause for pubs being wiped out of the high street. If that were true, which, as we are taking Prendergast’s word for it (without so much as an anecdote for evidence) I don’t believe is. You can barely take a step in London without seeing a hand-painted pub sign. Now even if pubs are closing, it’s more likely because of driving rent prices than anything else, and even if gyms are directly taking their place, this will be because of gyms are more profitable. Obviously they charge obscene prices and a large percentage of people let their gym membership go to waste, giving the gym free money. Pubs, on the other hand, have to make a product for every transaction, so their profit margin is always set. Anyway, over recent years there has been a backlash against extortionate gyms, as the Guardian in this article points out.

But anyway. Now that we know that society is being slowly destroyed by the dalek like intrusion of gyms everywhere we look, we are then told that men caring about their health is “all the rage” which makes them “almost as boring as women”. Thank God they’re not at female-levels of caring though. I don’t think the world could handle anymore people in the world who are trying not obese on the BMI scale. Want to go to Park-Run this weekend? Stop it, I prefer men with Type 2 diabetes. As for the comment on self-improvement, well, the thought that health-concious men are now considering supporting farmers at local markets, not only to be more ‘ethical’, as Prendergast points out they aim to be, but also to better their appearance by avoiding additives, is terrible. Men should be buying more Tesco Meal-Deals. They need more hydro-xenon and maltocryolites their system (or whatever new substance it is they put in food these days). Okay, I might be a tad sarcastic here, but you understand what I’m getting at. Why would you condemn the pursuit of healthiness in a society facing an obesity epidemic? Let’s get our priorities straight. 

Funnily enough, one of Prendergast’s key examples to illustrate in ethical pursuits is the rise in bodybuilding. She laments the increase in “male self-improvement” and how bodybuilding is suddenly a “very ordinary hobby”. Actually, though, it is unclear how this isn’t a magnification of masculinity. I do agree that narcissism is linked to a concerning with physical appearance. Fine. But she argues that masculine activities are being replaced by bodybuilding. Because that is a new phenomenon and very emasculating. No, men throughout history have always tried to show-off their power and strength. At least as far back as the first Olympics  in 776BC, wrestling and boxing have regularly featured in society. Accentuating physical features has always been on the human agenda too, and if you think about it, stems from an evolutionary point of view . Survival of the fittest is hardly a new concept, so it’s no wonder that this has filtered down into 21st century life. It seemed a queer line of argument for Prendergast to take, as it directly contradicted her. Oh well.

Back to the original quote, it’s not a bad thing that “traditional masculine pursuits” are fading away. They have never served anyone apart from straight white males in any useful capacity. Those pursuits only favoured those on the top of the power structure. Somewhat randomly and ironically, in the same breath Prendergast even refers to #Metoo. The shining symbol of backlash against the film industry that had allowed toxic “masculine pursuits”  to persist for too long. So am I sad to see the back of that particular “pursuit”? No.

 

Veganism

The article noted that veganism is on the rise because it is “slimming and ethical- never mind it makes you a bore at parties”. This suggests that the only thing Prendergast talks about at parties is food, so anger behind this article is probably stemming from her social rejection than anything else (if not the awful date her friend had):

At your typical house party, music pumping.

  • “Damn Daniel, I’m sorry, now I’m a vegan we can’t have a long conversation about our favourite types of cheese sandwich. As you know, I don’t have opinions on anything else apart from cheese and animal rights, so I guess that’s goodbye to our friendship.”

 

  • “Sorry Sarah, I’ve gone plant-based so we’ll have to shelf our barbecue-ribs conversation for now. You want to talk about Brexit? Not to be insensitive, but I prefer to chat about tofu recipes instead if that’s ok. Brexit is so last year.”

 

  • “Apologies Andrew, as I don’t eat animal products, I don’t want to talk about your favourite Burger King meal. I don’t even want to be with you because you’re a dirty meat eater. We have absolutely nothing in common. What? No, it doesn’t matter that we’ve been married for 15 years.”

 

So don’t bash veganism, ok? Anyway, although some vegans may have gained a reputation opposite to the Fight Club (telling everyone about it in the first 30 seconds of an introduction), most are now so embarrassed to mention it, that when pressed they simply say that they are plant-based. I wish there was a good example this… oh wait Prendergast has already included it with her inclusion of Lewis Hamilton, continuing to prove that she undermines herself at every turn.

