Almost exactly year ago, I wrote a list of books to read to understand late-stage capitalism for this site, because so much of what’s going on in the world today—Trump, endless wars, climate disasters, the migrant crisis, extreme income inequality—can be tied back to capitalism and yet we have so few books that examine its effects on us who are living in this frenzied late-stage capitalist epoch.
I would have added Gary Shteyngart’s Lake Success to the list, but it hadn’t been published yet. On first reading it as a literary novel, the “rich-hedge funder-goes-on-a-journey-suffers-hardship-like-the-Greyhound-bus-bathrooms-returns-having-learned-a-thing-or-two” was a bit of a let-down. The frenetic satirical voice, the similar plot of his older work, Super Sad True Love Story with the older secular Jewish man and the younger Asian woman, grated on my nerves a bit. While other reviewers had praised Lake Success as a radical departure from the previous, since it dealt with an American-born not immigrant character, I still couldn’t get over the similarity in tone, down to the fact that the older Jewish American narrator, previously “Lenny,” is now “Barry”—which of course rhymes with “Gary.”
But sitting back and taking it in as a whole, and situating it amongst our current cultural and political climate, I realized it is possible to write a novel that seems not fully functional in a literary sense (including with somewhat generic unlikeable characters), but its dysfunction can be, inadvertently or not, precisely the point.
It reminds me, glancingly, of Ha Jin’s masterful War Trash, a “diary” about a Chinese soldier who becomes a POW in a U.N. detention camp during the Korean War. The novel’s deliberately clunky voice (a shock after the lyrical Waiting) made the reading difficult but in the end faithfully convey a non-native’s voice further occluded by the stream-of-consciousness form of the diary entry written by a traumatized soldier during a war.
Shteyngart’s previous novel, Super Sad True Love Story, was putatively a love story, but I admired it for its look at techno-futurism, eerily predicting the smart phone, skinny jeans, Internet sites like Hot or Not. It was a funny Black Mirror long before there was Black Mirror, and, for something totally esoteric, the author’s a correct and nuanced and untranslated use of the Korean word gijibae (“brat”—used only for women and girls) was pretty cool.
Lake Success, in contrast to Super Sad, dwells not in the near-future but in the real time of a Trump election cycle, rooted in the seeming unending nightmare of our present; to use a contemporary word, it feels like “streaming.” It starts with Barry, the head of a hedge fund, eschewing a private helicopter or other hedge fund modes of transport to head to Port Authority, on the lam from his marriage, his son’s autism diagnosis, the feds who are closing in on him for some shady trades. He hops on a Greyhound and ends up traversing the country with nothing but some cash and a suitcase full of his beloved expensive watches and the vague goal of reuniting with his college girlfriend, with whom he has not kept in touch basically since they broke up after college, when he chose high finance over their relationship. Much of the middle of the book is a picaresque tour of America’s Triumpian interior. Shteyngart ups the stakes of his modern Odysseus journey by subtracting Barry’s phone and credit cards until he lands in a cash-poor situation (at one point begging with a cardboard sign and cup) not dissimilar from that of the average Greyhound bus passenger, citizens of all colors who are sharing the bus ride with him and act as a kind of Greek chorus.
Barry is about as deeply an unlikeable narrator as they come. He judges women on purely superficial bases (his first contact with his wife-to-be is when she admonishes him for ogling her breasts). He is so underdeveloped emotionally it seems he has no Pavlovian responses to anything except thoughts of sex (but not with his wife, now) and money, which, since he has so much of it, he mainly uses to buy extremely expensive rare watches that he dithers over while barely paying attention to his son.
The finance aspect of the novel is that Barry is being chased by the feds for his shady positions his hedge fund takes in “Gastrolux” and “Valupro,” which seem inspired by the fraud and price gouging of hedge funder Martin “Pharma Bro” Shkreli and the Galleon Group’s Raj Rajaratnam, a Sri Lankan immigrant to whom a director at Goldman Sachs passed insider information. Barry is cheater on his wife and on SEC regulations, but he isn’t so much a Bonfire of the Vanities Sherman McCoy Master of the Universe as a clueless doofus, even though sloppily racist (he thinks his friend Jeff Park is Chinese—a joke recycled from Super Sad True Love Story with the young Korean American woman, Eunice Park: “Chinese women are so delicate”). The only thing Barry knows in his heart is making money (which he continues to do despite the feds) and while he tries to love his three-year-old son, it seems the only way he can do this is through saving his son, who can’t tell time, a special watch to inherit. As he abandons his family and cuts off communication, Barry knows something’s a bit off with him; there are clues he feels might indicate he is “autistic” like his son.
Barry’s world of high finance frequently references Goldman Sachs, where I once worked; Goldman has indeed become part of pop culture, if anything for indelibly fomenting the mortgage crisis of 2008, but I didn’t find Barry convincing as an ex-athlete finance bro. Barry’s default modes are sheepish and full of shame, which are usually not part of a finance bro’s emotional palette, evidenced in how Goldman conducted part of its business at strip clubs and on golf courses. Most of the finance people I worked with were too self centered to have that aching Barry angst or his need to please because they were convinced they’d already “won” via their acumen and merits and the spoils of income inequality.
What makes Lake Success a notable book for this year is less characterizations and plot. Despite the fact that this novel is pushed as a departure from his earlier immigrant novels, it’s almost like each novel has a version of the same protagonist going through different situations, and that his books merely skim the surface of technical and scientific issues while utilizing jargon (China-pegged currency arbitrage, genetic modification, mortgage-backed securities) but in some ways this refractory, superficial style is precisely what makes his work so interesting and original, especially at this time.
While Shteyngart’s “Barry” characters (I’ll call all his anti-hero protagonists Barry) grope (sometimes literally) their way into their futures, dystopian and not, in between the gross jokes (Barry burps up beer and Domino’s pizza while simultaneously trying to navigate a touching moment with a friend) that rise from the basic—in all senses of the word—plots (love story, road trip story), in Lake Success, we readers can squint to look at the glinting of the over-the-top glass and chrome of these billion-dollar apartments and see, mercilessly reflected back, the attention-deficient, capital-obsessed, atomized, ever accelerating FOMO society that we have become. Even Barry’s liberal-leaning wife, a lawyer-turned-stay-at-home-mom, rationalizes the good living afforded by Barry’s rapacious capitalism and uneasily deludes herself that, as Dawn Powell characterized certain New Yorkers in the ’30s, that with her phalanx of cooks and nannies and doormen, she is still “not idle rich, but busy, good-living, intelligent idling rich.”
What this novel has carved out, as if with surgical scalpel, is the feeling of malaise that in our weird late-stage capitalist epoch, even someone worth 30 billion dollars can feel. Jeff Park the “Chinese” financier peevishly complains that the top of his Ferrari “used to go down in fourteen seconds…but now it takes eighteen. Everything’s a scam.” Barry, likewise, can’t believe it when he finds his ridiculously expensive watch has lost a few seconds. It’s a funny and sad (and maybe super-sad) realization for these one-percenters that money can’t buy them a perfect universe, that having the means to overspend on a consumable good like a watch still does not guarantee its quality—it is a scam—nor does thirty billion versus fifteen billion make a difference in death. Here is where, through a sea of financial jargon sometimes inexpertly applied (and maybe the goobledy-goo of financial jargon is precisely the point), we hit gold.
The feds do catch up to Barry, but it gets resolved in a paragraph or two (no spoilers, here), and Barry’s free to go and he’s not even barred from the industry; at first this seems like “too easy” a plot point, the galloping narrative merely running out of gas. But it continues as an eminently plausible and expected resolution (art imitates life and back again). It therefore makes in a paragraph the point that a thousand studies from the Roosevelt Institute outlining the costs of rescinding of Glass-Steagall (a Depression-era banking reform law) never could, about how we got here, and how we are unlikely to learn from our mistakes, as long as the money-laden people stay in charge.
That pretty much all the upper-income characters in Lake Success are mild-to-moderately loathsome illuminates the hypocrisies that the people on the “good” side of income inequality have little motivation to change it, even when they are, like Barry’s wife, uncomfortable with some of the moral aspects of it. Barry considers himself a Republican but “socially liberal,” but sees nothing wrong with gouging dying patients for an essential drug because profit and shareholder value is his lodestar. Jeff Park’s father actually needs that drug, and so Jeff is mad at Barry because of it, but Jeff is also glad he, too, is a rapacious Lamborghini-driving financial swell because that way he can afford the heavily-price-inflated drug for his father. Talk about a model minority.
It’s a radical updating of The Great Gatsby as we see Barry smashing up people’s lives, while his cross-country journey gives him plenty of time to think about it and even meet the people impacted by what to him was merely moving numbers around. In our current culture, we privilege business, even though it doesn’t make sense—why do we focus to the exclusion of arts and other sciences, on economic value measured in piles of paper while we despoil the air and water that we depend on to live? Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” isn’t rational and impartial, it’s about maximizing profit; as evidence, as Americans, we might want to consider why all other countries in the world are smart enough to not base their healthcare systems on ours, and the majority have some kind of universal insurance while we, in the so-called land of consumer choice, don’t even had a public option for it. Further, in classic economics, profits would be zero; in a perfect capitalist society because of transparency in costs of production that essential pharma drug should be priced near what it cost to make. Barry succeeds by subverting all of that
The Lake Success of the title is actually a place as well as a metaphor in the book. It is Barry’s green light at the end of the dock, his East Egg, his Rosebud and his White Whale all at once. Why not pack it all into one narrative? Late stage capitalism’s name suggests excess, and also that we are approaching a terminus, as presaged in the title of the excellent early-late-stage capitalism novel (2006), Then We Came to the End. That unless we pivot drastically (“a course correction,” as Barry might say), there’s a black hole waiting as a consequence of our pollution of our environment, of our prizing lucre over life, our worship of paper, of using technology to get rid of inefficiency then discovering that human relationships are remarkably inefficient as well.
Lake Success does take a drastic pivot at the very end (no spoilers!), with a burst of lyricism verging on sentimentality that suggests both beauty and love—and an end. The way Barry lives is clearly not sustainable, and this is what we learn. In this, the novel succeeds wildly, for what is the role of artist if not to reflect back society to the reader—even, and perhaps especially, if we aren’t going to like what we see?
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Reading The Collected Essays of Elizabeth Hardwick for a creative nonfiction craft lecture during the final residency for my MFA program gave me a greater appreciation for Hardwick’s work and changed the way I read. One essay from the collection,“Locations: The Landscapes of Fiction,” taught me to give more attention to objects and places in fiction instead of just viewing them as props that help set the stage or fill space. Using works from Hawthorne, Fitzgerald, Wharton, and others, Hardwick explores the connections between interior and exterior landscapes in American fiction and the characters who inhabit those landscapes. She writes about how the landscapes created by these authors inform readers beyond establishing the setting. Hardwick writes:
The landscapes of fiction, the houses and things, are a shell for the creation of human dramas, the place for the seven deadly sins to do battle with probity and reality or outrageous demand and vanity. The shells, the habitations of America are volatile, inventive, unexpected, imponderable, but there they are, everywhere.
Dwellings—and the objects found in these dwellings—help form characters and their stories. Layers of landscape are placed around and within stories for readers to examine in order to grasp deeper meanings, like the rings of a tree.
Hardwick devotes a good chunk of “Locations” to fiction that takes place in New York City. She writes:
Manhattan is not altogether felicitous for fiction. It is not a city of memory, not a family city, not the capital of America so much as the iconic capital of the century. It is grand and grandiose with its two rivers acting as a border to contain the restless. Its skyscrapers and bleak, rotting tenements are a gift for photographic consumption, but for the fictional imagination the city’s inchoate destiny is a special challenge. Those who engage this “culture of congestion” today need a sort of athletic suppleness, such as we find in Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities and E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime.
Anna Qunidlen must possess the athletic suppleness Hardwick mentions; Alternate Side, a novel that unfolds in Manhattan, still contains elements of memory and family in addition to plenty of congested restlessness. Quindlen introduces the reader to the vacant lot around which Alternate Side revolves in the opening pages:
In the line of narrow townhouses that made up their side of the block, standing shoulder to shoulder like slender soldiers of flawless posture and unvarying appearance, there was one conspicuous break, a man down, a house-width opening to a stretch of macadam turned into an outdoor parking lot. It held only six cars, and since nearly everyone on the block wanted a space, it had become a hot commodity, a peculiar status symbol.
All of the residents on the block vie for one of the vacant lot’s six parking spots close to home. Those lucky enough to score one are obsessed with the lot and their spots. Convenience and comfort are powerful drugs. Feeling superior to your less fortunate, parking-spot-bereft neighbors is a powerful drug, too.
