Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

I thought so: or so I thought? / What 'Thinking, Fast and Slow' means for writing...

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I kind of sort of was thinking maybe that...

A neighbour last week was staring at the sky, and nodding his head slowly in a way that said to me that he was confirming something that he had known about for some time. He was on his way to work. I was headed down my ususal road, through the streets and lanes to Wychwood to downtown. Habits, etc. The need to be around trees.

“Those things...?” He was aiming his commentary to no-one in particular, eyes still scanning the sky. “They look like contrails, but uh uh.”

Mornings are not my best time for chit chat, but your neighbour is your neighbour. He’ll be there where you come home too.

“See how they spread out like that, in that weird way?”

I stop and look up. There are three or four contrails up there. The sky is a clear, yellow-blue vault. The producers of these trails, high altitude jets, are already out of sight. The trails seemed routine enough.
He turns to eye me.

“A normal one doesn’t look like that. You know? It would spread out more.”

With that, neighbour fixes me with a glazed eye, and the beginnings of a smile. The arched eyebrow is asking me a rhetorical question: am I not wised up yet to what they really are, those normal-looking contrails up there? Or have I been duped, like every other schlump?

It’s going to be the latter.

“Geo-engineering," he declares. "They’re seeding the sky. Cloud seeding. They’re controlling the weather.”

I’m usually at a loss about how to react to items like this. Fairly or unfairly though, I’ve already decided what’s going on here: my neighbour is watching too much of History Channel. They’ve had a load of secret histories and conspiracy extravanagzas on lately. If it’s not Nostradamus, it’s 2012 Disaster, Mayan style. I’ve already decided that my neighbour is wandering in Chariots Of The Gods territories here. To him, someone – ‘someone!’ 'they!' – is engineering the climate over Toronto or the Toronto area, at least.

As I threaded my way down through Wychwood Park, I gave it some thought again. So neighbour has arrived at his conclusion in his own way. He has selected, ignored, scanned, considered ... and so forth. He gets a charge out of feeling that he has discovered something that’s held secret too, I reckon. There's the pleasure of display too, of showing that he’s smart enough not to be taken in by other normal explanations of the contrails.

By the time I’m tripping down onto Davenport Road, I’m even more persuaded that there’s no point in raising doubts with my neighbour concerning his belief. He has made his associations, his decisions, and the whole ball of wax has taken on a power greater than what started it. If I were to try to go at this cloud-seeding notion with him, there’d probably be offence caused.
I note this not to make fun of my neighbour, but because of how readily things like this come to mind now that I’ve gotten pulled into the orbit of ‘Thinking, fast and slow,’ the book that is climbing the best seller lists. It likes up to its billing, I’m afraid. It really is a detailed –forensically detailed – account of how we fool ourselves into thinking that we are ... thinking.

There, page by page, the laundry is hung up for all to see, and it is all so very familiar now that Daniel Kahneman has pointed to it. From the intuitive judgements that we make without even being aware of them (‘System 1’) he mercilessly depicts the default lazy thinking that we lapse back into. Here is the baleful list of ways we avoid the hard slogging of slower thinking (‘System 2’) and allow System 1 to impose itself over rational knowledge and discovery with the stories that it concocts. Snap associations, instant inferences, foregone conclusions... all of which we use to happily suppress ambiguity, even at the expense of knowledge.

For the cynically-minded, there would be much to delight here in this Devil’s Handbook of sorts. But what rescues ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ entirely is the sheer wealth of human interest and example, and the voice of the author. Kahneman’s prose reminds me Freud’s, absent the sombre and stoical tones. Instead , the weatlth of research, studiesand experience in this books is delivered with subtle wit and the sure signs of his life-ling fascination with how we think.

All very well... but very revealing on writing, especially mystery stories. Where my neighbour’s theory implies it can be scientifically verified - I have my doubts there, as I reckon he enjoys being the voice in the wilderness, and facts won’t budge that much - in my job the ‘proof’ of a story is that the reader enjoys it, and feels it is real. The story needs to be imaginatively true. The associations a reader will make must not be clumsily signalled, but presented tactfully in believeable and compelling ways, with enough clues and hints to hook into.

What and how people think is a lot more complex under the surface. Kahneman relentlessly shows how fragmented our thought processes are, and how it’s our instinct to let our association/conclusion machine run on and spare us the effort of thinking hard. How often have I stopped in mid paragraph and wondered, how we can detect any reality at all, the way we carry on.

One of the strategies he relentlessly exposes has stayed with me more than mothers: Answering An Easier Question (Ch 9 btw) A classic example is how one might decide to buy shares in an auto company, and rather than slog through charts and gather information, one allows one’s like for the auto company’s product to ‘take over’ and make the decision.

Yikes ...

The more I think of this one (!) the more chilling its implications - for police investigations, and for how to express the investigator’s mind at work as he/she moves us through the novel, for witness accounts, for criminal 'motivations.'

And yikes again.

It’s looking like this valley between these findings of scientific inquiry, and the imaginative truth that I’m reaching for, is an avalanche area.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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John Brady

John Brady is the author of the acclaimed Matt Minogue mystery novels. His first Matt Minogue mystery novel, A Stone of the Heart, won the Arthur Ellis Best First Novel Award, and his novels Unholy Ground, Kaddish In Dublin, All Souls and The Good Life have all been shortlisted for the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Novel. The sixth novel in the series, Islandbridge, was shortlisted for the Dashiell Hammett prize and his most recent, The Coast Road, was named a Globe & Mail Top 100 book for 2010.

Go to John Brady’s Author Page