As for the relationship of veganism to her ‘New Narcissism’ theory, well, the vast majority of people turn vegan out of concerns for the animal welfare. THEY CARE ABOUT OTHER LIVING BEINGS. The next lump of people turn plant-based because they are concerned about the environment, which yet again DOES NOT CONCERN THEM because they’ll be dead by the time this generation’s harmful actions fully come into fruition. So I don’t see how self-interest comes into it.

21st Century Ascetism

This links on nicely to Prendergast’s comment of the supposed “21st Century Asceticism”,  where “no real sacrifice” is involved, just an “exciting set of powders and pills to order on Amazon”. Where do I start? The phrase “no real sacrifice” and “asceticism” cannot juxtapose each other more. Like, they are actual antonyms Prendergast, that means opposite, just in case you weren’t sure, because you’ve been fumbling with word choices quite a lot so far.

Bodybuilding clearly requires sacrifice, because one has to leave the safety of the comfort zone to get to a state where muscle fibres are damaged, but even more so it’s the whole process of bulking/ cutting which is heavily antisocial, as you’re so busy counting macros that end up missing Pizza Night with your mates. I mean I guess you’d miss it anyway because all pubs in world had been shut down by this point. Following that… veganism can be incredibly isolating- friends and family might not tolerate or understand it and end up just you giving you a limp iceberg salad. Many restaurants and cafes don’t cater for the diet, so you either have to pack snacks ahead or risk going hungry. You also have to sacrifice certain foods, too, like Ben and Jerry’s Cookie Dough and Mac ‘n’ Cheese. So, Prendergast, the examples you provided yourself are perfect examples of actual sacrifice. No pills included.

Why are young men narcissists?

Prendergast mentions that “young men (are) turning into narcissists”. Which young men? What proportion of them? All of them in the UK, the West, or the entire world? Even that guy on his gap year in Antarctica who now can only eat hand-caught squid because he didn’t pack enough food? Are you including him too? You would think a journalist from somewhere respectable like the Spectator would realise that you can’t make sweeping statements like that without evidence. Simple references to Lewis Hamilton and the bodybuilding trend does not qualify as acceptable when saying a large proportion of the population has a severe personality disorder. And apparently this supposed narcissism is caused by Trump and Weinstein?  What is puzzling in itself though is the tone that Prendergast writes about their actions, as if these men have in some way been wronged. Yes, the “rapacious pursuit of (their own) pleasure” has indeed “damaged the world around them”.  This shouldn’t be contentious. Men who decide to prioritise their animalistic desires and end up scaring people for the rest of their lives, (giving many disorders like  PTSD), do damage society. Again, I don’t see why Prendergast has written that in such a snarky tone. You would think that in such a competitive and male dominated industry like journalism, she would of all people appreciate this change in attitude.

Then there is the weird phrase about men trying to  “‘detox’ their masculinity”. As I said earlier, I would hardly say that aforementioned bodybuilding is emasculating. Nor is sharing “#gymselfies”. I understand that men want to “distance themselves from monster”‘, but this is hardly revolutionary investigative journalism; no one is currently cosying up to mass murderers or bank robbers, either, so why would rapists be any different?

The inclusion of a hero?

Then, having just mentioned detoxing masculinity, Prendergast suddenly notes that there are “heroes to emulate” too. Presumably a hero for all the skinny vegan man-haters she speaks of? No, she’s completely changing topic and taking about someone at the opposite end of the spectrum, a “hero” whose message includes the “demolition of various feminists”. But I thought Prendergast said that all young men were “vain and virtuous”. So this breed of misogynistic men that in the last paragraph she said were practically extinct -outcompeted by a more conscious kind- (until that day, we can only hope) now do have a massive community, role models and all? The article goes from anti-veganism, to lamenting the supposed loss of the masculinity of modern men, to talking about how, no, the community of feminist haters is still thriving?

Unfortunately, Prendergast’s article has no structure, because now the rest of the article is just to do with nutrition. How apparently even though John Peterson, the aforementioned “hero”, is not virtuous, he still speaks of “restricted consumption and fewer carbs”. Like, he almost qualifies for new narcissism, but he’s not quite ethical enough, oh well I’ll just shove this example in anyway because I can write whatever I want as long as I get a reaction out of people.

