The judge looked over Her Cocky Doctors. “Two male figures. One seems to be wearing a stethoscope, indicating he is a doctor, but he is stripped to the waist.”
“Doesn’t look like my doctor, your Honor,” said the lawyer drily.
They were gathered there that day because one self-published romance author was suing another for using the word “cocky” in her titles. And as absurd as this courtroom scene was — with a federal judge soberly examining the shirtless doctors on the cover of an “MFM Menage Romance” — it didn’t even begin to scratch the surface.
What are you doing? I don’t mean what are you doing with your life, or in general, but what are you doing right now? The answer, in one respect, is simple enough: you’re reading this magazine. Obviously. From a certain economic perspective, however, you’re doing something else, something you don’t realize, something with a sneaky motive that you aren’t admitting to yourself: you are signalling. You are sending signals about the kind of person you are, or want to be. What’s that you say—you’re reading this in the bath, or on your phone in bed, or otherwise in private? Well, the same argument applies. You are acquiring the tools for a “fitness display.” This, the economist Robin Hanson and the writer-programmer Kevin Simler argue in their new book, “The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life” (Oxford), is an advertisement of “health, energy, vigor, coordination, and overall fitness.” Fitness displays “can be used to woo mates, of course, but they also serve other purposes like attracting allies or intimidating rivals.” So there you go: that’s what you’re doing, there in the bath with the magazine. Your rivals are right to feel intimidated.
Wait, though—surely signalling doesn’t account for everything? Hanson, in a recent podcast interview with Tyler Cowen, a colleague at George Mason University, was asked to give a “short, quick and dirty” answer to the question of how much human behavior “ultimately can be traced back to some kind of signalling.” His answer: “In a rich society like ours, well over ninety per cent.” He was then asked to cite a few voluntary human activities that “have the least amount to do with signalling.” The example Hanson came up with was “scratching your butt.”
“I want a life with people that is almost explosive in its excitement,” she wrote,“fierce and hard and laughing and loud and gay as all hell let loose.” It seems to me she had that life—and that it’s one worth looking at. Even searching for.
“Why should I be a footnote to someone else’s life?” she once asked. Perhaps it’s up to us now to make sure that can’t—won’t—happen.
I have always felt that I owe it to books (my longest and greatest love) to hear them out, especially when it’s one recommended by someone whose opinion I value. I also feel that if I don’t finish a book, I will somehow get in trouble (?) with someone (??). I’m competitive with myself, and if I read 62 books last year, I want to read at least 63 this year.
Forget about the correspondence, diaries, and scribbled cabinet agendas through which he trawls. Post-millennials barely recognize each other’s signatures—they certainly don’t know how to compose a handwritten letter. Emails are deleted or die on obsolete hard drives; few people admit to writing diaries; political leaders communicate via tweets; film, music, and literary celebrities curate their own narratives on YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook.
Ultimately, though, the reason to read this compelling and hypnotic novel is not the execution of the plot or the sleight-of-hand final revelation. What makes it stand out is Abbott’s expert dissection of women’s friendships and rivalries. She is an investigator of the human heart and mind, and “Give Me Your Hand” is a fine addition to her body of work — one that should cement her position as one of the most intelligent and daring novelists working in the crime genre today.