Production and Consumption

I have a friend from graduate school who lived in terror of one of our professors. I’m only exaggerating a little bit for effect. This professor had a reputation for being particular about grammar and style, and he regularly made graduate students go through each other’s reviews with, as he might say, a fine-tooth red pen. When you didn’t catch enough mistakes in each other’s work, it was an indication that you weren’t reading carefully enough. Sitting through these exercises could be deeply uncomfortable, but the pressure also forced you to become a better writer.

My friend dreaded these sessions, so you can imagine his terror when it came time to submit his thesis. He spent hour after hour combing through his work to root out every grammatical and stylistic misstep he could think of, fretting about what this professor might say. After my friend had passed on the day of his oral defense, that professor came up to him to point out an error on the cover page.

He had misspelled his name.

Not to minimize the stress my friend felt leading up to that moment, typos like these are functionally inconsequential. Even in published work, typographical errors say more about the process of production than they do about the author, and I am generally loathe to bring them up in book reviews unless there are an egregious number or they substantially affect the experience of reading the piece. Obviously, the goal is to have an error-free manuscript, but to typo is to be human.

I also have been thinking about these anxieties again with respect to a writing funk I have been in these past few weeks.

What happened, basically, is that as soon as I returned my copy-edited book manuscript I started to stumble across references to recent scholarship that I ought to have included. These are obviously more serious concerns than typos, but none of these pieces would fundamentally change the argument I make in the book so much as they would have added a bit more nuance to roughly five paragraphs and/or footnotes in a manuscript that eclipsed 100,000 words. And yet, coming across these citations triggered all of my anxieties about where I received my degree and working as an extremely contingent scholar for the last few years. As much as I stand by my work, I have recently been more concerned about how it’ll be received than excited that my first book has a preliminary release date.

(My partner has informed me that I’m not allowed to fret about how the book will be received until after it is released, at which time if the anxiety returns she will direct me to sleep on the porch.)

What I am wrestling with is the difference between consuming things and producing things. Consuming even the densest scholarship is relatively easy, given adequate time and determination. By contrast, producing things is hard. A short article could have taken the author months of reading or excavation, weeks of writing and rewriting, and several rounds of feedback from people at scholars, early readers, and referees. In other words, something that took half an hour to read very likely took the author weeks, and could have literally taken years, for the author to produce. Writing a book, I have found, only magnifies the asymmetry between these two processes.

This is neither a novel observation nor even the first time I have reflected on it. However, the stakes feel higher this time, both because carrying an extended argument across a book-length project requires wrangling many more threads than does making an argument in an article and simply because this is my first book project.

My book will not be perfect. Then again, neither are any of the books I have reviewed, and I have never reviewed a book I truly disliked—while some other books that I think are awful have received broadly positive reviews. All of this is to say that fixating on those handful of pages where I might have done a little more is distracting me from recalling the things that I think I did very well and the places where I think I am making important contributions.

But this anxiety has also had the insidious effect of pulling me away from doing other writing, even in this space. This is a problem because I have a variety of projects I need to finish, but, really, I’d just like to be able to focus on the process again. Perhaps reminding myself of the difference between producing and consuming will do the trick.

What is Making Me Happy: Marcus, from The Bear

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and, to a lesser extent, the Make Me Smart daily podcast, I want to remind myself that there are things that bring me joy. These posts are meant to be quick hits that identify and/or recommend things—usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary—that are making me happy in a given week. I am making this quick format an intermittent feature.

This week: Marcus, from The Bear.

Marcus: My first job was McDonalds. You don’t get to be creative, you just work with robots and everything is automatic and fast and easy. I won’t make a mistake again.
Carmy: Yeah, you will. But not ’cause you’re you, but ’cause shit happens.