Silicon valley- a “natural” link

Prendergast then speaks of the leaders of massive Silicon Valley companies, like Steve Jobs and Peter Thiel, who are “intoxicated only by abstemiousness and their own carefully structured diets.” Sorry, but a link is missing here. Those billionaires are obsessed with success, not food. They do not have time to be obsessed by anything other than their jobs. Eating is only utilitarian for them. They eat in that extreme way because it allows them to be highly productive, not because they are hapless control freaks. They cannot dedicate massive chunks of their day to heavily complex meals, unless someone else prepares it for them, because they actually- surprise surprise- have very busy jobs which require their full attention. They are most likely on these ultra-healthy diets because it allows them to function at their best and become the “powerful”  “supermen” that they are. They didn’t earn their fortune by sitting and cutting fruit in their kitchen.

Also, Prendergast takes a quote by Zoltan Istvan completely out of context. He says that “The less you eat, the better. You’re better off being borderline starving to live longer” because studies have illustrated that being in a calorie deficit increases lifespan (of rats). He doesn’t say starve yourself so that you almost die, which is why it is confusing when Prendergast also notes that some “transhumanists fantasise about cutting out food and sex entirely”. So I’ve already proved that the evidence behind the claim that some people want to cut out food entirely is incorrect in every sense of the word- how Istvan actually has a point that limiting food can be beneficial- whilst she gives absolutely no example at all for people wanting to cut out sex from their lives. What I am meant to do- take your word for it? Yeah, like that’s worked out well for the rest of your article.

Then she includes the example of Istvan eating “artificial eggs made out of peas and beans”, like that automatically proves to the reader that he’s a freak. I eat artificial burgers made from spices and chickpeas- does that qualify me as a weird space-age transhumanist? Even M&S now have a line of so-called ‘artificial foods’. If that applied, someone at every barbecue ever would have to be ostracised from society, simply because they chose a veggie sausage over the real thing.

Food substitutes 

Prendergast clearly has failed to properly do her research here. The motivation behind the  “food substitute” industry is not that the “male body should be purged and perfected”. Going back to Huel: not only are they not gender-orientated (what a gross idea), but they are also specifically not about “sci-fi whimsy” but for busy, everyday people, so that they can eat healthily when they are time poor. The point behind Huel is not to replace food- Huel is a food (as it’s nutritionally complete). It’s just meant to be used when a whole food dinner can’t be made. As for the claim that “male anorexia (‘manorexia’) is now sold as an advanced high-tech ‘disruptive’ diet” – that is absolutely baseless and ridiculous. It’s like saying that small packets of crisps help to contribute to anorexia because they can now eat in smaller portions. People can eat less than the pack, one whole pack, or two packs of crisps and eat an amount of calories accordingly. The same applies to so called “food substitutes”– you can choose to lose, maintain or even gain weight  with Soylent, Feeder or Huel.

Technology and narcissism 

Whilst it is true that Instagram does encourage people to take an extraordinary amount of selfies, the claim that Love Island “makes it easy to participate in the new narcissism” is confusing. I thought that New Narcissism was meant to be ethical, but there’s nothing ethical about watching reality TV. What about vanity? Well, people are putting an hour of their evening aside everyday for 8 weeks to watch others go about their day. It’s an activity revolving entirely around the minuscule details of the lives of strangers. It’s incredibly social, too, as anyone who has seen the Love Island online community and meme pages will know. People love to chat about the antics of those in the villa. It is a decidedly unvain activity.

Now onto another flippant statement made by Prendergast. That “All-male beauty salons are now a common sight on the high street” is one of the most sweeping that I have ever heard. I haven’t even heard of them before- I mean, I’m sure they exist but to say that they’re a common sight requires some evidence, please. I know what barbers are, sure, but I would hardly say they are beauty salons. I may be wrong, but in order for me to realise my mistake, I do need to see some statistics. Anything, really, at this point.

