No. 118 (essentialsaltes) wrote,
No. 118

The Girl in the Glass / Don't Sleep, There are Snakes

The Girl in the Glass, by Jeffrey Ford has a lot going for it, but the villain of the piece is so insane and his plans so unbelievable that it sadly ruined a lot of the great chemistry of the first half, when the mystery was still a mystery. Our protagonists are a likable little trio of conmen spiritualists in Depression era New York. But an enigmatic encounter with a real live dead ghost sends these flim-flammers with hearts of gold to investigating the disappearance of a young girl. There's a lot to like in the first half or so, including the amusing and authentic (if occasionally exaggerated) shenanigans of the seance trade. But it devolves into the not very believable comic book antagonist vs. a Magnificent Seven of carny folk. Still amusing enough, but not very believable or satisfying. I did like the epilogue, so at least it didn't end on a sour note.

Don't Sleep, There are Snakes, by Daniel L. Everett, was not entirely what I expected, so I feel a little cheated. But it's still fascinating stuff most of the way through. Everett was a missionary, and he and his family went and lived with the Pirahã people of the Amazon. His particular missionary group accentuated learning the language for use in making a translation of the Bible, rather than direct conversion efforts, so Everett perforce became a linguist.

The first part of the book are about his experiences in the jungle with the Pirahã people, including some harrowing accounts of his wife and daughter contracting malaria and his almost comically (if it wasn't so horrifyingly) inept attempt to get them to medical attention. The whole section is the best part of the book and gives you a good sense of just how different the Pirahã are from what is easily imaginable in our culture. No number words, no color words (other than comparisons to other things -- red things are 'like blood'), and more intriguingly, the Pirahã pay no attention to anything they haven't personally witnessed (or, a bit more dubiously, what someone they've talked to personally witnessed.) Yet at the same time, this doesn't mean that they are entirely without the supernatural -- demons exist and are seen by them, occasionally in the form of other Pirahã 'acting' the parts of demons. Scare quotes are really necessary, since I still don't have a good understanding, and I don't think Everett does either, of what the Pirahã really mean by demons.

The second part of the book is primarily about the Pirahã language and what it means more generally for linguistics. Much of this is also fascinating, but near the end of this longish section, he has moved on to deep issues in the theory of linguistics, battling both Chomsky's universal grammar and the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Hey, I took a linguistics class in college, so I don't consider myself ignorant, but much of this was really above my head, and/or beyond my interests.

The third part of the book is really just a single chapter, barely an epilogue, and this is where I feel gypped roma'ed. One of the things that sold me on the book was the throughline that it was the story of a Christian missionary who went to the Amazon and lost his faith. Everyone loves a good deconversion story, don't they? But apart from a few hints scattered here and there, this perfunctory chapter is the only discussion of this part of his story. And although he doesn't talk a lot about his internal debate, it's not even very compelling. Maybe it was something like Stockholm Syndrome, as it seems that the Pirahã's general happiness combined with their disdain for anything not personally witnessed contributed to Everett recognizing the emptiness of his own faith.

[OK, I will quote one bit, just for hilarity, and again perhaps as insight into what the Pirahã consider demons who are really real:

The morning after one evening's "show" [of slides of the life of Jesus] an older Pirahã man, Kaaxaoói, came to work with me on the language. As we were working, he startled me by suddenly saying, "The women are afraid of Jesus. We do not want him."

"Why not?" I asked, wondering what had triggered this declaration.

"Because last night he came to our village and tried to have sex with our women. He chased them around our village, trying to stick his large penis in them."

Kaaxaoói proceeded to show me with his two hands held far apart how long Jesus' penis was -- a good three feet.]

But I wonder if this story of deconversion might just be too personal and painful for Everett to talk about in detail. It was hard enough for him to talk to people in his life, since it took him some 15 years before he told anyone about his atheism. And in what little he says, it's clear that this revelation ended his marriage. And his Wikipedia entry makes clearer that two of his children refused to speak to him for years.
Tags: atheism, book, religion, skepticism, wordplay

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