The Bear 1.5, “Sheridan”

Watching The Bear causes me quite a lot of stress. The show stars Jeremy Allen White as Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto, a rising star of the culinary world who recently returned to Chicago to take over The Beef, an Italian beef sandwich shop after the owner, his brother, committed suicide. Carmy is working overtime just to keep the place afloat while trying to elevate the cuisine, navigating the resistance to change among the existing staff (especially Richie, played by Ebon Moss-Bachrach), tempering the ambition of his new sous chef Sydney (Ayo Edebiri), and, of course, dealing with the loss of his brother.

Something is always going wrong in the restaurant, whether in terms of interpersonal tensions at the worst possible moment or technical failures or a failed health inspection. All of this crests in the seventh episode “Review” where for twenty excruciating minutes you are taken into the absolute chaos of the restaurant. My stress watching this is a testament to the attention to detail brought to the show that brought on flashbacks to my experience managing a restaurant, which I did for a year after college. There are parts of the work that I enjoyed—I really like routines, for instance—but it can be absolute chaos.

The Bear packs an enormous amount into its eight episodes, most of which are less than half an hour long. There is no wasted space. Every moment seems to serve both as a character beat and either a callback to an earlier scene or setting up something that will happen in a later episode, while also packing in a surprising amount of comedy (particularly shout out Edwin Lee Gibson as Ebraheim).

This economy also allows for at least five different characters to carry out their own little arc. Carmy trying to unlearn the toxic lessons drilled into him by abusive chefs and embracing his family trauma is obvious, as are Richie’s gradual setting aside his bluster to acknowledge the depression of divorce and losing his best friend and Sydney’s obvious skill and ambition that push her to repeatedly overreach. But the writers also gave complete arcs to more peripheral characters like Tina (Liza Colón-Zayas) who comes to appreciate what Carmy is trying to do and realize that Sydney is not out to get her.

Of course, my favorite of these stories belongs to Marcus, played by Lionel Boyce.

When we meet Marcus, he is responsible for making the rolls for The Beef, and is the first of the existing staff to take to Carmy’s vision for the restaurant. With a little bit of inspiration from Carmy’s cooking materials and some encouragement, Marcus teaches himself to bake cakes that they add to the menu. Then he wants to make doughnuts. Things go wrong, at times because that is the nature of the show (and life), but he just keeps going.

What I love about this arc is the reverence that it receives from both Lionel Boyce and the show’s creators. Marcus is given an infectious enthusiasm for baking, almost to the point of obsession. Once he asks for sous vide bags for a fermentation experiment even though he has no idea what he is doing. At the same time, while the The Beef as a whole is absolute chaos, the shots of Marcus baking are done in almost absolute silence, leaving him in this island of calm as he goes through the steps and making it that much more jarring when that calm is disrupted.

This entire season of The Bear is great and the show lands whether or not it continues for a second season, but Lionel Boyce’s performance as Marcus is particularly making me happy this week.

The Immortal King Rao

Social media is a topic ripe for storytelling, and anyone who has spent more than a few minutes on a site like Twitter can understand why they often contain at least an undercurrent dystopia even when that is not precisely the genre the author is working in. I have generally enjoyed the novels I have read in this space, including The Start-up Wife and Fake Accounts, both of which came out last year, but I found neither one of them as strong as The Immortal King Rao. Perhaps because Vahini Vara steers harder into our impeding globally-warmed, algorithmic dystopia.

The three timelines in The Immortal King Rao are each narrated by Athena Rao, King’s daughter who has an illicit piece of technology he developed that allows her access to his memories. King Rao died three days ago. Athena is being interrogated.

The first story is that of King Rao as a child in Kothapalli, India, which we are told is the Telugu equivalent of “Newtown.” In 1951, King was born into a Dalit family that became marginally prosperous when they acquired The Grove from a Brahmin family no longer interested in living in this small town. This opportunity allowed Rao’s industrious grandfather to acquire land on which the extended family can operate a coconut growing and processing operation.

