Perhaps more than any other book I’ve read this year, Monoculture makes me want to say that.
Which is ironic: because Monoculture is about one story. (And I know how much you all love to read stories.)
The premise of F.S. Michaels’ work is that our culture is shaped by a single, master story.
It’s one “narrative in society that takes over the others, shrinking diversity and forming a monoculture”.
And that sentence is about the most complex that you’ll find in this work. But its ideas stretch far beyond the page.
For a subject so expansive, you might expect that the text would be dense, filled with multisyllabic words beginning with post- and micro-, and the notes longer than the body.
But the prose is succinct and clear. Even if you are hesitant to pick up non-fiction and are more comfortable diving into fiction, you will have no problem following the thread of this story.
And it really is all about story.
It begins with an amazing epigraph from Nigerian writer Ben Okri: “It is easy to forget how mysterious and mighty stories are.” (But if you’re reading here, I’m betting you haven’t forgotten that.)
The epigraph just gets better, but let me jump ahead to the opening chapter which takes on this idea of a monoculture.
“Monocultures and their master stories rise and fall with the times.”
F.S. Michaels takes the reader through these stories and times in short order. There is the seventeenth-century’s key beliefs in science, machines and mathematics. There is the sixteenth-century’s master story rooted in religion.
It’s worth noting that she moves backwards (whereas another writer might have started earlier on and moved chronologically). She never loses track of the idea that her reader is rooted in the now.
With her reader, she shifts forward again to the relevant question: what is this age’s master story?
“In our time, the monoculture is economic.” This is the narrative in which we are all immersed.
It’s a very simple statement. It’s even a simple idea. But the author posits that this one, single idea affects our work, relationships with others and the natural world, our community, our physical and spiritual health, our education, and our creativity. And in ways that we don’t even recognize because we are so immersed in the narrative.
Not sure? You don’t have to be. Ask questions. Test out the idea.
Is what you’re like as a human being (your motivations, your goals, your thoughts) shaped by an economic story?
Because most of us are (or have been) part of the paid work-force, it might be easiest to try on this idea in the first arena that the author enters.
Consider this scene. It’s not from the book. It’s mine. But bear with me, please.
Imagine a holiday party. (Well, it’s heading for that time.) Satin and lycra, drinks and hors d’oeuvres. Boss-man makes a toast and gives his thanks, not only to the employees who have worked so hard, but to the significant others who are attending with them on this glitzy evening.
You can picture this, right? You can hear him saying that we’re just like family. You can see all the polite smiles when he thanks us for not minding all those 60-hour work-weeks. Everybody minds. But we pretend not to. We reach for another glass of wine. We fall into line.
What else can we do? We’re all acting our parts in this story. (More on that later.)
F.S. Michaels offers something more concrete than this scene that I’ve sketched. She refers to a workshop in which executives were asked to define the values important to them personally. Things like family and honesty. Later that day, in the workshop, the executives are asked to define the values important to the company that employs them. Things like efficiency and productivity.
When she discusses the gap between the values we espouse personally and the values promulgated by the organizations that issue our paycheques, she makes a simple and shocking statement about it.
It comes with an end-note, so you can look it up. But you don’t need to. Because you feel the truth of it like a hard slap.
(For the record, I did read the end-notes. For those who are all about the details, who want to follow-up, there is an extensive section of them, along with a bibliography and an index. But the references do not detract from the narrative. You can read along without stopping, as you wish.)
This is page 28 of the book. Still to come are the discussions and anecdotes related to relationships, community, health, and education.
In plain language, there is talk of the dollar value calculated for wetlands, the running of prisons and libraries by private companies and corporations seeking to make a profit, prize packages offered to ministers who mention feature films in their sermons, and the risky business of studying the arts in a world in which they hold no value.
But the reason that I painted that scene up there? As impressive as F.S. Michaels’ style is (no-nonsense, straightforward, analytical), what’s even more impressive about the work is that you see how the story is writing your everyday life.
The section that resonated most strongly with me was her consideration of the economic story’s influence on creativity.
This is in no small part due to the fact that I have spent the past two months reading the long- and short-lists for national literary awards this season.
Award lists which feature some of same books repeatedly, despite the fact that thousands of books are published in this country annually. In discussions of this overlap, I have actually heard other people use the word ‘monoculture’.
And these books? These stories? It’s almost freakish. But they seem to know, inside and out, the story that F.S. Michaels is telling.
Here’s a snippet from Lynn Coady’s novel The Antagonist:
“It’s terrifying and it’s cruel and awful. But that’s the story that we grew up hearing and that’s the story that we know best and that’s the story that makes us feel secure.”
It could have been an alternate epigraph to Monoculture.
And check out Marina Endicott’s economic analysis of the heart:
“Since what was love anyway, but a balance sheet of what one respected the other for, what one could do for the other, what one needed from the other?”
That’s from her novel The Little Shadows: eerie, isn’t it?
And, finally, the cost of saving the lives of two boys caught on board a boat in a storm, from Michael Ondaatje’s novel The Cat’s Table:
“He pointed out that eight sailors had been involved in our rescue — for more than thirty minutes. This resulted in at least, at least, four hours of wasted time, and as the average salary of a sailor was X pounds an hour, X times four was what it had cost the Orient Line, plus the Head Steward’s time at another Y pounds an hour. Plus double-time payments that were always made during emergencies. Plus the Captain’s time, considerably more expensive. ‘Our ship therefore will bill your parents for none hundred pounds!'”
These excerpts span the early 1900’s vaudeville circuit, a boat travelling between Ceylon and London in the 1950’s, and Ontario in the 1980’s.
It’s there — this story — in these stories, all around us.
The text of F.S. Michael’s book is comprised of 134 pages; if you read it, you won’t just be considering the narrative of the culture in which you live, you’ll be considering the everyday choices you make in your life.
But the best part of the story is that the author affords you the opportunity to pick up your pen and demand a re-write.
Once you see the story, once you decide if you don’t like it, once you realize you want a happier ending, you can write your way out of it, find a different way to live, construct an alternative narrative.
So now I have to change my advice.
Don’t just read one book this year.
Don’t let one single story hold sway.
But do include this one book in your stack of stories.
It really is a mind-altering work.