Selling Snake Oil
In yesterday’s news, Donald Trump snubbed a climate change meeting to attend a prayer meeting. Belief, which once drove the world, has turned into a poison that is destabilising our lives. From the overabundance of information that inspires incontinent thinking, to the storming of Area 51 and the bizarre rumours about the MMR jab, the world of half-truths continues unchecked because it sells. And for the superpowers, that’s all that matters.
A documentary on the Flat Earth Society revealed that it’s a for-profit organisation, the selling of a silly idea through conventions, products, books, subscriptions and clothing that could be promoting anything at all.
How does this change in belief feed into the writing of a book? Fiction writers face a choice; you either add the real world to your writing, allow it to be influenced by what you see and feel, or shut that world out entirely.
In what we may come to think of as the Complacent Years of the early new century the fantasies of Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones ruled. Here in these worlds there were no themes, which means that the depiction of evil always comes down to a banal representation, a giant floaty thing of fire, a hidden face in a hood and cloak, because you cannot create an enemy if you have failed to establish a belief system. Instead you roll back to Bunyon, to Bosch, to the ideas perpetuated in Hollywood films and medieval art that pure people must spend their lives fighting off monsters.
This last trait is particularly instructive; it seems not to exist outside America. Watching posters for another Sylvester Stallone Rambo film going up in Europe, a friend asked, ‘Why does America think we want to see someone killing all his enemies with a huge gun?’ She suggested that a mutant gene from the pioneer spirit had been left with nowhere to go after fighting its way West.
Compelling narratives are destroyed by huge chunks of polemic being dropped into them (a mistake I’ve made in the past) but a theme can seep into a work of fiction. Lately I’ve been interested in how far the idea of false news could be taken. The thought of our inability to tell truth from lies is an awful one.
So, I’m trying to imagine how such a weighty theme sits in a popular novel when this happens.
My husband, eminently sensible and grounded, humourless to the point of mistaking jokes for real news stories, intellectually rigorous, a born sceptic, has an old sports injury that returns periodically. Having worn out his list of muscle therapists and chiropractors he’s recommended to a ‘professional’ by a friend.
She lives miles away and is all but inaccessible, so seeing her requires determination. When he meets her he realises it’s a terrible mistake. She flutters her hands over his chest and tells him his mother had a traumatic experience when he was in her womb. She talks about homeopathy, reiki, and other discredited bits of infantilised new-age gibberish wrapped in phrases about ‘healing your heart’ and ‘learning to love yourself’.
Then she fishes about for a bit of deep-reading, Derren Brown Lite crossed with Madame Arcati, and finds traumas at six months, three years, six years, all the time asking if that’s possible, fishing, fishing.
By this time her subject, the sworn enemy of woo-woo, is digging in against her. But when he comes away I find he has purchased expensive little bottles from her. Unsurprisingly, when I translate the ingredients labels I get snake oil. The first bottle primarily contains water, glycerol and blackcurrant. The second is basically echinacea and sugar. Or, in the memorable phrase used by Sweeney Todd of his rival’s potions, ‘piss with ink’.
So what just happened? He bought the flat earth theory, the waving-hands-over-your-aura prognosis, primitive healing rituals retooled for the 21st century consumer. Gwyneth Paltrow, possibly the ultimate dilettante here, transformed it into a financial empire for silly people, so she’s not so silly.
I am still staggered that a hard-nosed realist could have chosen to have his pocket picked by con artist. But we are in times when global populations feel disempowered and manipulated, when the POTUS can incoherently ramble on about concrete at a press conference and only one brave reporter is prepared to mention his incipient dementia.
‘When everyone is somebody then no-one’s anybody,’ wrote WS Gilbert in ‘The Gondoliers’. Is it so surprising that we’ll try the snake oil, just in case?