This is not to say that the world of The Grove is good. King is the child of a sexual assault, with his mother, Radha, marrying into the Rao family after his father, Pedda, assaulted her, and he is functionally raised by his aunt, Sita, who marries his father after the death of his mother. Likewise, the extended family is frequently dysfunctional, filled with bullies, gamblers, and layabouts, and the choices of the younger generations nearly drive the family to ruin. But it is also here that Rao first develops his understanding of social networks and interpersonal responsibility.

The second story chronologically follows Rao from his arrival in the United States (in Seattle) as an impoverished graduate student through the rise of Coconut, the company he starts with Margaret, the white daughter of his supervisor. Of the three, this is the arc I found least satisfactory, in large part because many of its beats simply fictionalize the growth of major tech companies like Apple and fold the rise of multiple companies into this one. This is arguably a necessary feature of a story that links this Dalit family in India to the dystopian future—after all, the best dystopias are built on the bones of reality—and Vara uses this story to explore the relationship between King and Margaret, but I also found it distinctly limiting, to say nothing of a little bit hand-wavy to get to where the entire world is beholden to the single tech giant Coconut and its “impartial” algorithm.

The third story is that of Athena herself, King’s progeny and greatest experiment. After his fall from grace at Coconut in c.2040, and after the death of Margaret (who was by now his ex-wife), King deactivated his Social, sailed to Blake Island, and set up a little isolated homestead. It was here that Athena, King and Margaret’s daughter by a surrogate mother living on nearby Bainbridge Island, grew up among the orchards of tropic fruits that King imported.

It is in this storyline that Vara imagines a dystopian vision of the future.

And then Hothouse Earth arrived. The wildfires that began in spring and lasted all summer; the droughts that were such old news that they no longer showed up in headlines; each new pandemic beginning just after the previous one was under control.

King’s grand triumph was the creation of a unitary world government enabled by the global reliance on Coconut technology. King creates a new Constitution that is, functionally, techno-socialism. All citizens become Shareholders who collectively own all corporations, all major decisions—from criminal justice to the global curriculum—determined by the Master Algorithm. Instead of money, individual worth would be measured by the “Social Capital” of an individual, as determined by Algo based on one’s intelligence, beauty, and productive value. In short, everyone is an influencer, and since a portion of their Social Capital is “extracted” monthly in lieu of taxation there is an incentive to continue to engage with the platform.

Of course, algorithms are only as good as their inputs.

The truth was that a person’s Social Capital depended almost entirely on the privilege they were broth with, not any effort of their own.

The prior richness of the rich and the poorness of the poor had been grandfathered in the Shareholding system.

Algo didn’t eliminate the existing ills of society, it merely put them behind a veneer of impartiality. If you disagree with this system, your only choice is to opt-out by becoming an “ex” on one of a few designated “Blanklands” that are off the Social. There you could scratch out a living through farming and illicit trade in drugs, sex, and surrogate pregnancy, and the Shareholders didn’t have to deal with your opposition to progress or listen to your doom-filled prognostications about the future.

If the rise of Coconut was the weakest part of The Immortal King Rao for me, the moment when teenaged Athena decides to abandon her father in favor of life among the Exes, scratching out a living on Bainbridge Island, I found the strongest. In addition to meeting a new cast of characters like Elemen, one of the original Exes, this society reveals to Athena nature of the world that her father created. This world might have been designed to bring people closer together in an efficient manner, but ended up breeding disillusion and complacency while the world burned. Opting out might have been the right move, but it condemned the rest of society in the process.

There were parts of The Immortal King Rao that required suspension of disbelief and much of both the optimism about technology and its consequences felt distinctly American, even though a third of the novel is set in India. And yet, I find that the most chilling dystopias are the ones that cut closest to the truth. The idea of a technocratic single world state might be implausible, but a world ostensibly guided by “impartial” algorithms that aren’t impartial, where every job is rebranded with corporate babble (“history teachers” are now “Progress Leaders”), where everyone’s worth is measured in social media clout, and where the next great advance merely replicates the existing social order very much is not.


I recently finished Yōko Ogawa’s The Memory Police and am now reading James Baldwin’s Go Tell it on the Mountain.