When it comes to baseball, the mind is unreliable and selective in what it remembers. Games and seasons blend into to one another and most second basemen or relief pitchers fade from view forever soon after they leave the diamond for good. Old teams and players live on only as lines of statistics in massive baseball encyclopedias or deep historical databases. Lost, too, are the millions of moments that make up every game. But Roger Angell has been quite good, over the years, at capturing those moments and preserving them as though in amber. And so, in reading his collection of baseball pieces that span more than forty years, one feels a bit like the lucky archeologist who has stumbled upon magnificent specimens so exquisitely preserved as to seem positively lifelike. Angell writes with almost scientific precision: “With the strange insect gaze of his shining eyeglasses, with his ominous Boche-like helmet pulled low… Reggie Jackson makes a frightening figure at bat.” Angell is not just an observer; he is also the ultimate fan, rooting for childhood favorites or for a team whose story has caught his fancy that particular year. Game Time is laid out like the baseball year, with pieces about the languor and anticipation of spring training in the beginning and closing with multi-faceted recollections of several past World Series. The many pieces taken together are like one long summer spanning forty years, a summer when you went to the ballpark frequently but listened to most of the games on the radio on the back porch at dusk.
I find myself wading through stacks of books, it seems, every month. I seek a way to read everything I’ve purchased, but for the most part I can’t. Nobody can, I suspect.Sometimes I need structure. Sometimes I need to be willfully led to my next book. Sometimes I need something easy, like (for instance) a box set with a bunch of short books by a bunch of great authors. Something that I can systematically read one by one in order, from #1 to #70.Penguin, upon celebrating their 70th anniversary, produced such a box – a literary “best-of” compilation, if you will. I became incredibly desirous of it. I searched all over the internet for a place to purchase it. I was a man possessed; no one could stand in my way – no one would dare hold me back from owning what looked like the greatest sampler in the history of publishing.The Penguin Pockets 70th Anniversary Collection includes all 70 of the publisher’s “Penguin Pockets,” a series that collected the best authors from Penguin’s existence and brought them to the masses at the relatively cheap price of £1.50 each. Each book features either an excerpt of a previously released novel or a collection of shorter unreleased stories. At roughly 55 pages each, the books are by no means meant to be an all encompassing look at their respective authors. Still, I used each one to further my horizons – to experience new writing that I might otherwise pass by, or even worse, be completely closed off to.My favorite, so far, is Jonathan Safran Foer’s The Unabridged Pocketbook of Lightning. Maybe I’m out of line here, but I found a lot of comparisons between Foer’s writing style and the immortal (at least, in the opinion of many reviewers) Dave Eggers. In fact, my first response to Foer’s writing was the same as it when I discovered to Eggers’ writing two years ago: “this guy is really, really good.”The comparisons are obvious – both authors write in a fresh, unconventional way, and both are fueled by emotion – Eggers uses his own past and thoughts while Foer borrows from the imaginary, yet brilliant mind of a nine-year old, the mute thoughts of that child’s grandfather, and the lost voice of the boy’s German grandmother. It’s exciting in a way that only a true book lover can comprehend – it’s not just good, it’s different.Yes, if you want to get technical, The Unabridged Pocketbook of Lightning is the Book of the Month. But really, I’m looking at this collection as a whole. It’s amazing in its completeness. Just to get your mouth watering, I’ll present a list of authors: Nick Hornby, P.D. James, Marian Keyes, Jorge Luis Borges, Roald Dahl, Jonathan Safran Foer, Homer, Paul Theroux, Anais Nin, Gustave Flaubert, Simon Schama, William Trevor, George Orwell, Michael Moore, Gervaise Phinn, Ali Smith, Sigmund Freud, Simon Armitage, Hunter S. Thompson, Tony Harrison, John Updike, Will Self, H.G. Wells, Noam Chomsky, Jamie Oliver, Virginia Woolf, Zadie Smith, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Truman Capote, Anton Chekhov, P.G. Wodehouse, Franz Kafka, Dave Eggers, John Steinbeck, Alain de Botton – and that’s just the stuff that I readily recognize.Really, there are only two reasons that any book collector shouldn’t own this collection. Number one – it’s expensive. It took me months to will myself into parting with the $150 it took to bring it over from the U.K. Number two – the books contained inside are only 55-pages long, and many of them are excerpts and previously released books. To this I say “Bah!” The covers alone are enough to make the box worth the price.What this ended up leading me to was a complete waterfall of book-buying ideas. I can no longer say, with a straight face at least, that I don’t know what to read next. After all, it seemed as if every other book I read caused me to stop, jot down the authors name, and then search Powells.com for other selections. I bought the set to become a more well-read person, and I fear that it’s going to slowly sap the money from my billfold as each respective book’s influences gets added, one by one, to my “must buy” list. I tell you, it will be the end of me.I’m very pleased with the selections offered in this collection. After such a long time, you get the feeling that a company was built to last, and Allen Lane (along with his Penguin empire) has proven that Penguin Publishing will be around until books no longer matter. The seventy books in The Penguin Pockets 70th Anniversary Collection span the company’s life, from Freud’s early work to Hunter Thompson’s last words. All in all, it’s a great set, for collectors, for people looking for a primer on Britain’s literary tastes, and for people who just like to read and aren’t afraid to stumble into something out of the ordinary.Though, after seventy years, you’d expect the best, right?Corey Vilhauer – Black Marks on Wood Pulp
What is it about baseball that leaves writers reaching for myth and allegory? The game is slow, meandering. It takes its sweet time. Very often, not a whole lot happens. Indeed, the corporate types at the game’s controls keep scratching their heads for ways to speed things up, move things along: a pitch clock, a time-limit on trips to the mound, and on and on. But they ignore the eternity at the heart of the game. In theory, a baseball game could go on forever and ever. A single at-bat, forever and ever. Within the right angle of the foul lines, extending from home plate to the outfield fences and into the great wide open beyond, a batted ball can cut across the night sky and land just about anywhere, and if a fleet-footed outfielder is able to channel his inner gecko and scale the wall and chase down that ball to where it might fall softly into his outstretched glove, there is room for that outcome as well. Alas, the game is not bound by time, and hardly at all by space, and isn’t that the nut of it? Isn’t that the sweet point of pause and possibility that keeps us coming back for more, and more, and then some?
