The Examined Life, by Stephen Grosz

Released in 2013 in a flurry of publicity, this book flew off the shelves, due to Grosz’s ability to encapsulate human lives in short and interesting chapters. The Examined Life is essentially a distillation of experiences gleaned by Grosz during his years as a psychoanalyst. He has chosen some stories which illustrate certain aspects of life, and writes them in a lucid and engaging way.

And yet this is a tricky book to pin down. There is something which doesn’t feel quite right; Grosz’s solutions to each patient’s problems seem to come as a light-bulb moment, a neat little conclusion to each chapter. This only serves to emphasise one reason why an individual might not want to consult a psychoanalyst; the fear of being put into a box, of being labelled: ‘this is what is wrong with you.’ On the other hand, this may be an unfair accusation. Grosz does not claim to have a ‘cure’ to people’s problems, but offers an interpretation of them. Grosz’s style is open and unpretentious. He presents stories which may be of use to the casual reader in reflecting upon their own lives, or simply to gain an insight into how other people live theirs. The people are often very ordinary (although presumably all with the means to access a private psychoanalyst), and this is part of the appeal. They are a glimpse into the world of others, which we can never know, being always trapped within our own minds. The chapters prove to be fascinating character studies in a very easily digestible format. While The Examined Life rightly didn’t make the final cut for the Guardian First Book Award 2013, it interested me enough to read it in one sitting, so I could recommend it to anybody with an evening to spare and an interest in life – and isn’t that all of us?

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Kiss Me First, by Lottie Moggach

Kiss Me First has an intriguing concept which is well-executed, demonstrating that Lottie Moggach deserves as much recognition as her mother (the Deborah Moggach with various best-sellers behind her name). The premise of the novel is that Leila, a young internet addict with a keen interest in philosophy, is presented with an unusual request: help a stranger maintain a virtual life to enable her to commit suicide without causing any grief to her family and friends. Given the arguments which Leila has previously expressed on a philosophy internet forum for ‘elite thinkers’, she feels philosophically obliged to assist the stranger, Tess, and assume her online identity. She embraces the practical and logistical challenge, but somewhat naively ignores the emotional hazards, which come to a head when an old friend of Tess’s gets back in contact, severely threatening both Leila and Tess’s identities.

Kiss Me First has probably gained so much critical acclaim because of its concept – the construction of identity in an increasingly ‘virtual’ world. As reality attempts to catch up with its virtual counterpart, and the law makes tentative steps into the world of virtual goods, and virtual lives (it is now a criminal offence to steal a virtual item or to ‘murder’ somebody’s virtual avatar), identity – what it consists of, ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ – is a popular debate.

I could go into more depth on this subject, but to do so would almost be doing Kiss Me First a disservice. This book is well written, with a surprisingly believable character placed in a compelling situation. It should succeed to capture its audience on these merits alone. The protagonist, 23-year-old Leila, managed to fascinate all members of the reading group for the Guardian First Book Award, not just those of a comparable age. This might seem a small achievement, but I would argue that it is significant. Young authors often fall into a trap of writing about young characters who have no point of interest for an older readership. Leila’s personality on the other hand was so ‘different’ that she proved an object of fascination for all of us. Her intelligence and engagement with philosophical debate is matched with an inability to understand complex emotional and social situations. Her exploration of Tess’s life prior to assuming her identity is a neat way of looking at her clinical approach to emotion – the questions dissect Tess in a frighteningly cold way, although Leila is of course just trying to do the job at hand. Part of the pleasure of reading this book is trying to figure Leila out. Should we sympathise, or condemn her actions?

Overall, Kiss Me First is a sophisticated piece which could become a modern classic. It is perhaps let down by its title (and cover, although we all know the mantra about book covers), but is surely one of the best novels set in the here-and-now which I have read.