Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life, by Jordan Peterson, Allen Lane, 432 pp, £25, ISBN: 978-0241407622
The unreliable narrator, as a concept in fictional poetics, is frequently misunderstood. It refers not to a narrator who deliberately omits or distorts information (as, say, the narrator of Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd pretends to us – spoiler! – that he is not the murderer of Roger Ackroyd). Rather, it describes a narrator who fails to make proper sense of the story he or she tells. The governess who narrates Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898) reveals to us, helplessly, that she is the evil haunting Bly; but it is up to us to draw this inference. Barbara, the prying teacher who narrates Zoe Heller’s Notes from a Scandal (2003), is so lonely that she has been driven to cruelty and madness; but again, it’s up to us to work this out.
A true unreliable narrator is one of the most difficult tricks to pull off in fiction. To inhabit successfully a narrator who lacks self-knowledge requires achieved mastery – of character, tone, voice, structure. We should applaud, therefore, the Canadian clinical psychologist Dr Jordan Peterson, who in two mainstream novels (and one obscurely published prequel) has presented a fictionalised alter ego, “Jordan Peterson”, in the mode of classic unreliable narration.
“Peterson” (we had better use inverted commas to keep author and character distinct) bears many similarities to his creator. They were both born and grew up in Alberta, Canada. They both studied at McGill and taught at Harvard. Peterson (the author) and “Peterson” (the character) have family members with identical names. Both are professors of psychology at the University of Toronto. Both have enjoyed a successful clinical practice.
It is, however, “Peterson” (the character) who interests us, as readers and critics. Brilliantly, and with painstaking care, Peterson (the author) has built up, across one fake academic text and two novels written in the mode of oracular self-help manuals, the portrait of an utterly un-self-knowing, pompously precise, bewildered, helplessly erroneous student of human nature: “Jordan Peterson”. The portrait is both hilarious and heartbreaking – and all the more so because “Jordan Peterson” never for one moment suspects that the joke is on him.
12 Rules for Life, the breakthrough novel in what we must think of as “the Peterson Trilogy”, riskily set forth Peterson’s fictional strategies. Bravely eschewing traditional narrative for long stretches of the book, Peterson created, in 12 Rules, a hybrid form: half deluded autobiography, half Jungian self-improvement guide. The joke, of course, was that “Jordan Peterson”, in explaining his theories of order and chaos, of hierarchical lobsters and postmodernist nihilism, in such a way as to spread his gospel of meaning, was speaking only to himself – for who could ever be taken in by such a hodgepodge of errors and unfounded assertions, such a desperate attempt to shore up the narrator’s own confusion?
Of course, some reviewers were taken in – a testament, perhaps, to Peterson’s genius. The normally perceptive Pankaj Mishra, in a significant misreading of 12 Rules published in the New York Review of Books, seemed to take “Peterson” seriously, and decried his “fascist mysticism” (as if “Peterson”, that addled buffoon, could represent a serious political threat!). On the other hand, Hari Kunzru, reviewing the book for The Guardian, seemed in on the joke: “He appears sincere,” Kunzru wrote, “and in some ways admirable in his fierce desire for truth, but he is much less far along his journey than he thinks, and one ends his oppressive, hectoring book relieved to be free of him.” Confusingly, it isn’t entirely clear whether Kunzru is referring here to “Peterson” (the character) or Peterson (the author); but he is right, of course, to call attention to the disjunct between what “Peterson” says and the actual state of his knowledge of the world – the essence of the unreliable narrator trope.
Perhaps these critics weren’t familiar with the first volume in the Peterson Trilogy, a more daring and experimental work first published by Routledge in 1999, which went unreviewed in mainstream venues. Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief (oh, the deliberately comic emptiness of that title!) is massively long and eschews narrative altogether, in homage, one assumes, to the great modernist masterpieces in whose shadow it was undoubtedly composed. It replicates “Peterson”’s first ambitious attempt to create, Casaubon-like, a key to all mythologies.
The book’s recreation of pretentiously unreadable academic prose is so uncannily accurate that it is perhaps not surprising that it did not meet with mainstream success. On the other hand, Maps of Meaning does include one passage that we must regard as central to Peterson’s aesthetic project – a moment in which “Peterson” inadvertently reveals himself as hilariously misguided in his megalomaniacal intellectual ambitions. This passage is called “Letter to Dad” (but of course it is), and takes the form of a rambling, incoherent, but rather touching attempt by “Peterson” to explain his great project to his father:
I don’t know, Dad, but I think I have discovered something that no one else has any idea about, and I’m not sure I can do it justice. Its scope is so broad that I can only see parts of it clearly at one time, and it is exceedingly difficult to set down comprehensibly in writing. You see, most of the kind of knowledge that I am trying to transmit verbally and logically has always been passed down from one person to another by means of art and music and religion and tradition, and not by rational explanation, and it is like translating from one language to another. It’s not just a different language, though – it is an entirely different mode of experience.