Quindlen explores themes connected to race, class, privilege, friendship, and family in ways that are only possible because of the empty lot she plops down in the middle of a rare dead-end block in Manhattan. After an act of violence occurs for reasons connected to the lot, the lucky six are no longer allowed to park their cars there. The relationships between various residents begin to unravel. Their homes start to fall apart as well, and the emptiness of the lot reflects the emptiness of some of the marriages and friendships on the street.
Early in the novel, Nora (the protagonist) contemplates the old New York of her youth compared to the current New York: the New York of her married-for-several-years-with-two-kids-in-college days. Quindlen writes:
It was crazy, but there was a small, secret part of Nora that was comfortable with trash on the street. It reminded her of her youth, when she’d first arrived in a nastier, scarier, dirtier New York City and moved into a shabby apartment with her best friend, Jenny. A better New York, she sometimes thought to herself now, but never, ever said, one of the many things none of them admitted to themselves, at least aloud: that it was better when it was worse.
Nora longs for a different New York, for a past version of herself—when a vacant lot wasn’t so important, when much of what her life has become wasn’t so important. Nora later discovers, thanks to the lot—the shell for the creation of her human drama—that people and circumstances aren’t always what they seem to be.
The hotel-cum-addiction-recovery-facility in Denis Johnson’s “The Starlight on Idaho” (from The Largesse of the Sea Maiden) serves as another notable shell. The main character in this epistolary short story, Cass, is going through detox in the Starlight Addiction Recovery Center and writes several letters to various people, including God and Satan. Cass writes a letter to his Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor, Bob:
Dear old buddy and beloved sponsor Bob,
Now hear the latest from the Starlight Addiction Recovery Center on Idaho Avenue, in its glory days better known as the Starlight Motel. I believe you might have holed up here once or twice. Yes I believe you might have laid up drunk in room 8, this very one I’m sitting in at this desk writing this letter …
And in a letter to his father and grandmother, Cass says:
Do you remember when the Starlight was a motel? I remember when it was a motel and whores used to sit out on the bench at the bus stop across the street, really miserable gals with blotchy skin and dents in their head after getting run out of San Francisco … I mean you wouldn’t cross the street for them, but I guess once in a while some desperate character from one of these rooms in the Starlight would make the journey. Do you know what? I’ve had one or two minutes here when I might’ve done it myself. But the whores are gone, the bus-stop benches are empty. I don’t think the bus runs past here no more.
The Starlight helps make this story what it is. Johnson uses the Starlight as an additional character in the story, one that has gone through its own turnaround.
At the end of the story, readers learn that Cass has been told several times that he shouldn’t have survived some pretty terrible situations. But he’s still alive and he still hopes this round of recovery will stick. Perhaps some past frequenters of the Starlight Motel have ridden by—probably by accident—and noticed buses no longer serve the area; maybe they thought the motel would be abandoned and condemned but instead discovered it’s still alive, now a place where people go to recover, where people who should be dead have another chance at redemption.
I’ll keep paying more attention to locations and landscapes when I read and write now. Maybe I’ll include locations that have traits that mirror those of my characters or locations that represent a sort of redemption my characters desire for themselves. Maybe I’ll introduce locations that are unexpected, inventive, volatile.
Image: Flickr/Stephen L Harlow
Henry Grunwald, Joyce Carol Oates, Taki, Ned Rorem, Annie Leibovitz, and others recall encounters with Tom Wolfe, the dandyish inventor of New Journalism and novelist, who died Monday at age 87.
1. Tidewater Virginian Gentleman
…into the clackety-clack chaos of the [New York Herald] Trib’s city room…Every desk was occupied by a man and every man wore the same shirt and tie. Except two. I spotted Tom Wolfe. He looked different [as did the tie-less and rumpled Jimmy Breslin]. His longish silky hair curled over the well-turned collar of an English-tailored tweed suit. He looked like a Tidewater Virginian gentleman, which he was. His lips were locked in a concupiscent smile. Of course, I thought he must be flicking open his satirical switchblade to dice up the status strivings of some sacred cow who had no idea he was about to be skewered. (Tom had not yet effected the wardrobe of a contemporary Beau Brummell in white suits and spats, not on a salary of $130 a week.)
Wolfe’s prose was the opposite. He invented unforgettable code phrases—“the right stuff,” the “statusphere,” and “social x-rays.” He exuded excesses of hyperbole never before seen on a black-and-white page. He spotted the first “Tycoon of Teen,” Phil Spector, and he was the first to explain the vision of Marshall McLuhan. The most mind-blowing of Wolfe’s early articles examined the LSD life of Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters.
…Tom Wolfe did exchange a few words with me, in passing, and I hung on them. “The Herald Tribune is like the main Tijuana bullring for competition among feature writers,” he told me. “You have to be brave.” (New York, 1964)
—From Daring: My Passages, by Gail Sheehy (William Morrow/HarperCollins, 2014)
2. Many White Suits
On my third trip to New York I bought the publishing rights in a book of essays called Candy Stream Line Flake Baby [sic]. The author was a leading exponent of the ‘new journalism.’ His name was Tom Wolfe. In addition to being an excellent essayist and a superb stylist with a range from art to astronauts, he was something of a celebrity about town and a famous ladies’ man. A trademark of Tom’s, then and now, has been the wearing of white suits. I remember our [Jonathan Cape] Publicity Director asking him when in London how he managed to keep his suit so immaculately white. He took her to his dressing room and opened the cupboard. There, hanging in a row, were six perfect white suits.
…He is exceptionally gracious, soft-spoken and well-read, and has immaculate manners. He is also outstandingly intelligent, with the enquiring mind of a superb journalist. He is a passionately caring person. Many years ago [TM’s wife] Regina had a mysterious ailment that we thought the Mayo Clinic in America might cure. Tom went out of his way to introduce us to not one but two of the leading professors there and he wrote to them as if we were his closest friends.
—From Publisher, by Tom Maschler (Picador, 2005)
3. Conversationally Frugal
The form [“New Journalism”] was invented by Tom Wolfe, a young writer of genteel Virginia background who had become a familiar character on the New York scene in his white suits. As I came to know him—we were never friends but friendly dinner party acquaintances—I was struck by his extreme frugality in conversation. He obviously saved his words for his writing and used his slightly absurd, dandyish appearance as effective camouflage from behind which he observed his surroundings with merciless precision, precision that was heightened by an almost surrealist imagination.
There were other practitioners of the New Journalism, some with greater literary credentials and fewer stylistic quirks, including Norman Mailer and Truman Capote. There were also Wolfe imitators for whom the New Journalism came down to writing themselves into an article, tediously going on about their reaction to the wallpaper or to being kept waiting. Wolfe remained the master. While he was unfailingly polite, I sometimes imagined him as poking me in the ribs and saying: “How are you fellows at Time going to keep up with me? I’m skating circles around you.” (late 1960s)
—From One Man’s America: A Journalist’s Search for the Heart of His Country, by Henry Grunwald (Doubleday, 1997)
4. What He Was Trying to Prove
…The genre [New Journalism] was famously pioneered by Tom Wolfe in his experimental articles published by the long-defunct New York Herald-Tribune and his books about the 1960s with their wigged-out titles like The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, and The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test…”One of the points I wanted to prove,” Wolfe told me when I interviewed him in Vancouver in 1972, “was that novels and non-fiction should be written the same way. You are bringing some news to the reader, and you have a solid grounding in fact and detail. It ascends from here.” His boyish, preppy head incongruously sticking out of his signature white suit and stiffed-necked collars, Wolfe kept asking me polite questions about Canada and Marshall McLuhan.
—From Here Be Dragons: Telling Tales of People, Passion and Power, by Peter C. Newman (McClelland and Stewart, 2004)
5. Very Proper, No Sweat
On one level, Tom Wolfe operated very much like Hunter [Thompson] did. Tom got his stories from odds-and-ends moments. But Tom wasn’t at all like Hunter temperamentally. Tom was very proper. He always wore long-sleeved shirts, and even if it was 95 degrees out and a 100 percent humidity he never sweated. Everyone was sweating through their clothes and Tom was completely dry. Hunter sweated a lot…
I went with Tom to Florida to cover [for Rolling Stone magazine] the launch of Apollo 17, NASA’s last manned flight to the moon. That’s when Tom started doing the research on astronauts that led to The Right Stuff. It was interesting to be with Tom because you got in everywhere. There were all these parties before the launch. (1972)
—From Annie Leibovitz at Work, by Annie Leibovitz (Random House, 2008)
6. Flow of Fashion
Everyone has a different definition of what the New Journalism is. It’s the use of fictional techniques, it’s composite characterization, it’s the art form that’s replacing the novel, which is dying…
…along comes Tom Wolfe, the Boswell of the boutiques, with a history of the New Journalism that never mentions Kempton, Cannon, or Stone. Or Lillian Ross and Joe Mitchell, who wrote for the rival New Yorker. Or any [Village] Voice writer, for that matter. Like any faithful Boswell, Wolfe only mentions his friends.
…He is a gifted, original writer, but he has the social conscience of an ant. Wolfe is a dandy. His basic interest is the flow of fashion, in the tics and trinkets of the rich.
But if Wolfe represents a conservative, or perhaps apolitical approach, there is also the committed school of Stone, Kempton, Royko, Halbertsam, Wicker, Cowar, Hentoff and many others. …
—From The Education of Jack Newfield, by Jack Newfield (St. Martin’s Press, 1984)
7. Nice Person
April 13, 1978. Yesterday, to Ann Arbor, there to meet with Tom Wolfe, who gave the Hopwood Address in the Rackham Bldg., the same building I spoke in two weeks ago exactly (surprising, that the seats weren’t all filled for his talk): Wolfe in his trademark vanilla ice cream suit with pale blue shirt and pale blue socks and white shoes (rather rushing the season, those shoes), a nice person, warm and congenial and, offstage, not at all pretentious. His talk was low-keyed and superficial, perhaps aimed for a somewhat younger (or less intelligent) audience. I am thinking of writing him a letter…We talked a bit, though not at great length. The two of us were “guests of honor” at the Inglus House dinner following the reception, which meant that we were many yards apart, at either end of a very long table.
From The Journals of Joyce Carol Oates 1973-1982, by Joyce Carol Oates (HarperCollins, 2007)
I used to read Wolfe and think, “Well, fuck you! God touched you and made you a fucking genius, and that’s the end of it!” Then in the mid-eighties I walked in to the offices of Rolling Stone one afternoon and saw him working at a desk. He was writing The Bonfire of the Vanities in biweekly installments at the time, and I looked in his eyes and saw the haunted, hunted animal look I know I have in my eyes when the shit is hitting the fan. And I thought to myself, “God bless you, Tom. You’re a working stiff after all.” (New York, mid-1980s)
—From The New New Journalism: Conversations with America’s Best Nonfiction Writers on Their Craft, by Robert S. Boynton (Vintage Books, 2005)
…a short note from [wife] Alexandra saying that Tom and Sheila Wolfe had called to offer their support. The great Tom had already rung me while I was waiting for my appeal [of a conviction for cocaine possession, which resulted in three months in London’s Pentonville Prison], a kindness I shall not soon forget…Like all large talents, Tom is supportive of lesser ones. And he’s no prima donna. He is as kind and considerate and gentle in his dealings with people as his literary style is precise and devastatingly accurate.
He and his wife and their two children live across the street from us in Southampton [N.Y.], but they prefer a quiet life and I don’t see much of them. But I treasure their friendship. …
I like everything Tom has ever written, but my favorite remains his demolition job on the ‘radical chic’ of Mr. [Leonard] Bernstein’s cocktail party…
—From Nothing to Declare: Prison Memoirs, by Taki (Viking, 1991)
10. Candle in a White Suit
Had a terrific drink tonight with Tom Wolfe, who is tall and thin like a candle in his white suit, with a dryness suddenly illuminated by joyous shafts of pure malice…I told him I was having dinner with Martin Amis. “Ah, the rising novelist of thirty-four. Funny how you are a hardened thief at thirty but a rising novelist at thirty-four.” Outside it was pouring rain and we lingered over our drink at Le Périgord. He told me he is finishing his new novel about New York and the “masters of the universe” of Wall Street [The Bonfire of the Vanities]. (New York, 1983)
—From The Vanity Fair Diaries 1983-1992, by Tina Brown (Henry Holt, 2017)
11. Lost Scene
…Wolfe’s attack on The New Yorker [in the New York Herald Tribune in 1965]…
…In the lead paragraph of his first part, he had described in lavish detail a scene in [editor William] Shawn’s office. A prospective contributor was visiting. While Shawn huddled behind the stack of manuscripts on his desk, the visitor, nervously and unthinkingly, lit a cigarette. After a couple of drags, he noticed to his dismay (though Shawn said nothing) that there were no ashtrays in the room. Desperately he reached for an empty Coca-Cola bottle and deposited the offending cigarette, point down, into its base. The barely smoked weed—all smokers will recognize this picture—continued to burn, and, as the visitor watched in mounting anguish, and Shawn smiled enigmatically from behind the barricade of his manuscripts, the brown smoke curled acridly into the unventilated room. …
And yet, as we learned from Dwight MacDonald, Wolfe had never been there. He had, unforgivably, made the incident up. …
…Wearing his trademark white suit, Wolfe is as insouciantly charming in our [1987 CBC] interview as his writing is energetic in print. After much palaver…I pop the question. Does he remember the scene? Of course. Where did he get it? He has, he confesses disarmingly, no idea now. He’d have to look at his notes. Concerned lest I take an already self-indulgent interview further down the lane of autobiography, I turn to other matters. (Toronto)
—From The Private Voice: A Journal of Reflections, by Peter Gzowski (McClelland and Stewart, 1988)
12. Sartorial Splendor
24 February 1990. Lunch with Tom Wolfe, who is here [Tokyo] to work up a novel. It has some Japanese in it, and he has come to see some Japanese. Tallish, wide forehead, gray eyes, and much sartorial splendor. He mentions this. “I guess I am old-fashioned,” he says in reference to his Edwardian vest, his watch chain, and his wide-brimmed hat. But it is also a way of dress that alerts people. I had taken him to the Press Club, not the brightest or liveliest place, and everyone recognized him at once and several came sidling up.