The death last month of W.P. Kinsella, widely regarded as baseball’s novelist laureate, offers an opportunity to reflect on how we see our own reflections in the national pastime — with a tip of the ball cap to writers like Kinsella who continue to encourage us to consider the stories of the game as we consider the game itself.
What is it about baseball? The curious magic of Kinsella was that he found room in the wide open spaces of the game to consider that anything was possible — and, on the strength of that magic, to knit the past to the present, the present to the future. In Shoeless Joe, he reaches back across the decades to revisit the aborted career of Archibald Wright “Moonlight” Graham, after stumbling across Graham’s unlikely one-game stat line in the Baseball Encyclopedia and placing it at the cross-hairs of meaning and moment in a wistful story about a son reconnecting with the memory of his father. In The Iowa Baseball Confederacy,” he imagines an apparently endless game between the 1908 Chicago Cubs and a barnstorming team of amateurs, inviting readers to join him on a head-scratching, heart-pleasing journey that asks us to ponder baseball’s everlastingness. In “The Last Pennant Before Armageddon”, he tells the story of a Chicago Cubs manager named Al Tiller, who believes the world will come to a cataclysmic end the moment his Cubbies win the pennant, which in the sure hands of Kinsella (and, his somewhat less certain fictional skipper) they seem inclined to do.
How is it that a game built on its very timelessness can offer such a chilling reminder of our own mortality? When the baseball world mourned the sad, sudden death of the joyfully talented young Cuban pitcher José Fernández, barely a week after Kinsella’s passing, there was beneath the mourning a kind of shared sense that our own lives were slipping away from us. Here was this abundantly gifted kid pitcher, snatched from a career destined for baseball immortality, with a back-story that seemed scripted by saccharine-fueled Hollywood scriptwriters: a Cuban defector who’d grown up dreaming of someday playing major league baseball; who’d only made it to American shores after three unsuccessful attempts; who’d been jailed by Cuban officials after each of those attempts; who’d rescued his own mother from the turbulence of the Atlantic Ocean during his fourth (ultimately, successful) crossing to America; who’d recovered from Tommy John surgery to become one of the game’s dominant pitchers; who’d played the game with such abandon and intention that even casual fans were drawn to him, lifted by him, cheered; who’d just announced that his girlfriend was pregnant with the couple’s first child. And yet, back-story or no, triumph or no, unborn baby or no, José Fernández was killed in an as yet unexplained (and, as ever, unfathomable) boating accident off Miami Beach at the age of 24.
As the baseball world wept, those of us in on the weeping hugged our children and grandchildren close, honored our parents and grandparents, and looked back with equal parts gladness and sadness at the hopes and dreams we’d carried in our own lives. Some of us got out our old baseball gloves and tossed the ball around with our kids. We looked at old baseball cards, scorecards. We revisited Kinsella’s stories. Because in the short life and tragic death of this young ballplayer there was the stuff of our own lives, our own tragic deaths, and in the moments of silence that filled our ball yards that day and the next there was a kind of safe haven within the boundaries of the game.
Baseball can do that, I guess. It can remind you of everything that once mattered to you, everything that matters still. It can brush the great promise of tomorrow against the agreeable sting of the past, and the sorrows of today.
Kinsella was not alone on the baseball bookshelf. He’d fallen into line behind the great legacies of writers like Ring Lardner (You Know Me, Al), Bernard Malamud (The Natural), Philip Roth (The Great American Novel), Robert Coover (The Universal Baseball Association, Inc: J. Henry Waugh, Prop.), even Don DeLillo (Underworld), who all seemed to understand the stirring, soaring confluence of miracle and wonder at the heart of the game. But it was Kinsella’s ability to cast the game alongside a swirl of human emotion that will keep us reading his stories for generations, and when I learned of his death it felt to me like a light had gone out on the game itself. I was not alone in this, of course, and yet I closed my eyes to the news and imagined how a generation of baseball fans — my generation — would manage to connect the game to generations to come.
Fernández, as well, was not alone. He now shares space on the game’s memorial plaque with too, too many young ballplayers who left this world before their games were finished. The turn-of-the-century Hall of Famer Ed Delahanty, who plunged to his death in the cascading waters of Niagara Falls. The Puerto Rican icon Roberto Clemente, killed in a plane crash while on a relief mission to aid earthquake victims in Nicaragua. The great Yankee catcher and captain Thurman Munson, downed in his own plane, which he had bought and learned to fly so that he might spend more time more easily with his family. The Cardinals ace Darryl Kile, who succumbed to a heart attack in his hotel room before a game against the Cubs.
With the passing of Fernández, another bulb has been burned on the stanchions that light our game, while we are left to find our way just the same.
“Praise the name of baseball,” Kinsella wrote. “The word will set captives free. The word will open the eyes of the blind. The word will raise the dead. Have you the word of baseball living inside you? Has the word of baseball become part of you? Do you live it, play it, digest it, forever? Let an old man tell you to make the word of baseball your life. Walk into the world and speak of baseball. Let the word flow through you like water, so that it may quicken the thirst of your fellow man.”
Who but Kinsella could help us find poetry and purpose in a centuries-old game that many people believe has outlived its relevance? Who could implore us to go the distance and fulfill our destinies, great and small? Without him, how will we elevate the long march of a baseball season onto the mystical plane where Kinsella asked us to slide along on our own fine film of dust and possibility?