The ventriloquism, here, of the voice of an alienated, insecure, but majestically ambitious idiot is Dostoevskyan in its pathos; when “Peterson” tells his father, “it was sheer unconscious arrogance that made me posit to begin with that I had half a notion of who or what I was, or what the processes of history had created, and how I was affected by that creation” we hear the pure note of unreliable narration. “Peterson” cannot help but write the words “sheer unconscious arrogance”, betraying himself and his whole specious project to the alert reader. This is high comedy; but, as few readers were willing to slog through five hundred pages of fake academic theorising to get the joke, the book sank more or less without trace.
12 Rules for Life represented a softening of Peterson (the author)’s aesthetic rigour. No more modernism. No more pseudo-academic anti-narrative. Suddenly “Peterson” is telling autobiographical stories about growing up in Alberta; suddenly we’re reading fake case studies in the Freudian manner, ostensibly drawn from “Peterson”’s clinical practice. Peterson (the author) is no longer parodying dry academic prose. Now his target is the self-help book trade, with its glib nostrums extracted from the works of complex thinkers, its pseudo-authoritarian lists of instructions and its tendency towards messianic totalities.
In retrospect, the move makes sense. Of course “Peterson” is now in the rules racket – how else could this hyperambitious, baffled weirdo get his “message” across? Peterson (the author)’s audience correspondingly expanded. There was, it appeared, a hunger out there for a self-help book that mocked the very idea of self-help books, and 12 Rules, with its obviously daft and maladroitly phrased guidelines (“Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street”), fit the bill.
Audaciously, Jordan Peterson (the author) carried his aesthetic project one step further, and began publicly to appear in character as “Jordan Peterson”, at first making incoherent remarks to journalists about gendered pronouns (canny, this: of course “Peterson” would have the answers to a complex subject like gender!), and then going on rock-star-like tours, where, in virtuoso three-hour performances, he kept up the “Peterson” facade, discoursing nonsensically on vast topics like myth, history and sexuality, knocking down straw men left and right, and never cracking a single knowing smile as he did it. Perhaps the peak of “Peterson’’s” performing career occurred when he shared a stage with “Slavoj Žižek”, another spoof academic character played by the Slovenian writer Slavoj Žižek; the resulting “debate” read superbly as a parody of the shoddy condition of popular intellectual discourse.
On the other hand, it was “Peterson”’s very success that brought the character to the attention of large numbers of people who didn’t quite get the joke. Serious articles began to appear, chastising “Peterson” for the incoherence of his ideas, or for their underlying reactionary import – as if, for all the world, “Peterson” wasn’t undermining himself at every turn. Critics on the left, in particular, scolded “Peterson” humourlessly, and wrote whole books to prove him wrong – as if there was anything in “Peterson”’s message to prove or disprove! Ben Burgis, for instance, one of the contributors to Myth and Mayhem: A Leftist Critique of Jordan Peterson (Zero Books, 2020), fell wholesale for the gag when he observed that “Peterson isn’t just an unusually literate uncle saying some controversial things at Thanksgiving dinner. He has some serious intellectual chops. And therefore needs to be taken seriously.”
But of course to say this is to miss the point entirely. “An unusually literate uncle saying some controversial things at Thanksgiving dinner” describes precisely the “Jordan Peterson” character, as he has evolved across three books and a plethora of public performances. Like the boorish bloviator that Stephen Colbert used to play on The Daily Show, “Peterson” has entered middle age as an inflexible blowhard, more divorced than ever from the reality he purports to explain.
This is where we find him in the new “Peterson” novel, Beyond Order (subtitled, of course, 12 More Rules for Life). In an ingenious twist on the “Peterson” story, Peterson (the author) has put his self-duped narrator through hell: after the success of 12 Rules for Life, “Peterson” has succumbed to benzodiazepine addiction (the inspiration here is surely the case of Jason Russell, who, after the viral success of his Kony 2012 video, suffered a breakdown that saw him ranting naked in the streets of San Diego). Increasingly depressed, suffering from “hypersomnia”, “Peterson”, the prologue to the new book reveals, was eventually brought by his family to a Moscow hospital and put in a medically induced coma to treat his withdrawal. Battling through a painful recovery, he managed to write Beyond Order, which explains at numbing length a new suite of supposedly helpful maxims (“Do not carelessly denigrate social institutions or creative achievement”, “Do not hide unwanted things in the fog”).