He is also interested, understanding, curious. Says very little about himself unless one asks. Wants to learn. Is here for that reason. Is particularly interested in what happens to art here, how it turns into money…
From The Japan Journals 1947-2004, by Donald Richie, ed. by Leza Lowitz (Stone Bridge Press, 2004)
…to be an honoree at a find-raiser for Marymount College…
The pre-prandial cocktail hour at the swanky Palace mezzanine…Wolfe, whom I’ve never met—nor were we introduced—sitting three chairs away, arranged for his famously friendly eyes never to cross with mine, which made clear that he would not be extending his hand, nor encouraging me to do so. What, I wondered, have I ever done to him? Ah yes, it must be that crank letter to the Times, years ago, when I took to task his review of Cecil Beaton’s memoir wherein he twitted queers. Still, is that enough for him to ignore my presence now, rather than, like a suave European, to separate professional feuds from social niceties? He meanwhile might argue he didn’t know who I was. (New York)
From Lies: A Diary 1986-1999, by Ned Rorem (Counterpoint, 2000)
Image Credit: Flickr/Cliff.
Tom Wolfe, known as much for his personal as his narrative style, died on Monday of this week, reports The New York Times. An author of both critically and commercially acclaimed fiction — The Bonfire of the Vanities — and non-fiction — The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test — Wolfe was a mandarin of the New Journalism style that first became ascendant in the 1960s. Several of his books (including Vanities and The Right Stuff, about the early days of the U.S. space program) also became successful films. We reviewed Wolfe’s 16th book, The Kingdom of Speech, in 2016, as well as his 2012 novel Back to Blood, noting that in classic Wolfe-ian form, the latter “is obsessed with cultural abrasion, with the way different classes and races vie for power.”
Before the summer onslaught of comic book movies featuring X-Men, Avengers and Justice Leaguers, let us pay homage to a cadre of merely human, though still valiant, book critics who have attained something like superhero status themselves.
Though they adopted radically different methods, and were bickering among themselves more often than not — and one of them is currently incarcerated — so strong was their shared devotion to the sacred duty of criticism that future generations will surely say of them:
Such once were Criticks, such the Happy Few
Athens and Rome in better Ages knew.
Rex Hume: The Highbrow Hound
Rex Hume, the famed allusion-hunting critic known as “The Highbrow Hound,” “The Tweedy Truffler,” and “Causabon 2.0” has been universally praised for his “near-sensuous pedantry.” Whereas some of our more conscientious critics take it upon themselves to read the whole of an author’s oeuvre before reviewing his or her latest, Hume, lest he miss one literary reference, thematic reworking, or subtle resonance, re-reads the whole of the Western Canon.
Famously averse to new works, the reactionary Hume cultivates an irascible persona. Nearly every publicist has received one of his dreaded form replies to notices touting a debut effort: “If it were that good, wouldn’t I have seen it alluded to elsewhere?”
Hume’s allusive obsession stems from an adolescent trauma. One spring, that season when a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love, he asked a young lady, handsome, clever, and rich, to the prom. She curtly referred him to “Bartleby the Scrivener.” The prancing, yellow-stockinged swain hurried home, hoping to find in the story an invitation to come live with her and be her love. When instead, he read those devastatingly demurring words, his eyes burned with anguish and anger. He awoke the next morn a sadder and a wiser man and vowed to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield in his quest to shore each and every fragment against his ruined ego.
The path was not easy. Medical setbacks dogged the bookish lad from his college years, when Hume’s brain literally exploded — or so his detractors quipped — after Planet Joyce first swam into his ken. (Though his doctors maintained that it was nothing more than an “Oxen of the Sun”-induced aneurism.)
Hume’s mania has also landed him in legal trouble. He was sued after putting George Plimpton in a chokehold, convinced that one of the dilettante’s witticisms was cribbed from a Martial epigram. Hume wouldn’t release him until two Commentary editors and William Styron assured him that the bon mot was most definitely a Plimpton original.
Hume’s dogged sleuthing lent his reviews, essentially scorecards of real or imagined literary references, a bizarre quality. One cannot, though, argue with the lapidary precision of his assessment of Bonfire of the Vanities: “Dickens (42), Trollope (28), Fitzgerald (11), Dostoyevsky (8.33), Baudelaire (p), Dumas (1)…” After readers began to demand more expansive considerations, Hume’s editor steered him away from covering allusion-rich literary novels and towards romance fiction. However, these peppery tales only stimulated the Hound’s nose, detecting as he did the soupçon of a Rabelais, a pinch of Rochester, a tang of Sade, a dash of Nin, or the perverse wafting of Jonathan Edwards in each concoction.
And so Hume was finally assigned to his current post, covering children’s picture books. He has yet to produce a review, as he immediately enrolled in the Columbia Art History graduate program. But colleagues report, whether with dismay or eagerness is unclear, that he has been holed up for weeks with Ernst Gombrich’s The Story of Art, a Biblical concordance, and Go Dog Go.
Sydney Duff: A King on His Throne
Blessed with incredible stamina and a prodigiously broad backside, Sydney Duff has never reviewed a book he couldn’t read in one sitting. He burst onto the scene with his review of The Corrections — “I read it in one sitting” — which he finished while riding the A train end-to-end throughout the night. Another one of his famous pieces came during a 100-mile charity bike ride through the Hudson Valley — White Teeth perched on the handlebars — in support of deep vein thrombosis research. “I read it in one sitting,” he raved, “and raised money for a great cause!” And who could forget the scathing review of Don DeLillo’s Underworld: “I read it in one sitting, though at times I was tempted to put it down and stretch my legs.”
The young Duff could be brash and insensitive, universally reviled for once accusing a wheelchair-bound colleague of impinging on his brand. In another notorious incident, he was so enraged at the mere sight of his assistant’s standing desk that he threw it out the fifth-story office window. Such anecdotes reveal the latent dynamism of the sedentary creature.
Then there was Duff’s daredevil affair with Rex Hume’s wife. Having cracked open a novel shortly after their adulterous afternoon assignation, he refused to leave his lover’s bedroom until he had finished it. Hume, who had been out hunting truffles, eventually returned home, but luckily headed straight to his study to reacquaint himself with Flaubert. When Duff snuck out that night, the Highbrow Hound was none the wiser.
Duff mellowed with age, perhaps drained by his near-continual feats of biblio-endurance. The ravages of time lent an introspective air to his work as Duff grappled with his own mortality. Consider the terse pathos of his reassessment of Proust: “Though the bed sores almost derailed me, I read it in one go. For a long time it was painful.”
Those curious about what the photo-shy Duff looks like need only visit the Tate Modern, which houses the portrait Lucian Freud painted of the corpulent critic, toilet-bound and reading a copy of The Portrait of a Lady. As Duff put it in a rare cross-disciplinary review that demonstrated the full range of his aesthetic judgement: “Both the novel and the portrait were completed in one session.”
Duff retired some years ago to fully devote himself to activism. He is not fond of marches or picket lines — or progressive causes truth be told — but whenever a group of young idealists gathers at a statehouse or university president’s office, they can count on the old lounger, book in hand, for support at their sit-ins.
Aristophocles: Two-Faces, One Name
Some swear that the one-named critic Aristophocles is the merriest man alive. Indeed, many a witness could testify — and many a review confirm — that the one-named critic never sat in a café, enjoyed a sunny day in the park, or infuriated fellow passengers in the Amtrak quiet car, without his distinctive cackle echoing round. And yet similarly upstanding citizens aver that at the same cafés, on the same country greens and in the same quiet cars, could be heard the guttural sobs of a profoundly moved reader. So which is it? Does Aristophocles, who emotes so fulsomely in public spaces, wear a tragic or a comic mask? Identify with l’allegro or il penseroso?
Simple questions for a complex man, torn between vain deluding joys and loathed melancholy. The hint of a pun produces peals of mirth, and the mere premonition of loss cues the waterworks. He is a creature supremely attuned to the jollity and sorrow of literature, and didn’t hesitate to show it. As he put it once in his full-throated defense of affective criticism, “I Laughed, I Cried, Then Criticized: “If one emotes in the forest, and no one hears it…[sobs]…Excuse me, the mere thought of a lone emoter emoting on his own brought tears to my eyes. How silly of me. [giggles]”
He never chortled but guffawed, never teared up but wept, for such beings as he were made for more intense feelings, and there were so many feelings. (It must be noted that some cynics doubted his overzealousness, claiming that he never left home without an onion in one pocket and a nitrous oxide canister in the other.)
Aristophocles does not do well at poetry readings; unsure whether to laugh or cry, he merely ejaculates strangled whimpers from time to time. He likes his genres well-defined. Family and friends, seeing him swing so violently between giddiness and agony, had him institutionalized when he attempted to review a tragicomedy. Fortunately, he was released shortly thereafter, greeting his fans with tears of joy.
His performative antics have rubbed more than one colleague the wrong way, Sydney Duff among them. In one encounter, Aristophanes and Duff squared off in a hotel lobby at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Duff, so the story goes, had been in the lobby for hours with a copy of The Wallcreeper, but was having trouble finishing the last chapter because Aristophocles, reading the same novel, had taken the seat across from him.
“I read the novel in one sitting, despite the tittering simpleton impeding my best efforts,” read Duff’s subsequent piece.
As for Aristophocles’s competing review: “I laughed so much reading this rollicking debut that Sydney Duff almost got off his ass for once in his career.”
Quentin Dent, Proud Blockhead:
To have one’s book reviewed by Quentin Dent is, as any author will attest, a gratis psychotherapy session, an X-ray of one’s creative soul. Other critics might describe, explain, and contextualize the work, tease out patterns of imagery, grapple with its philosophical claims, or delve into the author’s biography. Worthy endeavors all, but how much cleaner (naysayers would say lazier) was Dent’s method: let the text speak for itself.
Having taken his mentor Cleanth Brooks’s coinage “the heresy of paraphrase” rather literally, he steadfastly refused to paraphrase, or analyze, or do much of anything really. Dent’s reviews even dispensed with the author name and book title. He filled his column instead with three well-chosen block quotations, which were typically introduced with “To wit,” “Consider,” or, “Regard.” At the end of each passage would follow a closing statement, perhaps “Indeed,” “Hmm,” or, were he in a gushing mood, “Quod erat demonstrandum.”
A sample essay, on Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park:
Maria’s notion on the subject were more confused and indistinct. She did not want to see or understand
“How kind! How very kind! Oh! Mr. Crawford, we are infinitely obliged to you. Dearest, dearest William!” she jumped up and moved in haste towards the door, crying out, “I will go to my uncle…”
Und so weiter.
“It was a silver knife.”
A cult of fervent believers, the Blockheads, extolled Dent’s mystical abilities to see into the heart of things. They would pore over Dent’s passage selections like ancient priests sifting through entrails. Why these three? Were they merely chosen to hit the requisite word count — or could some deeper insight be divined? If one could only uncover the secret, so the ephebes thought, one could eventually learn to sustain the fevered pitch throughout the whole book.
Anti-Blockheads wryly pointed out it that his selection of key passages was less insightful than haphazard — a case bolstered by the high percentage of selections from page 22 of the books in question.
For longer pieces on multiple works or multiple works by the same author, Dent would simply lay out more quotes, the theory being that to butt in with an attempt at synthesis would merely interrupt a mellifluous conversation in progress. A much-anticipated comparative study of the novel has been delayed for years because of fair-use problems.
Valerie Plume: Critical Agency
Quentin Dent’s longtime wife, Valerie Plume, has led the most novelistic life of any of the aforementioned superstar-critics. As a spy rising through the ranks of the CIA during the Cold War, she drew on her English major background to funnel money to literary magazines through the Congress for Cultural Freedom. She was in line to make station chief somewhere, but was burned after the Paris Review accepted a poem of hers and ran the following bio: “A cultural attaché living in Paris, Plume is the author of thousands of classified memoranda.”
Plume was livid but ultimately relieved, since having her cover blown allowed her to pursue her true passion: poetry criticism. The Paris Review, sheepish after the faux-pas, was all too happy to launch her career with a column. At the outset, she relied on her close reading skills to confront the often thorny works under review. But Plume was incapable of remaining content with half knowledge, as Keats put it, and she soon decided to dust off her old spy-craft toolkit for her new mission.
And why not? Espionage and criticism are both, broadly speaking, intelligence work, and in intelligence work of any kind, one cultivates assets and secures information. An offhand remark, discarded draft, pilfered dream journal, or juicy bit of gossip could unlock a hidden symbolic world. Therefore she had the Yaddo retreat bugged; placed one mole on the Iowa Writers’ Workshop faculty and another as an assistant librarian working under Philip Larkin; had an intern root through Anne Carson’s dumpster; and tailed Czesław Miłosz through the streets of Berkeley, though the wily Lithuanian, no stranger to such solicitude, quickly dropped her.
Such methods were bound to catch up with Plume. She was excoriated by PEN America after she scooped John Ashbery off the street, shot him up with truth serum, then grilled him about the meaning of his work in an abandoned squash court. Despite the outrage, she justified her tactics as necessary when interrogating refractory postmodernists. In Plume’s defense, however, it must be said that even during the excesses of the Bush administration, she was firmly opposed to waterboarding poets.
Plume’s career came to an ignominious end after it was revealed that she had returned to spywork, this time for the enemy. It was alleged that she was using her husband’s book reviews to pass coded messages to the Russians. Authorities couldn’t get anything out of the steely Plume, but Quentin Dent buckled almost immediately, admitting that his wife had chosen his block quotation passages for years.
Hume, Duff, Aristophocles, and Dent visit Plume in prison every week to discuss literature and debate whether “greater Want of Skill / Appear in Writing or in Judging ill.” The lively gatherings, whose attendees are known in publishing circles as “The League of Extraordinary Critics,” only rarely necessitate intervention from the jailhouse guards.
Illustrations courtesy of Zane Shetler, who lives and works in Durham, N.C. He specializes in drawing fictional book critics in their bathrobes.
Anyone who has followed Jay McInerney’s long career has watched his gradual shift from a would-be F. Scott Fitzgerald to a kind of modern male Edith Wharton at home in the very circles of wealth and prestige his younger self so desperately yearned to break into. In the best of his early books, including his 1984 debut Bright Lights, Big City and Brightness Falls, published eight years later, McInerney’s characters were brash upstarts from the provinces intent on storming New York’s citadels of power that, in their minds, glowed at the heart of the metropolis like the green light at the end of Daisy Buchanan’s dock. These incursions inevitably failed, but the heady cocktail of youthful idealism and drug-fueled self-loathing that propelled their execution lent those early books an edgy, antic charm that sent copies flying off bookstore shelves.
But that was all a very long time ago when McInerney was himself a brash upstart from the provinces. Since then, he has published several bestselling novels, been the subject of countless magazine profiles and gossip columns, and married four women, most recently Anne Hearst, sister of Patty, and heir to the Hearst publishing fortune. In his more recent novels, among them Bright, Precious Days, which comes out this week, McInerney’s characters, while born elsewhere, are long-time New Yorkers who attend lavish society dinners and rub shoulders with crude-minded finance types Edith Wharton would recognize at first sight.
McInerney is clearly wise to this shift. Bright, Precious Days, the third volume in a trilogy that began with Brightness Falls, brims with Wharton references, and it isn’t hard to imagine McInerney seeing Russell Calloway, one half of the couple at the center of the trilogy, as a 21st century Newland Archer, the bibliophilic gentleman lawyer of Wharton’s 1920 masterwork The Age of Innocence, who, as Russell might put it, values “the Art and Love team” over “the Money and Power team.” It’s a bit more of stretch, but it’s even possible to picture Russell’s wife Corrine as one of Wharton’s smart, headstrong heroines reimagined for a modern age when a Lily Bart or Ellen Olenska could be a happily emancipated woman married to the same man for 25 years.
Unfortunately for his readers, the Wharton mantle is an uncomfortable fit for McInerney. Wharton was a native not only of New York, but of the uppermost echelons of its high society. Born Edith Jones, into the family for which the phrase “keeping up the Joneses” was coined, Wharton never suffered under the Fitzgeraldian illusion that the rich are different from the rest of humanity. When she describes Newland Archer in the opening pages of The Age of Innocence as “at heart a dilettante, [for whom] thinking over a pleasure to come often gave him a subtler satisfaction than its realization,” she is describing a rich man’s affliction, but also a distinctly human, painful one. Newland is a man bursting with love who, by some quirk of personality and upbringing, cannot show it openly to another living being.
McInerney, on the other hand, despite his decades as a successful New Yorker and his marriage to an actual heiress, retains an outsider’s reflexive fascination with, and envy of, the city’s plutocratic set. Status envy fuels nearly every sentence of Bright, Precious Days, from its breathless recitations of high-end restaurant meals to the Calloways’ constant carping about the inadequacies of their 1,800-square-foot TriBeCa loft, with its single bathroom and uneven wooden floors.
The Calloways, you see, rent but cannot afford to buy their TriBeCa loft or their Hamptons summer home, and when they indulge their pleasures, whether it be bonefishing in the Bahamas or guzzling first-growth Bordeaux at a Manhattan eatery, they can only do so at the invitation of their wealthier friends. That they are successful in their professions, Russell running his own publishing house, Corrine the CEO of a charitable nonprofit, and that their children, though occasionally sarcastic and whiny, seem reasonably happy and loving – all this means nothing. Well into middle age, Russell and Corrine remain at heart perpetual children with their noses pressed against the window pane, wondering what the rich kids are doing.
“How was it,” Russell asks himself late in the novel, “that after working so hard and by many measures succeeding and even excelling in his chosen field, he couldn’t afford to save this house that meant so much to his family? Their neighbors seemed to manage, thousands of people no smarter than he was — less so, most of them — except in their understanding of the mechanics of acquisition.”
That sound you hear in the background is the world’s smallest violin playing “New York, New York.” But the Calloways are deaf to the tune, and so Russell, displaying his lack of understanding of the mechanics of acquisition, overpays for a memoir of dubious provenance, and Corrine, wishing to escape the horrors of upper-middle-class poverty in TriBeCa, rekindles an old fling with a globe-trotting private equity baron with whom she has nothing in common beyond the fact that they are married to other people.
There is plenty more to Bright, Precious Days, some of it interesting, great masses of it flabby and cuttable, but this is as close as the novel comes to a true narrative engine: As they enter their 50s, Russell and Corrine pretty much have it all – great jobs, lustworthy real estate, loving kids, lifelong friends – yet still feel cheated by life. Why can’t they own their TriBeCa loft? Why can’t they blow thousands of dollars on a bottle of wine at lunch? Why can’t they take their friends bonefishing in the Bahamas? Why, oh why, is the world so unfair?
The Calloways seemingly had it all in Brightness Falls, too, but in that book, the pair’s thirst for still more made them compelling, even admirable, Corrine restlessly seeking meaning in life, Russell, wildly ambitious and impetuous to a fault, engineering a leveraged buyout of the publishing house where he worked as an editor. That he failed in spectacular fashion was less salient than the fact that he had the nerve to try, that at the height of the go-go 1980s, when Brightness Falls is set, he could imagine turning the machinery of commerce against itself to further the aims of art.
By the mid-2000s, when Bright, Precious Days is set, that Russell Calloway is gone, his place taken by a cossetted, self-involved gourmand who revels in knowing which strings to pull to get reservations at the latest trendy restaurant and walks an extra three blocks on his way to work to buy his morning latte at the café that, in his view, makes “the best coffee in the city.” If anything, Corrine, always the more likable of the pair, has become an even greater cipher, risking a family and husband she loves for a pallid, cliché-ridden affair with a semi-retired financial titan possessing all the outward personality of a bonefish.
Two years ago on this site I made the case for Bright Lights, Big City “as one of the great undiscovered gems of post-World War II American literature.” I stand wholeheartedly behind that judgment, and I would put Brightness Falls, along with Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, on any list of indispensable novels about the 1980s. Whatever else you could say about the young Jay McInerney, he was a damn good novelist. But it seems long past time to admit that, like his fictional avatar Russell Calloway, that early Jay McInerney is long gone, his place taken by an aging society wit, whose work, while never less than polished and professional, has lost its precious brightness.
Since Bill Cunningham’s death last week, I’ve been thinking that he was New York City’s Marcel Proust. He captured the people of this city, and the special, sometimes hard-to-see beauty of its streets, just as Proust immortalized certain stylish Parisian women, and the particular seasons and moods of Paris’s parks and sidewalks.
I’m not the first to make this comparison: the fashion writer Cathy Horn made a connection between the two artists in a lovely remembrance for The Cut. She notes that Proust’s eye was different from Cunningham’s, because he was constructing a fictional world, whereas Cunningham was a journalist who recorded the world. Yet Cunningham and Proust have a similar sensibility when it comes to clothing. Both have a love for eccentrics, and for elegance. They go wild when the two converge. One of my favorite passages in all of In Search of Lost Time has to be when Marcel sees Robert de Saint-Loup for the first time. Saint-Loup, who will soon become his good friend, is wearing a beautiful summer suit:
…along the central gangway leading from the beach to the road I saw approaching, tall, slim, bare-necked, his head held proudly erect, a young man with penetrating eyes whose skin was as fair and his hair as golden as if they had absorbed all the rays of the sun. Dressed in a suit of soft, whitish material such as I could never have believed that any man would have the audacity to wear, the thinness of which suggested no less vividly than the coolness of the dining-room the heat and brightness of the glorious day outside, he was walking fast.
To me, that passage is like one of Bill Cunningham’s photographs in the way it magically captures a season, a moment in time, and a person, all at once. It’s easy to imagine Cunningham taking a photo of Robert de Saint-Loup in his white suit and then enthusing over it during one of his weekly “On The Street” videos. He might even use the word “audacity” to describe Saint-Loup’s style. More likely, he would simply say, “Isn’t it mahvelous?”
One of my favorite Sunday pastimes was to watch Cunningham’s videos, which were both a window to Manhattan and a fashion lesson. In a recent video from this spring, when the weather was still iffy, he extolled fluffy, white fake fox collars:
…you talk about a glamour frame for this face: that’s it! It always has been, and as a matter of fact, in the 1920s, they had what they called “summer fox” — same fox people wore in the winter, but they put a name on it. And people carried it or wore it. It’s hilarious how fashion captures people’s moods…
With that little snippet, you can get a sense of what made Cunningham’s eye special, and Proustian. He had a sense of history, and a sense of humor. Like Proust, he understood how clothing was a reflection of the wearer’s mood, and the season. Other New York novelists have tried to capture specific fashion moments and trends, but too many of them focus solely on status, the way that clothing can express a character’s aspirations and anxieties. Take someone like Tom Wolfe, whose The Bonfire of the Vanities is full of 1980s fashion. Wolfe, in his trademark white suit, obviously cares about clothes and is very good on the subject, especially the perfectly coifed appearance of the “social X-rays” — a wonderfully memorable phrase. And yet Wolfe did not catch the humanity of his female socialites the way that Cunningham, who photographed them, often did.
Cunningham understood that clothing is about more than just personal identity. Fashion is a mirror of the culture, with links to the past and arrows pointing to the unknown future. On its most basic level, fashion is related to the weather, to variations in the color of the sky and the quality of the light. It’s almost too obvious to say, but what people wear has to do with how warm or cold it is outside, how wet or dry the streets are, and for how long people have been stuck in a season, how hungry they are for change. It has to do with collective desires, not always conscious, brought on by the physical environment, as well as emotional factors having to do with the news or the holidays or even something as frivolous as the sudden appearance of daffodils in public parks.
Cunningham had a sort of naturalist’s sense for fashion; he was interested in learning how people adapted clothing to fit their environments. Just as you can see in the evolution of the peppered moth, that textbook example of adaptation, how the color of the moth changed after the Industrial Revolution, Cunningham’s photos showed how women’s fashion changed to accommodate their changing daily lives. For instance, the fact that women began to commute meant that women needed more durable and practical outerwear. Cunningham was very interested in commuters. He paid a lot of attention to coats, utilitarian objects that can be quite beautiful and striking if worn with style. One of his famous early photos was of Greta Garbo, though he didn’t realize he was photographing Garbo. He just noticed a woman in a coat with a beautiful shoulder and he photographed that coat, that stunning shoulder.
More recently, in another one of his weekly videos, Cunningham observed that pale pink coats were making an appearance, noting that a pale pink coat is luxury item that is very difficult to clean. I love him for remarking on this, because he wasn’t saying it to be a killjoy. Instead his comment was to emphasize that women must really want to wear pink, they must need pink in some way, if they are willing to go to the trouble of wearing it. In another recent video about a trend in black and white clothing, he noticed the way that white clothing was giving way to silver, a subtle metamorphosis that seemed to point to an increasing focus on technology.
Cunningham was wonderful on color, in general. Through his photos I learned to see the way certain colors rippled through the city. Meryl Streep taught Anne Hathaway the same lesson in The Devil Wears Prada, with her lecture on “cerulean,” but her speech emphasized the power of the media and the marketplace. Cunningham understood the power of designers, manufacturers, and materials, but he wasn’t as interested in their influence. His great insight as a photographer was that fashion evolves on the streets, because that’s where the people are. It’s such a simple observation, but it became powerful, and then, profound, in the way that he executed it, day after day.
Even before Cunningham’s death, I found myself thinking of him while reading In Search of Lost Time. There’s a moment toward the end of Volume I in which Marcel describes pigeons as group of birds “whose beautiful, iridescent bodies have the shape of a heart and are like the lilacs of the bird kingdom.” I read that and thought, only Proust would see the beauty hidden in something as common — and potentially annoying — as a flock of pigeons. But then I thought: Bill Cunningham probably feels this way about pigeons, too. He could see the sublime in the most everyday aspects of city life. He often said he was looking for beauty, and he believed that it could be found anywhere. Like the great novelists, he taught us how to see other people, and the world.
Image Credit: Flickr/Bicycle Habitat.
Welcome to The Book Report presented by The Millions! In this episode, Janet and Mike celebrate the coming of summer by talking about how much they hate reading on the beach, and books they refuse to feel guilty about loving.
Discussed in this episode: beaches, Misery by Stephen King, why being a writer is horrible, broken legs, Kathy Bates, the Scott Pilgrim series by Bryan Lee O’Malley, Class by Paul Fussell, The Passage by Justin Cronin, the coming vampire apocalypse, The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe, the idiocy of high school Mike, Cocaine Blues by Kerry Greenwood, nihilist flappers.
Not discussed in this episode: Beaches (dir. Garry Marshall), the coming zombie apocalypse, the coming mummy apocalypse, the coming Frankenstein apocalypse, the coming Tom Wolfe apocalypse.
In 1943, Dwight MacDonald, one of the co-founders of the literary journal Partisan Review, lost an internal power struggle over its editorial direction and left to found a new magazine, Politics, that better suited his vision. The reasons for MacDonald’s split with the other PR founders, Phillip Rahv and William Phillips, are complex and have been examined at length elsewhere, but in principle they involved both a difference of opinion regarding the participation of the United States in the war against Germany and Japan (which MacDonald opposed) and the question of whether Partisan Review would be principally a journal of leftist politics (as MacDonald wished) or one equally committed to independent-minded literary and cultural criticism. After MacDonald’s departure, Partisan Review did not abandon politics, but it remained known as a journal open to distinguished work even from those who differed from the editors ideologically. Before finally closing in 2003, PR would go on to publish criticism — by fellow travelers (Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin) and ideological enemies (Saul Bellow, Robert Penn Warren) alike — that set a standard that other journals of opinion still strive to match.
Ancient squabbles at a now-defunct literary magazine, involving a good deal of now dated Marxist cant, are not inherently very interesting. But the Partisan Review, both in its high editorial standards and in its struggles to resolve inherent tensions between the domains of politics and art, continues to be a point of reference in our literary culture. The founders of n + 1 have cited PR as an example, even as they have produced a journal with a hipper, more contemporary voice; several of the core PR critics, including Lionel Trilling, remain culture heroes; and New York Times critic A.O. Scott maintains what amounts almost to an obsession with PR, citing its writers in his work, contributing an admiring introduction to a collection of essays by another PR stalwart, Mary McCarthy, and undertaking a book project surveying the American novel since World War II that seems consciously to invoke Kazin’s landmark study of the preceding period, On Native Grounds. It is Scott’s fascination with PR and its fusion of ideology and culture that I wish to discuss here, along with the broader question of how the contemporary American novel ought to engage with politics.
Here is Scott in a recent Times essay:
Ever since the financial crisis of 2008, I’ve been waiting for The Grapes of Wrath. Or maybe A Raisin in the Sun, or Death of a Salesman, a Zola novel or a Woody Guthrie ballad — something that would sum up the injustices and worries of the times, and put a human face on the impersonal movements of history. The originals are still around, available for revival and rediscovery and part of a robust artistic record of hard times past. But we are in the midst of hard times now, and it feels as if art is failing us…Much as I respect the efforts of economists and social scientists to explain the world and the intermittent efforts of politicians to change it, I trust artists and writers more. Not necessarily to be righteous or infallible, or even consistent or coherent; not to instruct or advocate, but rather, through the integrity and discipline they bring to making something new, to tell the truth.
This is a stirring statement of purpose for the arts, but one that should be parsed carefully. In this and a series of previous essays published over the last several years, Scott makes two related claims: (1) that our culture no longer makes a strong demand upon us morally or intellectually, but instead treats us simply as consumers whose expectations must be met; and (2) that a false dichotomy has arisen between our political and cultural lives, such that artists have abdicated their responsibility to examine the ideological structures that we are governed by and have instead been content to describe the compensatory mechanisms we have evolved to survive within them. What Scott wants is a more serious, more politically engaged culture, one more alive with disagreement and dissent.
Some of what Scott says, particularly on the subject of politics and the American novel, seems to me a little “pushed,” in the sense that he risks asking the wrong things of writers, or perhaps weights engagement on his terms too heavily, and imputes a didactic purpose to the novel as a genre that it cannot support. My purpose here is not to quarrel with Scott, however, but to explore some of the tensions that inhere in the novel of politics, and relatedly, to assess the extent to which the critical attitude that Scott has embraced remains salient in an era of very different cultural values. The sense of crisis to which Scott has addressed himself is no doubt real. Suddenly, everything seems to be up for grabs again in our political life. It is natural to hope, even if that hope is somewhat against the weight of experience, that artists can light the path ahead.
The Partisan Review sensibility was in part a product of historical and biographical forces, to wit, the world of Ashkenazi Jews who immigrated to New York in massive numbers over several decades beginning in the 1880s. Irving Howe, Phillip Rahv, Alfred Kazin, and Leslie Fiedler all belonged to this world; Howe memorialized it in World of Our Fathers: The Journey of the East European Jews to America and the Life They Found and Made:
For about thirty or forty years, a mere moment in history, the immigrant Jews were able to sustain a coherent and self-sufficient culture. It was different from the one they had left behind, despite major links of continuity, and it struggled fiercely to keep itself different from the one they found in America, despite the pressures for assimilation. Between what they had brought and half preserved from the old world and what they were taking from the new, the immigrant Jews established a tense balance, an interval of equilibrium.
Scott is an inheritor off this culture through his mother, the historian Joan Wallach Scott, who grew up in a Brooklyn Jewish family, moved away from home, got a Ph.D., married a Protestant, and had little Tony. Other forces have acted upon him, too, of course: one could just as easily say that he is a product of the academy (his father, Donald Scott, teaches at CUNY); of Harvard (Class of ’88); or of the newspapers where he has worked for 20 years. It might seem odd or even de trop to claim that there is a Jewish intellectual style and that Scott works within it, except that he makes little pretense otherwise; his work is studded with references to the PR critics (not all of them Jews, of course), men and women all now dead and to some extent forgotten — so much so, in fact, that what at first looks like interest begins gradually to seem more like obsession. While the PR critics are not Scott’s only touchstones, they seem to embody for him the highest possibilities of the critical form.
There are good reasons to think that the PR intellectual style is outdated. First, because of the collective experience of the Holocaust, the Cold War, and McCarthyism — the extraordinary cataclysm of the middle of the 20th century, in which ideology threatened not just to eclipse civilization but to extinguish it — the PR critics did not draw sharp distinctions between politics and culture. For them, all cultural products referred to and derived from a system of relations that they saw in Marxist, philosophically materialist terms. Today, by contrast, we tend to regard culture as a semi-autonomous sphere, independent and self-justifying. Second, the PR critics wished above all to be thought of as serious, and their conception of seriousness, which they linked to cultural traditions inherited from Europe, is likely to seem anachronistic to us today; American culture has lost its last vestiges of self-doubt and become, at least in commercial terms, a dominant brand. Few critics today, even very cosmopolitan ones, think of Honoré de Balzac, Stendhal, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe as salient points of reference when they talk about the form and potential of the novel. Third, the PR critics wrote in a mandarin style of intellectual assertion that hardly seems possible in an age in which critical authority is on the run in all spheres of intellectual life. We no longer assume that a Columbia professor like Trilling has the right to tell us how to read or what belongs in the canon.
On the other hand, there is a good deal that remains admirable and relevant in the PR style, despite its occasionally risible self-importance. An air of political crisis seems to have returned to American life, creating space for both reasoned dissent and all manner of charlatanism; there exists a new sense of possibility that is both exciting and terrifying. If that is so, then a somewhat artificial distinction between political and cultural life begins to look not just specious but irresponsible; we need our artists to remind us of who we are. And while the culture continues to become flatter, there is also a countercurrent of interest in what is authentic and best in the culture rather than what is given to us by media monopolists. The flattening of our culture should not be confused with its democratization, however determined Apple might be in its advertising campaigns to conflate the two. To dismantle or, at least, to interrogate structures of political and cultural power begins to look like pretty urgent work. At the end of this chain of propositions, Trilling, Fiedler, and especially Howe wait for us. Perhaps Scott chose his heroes better than one might have thought.
Scott’s admiration for the PR critics also rests on values more narrowly literary. There were several gifted stylists in the PR crowd: Howe, who delivered opinions of undisguised vehemence in long sentences gentle on the inward ear; Trilling, Jamesian, diffident, balancing his long, erudite essays on a single concept or turn of phrase; MacDonald, whose essay “Masscult and Midpoint” finds a perfect equipoise between an unrepentant cultural snobbery and a sighing regret that such thoughts must be expressed. It is this fusion of political and aesthetic values that seems to interest Scott, the dream of a critical mind both free and disciplined. Scott is first and last a writer, a man who wants to get himself fully expressed on the page. His prose style is not flashy, and it takes sustained exposure to his work to realize that he is a very good writer indeed, one who has resisted the slackness that can creep in when you have multiple pieces due week after week, the diminished expectations of daily journalism. While Scott colors between the lines, rarely reaching for heightened rhetoric or memorable coinage, his steadily intelligent prose constitutes a quieter kind of intellectual heroism. He is less interested in providing that he is right about a particular work than in defending his aesthetic values or, more fundamentally, the importance of establishing aesthetic values and judging works of art, even popular art, by those standards.
American literature has always been more wary of ideology than its European counterpart. Here we take our politics light, and with a good deal of artificial sweetener. Leslie Fiedler (another PR contributor) said that all American novelists were stunted, unable to accept their role in the culture at large, returning always to the intense, private, unmediated experiences of youth. Fiedler intended this as an indictment, at least in part, but the innocence of the American writer may not be entirely a bad thing. Europe in the 20th century suffered so grievously from excessive ideological passion, both in its politics and in its letters (Louis-Ferdinand Celine, Paul de Man, Günter Grass), as to constitute a potent negative example.
Today we are inclined to think that a novelist whose primary purpose is narrowly didactic is likely to produce work that is date-stamped; but there are counter-examples strong enough to give one pause: Charles Dickens often wrote with a political purpose; Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn attacked the Soviet state with The Gulag Archipelago; and then there is the irrefutable case of George Orwell. Of course, the American novelist may have had less need to confront the state than her counterparts in other places and times, since the twin rhetorics of liberty and equality have always been part of our official discourse; an artist-provacateur like Ai Weiwei is a necessary figure in China — a sort of dramatist of state repression — but perhaps less so in the West. It may be the case, however, that the relation of the artist to the state has changed in America in the last decade with the gross expansion of the national security apparatus, which along with rapid technological change has shrunk the once generous zone of personal autonomy that we came to take for granted. If that is true, it may be time for certain creative work that cuts a little closer to the bone.
