The celebrity astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson had an idea last June: Instead of squabbling about politics based on our emotions, wouldn’t it be great if everybody just stuck to the facts? Confident that such a notion would have broad appeal, Tyson tweeted a hashtagged call to arms: “Earth needs a virtual country: #Rationalia, with a one-line Constitution: All policy shall be based on the weight of evidence.” Big-name self-declared rationalists like Richard Dawkins signed on. Presumably the masses would soon follow.
War was immediately declared on Rationalia. Pundits on the left and right, along with Tyson’s fellow scientists, blasted holes through the idea that objective truths could always be leveraged to make policy, or that human beings were wired to be uniformly rational, or that they could even agree on what “evidence” is in the first place. Reminders abounded that, from utopian communities to dictatorships, societies have often imploded in the name of “rationality” and “evidence,” at times tragically.
But the dream won’t die, and Ron Currie’s witty, knotty fourth novel, “The One-Eyed Man,” is an entertaining exploration of what makes Tyson’s seemingly commonsensical campaign both appealing and destructive. Its narrator, the first-initial-only K. (all echoes of Kafka are knowing and valid), has recently lost his wife to cancer, and his grieving process involves raising pedantry to obnoxious, steroidal levels. He harangues friends about marketing-speak: A bottle of hand soap is saddled with the phrase “formulated with cleansing agents.” He corrects both the grammar and political intelligence of a man whose bumper sticker reads “WHOSE NEXT … DON’T TREAD ON AMERICA.” He tells people his wife isn’t truly dead, based on Einstein’s time-folding theories. K. has become, in short, the kind of person you step away from slowly at parties.
Yet this hard-core fussbudgetry also prompts him to intervene in a coffee-shop robbery where he’s shot, and his derring-do puts him in the national spotlight. K., like most people, is too humble to call himself a hero. Unlike most people, though, he’s too obsessive to leave well enough alone. He declares that the ceremony honoring him is “about confirming your belief in a just world, which you need in order to assuage a whole host of subconscious fears,” adding, “Fear of existing in a universe that is completely and utterly indifferent to you, your families, whether you suffer or celebrate, live or die.”
Though K. is a killjoy with a library card, an L.A. reality-TV producer sees ratings gold in K.’s soothsaying, perhaps recalling “Network’s” mad prophet Howard Beale. In short order K. becomes the star of “America, You Stoopid,” in which he debates people across the political spectrum — “Klansmen and New Black Panthers, radical feminists and neoliberals.” He also absorbs literal abuse from his interlocutors, especially when the topic is religion. “Since my wife died facts have become a tremendous comfort to me,” he tells an interviewer, but that comfort plainly comes with a lot of cuts and bruises.
There are a lot of places a premise like this can go, and it’s not always to the credit of “The One-Eyed Man” that Currie eagerly pursues so many of them. On one level, it’s a straightforward satire of cable news’ discussion-as-cockfight view of the world, with spot-on impressions of Bill Maher, Nancy Grace and Wolf Blitzer. (His Rachel Maddow manque, who hollers that transgender rights be affirmed “or your head will be stuck on a pike,” is a bit more off-brand.) In its final third, it is an extended redramatization of standoffs with live-free-or-die types a la Ruby Ridge and Waco. It is a bittersweet study of K.’s wife’s decline, his self-laceration over his belief that he hastened her death and his struggle to kindle a romance with his hard-drinking “America, You Stoopid” sidekick. And it’s a riff on our decisions to pursue bad habits in the face of good sense, religious doctrine and federal regulation. (It’s likely no accident that the three chief vices Currie addresses are alcohol, tobacco and firearms.)
Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles TimesAstronomy and Astrophysics Space Neil deGrasse Tyson Bill Maher