Whereas 12 Rules for Life was, “Peterson” tells us, about “how the consequences of too much chaos might be remediated” (remediated!), Beyond Order, conversely, is about “how the dangers of too much security and control might be profitably avoided”. “Peterson” does not, of course, remark upon the irony that his life went catastrophically off the rails precisely because of a lack of security and control. He remains, in the new book, as he was in the previous two, hilariously insensitive to the ways in which his own behaviour and experience pointedly refute his grandiose theories.
The inconsistencies in “Peterson”’s responses are beautifully done. Peterson (the author) allows “Peterson” to insist that his breakdown was the result of family trauma; only in a parenthetical aside does he permit his narrator to mention “the period when my life changed from the quiet existence of a university professor and clinician to the tumultuous reality of a public figure”. It is, of course, a brilliant move: the author of a book about how to cope with chaos, unable himself to cope with chaos, and furthermore incapable of recognising his own incapacity!
There is also “Peterson”’s voice – that inimitable self-betraying mishmash of cod-academic specificity and motivational business guff: “I hope, in consequence, that I have managed to clarify some of the issues that were perhaps left less than optimally developed in my previous work, as well as presenting much that is original.” Our protagonist’s unhappy way with the English language is in full flower in the pages of Beyond Order. “Peterson” refers to his wife as “someone whom I had befriended for fifty years and been married to for thirty”. His anti-talent for epigram – familiar to us, of course, from 12 Rules – makes a welcome encore appearance: “People exist among other people and not as purely individual minds.”
This last non-zinger is, typically, doing quite a lot of work. Because the joke, throughout Beyond Order, is that “Peterson” himself only exists as an individual mind and has zero sense of how to exist among other people. Time and again he grapples with ordinary human experience; time and again, it defeats his interpretative powers. Here’s “Peterson” observing his granddaughter:
I have watched her carefully while she develops, trying to understand what she is up to and playing along with it. When she was about a year and a half old, she engaged in all manner of unbearably endearing behaviours – giggling and laughing when she was poked, high-fiving, bumping heads, and rubbing noses. However, in my opinion, the most noteworthy of all the actions she undertook at that age was her pointing.
However, in my opinion, the most noteworthy of all the actions she undertook at that age was her pointing. Set aside the spectacularly maladroit construction for a moment and observe how precisely Peterson (the author) recreates the voice and mindset of someone who has no grasp of human experience or behaviour whatsoever. Though “Peterson”’s eyes, ordinary human activities come back to us as if seen through the eyes of an alien or an android. It is precisely the sort of effect praised by the Russian formalist critic Viktor Shklovsky as defamiliarisation; precisely the effect evoked by Craig Raine and the “Martian School” of poetry. Seen though “Peterson”’s eyes, the human world once again looks strange, even baffling. Who are these peculiar creatures? What are the hidden rules by which they live?
The “Rules” themselves – “Peterson”’s desperate attempt to codify and control the incomprehensible behaviour of ordinary people – strike superbly the same defamiliarizing note. Rule X (ah, those Roman numerals!) “notes the importance of explicit negotiation to maintenance of the good will, mutual regard, and heartfelt cooperation without which no true romance can be sustained”. This is “Peterson”’s recipe for a happy marriage. Pity poor Mrs. “Peterson” – and be glad she isn’t real.
Contemplating Peterson (the author)’s achievement in Beyond Order, we are moved to reflect on the wholeness of his conception – on the depth of his grasp of human psychology. “Peterson” is, of course, a successful clinical psychologist. He is therefore a credentialed expert on human behaviour. But of course he is! As we read Beyond Order, it dawns on us that “Peterson” became a clinical psychologist because he doesn’t understand the first thing about human behaviour. He has, in fact, spent his whole misbegotten career trying desperately to explain it to himself. Now, a hundred journal articles and three books later, he is no closer to succeeding.
Thus the scope of Peterson (the author)’s vision becomes clear. “Jordan Peterson”, the narrator of Maps of Meaning, 12 Rules for Life and Beyond Order, is perhaps one of the most fully rounded, and most tragically conceived, literary characters ever created. We know this man. We know how he thinks (more precisely, we know how he doesn’t think). He feels startlingly real. The sheer length and density of the “Peterson” books contributes to this feeling, of course; it also contributes to a feeling, detectable as you turn the closing pages of Beyond Order, of slightly soiled weariness. “Jordan Peterson”: yes, a wonderful literary character. But you wouldn’t necessarily want to be trapped in a lift with him. And you wouldn’t necessarily want to spend yet another 400 pages in his company (let’s hope for no more “Peterson” books, after this one). “Peterson” knows himself too poorly. Signalling to us wildly from between the lines of his ludicrous, grandiose texts, he asks plaintively for our help. However (as he might himself say), our sympathy for his plight must inevitably remain, after three exhausting books, less than optimally developed.
Kevin Power’s novel White City is published by Scribner.