A criticism that attempts to take account of politics runs into an immediate paradox, which is that those novels that deal least directly with ideology tend to be the ones in which the strongest ideological assumptions are made; the preconditions of social life are so self-evident to their authors that they need not be stated. A Jane Austen novel is strongly concerned with domestic life and family relations, almost to the complete exclusion of ideological questions; and yet without the stable substructures of marriage and property on which it depends for both its plot and its social texture, it would falter on the first page. Unlike the plastic arts, the novel can never be wholly apolitical, given that even in its most experimental forms it seeks to refer to the world. Still, it would be a crude critic indeed who opted to “take on” the assumptions of these novels; he would almost be making a category error. Austen is a writer for all time; that she required a certain stability of society and manners has not proved disqualifying. Indeed, Henry James thought of this stability as virtually a precondition of the novel, or at least of his own. The novelist must sometimes have the freedom merely to take the world as he finds it.
The idea of the political novel is also somewhat in tension with the generative process that leads to the impulse to write. The political imagination seeks to solve problems, even to extinguish them. The violent political imagination seeks to extinguish false consciousness, which can only end in the extinguishing of human beings. The literary imagination is content to present problems, of whatever sort, taking the world as it finds it; in that sense it is conservative, even as it attempts the radical gesture of creation ex nihilo. The novel classically begins in the writer’s mind with a character or a situation, not with a political structure, a legislative event, a party congress. “An idealistic young doctor and poet seeks stability, meaning, and honor as his country descends into violence” is at least potentially Doctor Zhivago; “a series of events in imperial Russia leads to the demise of the Romanov dynasty and the creation of the Soviet Union” is something else entirely. Of course, a novel that begins with character may effloresce to become the story of a revolution, as with Zhivago. But what distinguishes the novel from the forms with which it has vied for space (biographies, narrative histories, religious texts) is its concern with private experience and, beginning with the modernists, interiority. The inner life observed is the lodestar of the modern novel: Mrs. Dalloway in her kitchen. The political novel, by contrast, seeks to link the individual’s destiny to the mass society that conditions him and against which he struggles for autonomy.
However much faith we are inclined to place in our artists, we should acknowledge that the crisis that Scott asks art to explain, or at least to narrate, was (among other things) an event in economic history, arising out of very deliberate and identifiable policy choices made over the course of several decades by intelligent but apparently rather blinkered individuals. Sustained engagement with that history actually is important to understanding what happened. A novelist may be able to “tell the truth” about the sense of dislocation and free-floating anxiety felt by a laid off mortgage banker; or about how a family’s life might unravel after the loss of their home; but she probably cannot explain the chain of causation that started with the invention of securitization and led to the jumbo mortgages that led to the building of that house that the family paid too much for, struggled to keep up, and eventually surrendered to the bank. John Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath, not Agricultural Practices in Northeast Oklahoma, 1926-1935, and while The Grapes of Wrath is an essential document in the record of our national experience, you would not want to consult it as a guide to farm policy. The novel as a genre gains strength and resilience from its engagement with the social sciences, but we should not confuse it with social science itself; the division of labor between the two exists for a reason and is essential to the vitality of both.
I do not think that Scott actually means to suggest that a novel is inherently a more trustworthy document than a Fed white paper or that the purposes of the two are coextensive. One assumes that a novelist may be as blinkered as the social scientist she meets in the faculty lounge. What we might legitimately ask a novel of the financial crisis to do is to speak to the moral imagination of the reader, to invigorate it, and to extend its reach to people and things that are not customarily the objects of her concern. That is part of its genre work. And is that not a enough?
Lionel Trilling both believed in the salience of literature to political thought and cautioned against asking the novel to do too much. Here he is in his most famous work, The Liberal Imagination (1950): “To the carrying out of the job of criticizing the liberal imagination, literature has a unique relevance, not merely because so much of modern literature has explicitly directed itself upon politics, but more importantly because literature is the human activity that takes the fullest and most precise account of variousness, possibility, complexity, and difficulty.” But in 1946, in an introduction to The Partisan Reader that was published shortly after the MacDonald schism and might be read as a commentary upon it, he had struck a more cautious note: “Unless we insist that politics is imagination and mind, we will learn that imagination and mind are politics, and of a kind we will not like.” Trilling, like Orwell, is a writer in whom ideologues of all stripes seem to find support for their views; most recently the neo-conservatives have sought to claim him as their own. But Trilling’s work seeks an autonomous space for literature and rejects a philistine criticism that would assess works primarily for their ideological correctness.
Scott himself clearly belongs to the political left, and the novel of politics he asks for is implicitly one that would vindicate his concerns. We generally think of the political novel as having a progressive or reformist purpose. It is well to remember, though, that two of the most influential political novels in the history of the West, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, were written from the right — and continue to animate conservative politics today. Another species of political novel, the anti-communist novel — Darkness at Noon, Animal Farm, The Gulag Archipelago — is not rightist in origin per se (Orwell, for example, described himself as a democratic socialist) but is strongly anti-utopian. Indeed, the novel as an art form is inherently anti-utopian, inasmuch as it seeks to point us to conflicts within the individual, and between the individual and society, that are inherently intractable. A political novel’s happy ending usually does not mean the end of war — which, be it literal or figurative, is with us always — but with the protagonist’s achieving a separate peace.
If I am right that, among other things, the political novel faces a problem of scale — national politics tends toward the totalizing vision, while narrative fiction wants to be intimate — then the solution may be for the writer to deal with a small bore problem that can nonetheless be “scaled up:” a part that will stand for the whole. Ideology, in both its grainier and more sweeping senses, is at the center of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, a somewhat archly ironic account of American political values in the aughts. Franzen engages politics directly, in that several of his characters are actively trying to shape policy, and more subtly, in dramatizing how ideological tropes seep into private life and affect the choices we make in our homes and neighborhoods. Freedom extends themes present in Franzen’s earlier novel, The Corrections, but it takes on conservative political values more directly and with markedly less sympathy for their representatives. As such, Freedom was dealt with critically as a political novel (at least in part), though less in terms of whether the reviewer shared Franzen’s politics than whether Franzen’s attempt to bring ideology to the center of a domestic novel was prima facie legitimate.
Sam Tanenhaus, the author of a biography of Whitaker Chambers and a narrative history of the conservative moment in the United States, hailed Freedom as “a masterpiece of American fiction;” B.R. Myers, the author of A Reader’s Manifesto and a professor of North Korean politics (and therefore a man who knows something about the dangers of ideology) called it “a monument to insignificance.” Myers seemed to feel that Franzen was writing a kind of socialist realism, with his characters acting as representatives of certain tendencies in national life rather than vital individuals; he also found their diction and their inner lives banal (perhaps he has lived outside the country for too long to recall what we are actually like). Tanenhaus and Myers are both strong critics, and their radically different responses to Freedom suggest an ongoing lack of critical consensus regarding how politics should be dealt with in narrative fiction. Some critics demand that the author’s politics be entirely soluble in the narrative, while others find a plainer statement of ideological assumptions bracing. This lack of consensus is not necessarily a matter for concern — chacun â son gout, after all — but it does leave the writer who has a sustained interest in ideology with a hard problem.
Freedom occasionally suffers from the impatience of its author with the very narrative techniques that Franzen employed to such extraordinary effect in The Corrections. While in the latter novel, Franzen’s use of free indirect style was masterful in bringing to life each of the members of the Lambert family, in his presentation of Freedom’s Berglunds, Franzen hovers rather too close by, over-managing our interpretations. Freedom sometimes descends into a hectoring tone, holding forth rather than narrating. Its author seems burdened by the responsibility of telling us things we already ought to know. But a novel is not meant to be a substitute for watching PBS Newshour; it is not a discourse on citizenship. This is not to say that Freedom is not an excellent novel — only to suggest that Franzen did not manage the problem of blending his aesthetic and didactic purposes perfectly. There is something in the reader that wants to resist Freedom even as he admires its art and recognizes the world it creates.
Amy Waldman’s The Submission deals not with the financial crisis that is Scott’s immediate concern but with other signal event of our recent politics, the 9/11 attacks. The Submission starts with a high concept: the jury judging the anonymous submissions for a Ground Zero memorial unwittingly chooses an American of Middle Eastern descent, a slick, arrogant, and thoroughly secularized product of the Yale School of Architecture named Mohammed Khan. The choice of Khan activates opposition, some of it ugly, from a coalition motivated variously by religious animus, opportunism, and survivor guilt. Others rally to Khan’s defense in the name of tolerance, civic order, and aesthetic values. The ensuing struggle over the meaning of 9/11 and what might constitute an appropriate response to such a spectacularly successful act of political violence is a portrait of New York in that raw and tumultuous period that registers the change in mood and understanding created by the attacks.
The Submission was published to enormous acclaim, and it is in many respects a worthy novel, but three years later it already feels dated. Waldman’s model was clearly Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, and The Submission answers Wolfe’s call for a less effete and more epistemic account of what actually goes on at the street level of our livid cities. While Waldman is a writer of patience and skill, the result still feels like a kind of super-journalism. The people in The Submission succeed as representatives of their social environment, but they never quite escape their representative status to succeed as individuals; as such, they are not literary characters at all, in the sense of seeming to possess autonomous selves. It is important to remember, as Wolfe has often failed to do, that while the techniques of fiction and newspaper reporting may seem similar, their purposes are very different and their truth-value depends on different claims. The Submission by its very conception carries a very heavy documentary burden, which necessarily inhibits the imaginative freedom of its author. Imagination is the faculty in which Scott places his final measure of trust, but imagination is often precisely what suffers when the novelist seeks to fulfill a didactic purpose.
Literature is naturally against the grain of ideology. Ideology seeks to impose a pattern on historical experience, sometimes by violence; the patterns of literature perform gentler acts of persuasion, and they emerge only gradually. To get to the place where the pattern coheres and the author’s meaning emerges (assuming that we are in the realm of novels that seek to perform in this way), the reader must pass through the slough of ambiguity. The pattern is the novel’s purpose, but the ambiguity is its basic condition. While the novelist may be God in the universe of his narrative, he accepts that his effect on the world is diffuse and indirect.
In asking that American novelists engage more fully with the political dimension of our national life, Scott is asking them to risk something of the freedom of thought and expression they enjoy, derived from their very unworldliness, that gives their work (for Scott) a unique truth-value. When the novelist becomes just another person who wants to sell us something, her moral status suffers, and so perhaps does her claim on our attention. So we should be careful about what we ask novelists (and poets, and filmmakers) to do.
Taken more broadly, however, Scott’s recent attempts to diagnose why our culture is so persistently, noxiously trivial, even as our claims regarding our special status in world affairs become more grandiose and deluded, seem both honorable and timely. This is not say that Scott is a cultural pessimist per se; indeed, he rightly regards a renewable capacity for enthusiasm as a necessary part of a critic’s equipment. He is not despairing, but he is disappointed. Like the PR critics, who as the children of immigrants were both in love with America and perpetually disappointed by it, he is inclined to think that we ought to do better. “Doing better” might start with demanding art that demands more of us.
Image Credit: Flickr/Jaime Martínez-Figueroa
1. San Francisco
Last October, under-employed and back in San Francisco after three years’ absence, I was early for a weekday appointment in the Mission District. I decided to spend an hour in Dolores Park, open up my copy of Tender is the Night, and try to have thoughts about it (read these thoughts–and more–in the most recent installment of the Modern Library Revue!). It’s a truism in San Francisco that summer starts in September and peaks in October, when Dolores Park traditionally writhes with tattooed flesh, and there is a pervading smell of pot and damp feet removed sockless from kicky little shoes, and the throng of people outside the caddy-corner Bi-Rite Creamery causes an encumbrance to the thoroughfare.
On this balmy Wednesday, I found a spot on the grass and opened my book to the white sands of Gausse’s beach, the romping ground of Fitzgerald’s idle rich. I had been having trouble with Tender is the Night. How should I think about Fitzgerald’s leisure class and their intrigues? I wasn’t really connecting with them, in the parlance of our times. I was distracted by Dolores Park’s famous vista: the palm trees, the dome of Second Church of Christ, Scientist, the churriqueresque facade of Mission High. The park was oddly crowded. I watched the male half of an attractive couple pull a bottle of wine from a basket and look out at the serene Bay while he poured. Their Boston Terrier lolled; an elegant blonde reclined on a blanket. I removed my aged cardigan and broiled in the October sun. What a classy, languid Wednesday everyone seemed to be having!
Then, there among the lotus eaters, I had a moment of clarity. I was on Gausse’s beach. It was high summer on The Riviera.
2. San Diego
The next month, November, I went with my husband to San Diego, where I fretted through the presidential election while he attended a conference. The conference was given by Tableau, a data visualization software used to sculpt and prune immense amounts of information into cheerful graphs and dashboards — a product that promises to let its user “tell stories with data on the web” and elsewhere. The conference was three days, which were for me days of aforementioned fretting and trips to a place called Taco Express (which, although it’s not pertinent to my story, is one of the best places, of any kind, that I have been).