Gender stereotypes

Eric Anderson said that men indulge in “self-care” because of a “softening of men and their gender more broadly”. Apparently, the fact that men can now become stay-at-home fathers and are sometimes allowed to cry in public means that “women now feel comfortable commenting on male bodies, while the opposite is frowned upon.” Then Prendergast includes what I presume is her most outrageous example yet- that Anna Murphy from The Times said that men who do yoga are  “stronger, leaner and a lot sexier” ‘. This apparently shows double-standards in our society, because “what man would now dare to say such a thing about women’s bodies” asks Prendergast. None, I imagine, just because typically that kind of compliment has not been in their vocabulary. In the past many men speaking to the media have not been commenting on how strong women are, and how that because they are empowered by their strength, they are sexy. No. That would be fine. In fact, a lack of comments like that is what has made women afraid to enter the weights section, because strength was seen as unattractive. Instead typically in the past men have been saying things about women’s’ bodies, like how they want to “grab them by the pussy”. Not that anyone in power would actually say that…

So that’s why the double standards don’t actually exist. When some men in power speak about women, there is objectification and it is highly disrespectful. Saying that by exercising a man is aesthetically pleasing because he has a low percentage body fat with toned muscles, thus making them attractive, is hardly the same. You can’t exactly compare that to the ruthless female objectification that has for so long dominated the media.

Finally Prendergast blames a rise in eating disorders on “ethical dieting”. Last year, the “NHS reported a 70 per cent rise in adult men being reported to hospital with an eating disorder”. Now, there is a certain stigma currently about men and eating disorders, which should never be overlooked, but (and this is not to diminish male sufferers,) let’s not forget that eating disorders impact women/girls more severely and thus the number of female inpatients is much higher. Also, awareness around eating disorder has risen massively recently, and the correlation between the growth in ED and “ethical dieting” is not necessarily causational. If that were true, then someone should look into the fact that the more films Nicholas Cage appears in, the more people that drown by falling into a pool. Has it not occurred to Prendergast that perhaps the number of men with eating disorder could be more or less the same, but that more are admitting themselves/ being admitted by family to hospitals because they realise they have a problem? They go on social media and realise that they are seriously ill, whereas before they suffered in silence because there was no content out there illustrating what the symptoms were? No: I thought not.

Final thoughts 

Apparently “Huel-slurping puritans, the Silicon Valley transhumanists and the hairless gym bunnies” all want to the push the “limits of their bodies”. I have already explained this so many times, but Huel/Soylent etc. etc. are not made for extremists. They’re about fitting in a healthy meal when you would’ve gone to a Drive-Thru instead. As for Silicon Valley workers and transhumanists; they can come across as manic, but that’s just because they have to work an extreme amount, and want their body to function as well as possible so that they continue to work so hard. They shouldn’t be put down for wanting to work as efficiently as possible. Sure, they’re interested in immortality, but who isn’t? As for the ‘gym bunnies’, well if people are getting fitter instead of chugging beers, then, unlike this article, I don’t find it problematic.

9 phrases to use when discussing the 2018 Pulitzer Prize winner

There comes a point in our lives, when despite our best intentions, time has crumbled away from underneath our feet to land us too far ahead in the future than we had accounted for.

The activities that we had penciled in for ourselves were seemingly swallowed up by other commitments, and although your companions are equally busy, they seem to handle this precarious game of balancing work and “life” rather well. Understandably, you’re still trying to veer your life back onto its original track: so there was no time to read the Pulitzer winner this year. But to make it look like you did (I fully expect you read it in the meantime though out of principle,) here are 10 phrases to help you hold your own in a conversation at a fabulously grand dinner party. You are trying to stitch your social life back together after all, and the invite has been sitting on your coffee table for weeks…

  1. (You walk into a grand room, a minor royal by your side who is trying to avoid the pearls of sweat glimmering on your forehead.)  

    “I say, Viscount of Prumfbørg, don’t you think that the mysterious narrator in Less who slowly reveals themselves throughout the novel is no surprise by the denouement? Weren’t you a little confused by the reveal, as Greer made him refer himself in third person to try to prolong the tension?”

    A solid start. He did avoid eye contact though, so clearly your tone of voice was a little too keen. A rookie error. Anyway, it is clear that Greer was attempting to create mystery around the narrator’s identity, but he undermined this goal by making Freddy omnipotent. This did dull the credulity of the narrator as an actual person. On the other hand, if Greer was switching from Freddy to a third person narrator throughout the novel, then this was never signalled nor made clear, and thus was poor writing on his behalf either way.

2. (Whilst unironically eating a smoked salmon canapé, circling the masses, as you hone in on a lone socialite scrolling through memes.)

“Excuse me, ahem, whilst you look at Kermit memes, (a bit inappropriate for such a fine event, don’t you think?) but don’t you think Greer truly inverts the metric of loneliness in society, during the scene with Lewis and Less in Marrakech?”

She tried to grimace a smile, but the Botox was stopping her. You tried. That’s the main thing. You also had a good point! The poignancy is almost crushing; to realise that you have been looking at life through the wrong lens the entire time, and that when you remove that lens for the first time, you’ve realised all you’ve ever known is a world tinted with blue.

” ‘But you broke up with him. Something’s wrong. Something failed.’

‘No! No, Arthur, no, it’s the opposite! I’m saying it’s a success. Twenty years of joy and support and friendship, that’s a success. Twenty years of anything with another person is a success If a band stays together for twenty years, it’s a miracle. If a comedy duo stays together twenty years, they’re a triumph. Is this night a failure because it will end in an hour? Is the sun a failure because it\s going to end in a billion years? No, it’s the fucking sun. Why does a marriage not count? It isn’t in us, it isn’t in human beings, to be tied to one person forever. Siamese twins are a tragedy. Twenty years and one last happy road trip. And I thought, Well, that was nice. Let’s end on success.

People often consider things which end sourly a failure, ignoring that the longevity of the success itself is a win in its own right, regardless of the eventual outcome. Take Mo Farah’s career, for example. He finished second at 5000m track event at the World Championships, where he (and his fan base) were bitterly disappointed. That didn’t make his entire career- the double Olympic golds- worthless though, did it? It’s an interesting perspective to consider, because sometimes fond memories with people can be ruined after they in some way wrong you, but at the time the memory was formed you were having a fantastic day. Thus Greer presents happiness as something that can be crystallised and kept, not ruined in hindsight.

3. (Attempting to make a good impression on a legal giant who is sat next to you at a ridiculously long dinner table. She hasn’t even read the book because she’s reading Anna Karenina in the original Russian. But you don’t know that. You forgot to ask.)

“So… (squints, reading name card above her plate) Ms Artle, wouldn’t you agree that Greer is like Less himself during the Indian retreat considering his own novel? He must have, after all, ultimately realised that Less with the ‘best life of anyone I know’ was not likeable enough. That Less was not unfortunate enough on his own, so the inclusion of the failure of Swift (the protagonist of Less’ own novel) serves as his foil, and ultimately draws sympathy?”    

She offers a flashing smile, then gestures to the door and stands up to leave. Damn, gastrointestinal problems? She nods. Or just rejection? What a mood killer. It’s true, though. There is nothing particularly awful happening in Less’ life; he can even travel around the world. Greer just about manages to save himself from catastrophe though, and conjures a meagre amount of emotion up when his includes Less’ failed book deal.

4. (The main is being served; duck and orange blossom. You speak as you wait for the dishes to be placed on the table. To yourself, of course, as everyone else in is their own fascinating conversation. You hope that someone will overhear your wittering and ask more.)

Yeah, yeah so the tension built up over the course of the novel, the large question mark over the wedding of Freddy Pelu, was hardly as dramatic as Greer had built it up to be. One could only find it moving if they were as weak as a limp cabbage.” 

Now I can only take you so far with these phrases. I cannot conjure up social interaction, but really, no one wants to be involved with people talking to themselves. You should know better, even if the entire purpose of the book is for Less to find some resolve for the fact that Freddy is getting married. Unfortunately for Greer, in the end it boils down to the fact that, actually, nobody is particularly concerned that Less is morose. Let Freddy have a wonderful evening; you seem to have no issue manifesting an impression that you have moved on, illustrating by the amount of people you mysteriously managed to pick up during your travels.

5. (A passing waiter has stopped to fill up your Merlot from Petrus, Pomerol, France careful not to spill it at over £3,000 a bottle.)

“Thank you, thank you. A little bit more- stop there, yes. And isn’t funny, and rather prophetic in a way, that Greer himself becomes a Pulitzer Prize winner? There’s irony in that. The question is, will he also become an unbearable genius like Robert? What-“

(The answer is no, because the book really isn’t that revolutionary in any sense of the word.) Also, the waiter has moved on, unaware that you were trying to engage them in this frivolous talk. And as a PPE student at Oxford, this being their weekend job to get the cash rolling in to fund their chalet, their taste is a bit more highbrow than yours anyway.