Let’s be clear, there are baseball novels still to be written. There are games still to be played. Somewhere in this country, or in Cuba, or Puerto Rico, or the Dominican Republic, there is an unborn child who will change the game of baseball — in ways we cannot yet imagine. In the great white north of Kinsella’s Canada, there is a young writer sharpening his or her pen and looking to change how we see the game of baseball — in ways we can only imagine.
But it was Kinsella who tore the cowhide from the game and allowed us to peek at the very real lives it contained. There was triumph there. There was disappointment. There was the thrill of fresh cut grass and the soft fall of lament when the skies opened up and rained down on us. There were changes in plans. Because, at bottom, the nature of the game is the nature of ourselves. It is a living, breathing thing. It bends and endures…and, it asks us to do the same.
And so, as we unwrap October and settle in for the 2016 World Series, let’s pause to feel the loss of one of the game’s favorite sons. Allow yourself a sliver of a moment to chew on the very real possibility of a very real Armageddon, owing to the Cubbies’ fine, fine post-season run. Savor the grace note moments to come in these October games. You will sit glued to your screens (more than likely into the wee-hours), waiting for some sort of final accounting on the season just ended, looking ahead to the season to come, and to all the seasons to come.
Image Credit: Pixabay.
In Mahmoud Dowlatabadi’s The Colonel, a novel banned in Iran but just recently published in the U.S., rain falls constantly, “mercilessly,” across the days and years. It is not a cleansing rain, but rather a bleak torrent of erosion and decomposition, agitating a festering wound simply incapable of healing because the cause of the problem never lets up. In this muddy, clouded-over, small town near the Caspian Sea, a family comes undone as it copes with the decisions made by its patriarch, “the colonel,” as well as the erratic and conflicting policies and actions of those in power during various historical eras.
The novel opens in the middle of the night, during a downpour, “so unceasing that it amounted to silence,” as the colonel is roused by two soldiers who take him to claim the body of his youngest daughter, Parvaneh, so he can prepare the corpse for burial. From this starting point, Dowlatabadi’s nonlinear episodes jump in time and perspective, a puzzle as fragmented whole as when it is in pieces, an appropriate quality for a book about the shattering of individuals and national identity.
Parvaneh is not the colonel’s only deceased child. Two of his sons have also fallen, one during the 1979 revolution and another during the Iraq war. Two of his children are still alive, though not much better off. His eldest son, Amir, has suffered a mental breakdown after serving time in prison, a victim of the Shah’s regime; his other daughter, Farzaneh, is married to an unprincipled man who makes his way by standing behind those in power at any given moment, regardless of the ideology that props up that power.
The fates of the colonel’s children result from his actions as both an officer in the Shah’s army and as a father and husband. Dowlatabadi’s nuanced treatment of his characters permits readers to understand and empathize with their choices, though they hardly understand one another, or see the world in the same ways. This is due in great part to the colonel, a man who considers himself an independent thinker, but is also beholden to cultural traditions, so much so that he eviscerated his adulterous wife.
For all of the death contained in the book, the only one to appear on the page is this murder, for which the colonel spends time in the same prison as Amir. But death is not the story. The dead are the lucky ones, freed from the burdens of history. Life in Iran today, as Dowlatabadi makes all too clear, spares no one. He performs an autopsy on Iranian national identity, ravaged by generations of war and conflict, which can be made “responsible for anything, except for the lives of the people caught up in it.” There is not a single victor in the novel and this fact brings into harsh focus the cultural complexity that plagues Iran and Iranians.
Because outside influences, working overtly and covertly to push their agendas, shaped Iran’s 20th century, the plight of the colonel and his family mirrors that of the entire nation, baited and divided by false promises for which men and women made ultimate sacrifices and suffered countless humiliations “only to discover that the truth they have found is nothing but specious doctrine and bogus ideology.”
As a soldier, the colonel was also one of these dutiful followers, until his core belief in Persian history led him to disobey an order to fight for the British and instilled in his children the pride of living by your own code. But the contortions of Iranian history leave no individual free from group influence and so the colonel’s children disband in the name of their individual beliefs, joining competing factions, leaving the colonel with nothing to do but watch it all happen, knowing they are as helpless as him.
Through the colonel filters the confusion and contradictions that menace Iranians, but it is Amir who offers some of the most acute insight. Knowing his siblings’ fates, freighted with the belief that his own actions somehow abetted their downfalls, he lives a self-imposed exile in the basement of the family home. As the political tides once again shift, Khezr, a man who interrogated and tortured Amir, appears. He spends a night in Amir’s room, eating the family’s food, drinking their arack. Amir posits that his situation is a result of his “lack of certainty about anything.”
The disorienting shifts in perspective utilized by Dowlatabadi do take some getting used to, but this is of course intentional. Foreign influences and interests have merged with and co-opted thousands of years of tradition in Iran and what has at times been a faction’s weakness later becomes its strength, or least the fulcrum used to leverage control of the national dialogue. Steeped in historical references and crafted with a degree of heightened realism that comes off like a documentary, The Colonel offers a portrait of a nation that has grappled with the same problems for so long without being able to remedy them. As outsiders looking in, we can never comprehend fully this reality. But, as an insider who has remained in Iran through these tumultuous decades, been imprisoned and censured while recognized widely as Iran’s greatest novelist, Dowlatabadi’s message leaves no doubt that the greatest victim is an Iran that continues to incubate these problematic relationships.
As Amir tells Farzaneh: “The tragedy of our whole country is the same: we are all alienated, strangers in our own land. It’s tragic. The odd thing is that we have never got used to it.”
In a recent feature in Afar magazine, Chris Colin describes three friends he made while traveling in Tokyo. They accompanied him to restaurants around the city, talked with him about relationships and parents, and were paid by the hour to hang out with him.
Colin was reporting on the service Client Partners, which provides simple, platonic friendship to its customers. At first he chalks this up to a phenomenon he calls “Japanese wackiness,” in line with cat cafes and host clubs. But in a country with an overworked, rapidly shrinking population and high suicide rates — a country still recovering from the twin blows of the Tohoku earthquake and Fukushima nuclear disaster — Client Partners seeks to address a societal crisis rather than fill a niche demand. The deluge of photos on social media and gaggles of people hanging out in subway stations are all a mask, the professional friends tell Colin. There is a deep loneliness there, an unmet need for human intimacy.
In The Lonely City, set 6,700 miles from the young skyscrapers of Tokyo in the older, grimier blocks of New York City, Olivia Laing conducts her own investigation into the way loneliness is expressed in the metropolis, using art as her point of departure: Andy Warhol’s endless audio tapes, the epic bloody watercolors hoarded by Chicago janitor Henry Darger, the terrifyingly public Internet-cum-social-experiments of Josh Harris. “Loneliness,” she writes is “a populated place: a city in itself.” Laing draws on the “fertile as well as frightening” sensation of loneliness — a state of being experienced from Tokyo to New York, felt by a quarter of American adults and a greater percentage of British ones — to tackle not only why and how loneliness is experienced, but the fruit it brings forth. How does art resist the isolating effects of solitude?
The success of Laing’s book is that it doesn’t require the reader to know much about — or even to be particularly interested in — the New York art world. It’s more about the people that populate it and the stories that make them who they are. The Lonely City draws on social science, gay culture, AIDS history, and the influence of technology, weaving in snippets of memoir. Laing’s prose is elegant and concise, with a breath of Joan Didion: a painting is described as a “cool green icebox,” loneliness as a “city, perhaps at dusk, when everyone turns homeward and the neon flickers into life.”
The book moves seamlessly between Blade Runner and Ludwig Wittgenstein, from art to attachment theory, from Henry Darger to behavioral psychology and Harry Harlow’s experiments with “monster mothers.” In its interdisciplinary scope and mix of culture, theory, and memoir, The Lonely City brings to mind other nonfiction hits of recent years, books like Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts or Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams. These books are written by complex, fiercely intelligent women with deep capacities for rigorous research, analysis, and synthesis. The topics they tackle are tough and human: queer identity and modern families in The Argonauts; the various trespasses and violences of empathy (as well as its tenderness and necessity) in The Empathy Exams. Laing has likewise done the legwork; her evocations of the various artists that make up her book are penetrating and full of reversals.
There’s Andy Warhol, of whom Laing writes, “[He was] famous for his relentless sociability…almost never without a glittering entourage and yet his work is surprisingly eloquent on isolation and the problems of attachment.” She paints a particularly loving and detailed portrait of David Wojnarowicz, whose first memory is of horseshoe crabs and who liked to hang by his fingers from the window ledge of his bedroom. (Laing refers to him by his first name; the intimacy is startling.) The connections and conclusions she draws are coherent, nuanced, and sometimes surprising. See, for instance, how she juggles the delicate politics of communication and the double-edged blade of confession and intimacy:
It’s about wanting and not wanting: about needing people to pour themselves out into you and then needing them to stop, to restore the boundaries of the self, to maintain separation and control. It’s about having a personality that both longs for and fears being subsumed into another ego.
The Lonely City is smart and crisp without being jargony, and the wide cast of characters and complex ideas are laid out in easy-to-absorb ways. Laing’s research and insight into the queer art community in New York, both before and during the AIDS crisis, is particularly rich ground. Through Laing’s book we can see the systemic causes of loneliness — an individual experience, but one that comes from an interplay of a broad variety of societal factors of exclusion and inequality. As she tells us, “Loneliness is personal, and it is also political.” This is important, and where The Lonely City is at its best. Laing carefully shows us how social deprivation as a result of poor environment or systemic prejudice can result in a lifelong struggle with socialization and belonging that colors an individual for life.
But this is not just a book of cultural criticism and social research. Like The Argonauts and The Empathy Exams, or Vivian Gornick’s The Odd Woman and the City, Laing also incorporates memoir. Curiously, this is where the book feels most flat. We get snippets of her time in New York, subletting various friends’ apartments and moving around different neighborhoods. We hear about a Halloween party and a little bit about a failed relationship, about where Laing likes to walk for her morning coffee and the hours she spends on Twitter. We know Laing is lonely, because she says that she is. But though her analysis of the lives and motivations of the artists is deep and compelling, she very rarely turns that same analytical lens to herself, and in the rare moments she does, doesn’t push through to any type of conclusion.
In one of the lengthier personal passages, but also one of the most confusing parts of the book, Laing describes a struggle with gender identity:
I was not at all comfortable in the gender box to which I’d been assigned…I’d never been comfortable with the demands of femininity, had always felt more like a boy, a gay boy, that I inhabited a gender position somewhere between the binaries of male and female, some impossible other, some impossible both.
What do we do with this information? It’s striking; we feel it must have some significance to Laing’s project. But as part of Laing’s narrative it mysteriously drops out and isn’t returned to.
This invites the question that arises again and again in popular discourse around writing: what do we want from our nonfiction writers? Confession? Resolution? In her essay “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain”, Leslie Jamison uses her own history of heartbreak and self-harm to talk about the icon of the “damaged” female and the shadow she casts on the modern-day women who are afraid of being her. “I am not a melodramatic person.” It’s personal. It digs deep. Jamison is not afraid to share a lot. Even if she were, today’s readers have such an appetite for these explosive, confessional personal essays that it’s too late to be afraid.
Laing, by contrast, is reticent. She doesn’t share much of herself. Unlike Nelson or Jamison, Laing doesn’t seem committed enough to the memoir strain of her cross-genre book. We wonder, then, why she traverses the personal at all. In some ways this highlights one of her opening precepts: “Loneliness is difficult to confess; difficult too to categorize.” A running theme in her book is the difficulty of tackling loneliness head-on, in writing or in speech — and why, perhaps, so many artists approached it in elliptical ways.