On the last evening, I attended the Tableau customer party. My experience with conferences is limited to the California Antiquarian Book Fair, at which there is a be-curtained vendor area with candies and apples and plastic cups frosty from the water cooler. At Tableau, Malcolm Gladwell delivered the keynote speech. The customer party was held on the field of Petco Park, which is where the San Diego Padres play Major League Baseball. There were buffets and bars and a lighting scheme, and elevated platforms strewn about the turf. In keeping with the general “stadium” vibe, caterers ranged around with bucket-sized lemonades. Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings had been engaged; the dance floor was mere feet from the spangled edges of her dress. If one wanted to visualize them from some broader vantage, there was the Jumbotron. On the heels of my wedding, I was inclined to see things in terms of head counts and catering costs; long before the fireworks display, the mind had boggled.
While an astounding number and variety of organizations are anxious to plumb big data’s secrets, my husband and his colleague seemed like the lone civil servants in a phalanx of people from trendier sectors. I had watched Obama accept the presidency in the hotel lobby with two women from Facebook, who were using the software not to track users, but as an internal tool, I believe having to do with HR. Not only, it would seem, is Facebook visualizing my clicks on your wedding album; they are turning the glass inward. Our data, ourselves.
At the party, I clasped my lemonade bucket in two hands and gazed. In front of Sharon Jones were slender men and women in high quality outerwear that kept the chill away and yet revealed sculpted pecs; they danced and Instagrammed and exuded, to an outsider with nothing but the crudest anecdotal data from which to draw, a certain marathoner, waxed-ass aspect that seems to characterize the beautiful people of the tech sector. Are they the marketers? The money? Outside the dance floor stood less kempt bunches, many of them visually corresponding to the old-fashioned techie stereotypes: lurky men, not a lot of women.
I have since learned that baseball diamonds and Sharon Jones are small potatoes, as tech conferences go. At “Google/IO,” people fell from the sky, landed on the top of Moscone center in downtown San Francisco, biked to the edge, and rappelled down while wearing Google Glass[es]. Tech reporters and bloggers pepper their reports of “disruptive” technologies with the good shit, i.e., parties featuring jungle creatures and nude women and Snoop Dogg hired out by twenty-something millionaires. There on the field of Petco Stadium, though, I was stunned by the spectacle. I wondered if everyone present felt totally normal, as if they belonged at a party in a major sporting venue in a major American city, listening to a pretty major band, all of which had been laid out to express the gratitude of one corporate entity for their collective skill and patronage. I wondered whether any carpet will be left furled, any expense spared, to amaze and delight this new class of data wranglers.
Then I wondered, “Is anybody writing this down?”
3. San Francisco
Back in San Francisco, it is impossible not to feel that the Tableau customer appreciation party is linked in some fundamental way to the extreme late fanciness of Dolores Park, the velvet rope outside of the Bi-Rite Market, or other developments in the vicinity. One stretch of Valencia Street is now a kind of Pinterest stripmall, where a line of shops with suspiciously complementary old-timey signs display our new symbols of opulence in deranged little installations: an ancient push-pedal sewing machine, a distressed birdcage, a shoe. Down the street you can buy a refurbished Danish lamp like something from the Nautilus, retailing at fifteen hundred dollars. I recognize the pretty people from the Tableau party spilling out the doors onto the sidewalks before a legion of pricey yet aggressively casual restaurants, where there are no reservations and infinite waits and the waiters have tattooed knuckles, brilliantined side-parts, and an encyclopedic knowledge of pasta kinds.
People who lived in San Francisco during the tech boom of the 1990s have already stopped reading, so tired are they of the perennial griping about rent, the lament of the great exodus of minorities and artists and assorted non-artistic poor. Even the costly preciousness of Valencia Street is in its second release. I’m sure, too, that people who live in Brooklyn, or Austin — or any other place where food trucks and mid-century furniture are ascendant — probably feel there is nothing new under the San Francisco sun. But there have to be things peculiar to every boom — some special intersection of place and catalyst. There was coal dust on the dickies of the Pittsburgh industrialists.
Booms have their characteristics. San Francisco has its own kind of miner. One night not long ago I met two; one man works for a company that has an algorithm that knows, for example, when your industry-specific LinkedIn contacts have a life change, and sends an alert so that you can sell them things accordingly. Another man made a searchable database of accomplished programmers; it gathers up all the breadcrumbs they leave on the Internet so that you can then hire them away from their existing jobs, the better to implement your various algorithms.
Booms have their characteristics. I have a friend who is friends with a person who invented an Internet thing you’ve heard of. She spent her Labor Day weekend with this friend and several other people in a rented vacation house having something called a “Teach-up:” every attendee gave an hour-long presentation about a topic of their choice for their friends’ edification. It was a country house weekend with a side of data. My friend enjoyed the experience, but I don’t mind telling you (or her) that I found this practice to be insane, and also insanely interesting. Such an improving way to spend a holiday weekend! I was desperate to visualize the vibe in the house. How do people pull something like that off without being self-conscious, if they haven’t evolved to some new social state?
I began collecting these snippets almost without realizing. The more I hear, the weirder it all seems. A culture is forming, one born of big data and what Evgeny Morozov calls solutionism. But there are some old-fashioned boom hallmarks — extreme wealth, frantic enterprise — and traditional prestige moves, new takes on the salon. I have another friend who until very recently worked at Facebook. When I asked her about “culture” my eyes grew wide at her tales of love and treachery down on the “campus,” even wider when she mentioned the ballet lessons and chamber music group she and her colleagues get into in their free time.
Someone must be writing this down.
There is plenty to read. Every day about the molten San Francisco housing market, the $2,700-per-month one-bedrooms, the Google buses, the tax breaks for Twitter. Rebecca Solnit and David Talbot had what could have been the last words on the matter in the London Review of Books and San Francisco Magazine, respectively, but the hits keep coming. As Solnit points out, using the Gold Rush as her example, in a boom time you get boom towns. When Industry arrives; shit gets expensive. You hear yourself talking about rent prices every time you see your friends and you wish you could shut your mouth, because it’s such a hashed-over, boring old topic.
Truly, there’s an orgy of written evidence of the formation of culture. Talbot evoked the salon in reference to a socialite named Susan MacTavish Best, who
…became so exasperated with everyone being glued to computer screens and smart-phones that she turned her rented Pacific Heights Victorian into an old-fashioned salon, where her friends and acquaintances engage in face-to-face conversation. Best, 38, who runs a public relations firm for tech clients such as Craigslist and Klout, moonlights as something of an alternative Martha Stewart, hosting eclectic dinner parties, growing kilos of kale and other nutritious vegetables in her backyard, and producing a cookbook that combines her maternal kitchen wisdom with the organic consciousness she picked up while living on a hippie farm in Mendocino. The Chronicle has anointed her as “the hippest party hostess in the history of Silicon Valley’s pocket pen-protector set.”
At TechCrunch, I read a first-hand account of Square, the company that allows you to run a credit card on your iPhone: “As I’m learning more about how Square operates as a company, or family if you will, the team showed me a neat internal app that they use to communicate with one another and maintain a ‘closeness,’ even when people are out of the office.” A New York Times article on corporate tax breaks quoted a Tweet from a Twitter employee: “Tanned on Twitter’s new roof deck this morning as some dude served me smoothie shots. This is real life?” And one more: SFist recently reported on a new trend item, The Quantified Self Movement, an army of individual data visualizers who visualize themselves. (Against this, what’s one woman’s meager effort to keep a Google calendar of her period?)
There is plenty to read, but very little of it fiction. As my collection of anecdotes grew, I began to to wonder: where is The Bonfire of the Vanities for this new Gilded Age, this data mining, this excess, these Teach-Ups?
6. Where are the Novels?
I was in a newish bar in the financial district, which, when I last lived in San Francisco, you might have reasonably expected to be full of finance types in voluminous pleated slacks. Now, there are more hoodies. Waiting for my drink, I overheard two young men, mid-twenties, talking about the starting salary of a third-party acquaintance.
“110,” said one in neutral tones, and the other one looked askance: “What, you think that’s low or high?,” he asked. The friend seemed to parry. “Low,” he finally said.
They were good-natured about it when I fixed my several-sheets-to-the-wind lazy eye upon them and interrogated them about their lives. Yes, they were Tech People. They worked at Glass Door, the online aggregator of salary information. Who were the chroniclers of their ilk, I asked, trying not to sound like a loon and sounding like one. There was TechCrunch, they said, or Gizmodo. “What about novels?” I asked, and they drew a blank. I asked if they liked novels, and they did. One of them told me his favorite novel was The Life of Pi.
I just got an iPhone for the first time and I think it actually makes my life better. I use an app to visualize my finances. I am bitter about the Tech People because they live in the trendy neighborhoods and make them too expensive for me, even though I am grotesquely sanguine about the prospect of making my neighborhood too expensive for someone else. I sometimes wish that popular, unmissable restaurants that don’t take reservations will burn down in a searing fire, after I get a chance to eat at them. I find myself embodying a kind of bumbling, solutionist fascism at work, wondering why we can’t just streamline all our systems, but not knowing exactly what the new tools are or how to use them. I hate that a Jack Spade is going to move into the former space of beloved, priced-out Adobe Books, but I also want its owner to have not hired so many feckless youths, and not persisted in using a notebook to record purchases when the dapper wolf was so patently at the door.
In every place except my chaotic home, I feel entitled to efficiency. In fact, my quest to find the great tech novel — something sprawling and social and occurring inside the Teach-Up and outside the restaurant and around the home of the displaced shopowner and the H1B-visa programmer — is in itself a kind of solutionism. Novels are captured social data. You want a snapshot of nineteenth-century French provincial bourgeois life? There’s an app for that: it’s called Flaubert. And that’s before we consider the novel as an aggregator of human data of the biggest, most nebulous kind. You want a map of the human heart? Whose heart? What century? There’s an app for that too.
I’ve been to school and I know that if a novel says something is one way, it does not mean it is that way. The cemeteries are full, undoubtedly, of French apothecaries who died cursing Flaubert. Novels are often places for satisfying vendettas, mythologizing, and righting the wrongs of reality. But so are blogs. So, probably, is TechCrunch.
People will point out, quite sensibly, that “Tech” cannot fit in one novel. There are people who think of the technology, people who make it, people who sell it, people who finance it, people who sue the people who made it for patent infringement, people who hack it and make it better or different, people who use it the normal way, people who live in the city where the restaurants open to feed the people who make the technology. For my purposes, here in San Francisco, we are all Tech People now.
(Although, of course, tech cannot be said to live in one place; it is not exclusively the province of San Francisco, or even California. Aaron Swartz, the young man who developed the RSS feed and liberated academic journals and recently committed suicide, is an Ur-Tech figure, and lived in San Francisco only briefly. Estonia has some of the best technology infrastructure in the world. But in a great tech novel, I think California would come up.)
8. Bibliography II
I took to TechCrunch and Quora in search of this great tech novel. I asked the Tech People I came across whether there were books about what they did and where they lived. I looked on Amazon. There is an overwhelming number of books about Silicon Valley, overwhelmingly nonfiction. They have titles like The Silicon Boys: And Their Valley of Dreams; The PayPal Wars; and so forth. Many of them are about the 1990s tech boom, which does not feel directly relevant to the hotness of a restaurant called Flour + Water — which is listed, incidentally, with GoodReads in the portfolio of a seed venture fund — but is certainly not irrelevant in the scheme of things. There are also instructional texts: one of the startup men I spoke with told me that The Lean Startup is a current hot title among entrepreneurs.
There do not, however, seem to be many novels. Finally, through a Quora search and the recommendations of two Book People who are also kind of Tech People, in funny ways, I read three: Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, a young adult novel; Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, a young adult novel masquerading as an adult novel; and Andy Kessler’s Grumby, a young adult novel where the young adult is 35. Taken together, these novels sort of approached what I was looking for: Grumby (2010) — a light-hearted tale of ingenuity, entrepreneurship, and Furbies — is the most explicitly about the business end of software programming and the high adrenaline, strange ideas, and crazy money of Silicon Valley. Little Brother, written in 2007, is also about programming, but weighted heavily to human and civil rights to privacy in an age of big data. Mr. Penumbra, the newest novel, is a very cheerful bibliothriller, if that is a word, that imagines a world where the printing press lies down with the e-reader; the Google woman with the book-selling man (as long as he can program too).
Mr. Penumbra and Little Brother, although they take place in a present-that-is-not-quite-the-present, get geographically closer than Grumby to the heart of what I am looking for: they take place in San Francisco, and they are explicit about how changes in industry and technology shape society. If I squint at all these novels from the right angle, I can see evidence of the outsize effects of these changes in the industrial epicenter, i.e., the Bay Area. Sloan’s Googlers correspond to the overachieving Tech People I hear and wonder about, and both he and Doctorow root their novels in place to an extent that really drove home what a small town this is and how fast it is changing.
