Creative Sensemaker: What to read, watch and listen to this weekend
A rundown of the books, films, music and more by Tortoise Media, the slow news agency
By Matt d'Ancona
Welcome to the latest Creative Sensemaker from Tortoise Media.
What do Sally Rooney and Boris Johnson have in common? Both began their respective meteoric ascents in the world of debating; in the merciless world of public point-scoring and performative argument.
The acclaimed novelist, it is true, earned her rhetorical stripes in rigorously marked contests, becoming, at the age of 22, the number one competitive debater in Europe. The future prime minister, on the other hand, made his mark in the braying carnival of the Oxford Union, with all its frippery and finery, winging it to the top of that organisation.
What they had in common in their university years was an absolute yearning to win. As a child, Johnson had famously declared his ambition to be ‘World King’. In a now-famous essay in the Dublin Review in 2015 – published before she was a novelist – Rooney identified the cold potential of debating as a form of self-advancement and self-definition.
‘Competitive debating,’ she wrote, ‘takes argument’s essential features and reimagines them as a game. For the purposes of this game, the emotional or relational aspects of argument are superfluous, and at the end there are winners… I was number one. Like Fast Eddie (Paul Newman’s pool-playing character in The Hustler), I’m the best there is. And even if you beat me, I’m still the best.’
Of course, the very suggestion that Rooney and Johnson might have something in common, some point of psychological convergence, will strike many as a form of cultural blasphemy – a comparison in peculiarly poor taste only five days before the publication of her latest novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You. Dozens of bookstores are opening early to mark the occasion – a distinction generally reserved in the past for JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books.
Only four years since the publication of her debut, Conversations with Friends and three since the million-selling Normal People, Rooney is treated – almost uniquely among contemporary fiction writers – with something approaching awe and critical reverence, labelled the ‘first great millennial author’ and ‘Salinger for the Snapchat generation.’
But I can’t help feeling that the scale of such veneration may not serve Rooney well. The flipside of unconditional awe is usually eventual cancellation, and a writer of her rare abilities deserves a more nuanced artistic path in the decades ahead. Remember: there was a time when everyone was nice about JK Rowling.
For now, though, Rooney – like the prime minister – continues to do what she set out to do in the first place. Which is to win.
Here are this week’s recommendations:
Remember Vince (Adrian Grenier) from Entourage? Well, he’s in a whole lot of trouble in this eight-part Netflix bingefest, as Nick Brewer, a family man who is suddenly kidnapped – ony to appear online, beaten up, holding a sign that says “I ABUSE WOMEN”, and then another bearing the words “AT 5 MILLION VIEWS, I DIE”. This digital premise is really just a contemporary twist upon a standard thriller trope: who is Nick, really, what has he done, and who is his captor? Zoe Kazan and Betty Gabriel are great as, respectively, his sister, Pia, and his wife, Sophie, initially antagonistic in their shared quest for the truth. Each episode focuses upon one of the protagonists (as well as, deftly, some of the supporting characters), all of which adds to the atmosphere of paranoia, uncertainty and betrayal.
The Age of Unpeace: How Connectivity Cause Conflict – Mark Leonard (Bantam Press)
Mark Leonard, who has been a force in foreign policy thinking for a quarter century, describes this book as ‘an intervention’, and so it is. Connectivity, he argues, has created a global village, but it has also established an infrastructure of instability, confrontation, cyber-conflict and misinformation. Unlike many recent surveyors of the global scene, however, he refuses to be a fatalist, and, in a tract that is also rich in data and anecdote, sets out a five-step manifesto for what he calls ‘disarming connectivity.’ If you’re feeling intellectually disoriented after the fall of Kabul, start here.
‘If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power’ – Halsey
Since their first album Badlands (2015), Halsey has been a consistently interesting artist – and this, their fourth, is possibly the most intriguing yet. Produced by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross of Nine Inch Nails, it fizzes with energy, irony and grit – but also vulnerability (‘You will bury me before I bury you.’). It is, in Halsey’s own words, ‘a concept album about the joys and horrors of pregnancy and childbirth… The idea that me as a sexual being and my body as a vessel and gift to my child are two concepts that can co-exist peacefully and powerfully.’ Dave Grohl is recruited to play drums on ‘Honey’, and there is a hard rock-grunge thread running through the album – but also nods to hip-hop and dance music. ‘I am disruptive, I’ve been corrupted,’ Halsey sings. ‘And by now, I don’t need a fuckin’ introduction.’ They certainly don’t.
That’s all for now. Enjoy the weekend and take care of yourselves.
Editor and Partner