We are aware of Laing’s loneliness as she researches and engages with the artists in the book, so we also see her dogged (but perhaps not always completely truthful) optimism about the ameliorative effects of art for combating loneliness. Was Henry Darger’s disturbing art really about “the reparative impulse” of collaging together the self’s fractured, lonely parts? In all her description of the generative side to loneliness — the stuff that comes from loneliness, Laing never quite answers the question: Were these artists’ lives made happier because of their art?
Reading a book about loneliness when you are lonely is tricky; the reader looks for a solution to the problem. Writing a book about loneliness when you are lonely must be even more difficult. At the end of The Lonely City, Laing does not offer up novel “answers,” either to her own loneliness or the reader’s; it’s not clear, even, whether the book feels loneliness is a problem to be solved. (Indeed, the best conclusion from Laing’s personal experience comes after the book ends, in the acknowledgements: “writing a book about loneliness…has been astonishingly connecting.”) Her closing prescriptions — to be kind, to stay open — are the stuff of motivational blogs. It’s hard to fault her for this; it’s not, after all, a self-help book. As anyone who has been lonely knows, it can’t necessarily be cured — either by friends who are paid by the hour, or by a book.
1. Storming the Castle
In the fall of 1999, my junior year, I decided to try out — in the Harvard parlance, to “comp,” short for either “compete ” or “competence,” an abbreviation that neatly captures the atmosphere of repressed striving and insecurity on campus — for my college’s quasi-bimonthly humor magazine, The Harvard Lampoon. (Or, as the rivalrous Harvard Crimson newspaper habitually refers to it, “a semi-secret Sorrento Square social organization that used to occasionally publish a so-called humor magazine.” Repressed striving and insecurity, with a split infinitive!)
It was only my third semester in Cambridge; the fact that I’d transferred in as a sophomore may mitigate — slightly — the inescapable annoyingness of stating I went to Harvard. In any case, the wit and intellect of the Lampoon had consistently impressed me in the meantime. I had a yearning to write satire, but hadn’t yet approached it in any disciplined fashion. It seemed to me that joining a 123-year-old publication that counted John Updike, George Plimpton, and Robert Benchley among its alumni would put me on that path. More importantly, it would bring me into contact with the culture that had birthed the vaunted National Lampoon (NL), whose dominant run of comedic films in the late ’70s and ’80s, from Animal House to the National Lampoon’s “Vacation” series, was responsible for a high percentage of the catchphrases heard in my youth.
I attended an orientation session in the Lampoon Castle, a stout, puckish building opened in 1909 that resembles a human face in a helmet. One upperclassman described the style of the humor pieces the Lampoon hopefuls — mostly nerdy white males — would have to write to come aboard. At one point he made accidental reference to “a phonograph player.” He caught his minor error (he meant, simply, a “phonograph”; a phonograph is already a “player,” so “phonograph player” is right up there with “ATM machine” for redundancy).
“A phonograph player,” he said as he laughed. “It plays other phonographs.”
Soon after, another writer observed, “Some people think we’re exclusive or snobby…But we’re not. I mean, look what we look like.” He may or may not have had a point — they were, indeed, in the archetypal comedy writer’s schlubby getup — but these two moments, in their ironizing and even lacerating self-consciousness, served notice as well as anything in the magazine itself for the kinds of deeper drives that turn ordinary mortals into Lampooners.
People rarely become conspicuously funny because they’re satisfied with themselves. The writers who had gone on from Harvard to make their mark at the National Lampoon — the people whose cinematic offerings I’d consumed throughout my childhood, and whose casting of Beverly D’Angelo and Christie Brinkley in the first “Vacation” film surely had a profound impact on my adolescent sexuality — were outsiders at Harvard and outcasts in high school. The targets they vengefully skewered were usually social microcosms, high school and college very much included. Underscoring this fixation was a deep-seated inferiority complex. The funny guys and girls who are confident (it was dawning on me, there at that orientation) are the ones who hold court at parties. The funny guys who are diffident become comedy writers. Or, as I once read in an interview with an Onion writer speaking about the makeup of its staff — the closest thing we have to the National Lampoon in its heyday — they’re the guys who are outside the party, making fun of the guy inside telling jokes.
At its peak, the NL produced some of the bleakest and most controlled furious humor in American letters. Yet in the twenty-nine years between its inaugural issue and my own fumbling attempts to breach the castle walls, these outsiders’ inside jokes had become the lingua franca of the educated classes. The National Lampoon’s creators played a role in or held sway over nearly every major comedic movement in the country over the last forty years. And now, thanks to Ellin Stein’s assiduously researched and comprehensive book That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick: The National Lampoon and the Comedy Insurgents Who Captured the Mainstream, we can trace the Lampoon’s evolution from the margins of Cambridge to the mainstream of Hollywood, covering a cast of characters ranging from lesser-known luminaries to the extroverts telling jokes at the party (John Belushi, Bill Murray). Had I read it that night after the Lampoon Castle, when I went home to begin writing my first piece — had I had a fuller understanding of how insecurity and striving could be harnessed — it might have made my work easier.
2. Baby’s First Words
American humor was, like the nation itself, in a radically transitional state in the 1960s. Light comedy ruled the early part of the decade, but after President Kennedy’s assassination and the domestic and international turbulence that followed, the genteel Harvard Lampoon that had nurtured Updike and Benchley began to broach social issues more often, and with a finer point — even while maintaining the generally apolitical stance of the detached humorist. (The contradictions were sometimes potent: Lampooners mockingly toasted, in black tie with champagne, departing Freedom Riders in 1963; the next year, they devoted an entire issue to civil rights.) As the decade deepened, the Lampooners targeted inequality and injustice less frequently than they did mainstream conformity — as if the gray flannel suits of the ’50s were still in fashion, not tie-dye and love beads.
