on ‘Strangers Drowning’ by Larissa MacFarquhar

Cover00Dawn Chan at Bookforum:

Strangers Drowning offers a portrait of a dozen-odd saints, but it also paints the picture of an individual hidden in the wings: the average reader, to whom all this extreme altruism might seem like a load of hooey. At the book’s outset, MacFarquhar notes that her focus is specifically on the “do-gooder” (emphasizing the phrase’s distasteful connotations), whom she calls “perverse”—“a foul-weather friend, a kind of virtuous ambulance chaser.” Her subjects are chosen accordingly. Absent are philanthropists like Bill and Melinda Gates, or spur-of-the-moment heroes like Wesley Autrey (who in 2007 jumped in front of an oncoming subway train to save the life of a young film student who’d fallen onto the rails during a seizure). MacFarquhar also intentionally omits the do-gooders of wartime: the world’s Oskar Schindlers. All these people are venerated by society, but MacFarquhar would rather focus on the sort who embodies virtue but inspires scorn—or at least ambivalence. (Given that the book specifically seeks to profile the do-gooder who, as she writes, “plans his good deeds in cold blood,” it’s no surprise that several protagonists said they were galvanized by Singer’s polarizing version of greatest-good-to-greatest-number ethics.)

Here is the crux of what’s both knotty and intriguing about the book. It assumes that these saints seem odious to the rest of us sinners—an assumption about the readership that excludes those of us who read the book and felt nothing but admiration for everyone portrayed. And it raises an urgent question: Why do they seem slightly odious to so many of us? Surely, these relentless altruists ought to serve as models, not sources of annoyance.

more here.