Saturday, May 28, 2005

Americanisms II

Richard Adams reviews Thomas Friedman's "The World Is Flat":

In her introduction to Graham Greene's The Quiet American, Zadie Smith says of Alden Pyle, the American of the title: "His worldly innocence is a kind of fundamentalism." She goes on: "Reading the novel again reinforced my fear of all the Pyles around the world. They do not mean to hurt us, but they do."

"A modern-day [Graham] Greene could substitute the works of the real-life Thomas Friedman - a contemporary quiet American. Like Pyle, Friedman is "impregnably armed by his good intentions and his ignorance". In The World Is Flat Friedman has produced an epyllion to the glories of globalisation with only three flaws: the writing style is prolix, the author is monumentally self-obsessed, and its content has the depth of a puddle.

"Even the title of the book rests uneasily on a conceit. Friedman recounts meeting an Indian entrepreneur: "He said to me, 'Tom, the playing field is being levelled.'" A cliché of the business world, but Friedman's brain digests it thus: "What [he] is saying, I thought, is that the playing field is being flattened ... Flattened? Flattened? My god, he's telling me the world is flat!"

"This leads Friedman to modestly compare his journey to Christopher Columbus - "Columbus sailed with the Nina ... I had Lufthansa business class" - and lay out a rambling theory about globalisation. It ends with dire predictions of looming international competition, where, in Friedman's terms, industrialised economies will need to produce chocolate sauce rather than vanilla ice-cream. ....

His limits are obvious as early as page 14, with lengthy quotes from Accounting Today. It is downhill from there, to a nadir in the book's second half when any shred of concinnity disappears and entire emails are reproduced, beginning "Hi Tom. Hope this email finds you well." Has Allen Lane dispensed with its editors? That would explain why every Americanism is left in, including "labor". Readers outside the US may also be puzzled by references to Pedro Martinez and first round draft picks - but then this book isn't aimed at them.

The ultimate example is a detailed report on the computer company Dell's construction of Friedman's latest laptop. Journalists are notorious for interviewing their typewriters, but this must be the longest example of the genre: a typewriter's complete biography.

Throughout the book the metaphor of a flat Earth is reproduced again and again. What was not a particularly useful image to begin with is flogged to death until only the bones remain. At the same time, Friedman's laptop may need the "I" key replacing, such is the hammering it must have absorbed from the author's use of the personal pronoun. In the course of the book we learn much - too much - about Friedman's family, friends and eating habits, culminating in a paean to his school journalism teacher ("I sit up straight just thinking about her!").

Friedman's writing style would still grate, but it would not matter so much if there were any value in his argument. There isn't. He roves the world interviewing the likes of Bill Gates, and concludes that high technology is changing everything. That's like studying the UK labour market by only talking to Premier league footballers.

"Pyle was very earnest and I had suffered from his lectures on the Far East," the reader is told in The Quiet American. "Democracy was another subject of his, and he had pronounced and aggravating views on what the United States was doing for the world." So too does our modern-day Pyle." (From The Guardian, "Once Upon A Time In America," May 21, 2005).


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