The two linchpins of the Lampoon Castle in the mid-’60s were Doug Kenney and Henry Beard. They would go on to create “the characteristic tone of the National Lampoon,” Stein writes:
…assuming all actions are the result of greed, malice, or sheer stupidity; promiscuously interweaving icons from high and low culture; snobbery; and ironic distance from everything (including the work itself), all made palatable by sheer mastery of the traditional techniques of comic writing.
Beard was the hardworking, stable center of the organization, cranking out consistently solid material at all hours. A thrill-seeking WASP manqué from Ohio, Kenney comes off, by contrast, as the most tortured figure of all the Lampooners. Working in sporadic fits of genius around late-night gourmet-food fights, he affected, like most of the staff at the Harvard Lampoon, a preppy look and demeanor. Unwilling to accept the essentially insecure identity and origins of the comedy writer, Kenney had a lifelong desire to be the guy telling jokes at the party.
A few profitable parodies, including a Tolkien take-off called Bored of the Rings (which continues to pull in royalties for the Harvard Lampoon), made the notion of a national magazine look attractive financially, as well as conceptually. In 1969, Kenney, Beard, and business-minded classmate Rob Hoffman formed National Lampoon Inc. with two New York magazine publishers, Len Mogel and Matty Simmons. Issue one of the National Lampoon appeared in April 1970. The group soon added other Harvard alums as well as a standout non-Harvardian, Michael O’Donoghue, who came from a working-class background, was several years older than his more affluent colleagues, and had made a name for himself as an underground satirist of black-hole humor.
The Lampooners always prized craft above politics, and O’Donoghue himself wasn’t above the Lampoon’s affection for reflexivity, as in his classic treatise “How To Write Good,” which advises writers to conclude their stories with “Suddenly, everyone was run over by a truck,” then wraps up its ten lessons with the sentence, “There are many more writing hints I could share with you, but suddenly I am run over by a truck.” Stein writes that one of the other founding members described his peers’ affection for parody as “the natural art form for people who have been shaped by a meaningless iconography” — specifically, TV commercials. Yet the bohemian O’Donoghue’s reimaginings of that iconography were nothing if not meaningful. In January 1972, he penned one of the most memorable pieces in NL history, the scathing “Vietnamese Baby Book” (baby’s first word: medic).
Congenial chuckles were not O’Donoghue’s goal. “I’ve always considered comedy what you use to get people to swallow the pill, not the pill itself,” he said, along with this deathless epigram: “Making people laugh is the lowest form of humor.” He considered himself a moralist, and a livid one at that — who was still able to exert mastery over his feelings: “Rage is only interesting when it’s controlled. When you repress those emotions, you always get something artistic and interesting.” His highest-profile heirs today are Chris Rock and Louis CK, whose moral anger fuels their comedy without stepping (in Rock’s case, barely so) over the threshold of Lewis Black’s or Sam Kinison’s exhausting fury, and for whom the point is often less to get a laugh — let alone self-congratulatory applause — than to provoke thought. With O’Donoghue’s influence, and Vietnam’s escalation, the National Lampoon couldn’t help but become more political than its ivory tower predecessor, attacking both the right and left for their conservatism and hypocrisy, respectively. And, as with the response to The Onion today, people loved being reminded of their flaws.
3. Throwing Spitballs in Homeroom
But the NL’s ascent, in Stein’s telling, also contained the seeds of its demise. As the magazine expanded in the mid-’70s, the writers of the Lampoon came to embody as much as anyone the historical tension running through American comedy of its being written by, if not always the smartest, then certainly the quickest guys in the room, for the consumption of the lower-velocity masses. Not only did this gulf prompt a timeless conflict — whether to write for niche quality or mainstream success — but it was itself a source of the writers’ essential contempt for conformity and mass culture. Such an anxiety also placed under further pressure the NL’s volatile admixture of politics, linguistic virtuosity, and vicious, high-concept irony. But, for the time being, this pressure produced a bright, controlled burn.
Many of the National Lampoon’s obsessions and talents and scars coalesced in the 1964 High School Yearbook Parody, published in 1974. Its portrait of a fictional Ohio high school offered the Lampooners the chance to return to a personal and national era of irretrievable innocence: “Doug and I figured that 1964 was the last year before the sort of hipness explosion,” said P.J. O’Rourke, co-editor of the parody with Kenney. The pre-counterculture epoch remained the moment they related to best, when they could rail against conventionality before nonconformity became its own form of subservience.
The humor was granular; hand-scribbled notes by and to a generic student, Larry Kroger, covered the margins. And it was focused on the Midwest, the home turf of most of the Lampooners and the incubator of their sensibility. The equation was something like: more orthodoxy equals more quiet desperation to ridicule.
While we now take for granted the comic mining of high school, it wasn’t as obvious a move in 1974; American Graffiti had come out the year before and Happy Days premiered that fall, but most pop-culture depictions until then had been sober and had divided students into the facile binary of greasers and preppies. In researching real yearbooks, O’Rourke and Kenney had discovered the more nuanced taxonomy John Hughes (a future Lampooner) went on to highlight, and attempt to debunk, in The Breakfast Club: that everyone was a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, or a criminal. The Yearbook alone may not have catalyzed the wave of ’80s and ’90s comedies about high school, but it certainly anticipated it and their taxonomies. It was a total triumph; sales and acclaim were outsized, with Harper’s hailing it as “the finest example of group writing since the King James Bible.”
4. The Comedy of Antithesis
Norman Mailer said that J.D. Salinger was “the greatest mind ever to stay in prep school,” and that backhanded compliment might also apply to the Lampooners. Their neoteny became more apparent as the ’70s wore on and the NL drifted into non-print media. There, they couldn’t rely as easily on luminous writing or assume the audience — always a schizophrenic mix of comedy geeks and frat boys, equally enticed by the mathematically precise wit and the art department’s illustrations of females with proportions more out of Russ Meyer films than Ms. magazine — was as literary. They released both studio and live comedy albums, bringing Chevy Chase and Christopher Guest to prominence, and a nationally broadcast radio show that lasted a year. The 1973 stage show Lemmings, a parody of Woodstock, also led to collaboration with Chicago’s Second City improv-comedy troupe and its most charismatic performer, John Belushi.
