When it comes to story telling, the writer Frank McCourt once said: "The happy childhood is hardly worth your while."
But what about the happy adulthood? David Brooks' new book, The Social Animal, follows the lives of two extremely contented grown-ups.
"This is the happiest story you've ever read," it announces. "It's about two people who led wonderfully fulfilling lives."
If you're cynical, this probably sounds repellent. But thankfully, these two people turn out to be fictional. And the book's subtitle, "The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement," is misleading. The Social Animal doesn't reveal "hidden" formulas at all. Rather, it's a giant parable about the power of our unconscious. It suggests how we might improve ourselves and our world by understanding how we really think.
In the tradition of Rousseau, Brooks illustrates this through narrative. He invents two characters, Harold and Erica whom we follow from childhood to grave. Along the way, we meet Harold's parents, his roommate, Erica's coworkers, even a wildly charismatic presidential candidate named, of all things, Grace.
Watching their lives unfold, we're treated to commentary about how and why these characters behave and believe as they do. They become vehicles through which Brooks highlights a dizzying range of philosophy and research, including the Greek concept of thumos, the Hamiltonian ideal of democracy, IQ assessments, moral reasoning and behavioral economics. There are also arguments about achievement and the unconscious, which, I must say, are often reminiscent of Malcolm Gladwell.
The Social Animal is a sort of theory of everything — a valiant attempt to synthesize a multitude of ideas and characters. It's ambitious and entertaining. But it's also messy.
Brooks has a great novelistic eye. In the first half of his book, he makes Harold and Erica come alive vividly. Yet midway, they devolve from protagonists to mouthpieces — stand-ins, perhaps, for Brooks himself, delivering thoughtful prescriptions for culture, companies and politics.
Brooks has a terrific sense of humor, too, but it's oddly deployed here. The Social Animal opens with a wicked parody of cultural elitism — or what Brooks calls the "Composure Class."
But this class seems to be the very group that Harold and Erica wind up in. By veering into satire, Brooks muddies his intentions. Are we supposed to admire his characters, or mock them? Empathize, or view them as cautionary tales?
Strangest of all, for a book that claims to be about our "emotional" inner realm, there's little if it depicted here. Neither Harold nor Erica suffers from the daily insecurities, compulsions, and anxieties that plague most real people. The biggest emotional challenges in their lives — children, infidelity, aging — are glossed over in a few pages. Mostly, Harold and Erica face concrete, defined problems — which they solve promptly, using street smarts and research.
Yes. But irritating! For all its intelligence and imagination, Brooks' narrative suffers from its own lack of real suffering. Is the happy adulthood of Harold and Erica worth your while? To an extent, The Social Animal is very much like the unconscious it explores. It's creative, helpful and thought-provoking. Yet it's also unwieldy and elliptical. And in the end, you just can't help thinking there's more to be illuminated.
Susan Jane Gilman's latest book is the memoir Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven.