Saturday, October 7, 2017

Peeved Messiah: on Russell Brand's "Recovery"

It is hard to dislike Russell Brand entirely. On the other hand, liking him more than a bit would probably be excessive. Not that an author’s likability should matter to a book reviewer. We are talking about higher things, after all. We are obliged to distinguish the work from its creator.

The trouble with Brand, however, is that he persistently goes out of his way to render this distinction meaningless. Everything he does is all about him, in the end – and in the beginning and the middle too. Whether he is calling for global revolution, or doing his jittery, artless version of stand-up, or proclaiming that we need to keep an “open mind” about who really felled the twin towers, or interviewing some expert he can’t wait to speak over the top of, Brand is always engaged in the same basic project – that of imposing his febrile, needy personality on whatever subject or medium is at hand. 

This time around, the medium is a self-help book called Recovery. A picture of Brand’s face features prominently on the cover, as it does on many another Brand product, the eyes fixing you with their familiar stare, half baffled, half petulant. He looks like a peeved messiah, or Che Guevara about to send back a plate of oysters. Above the photo looms his accidentally resonant name, in its jumbo font: the surname that means a product line, the forename that is a homonym for an inconsequential noise.

The subject of the book is addiction. The modern world, Brand believes, is a dangerously addictive place. Even if you are not technically an addict, you almost certainly have an unwanted dependency on something, such as chocolate, or your smartphone. 

Therefore Brand is in a position to help you, since, as you may have somehow failed to hear, he spent the bulk of his youth being addicted to just about everything: heroin, crack, alcohol, sex, junk food, pornography. Since 2002, however, Brand has been free of his major addictions, and hard at work kicking his minor ones. 

He credits his recovery to the twelve-step abstinence method pioneered by Alcoholics Anonymous. His book is meant to tell you how the twelve steps can work for you, by telling you how they have worked for him. Of course you can look up the twelve steps online for yourself, if you wish. They are freely available; in their written form they occupy about two hundred words. This means that Brand has a lot of pages left over here in which to talk about himself: an opportunity he seizes with frenzied gusto. Traditionally, self-help books are meant to be about you. This one is largely about the guy who wrote it. Once again, Brand has hijacked a form.

Of course this is a legitimate move, in principle. There is an important message at the heart of this book. Putting Brand’s personal spin on it means, let’s face it, that it will reach more readers than a book written by a mere scientist or trained professional. Whether those readers will be able to plough through 280 pages of Brand’s hectically improvised prose is another question. But let it be said, for the moment, that Brand has some undoubted personal virtues that offer partial compensation for the way he writes. He cares deeply about his subject. He has obvious compassion for other addicts. And he is insanely honest. “The one thing I’ve always been pretty certain about is that this life is all about me,” he writes at one point. One could deduce as much from his work, but it is nice to hear it admitted. “Self-centredness,” he writes elsewhere, is “the core of my condition.”

Anyway, the twelve steps have proved so useful to Brand that he sees no earthly reason why the rest of humanity shouldn’t become ardent twelve-steppers forthwith. After all, he says, these days everyone is an addict, of one kind or another. Therefore the steps can serve as a “universal” social tonic – even though, or perhaps because, performing them will commit us to a more or less ceaseless contemplation of the self, with no time left over for studying the world beyond it. Step ten alone, Brand says, will involve us in “a daily, possibly constant process of instantiation of new ideals.”

One can readily see why a serious addict might volunteer for a future filled with the rigours of daily instantiation. But would it not be a bit draconian for a mild chocoholic, say, to do the same? Brand thinks not. And so a book that might have been a slim and pointed manual for people with real problems becomes a bloated spiritual guidebook for our whole ailing society. “I suggest,” says Brand, that the program “could be the genesis of a new way of being.”

Without apparent irony – or without nearly enough – Brand indicates that he would like to be viewed not just as a recovery guru, but as a “sage” and “prophet” too. But Brand is a non-starter as an intellectual. He is simply incapable of seeing the world clearly, with perspective, as something that exists independently of himself. Except for a merciful late chapter describing the birth of his first child, the whole atmosphere of this book is stiflingly Brand-centric. 

As for religion, Brand’s position is as follows. He is too smart for vulgar monotheism: he sees right through all that. But he’s too smart for simple scepticism too. No: he believes that a valid common message can be salvaged, by him, from the rubble of the world’s major faiths. And that message is: “love is the answer.” To put it a slightly different way: “But I know and you know (don’t you?) that there is beneath the shash of thought and the wrought ascent and bilious plunge of feeling, some code of which the Sufis sung (sic).”

One feels oneself partaking in a familiar ritual at this point. Again a celebrity non-writer has published a largely superfluous book. Again the reviewer is compelled to blow the whistle on it, so that order may be restored. But really it is a strange sort of order we have, when we pay celebrity typists like Brand lavish sums of money to tell us that we live in a shallow culture. Not that Brand is wrong about that. We’re addicted to trivia, all right. But when he lists the many forms of unseriousness that we’re hooked on, he somehow forgets to mention books like this, which deliver little more than the sugar rush of a famous face on the cover, followed by the sinking sense that you’ve been sucked in by the junk yet again.