Second City embraced its director Del Close’s philosophy: action over language, physicality over concept, concreteness over abstraction. The NL was all brain, no body; Belushi’s characters had never heard of the superego. Improv also relies on the “yes and” rule: never contradict your fellow performers’ creative inspiration, but continue their suggestion to absurd heights. Prose satire, however, derives much of its energy from dialectics. From “Frontline Dentists,” by O’Donoghue, a comic strip relating the brave exploits of our military dentists:
CAPTION: “The war against tooth decay is waged on every front…”
ATTRACTIVE, HALF-NAKED WOMAN ON STEET: “Hey Joe! You got Hershey bar?”
VIRILE DENTIST STRIDING PAST: “Certainly not, young lady! Sweets are the number-one cause of cavities!”
The closing negation here would derail or arrest an improv scene that might have cooperatively spun out into unforeseen territory (the dentist shills for Hershey to boost his business, he’s an ashamed chocolate addict himself, etc.). On the page, however, where a solitary writer is in control of the material, refutations don’t deny another’s ideas. (There are, of course, also plenty of examples of prose humor that engages in the “yes and” rule.)
One could argue that, medium aside, the comedy of antithesis permits a more sophisticated, analytical form of humor. Instead of the classic onstage or onscreen method of overstuffing a gag to its exaggerated conclusion — think of the crowded cabin scene in the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera, reprised to humiliating effect in the bathroom scene in the Farrelly Brothers’ There’s Something About Mary — the prose humorist can wend his way around a central conceit from all angles, even those that seem to undercut it. In the NL’s “Tell Debby,” a parodic advice column in which letter-writers send in stories about their miserable lives, Debby responds with callous one-liners, such as, to a boy from a dysfunctional home, “Young Man, you spelled my name D-e-b-b-i-e. My name is spelled D-e-b-b-y.” (See the echoes in The Onion’s “Ask a…” columns, in which a character unsuited to dispense advice provides his own running monologue that has nothing to do with the question.) Not “Yes and,” but “Whatever; which reminds me…”
Over many columns, though, the obtuse eponym of “Tell Debby” begins to reveal the limits of Lampoon humor. In the writers’ eyes, any hint of vulnerability could be cruelly exploited for laughs. And this is where Stein’s book is revelatory in its own right. Since dissecting or retelling a joke out of context invariably leaches it of humor, That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick is itself not funny. But deprived of its mask of mirth, the fundamental misanthropy at the core of the Lampoon sensibility is easier to see. Swift wrote that “principally I hate and detest that animal called man, although I heartily love John, Peter, Thomas, and so forth”; one gets the feeling that the Lampooners hated man and detested John, Peter, and Thomas, too.
5. “I’m better than you and I’m going to destroy you.”
And thus we reach the vexed question of empathy — what takes the writer beyond the narrow satirical limits of hatred and detestation.
Almost exclusively young, gentile white men of privilege, the original Harvard Lampooners had few socioeconomic chips on their shoulders. Through the nihilistic days of Watergate, the NL maintained its dispassionate, if left-wing, politics, and some of its apathy may derive from its remaining a white boys’ club well into second-wave feminism. There were not many women on staff, no minorities, and, most surprisingly for a comedy publication, a relative dearth of Jews. So, while the writers often satirized racial stereotypes, for instance, Stein points out that they frequently ended up reinforcing them, much as the prurient illustrations of buxom women didn’t quite qualify as subversive feminist humor. The Lampooners thought that women, as a rule, were humor-deficient, and that anyone who didn’t fit their own background was therefore writing from a narrower perspective. It was a prejudice that, Stein writes, partially sprang out of their culture of fear-inducing derision:
Bad enough when your NatLamp buddies used their intimate knowledge of your sore spots to assert their mastery through mockery; imagine if your girlfriend started doing it, too. You could never let down your guard. Tonight’s whispered confession might fuel tomorrow’s sarcastic remark.
Though there were a few nods to the female experience — mostly from writers Anne Beatts and Emily Prager — the men seemed more engaged by exploring their anxieties over the changing definitions of masculinity, as in an ad for a boy’s doll called T.G.I.F. Joe, an “Action Assistant Sales Supervisor” who could be positioned for a variety of menial tasks. (To be fair, this is likely the kind of humor their readers — also nerdy white males, “reminiscent of the editors’ own younger selves” — preferred.)
The lack of Jews, particularly, countered the prevailing winds of American comedy in the ’70s, including Mad magazine’s self-effacing brand, and the Lampooners took special pride in their resistance to Semitic humor. P.J. O’Rourke noted that there is offensive and defensive humor, and that the Lampoon veered strongly to the former: “We used humor as a weapon rather than a shield.” As at Harvard, the WASP mentality, indebted to the tradition of heartless British satire, was their model. In James Thurber’s distinction of comic writers — “The wit makes fun of other persons; the satirist makes fun of the world; the humorist makes fun of himself, but in so doing, he identifies himself with people — that is, people everywhere, not for the purpose of taking them apart, but simply revealing their true nature” — the Lampooners were satirists with a nastily witty edge; Alfred E. Neuman was a gentle, schmucky humorist. (The Harvard Lampoon has since become more Jewish, and tapped more of the campus’s women and minorities, as well.)
Yet for all its unexamined privilege, the Lampoon’s humor has the strong whiff of overcompensation, a refusal to acknowledge its creators’ former social underdog status. “We take the stance of the white, educated, upper-middle class,” O’Rourke said in 1978. “We are ruling class…our comic pose is superior. It says, ‘I’m better than you and I’m going to destroy you.’”