6. (Raunchily to the Art Gallery owner next to you, as the jazz band begins to play.)

“I don’t understand art. You know? How it can be judged to be billions and squillions of pounds. Like the award of the Pulitzer prize to a comic novel is unheard of. Of course, this illustrates how the modern media is becoming more open-minded, and not in the least because of the gay protagonist. Yeah?”

He nods appreciatively. Then goes on in great detail to talk about his own failing art career for the next 25 minutes and how biased the industry is. You mention that Greer’s success signals a change in writing industry at least? He shakes his head. You mention that now not only has a comic novel won for the first time, but Less is gay, which indicates to the world that Pulitzer is still a “forwarding thinking” prize that embraces diversity. He pouts. Personally, he says, what is better than forward thinking is awarding prizes to books which genuinely deserve the accolade. Fair enough.

7. (On the balcony, gazing soulfully into the stars as the hedged garden spans out before you as you talk to the lead singer now having a smoke.)

“Lovely, lovely voice I daresay. We’re so lucky to be here, no? This beautiful garden. This privilege of ours. I’ve read the Pulitzer Prize winner don’t you know? Yes, and Greer unfortunately fails to capitalise on Less’ own privilege, which would not only add a more contemporary dimension to the story, but make it more relatable. Also, do you have a business card?”

(She doesn’t, and begins to chain-smoke.) As for the whole privilege issue, this is because it feels like at times Less’ only challenge is that faced by his failing romantic life. He is a white middle-aged man with lots of money, and his sexuality does not take away from his this particularly because he has found himself a welcoming environment, so the internal conflict we see is at best transparent and at worst remarkably unoriginal.

8. (Holding a champagne glass, slightly tipsy but still remarkably in control of advanced thought. There is a tired 10 year old who is sitting in an antique chair. You join them.)

“Tired? Me too. I’m tired that the relationship upon which Less rests upon (the name of big book these days, Frederic) the one with him and Freddy, is so hurriedly done that is makes it equally unbelievable and unmoving. Fancy a game of rock, paper, scissors?”

As you are gripped in your game, though, you realise that the Freddy/ Less relationship really is rough around the edges and quickly presented to the reader after the opening. This is a fatal flaw in the novel because this is where the entirety of the protagonist’s drive comes from. After all this is where the grief and regret centering around Freddy’s wedding directly stems from. The relationship needs to be more developed than a few simple scene with bed sheets, because we have to see why Freddy is such an incredible character that losing him would be catastrophic for Less, much in the same way someone would have to be persuaded that a £200 wine bottle is quite worth the expense when it tastes the same as a £30 one.

9. (You’ve collapsed on the croquet lawn: drunk again, talking to a retired surgeon who’s ironically passed out next to you.)

“Hello? Old chap? Don’t you, don’t think that maybe Greer frames an unusual debate about the le-legitimacy of those superior in intelligence to have the right to be unashamedly self-centred? My, I can talk sloshed! What. Yeah, yes, yes! ONLY they, after all, can create mahsterpieces that few other human minds are capable of compre-comprehend- understanding. Yesh.” 

“What was it like to live with genius?
Like living alone.
Like living alone with a tiger.
Everything had to be sacrificed for the work. Plans had to be canceled, meals had to be delayed; liquor had to be bought, as soon as possible, or else all poured into the sink. Money had to be rationed or spent lavishly, changing daily. The sleep schedule was the poet’s to make, and it was as often late nights as it was early mornings. The habit was the demon pet in the house; the habit, the habit, the habit; the morning coffee and books and poetry, the silence until noon. Could he be tempted by a morning stroll? He could, he always could; it was the only addiction where the sufferer longed for anything but the desired; but a morning walk meant work undone, and suffering, suffering, suffering. Keep the habit, help the habit; lay out the coffee and poetry; keep the silence; smile when he walked sulkily out of his office to the bathroom. Taking nothing personally. And did you sometimes leave an art book around with a thought that it would be the key to his mind? And did you sometimes put on music that might unlock the doubt and fear? Did you love it, the rain dance every day? Only when it rained.”

But, at this point in the night, you think that you’re a genius too. You forget Less, and start wildly planning your own novel. And then you begin to write your Nobel Prize for Literature acceptance speech.