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We were gabbing about Oprah’s abundant advice on how to improve our health, relationships, homes, finances, spiritual lives, fashion sense, and the list goes on and on. Winfrey inspires masses of women all over the world. And yet, it dawned on me, for every Oprah fan I’ve come in contact with, there has also been someone who can’t hide her vitriol about the media sensation. I wondered why.

So Oprah made a very exciting announcement on her show last week. To commemorate the last season of her talk show/infotainment hour, the most powerful woman on American daytime television is bringing her audience to Australia, courtesy of Qantas Airlines and Tourism Australia. Then John Travolta popped out of a plane.

And yes, they’re going to rename the Sydney Opera House the Oprah House.

So I felt it was timely to read Robyn Okrant’s book Living Oprah. From January 1 2008 this performance artist/yoga instructor/self-confessed Oprah addict wrote a blog dedicated to following every piece of advice released by every facet of the Queen of Television’s media empire. From her television chatshow, to O magazine and her online website, author Okrant would dedicate herself to ‘living her best life’, as per Oprah’s instruction. Novels bearing the Oprah book club seal of approval would be read, the medical advice of special guest Dr Oz would be followed and the various exotic dishes that met with approval would be dined upon.

To be honest, reading a book a day seems a lot less daunting now.

Okrant takes us through her experiences living under Oprah’s instructions on a month by month basis. Each chapter ends with itemised breakdown of the costs incurred and time spent on each activity. Also the growing popularity of Okrant’s Living Oprah blog transforms the author into a media personality of her own right, although on a much smaller scale. One of the admirable aspects of her endeavour is her refusal to accept endorsements, despite the financial costs of abiding by the rules of her challenge. Every time a book title is announced on Oprah’s book club amazon’s electronic shelves are emptied.

This leads to an interesting question. Should one person wield so much influence over such a large number of people? I remember Oprah’s syndicated show back in the 80’s when it was indistinguishable from the many other talkshows on the airwaves – Phil Donohue, Arsenio Hall, Regis and Kathie Lee. Oprah is now the face of an incredible media empire. She is courted by corporate, charities, celebrities and national tourist boards. Okrant begins to feel concerned when her guru announces her support for Barack Obama as presidential nominee as a ‘private citizen’. Had the chosen candidate been anyone else on the ticket, would she have been willing to throw her vote away for the sake of her project?

I believe the first time I encountered the word ‘Oprahism’, was in William Gibson’s Idoru. The book is set in a near-future era, where AIDS has been cured due to a mass media ‘saint’ and various new cults have sprung up to challenge traditional religions, including the worship of Oprah Winfrey herself. It was an amusing conceit, but perhaps we are starring at the disturbing reality right now.

Okrant’s book posits how is it possible to abide by any of the lifestyle philosophies, or commercial endorsements, when many are contradictory. A programme promoting detox diets may well be followed by an episode featuring a delicious desert. For want of a better word, Oprahism appears to represent a confusing mixture of cosy Objectivism, a Luddite resentment of modern technology, rampant consumerism and body fetishism. Okrant suggests that Oprah’s influence is so pervasive her audience swallows all of this whole, without any real critical assessment.

Of course Okrant’s own role in this is questionable. How sincere is this project? Is it performance art keyed to trending topics? For one she promotes that execrable book The Secret (which has also received Oprah’s thumbs up) – I don’t object to positive thinking so much, as the poisonous notion of ‘negative attraction’. Also during the period of writing ‘geek chic’, was quite popular. So Okrant quotes “With great power comes great responsibility”, attributing it to Uncle Ben from the movie Spider-man, 2002. I told you I was a geek.” Quoting from the movie does not make you a geek – it makes you an audience member!

While this is a interesting project, I couldn’t help but suspect a degree of parasitism.

‘As for your stay here, you must not cherish any hope of leaving this place. Escape and death are the only ways. I do not imagine you want to die, and, as for escape, the nearest settlement is Dartnor, some leagues from here and off the main road – a mining town. And of course there is the tainted ground which the highlanders prefer to call badlands. I’m sure you noticed them in your journey here. On all sides of Obernewtyn lies the wilderness. Do not imagine that you have seen wilderness before, perhaps even roamed in it, for this is true wild country, untamed by men. The forests are filled with wolves of the most savage kind and there are still bears living in the heights. Even stranger things dwell in these shadow-pocked high mountains.’

The very first line of this book describes a nuclear holocaust. Aha, I thought to myself, post-nuclear apocalypse. Something of a common enough trope for a long period of time and I note that Obernewtyn was published in 1987, so still during the dying embers of the Cold War. Isobelle Carmody reverses expectations by going on to write something that’s more akin to Tolkien-inspired fantasy though.

Elspeth and her brother’s parents were killed by the tyrannical Council for the crime of ‘sedition’. Both of their children still do not know what exactly this involved. They find themselves orphaned in a land ruled with an iron fist by a religious hierarchy that worships a god called Lud and rejects all technology. The few remaining fertile lands are controlled by the Council, who employ an enclave of clergy known as Herders to enforce their belief that the holocaust was a punishment from god and they are his chosen people. Some children are born with mutations due to radiation. The Council hunts them down and sends them to work on labour farms. Less obvious mutations can leave the child undiscovered for many years. These hidden mutants are referred to as Misfits and are greatly feared, for the Herders teach that they are possessed by demons.

Elspeth is a Misfit. Her brother is unsympathetic, as over the years he has begun to confuse keeping them both safe from harm, with gaining power and prestige. He wants to become a Herder and is more concerned that if his sister’s secret is discovered, it may rob him of his chosen career. Despite the danger, Elspeth enjoys the abilities she has gained as a Misfit. Sometimes she has premonitions, she can hear thoughts and even, she learns after meeting an old cat named Maruman, speak telepathically to animals.

Then one day an agent from the secretive institution known as Obernewtyn arrives at the orphanage, hunting Misfits. Elspeth is denounced and taken across the blasted countryside to a mountainous fortress where a mysterious Dr. Seraphim is said to perform experiments on children born with mutations. There Elspeth is forced to endure endless days of hard labour, but she also discovers a sense of liberation through being in the company of her own kind. No one has ever seen the strange doctor who is said to run the institution, but occasionally children disappear from their bunks, only to be found later delirious and weakened. Elspeth and her new-found friends decide to plot their escape from Obernewtyn, fearing they will be next. The villainous Madam Vega and her pet Misfit Ariel have other plans for her though and soon she finds herself caught in a struggle between the forces of Obernewtyn and the hidden rebel army of Henry Druid.

Right, first things first, when I announced Children’s Literature Week, I mentioned in the comments that I wanted to get away from the books I had read as a child, primarily Tolkien and Lewis. Seems I have fallen at the second hurdle. Isobelle Carmody riffs shamelessly on Tolkien, even lifting whole lines from The Lord of the Rings and Germano-Celt names. At one point Elspeth has a vision of a giant eye searching for her. At times the book seems derivative of A Canticle for  Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr (dytopian religious fanatics) and The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks (nuclear holocaust creates fantasy world).

So I am sorry to say there is nothing here I have not read before. I could damn it with faint praise by saying it’s readable (Obernewtyn is like Hogwarts but more realistic, i.e. depressing), but it pains me to do so.

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