6. Falling Off a Cliff: Television, Movies, and Cocaine
As the National Lampoon entrenched itself as the comedy world’s ruling class, its humor became more watered-down. (O’Rourke’s persona somehow doesn’t play as well in his TV appearances in 2013). A sequel to Lemmings brought Bill Murray and Ivan Reitman into the NL fold, and soon various writers and actors associated with NL — Belushi and Chase, and, as head writer and occasional actor, O’Donoghue — flocked to Lorne Michael’s new comedy variety show, Saturday Night Live. The Canadian producer was inspired by British satire, especially Monty Python’s Flying Circus, but worried that Americans responded better to character-based comedy. SNL steered clear of Python’s absurdist, postmodern devices — intertextuality, self-referentiality — and its esoteric allusions. The result was a show that, despite O’Donoghue’s helming it, was far more “Second City” than National Lampoon: Belushi became a star in a work environment that rewarded physicality and extroversion, and though the climate seemed ripe for political satire, the show’s parodies focused more on the media rather than leaders and institutions. When SNL did attack political figures, they sent up their quirks (Ford’s clumsiness, Clinton’s libido, Bush’s strategery), not their policies.
The recurring characters and reliance on catchphrases grated on O’Donoghue (not to mention Belushi and others). The former thought it mainstream and conservative, two decades late to the game. By the mid-’70s, even the Lampoon felt a bit obsolete, said contributor and illustrator Bruce McCall: “It had been a vessel into which the gifts and rage and experience of all those people was poured. It was molten at the beginning, and now it was finally played out.”
It didn’t help that, in 1975, Beard, Kenney, and Hoffman had accepted the lucrative buyouts for which they had shrewdly negotiated. The conservative O’Rourke took over in 1978, guiding the magazine rightward and back toward the Midwest. A few more parody publications — of an Ohio newspaper from the same town depicted in the Yearbook, and Not the New York Times — made waves, and their repercussions can be found in The Onion and any number of Internet-era takeoffs on Times trend pieces.
Kenney moved to Hollywood, as was his hedonistic destiny. He nursed a cocaine habit and revived the magazine’s reputation by cowriting National Lampoon’s Animal House, a hugely popular film that, once more, satirized militaristic conformity in the early ’60s. Though the Lampoon creators had a dim opinion of their own parties-and-panties pandering movie, there are several inspired moments that would have appealed to their younger, rule-breaking selves, such as when Belushi spies on undressing sorority girls and raises a fourth-wall-breaking eyebrow to the audience.
SNL’s popularity spiked thanks to Belushi’s role in the movie, and Animal House’s success spawned a number of increasingly middlebrow, albeit clever, comedies in the ’80s with Lampoon connections: The Blues Brothers, Caddyshack, and the “Vacation” movies, starring Chevy Chase in Reagan-era station-wagon fantasies of returning to, as usual, pre-Vietnam times (written by John Hughes, two were based on his personal essays “Vacation ’58” and “Christmas ’59”). If there had been a long-running debate in the ’70s between privileging quality or money, there was little question which side had won by the next decade.
The magazine’s circulation dwindled through the ’80s and published its last issue in 1998, but to most readers, it unofficially ended in 1980, when a vacationing Kenney was found dead at the base of Hawaiian cliff in an apparent suicide at age 32. His death was received by his peers with equal parts sadness and gallows humor; the best line was that Kenney “had slipped and fallen while looking for a place to commit suicide.” The NL ceded its satirical reign first, in the late ’80s, to Spy magazine, which derided the lifestyles of the rich and famous, and then, in the new millennium, to the media-oriented Onion and Gawker, the politicized Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, and finally to anyone with a Twitter account and a misspelled opinion. In the last two decades, the surviving brand has pumped out over thirty films, some given the NL imprimatur, many straight-to-DVD and with titles the original Lampooners would have heaved up only for parodic target practice (2007’s Homo Erectus, aka National Lampoon’s Stoned Age).
7. The Apotovian Era
There has also been a backlash against the NL’s detached affect. Later generations of prose humorists showed that vulnerability and sentiment could profitably commingle with irony and darkness. The typical McSweeney’s Internet Tendency piece splices in moments of naked emotion among its conceptual, literary jokes. The Onion’s humanity comes most alive when documenting the sad lives of loserish area men or in covering national tragedy (after the Newtown school shootings: “Fuck Everything, Nation Reports — Just Fuck It All To Hell”), and occasionally becomes downright mushy (their eulogy to Roger Ebert, “Roger Ebert Hails Human Existence as ‘A Triumph’”). Arch satirists have finally embraced the sensitive ’70s inner-male the Lampooners were frightened of becoming, part of a wider cultural shift in which the tech-savvy meek have inherited the app-driven earth. In Judd Apotow movies, at least, the funny (and Jewish) dork, far from worrying that he’ll get made fun of for his nebbishy weaknesses, now makes use of them to get the shiksa.
Despite or because of these developments, the National Lampoon remains as relevant to today’s young comic writers as it was to the preceding generation. Though the institution has become a caricature of its former self, with a WASPish superciliousness that now feels a bit dated, the National Lampoon’s targets — middle-class convention and inanity, conservative corruption, liberal hypocrisy — don’t feel obsolete, nor do its sentences from its glory days. And if it its jokes don’t land with the modern reader, well, making people laugh is the lowest form of humor.
As for me, back in 1999, I was justly rejected from the Harvard Lampoon after writing several mediocre humor pieces. I continued reading the magazine, though, and became friends with some Lampooners. It took a few years after college until I found my comedic footing and began contributing prose humor to different publications.
I recently visited the Harvard Lampoon’s website and read some of their current material. My favorite was “Paternity Test,” by Z.E. Wortman, which concludes with this paragraph: “The good news is you are the father. Wait, sorry. I was holding the test upside down. The baby is your father.”
There are many more of these I could share with you, and sentences from over a decade ago I could recite verbatim from the phonograph player of my memory, but suddenly I am run over by nostalgia.