That said, the fact that Doctorow’s novel satisfied some of my parameters seems almost accidental: true Tech People — hackers and gamers and people who can build computers from thin air — are not constrained by any 49-square-mile plot of land or housing market. In the case of Little Brother, which sometimes reads like a San Francisco guidebook (one with some rapidly outdating cultural references), the city is less important to the narrative for its tech history than for its tradition of social protest.
These are three perfectly reasonable novels, all of which I enjoyed. Between them, they come up with a lot of good, strong, important themes: Kessler concludes that “technology, for all its benefits, [is] no substitute for people’s own judgments.” Sloan arrives at something similar, with individual smarts, friendship, and the printing press beating an army of Google code-breakers. Doctorow, injecting philosophy at every possible juncture, cautions us against selling our rights, our control over our own data, for the illusion of safety or efficiency. All of these are important, and all of them are communicated in competent writing.
In spite of their themes, however, these novels are strongly plot-driven; they don’t explore inner lives or relationships in any profound way. They have some good data, in terms of telling us what buildings in San Francisco look like, or the ways programmers think about problems and solutions. But really great novels need the human factor to be relevant, both to present-day readers who don’t share the author’s world, and to the readers of the future. People dismiss Tom Wolfe for not always knowing what he is talking about vis-à-vis college sex (or Miami), but Tom Wolfe knows how to transmit capitalist anxieties and weirdness from the top to the bottom.
It is worth noting, too, that the three novels are remarkably similar in voice. They are first-person accounts narrated by smart, affable males, a little goofy, but fundamentally loyal, moral beings, proud nerds all. If these guys weren’t too busy putting themselves in real or financial harm through their devotion to solving problems and meeting challenges, they would be great boyfriends. If it’s not Rule One of the MFA, it should be: Great boyfriends do not make great literature.
These are not meant to be social novels, and I don’t think any of the novelists were setting out to write Pulitzer prize winners, so I feel like a jerk for picking on them (especially Doctorow, who was writing for young adults). These novels had the misfortune of being my representative texts from an evidently rather small body of work about a particular milieu. But I was looking for a work of art for the ages, so I am compelled to report that these are not it. In the future, if the present is any basis from which to judge; pretty-good-not-spectacular novels are for the academics or the antiquarians (unless Google, or the Internet Archive, are planning to change all that).
Novels do not have to be worldbeaters to be worth writing and reading. But one can still hope, and wait, for that big work of literature.
A novel of this kind has been written, I just don’t know about it because it hasn’t been published or I didn’t look hard enough.
I am eager to read anything, including short fiction, that explores technology and society in industrial centers in a meaningful way. Please avail yourself of the comments section.
We are not at the proper remove from time for a novel of this kind to be written (or appreciated).
The literary theorists have even started mining big data. A recent New York Times article described the tools we have to treat books as huge deposits of data; novels can be scanned and parsed by machines instead of people. The machines are confirming what most novelists know already: enduring novelists are not always appreciated in their time, nor do they reflect the current trends. This has a couple of alternate implications. One: I am or will be too constrained by my temporal reality to know the great tech novel when I see it. Two: it will not come through traditional publishing channels, because publishers will suffer from the same constraints.
More obviously, great social literature (or social protest literature) of the kind I’m looking for — a Germinal, a Sister Carrie, a Bonfire of the Vanities — takes time and perspective to write, so it stands to reason that the novel I want won’t emerge fully-formed from the mind of the creator the minute her apartment becomes too expensive.
Furthermore, I suspect that the immediate present — particularly of a place that considers itself at the forefront of something — lends itself more to satire and near-futurecasting than measured reflection of the moment. Little Brother describes Homeland Security on steroids; Robin Sloan chortles over a Google program powered by hubris. New developments seem so ludicrous we can’t yet describe them without getting a little hysterical. Aldous Huxley and Evelyn Waugh did a lot of this kind of writing, specifically, Vile Bodies or Antic Hay — novels that are good data about their times and place, but are too facetious to feel like serious novels. I don’t know if I’m comfortable calling Robin Sloan the Huxley of the future, but I could buy Mr. Penumbra as fun footnote in a great career.
Another word about time, though: it’s been ten years since the last tech boom. That’s plenty of time to produce something important.
There is something about tech and literature that makes them inimical to one another.
Let no woman say that Tech People — and here I mean the real architects of technological progress–can’t express themselves. Reading Larissa MacFarquhar’s epistolary article about Aaron Swartz in The New Yorker, I was struck, and moved, by how open Swartz and his friends were in their public and private writing. Swartz wrote raw, intensely personal things on his blog; Reddit is full of people expressing themselves in ways that are often shocking. But a novel requires something a little different.
It is my understanding that most writers feel some sense of being outside of things looking in. A good social novel requires a particular balance of alienation and access to be successful. (Tom Wolfe had to get invited to all those dinner parties; the tech novelist has to get invited to the Teach-Up.) Tech, the way it happens in San Francisco at least, seems to present some real deterrents to the access part of the equation. Tech companies, even when they are in the city proper, seem like compounds evoking non-disclosure agreements and badges and loyalty. The buses that ferry the workers from their San Francisco neighborhoods to their Peninsula offices are unmarked. I think these are insular, fortified environments in which it would be hard to achieve the balance of outside and inside status. And when you work twelve hours a day, how would you find the time?
Then there are the career novelists and the people who read them. Allison K. Gibson described for The Millions the uneasy way that fiction-writers engage with technological realities in their work. Jonathan Franzen, whom I consider to be the star novelist most capable of writing an old-fashioned social novel, is famously technology averse, and writes on a computer stripped down to a fancy typewriter. And really, how can you write something huge when you are Instagramming? But how can you be in the culture when you aren’t? Technology is fast; novels are slow. We’re still talking about Jennifer Egan’s PowerPoint chapter, when offices don’t even want to use PowerPoint anymore.
The social novel — or the novel generally — is getting phased out of culture.
Perish the thought. Alexander Nazaryan asked whither the novel and made a depressing but brilliant analogy: “A big social novel is like a great old train station; a nice thought, but impractical in this day and age. Who will go there, anyway? A bus shelter will do.” I hope that’s not the case, but if it is, all I can do is thank the creator for allowing me to live during even the scraggly, flea-bitten tail-end of the age of the social novel.
Please prove me wrong on all accounts. Show me the great things I’ve missed. And if you’re writing fiction about today, taking notes on your iPhone, stealing time for art on the Facebook bus, keep at it. The people of today are waiting. The people of tomorrow are waiting.
Image via calmenda/Flickr
“We find ourselves in a swarm of fellow starstruck souls outside the Sheraton Hotel on Seventh Avenue in Manhattan, churning, squirming.” 25 years after the publication of Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe returns to the subject of Wall Street. You can also check out my review of his most recent novel, Back to Blood, over here.
Driving south into Miami-Dade County is less scenic than you might expect. Decades of Floridian sprawl have resulted in long, sun-bleached stretches of asphalt punctuated by industrial supply centers, physical therapy clinics, outlet malls, Waffle Houses, Pollo Tropicals, and strip clubs. The anticipated visuals – palm trees, beaches, flashy hotels, and the ocean – are blocked all along I-95 by tall concrete embankments that keep cars away from oak-less subdivisions called Highland Oaks, Rolling Oaks, or Woodlands. Long are the miles spent enduring such non-views; longer still in bumper-to-bumper traffic.
For this reason, I recommend flying into the city at night. As your plane descends from the West, you can peer out your window. What you’ll see at first is nothing: endless blackness in every direction, a sight so rare in some parts of this country that its effect at first is jarring. Am I over the ocean? You aren’t. This is the Everglades, the swamp so gnarly it dissuaded four centuries of settlers from staying put. It’s the defining geography of South Florida, the subtropical “River of Grass” stretched like a permanent, slow-moving membrane over half the state’s limestone shelf. [To see for yourself, click the “left” arrow a couple times on this map.]
After a few moments, the darkness abruptly gives way to a line of neon city lights, a literal demarcation of where wilderness was beaten back by the Army Corps of Engineers. Now your airplane is a few hundred feet above well-lit and densely populated ground – ground that a mile previous was nothing more than mud and mangrove. From no other vantage point can someone as quickly realize that Miami is a city that shouldn’t be here, an enclave carved out from Mother Nature and cut off from its surroundings. Truly, it’s the Magic City.
Culturally, Miami also exists as a world apart from the rest of its own state, the rest of its own nation. The further south one travels in Florida, the further north one feels politically. After all, it’s in the northern regions where you’ll find Quran-burning pastors, pro-abortion billboards, xenophobes, and megachurches. The north gave us Tim Tebow. By contrast, the southern regions are where international relations matter more than American elections, where most residents actually know the difference between “socialism” and “Communism,” where gay pride is evident, and where you probably won’t get that promotion if you can’t speak Spanish. Early in Tom Wolfe’s new novel Back to Blood, a bout of road rage lays bare this separatist feel. “SPEAK ENGLISH, YOU PATHETIC IDIOT! YOU’RE IN AMERICA NOW!” shouts an exasperated “anglo” who’s just been cut off on the road. “No, mía malhablada puta gorda,” replies her Cuban adversary. “We een Mee-ah-mee now! You een Mee-ah-mee now!”
Back to Blood is obsessed with cultural abrasion, with the way different classes and races vie for power in a city whose largest demographic is composed not so much of a single nationality as, instead, confederations of “non-Americans” pitted against an eroding white hegemony. Dionisio Cruz, the city’s fictive Cuban mayor, sums it up nicely:
“Miami is the only city in the world, as far as I can tell — in the world — whose population is more than fifty percent recent immigrants…recent immigrants, immigrants from over the past fifty years…and that’s a hell of a thing, when you think about it. […] I was talking to a woman about this the other day, a Haitian lady, and she says to me, ‘Dio, if you really want to understand Miami, you got to realize one thing first of all. In Miami, everybody hates everybody.’”
Dutifully, Wolfe does his best to display these conflicts. In the novel’s first chapter, we meet our hero, Nestor Camacho, a strapping Cuban cop working as a marine patrolman. On this day, he’s tasked with arresting a Cuban refugee who’s boarded a party yacht in Biscayne Bay. Real federal legislation dictates that Cuban refugees are granted admission and amnesty in the United States if and only if they reach dry land before being captured; if accosted at sea, they’re sent packing. (For Haitians, Nicaraguans, Dominicans, and other groups — all of which are deported no matter how long they’ve been here — this is, justifiably, a touchy source of resentment.)
Unfortunately for Nestor, the arrest becomes a citywide cause célèbre, and the next day he finds himself on the front page of both the English-language Miami Herald (favorably) and the Spanish-language Nuevo Herald (unfavorably). His family is none too pleased. For most Cubans residing in South Florida, there is only one thing more reprehensible than Fidel Castro’s regime: prohibiting escape from it. (Miami’s Cuban demographics have traditionally voted Republican ever since John F. Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs fiasco.) As a result, Nestor’s family and peers, sympathetic with the will to flee their native island, all but disown the young cop and brand him a traidor.
But that’s not all. In the subsequent seven hundred pages — for which, reportedly, Wolfe was paid about $10,000 per — readers get glimpses of many more racial imbroglios. Nestor himself hits another racial flashpoint when a de-contextualized YouTube video emerges of him choking out a black drug dealer. We get glimpses of the love/hate relationship between the Haitian and African-American communities; the way corruption and wealth buy access to the upper echelons of “legitimate” society; the way white social strivers manipulate one another to attain superficial status; and, finally, how Miami exists for the privileged as a Will Smith video and for the poor as anything but.
This is “a book on immigration,” Wolfe told The New York Times in 2008, but that’s not really true. This is a book on belonging, and each character seeks it in a different way. Nestor wants his family to accept the fact that he was merely taking orders on that boat. His ex-girlfriend, Magdalena Otero, a psychiatric nurse who’s dating her upper-crust “anglo” boss, wants to belong anywhere but her hometown of Hialeah. Her boss, Dr. Norman Lewis, wants desperately to belong atop Miami’s money-based status pyramid. John Smith, the whitest white dude ever conceived, wants his boat-shoe-wearing, Yale Eli self to be accepted in the Miami Herald newsroom, where his boss, Edward Topping IV, a fellow Eli, wants nothing more than to belong to the Miami in-crowd of socialites and rich men. The Haitian-born Lantier, a French literature professor at Florida International University — err, “Everglades Global University” — wants badly for his children to belong to any culture except for one that speaks Creole.
At 81 years old, Wolfe still practices the on-the-ground reporting he’s always prescribed. I was twenty-two months old when he published his Harper’s essay “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast (PDF),” an entreaty for American novelists to emphasize realism. In The Bonfire of the Vanities, when Wolfe was on top of his game, he incisively depicted a sliver of New York City’s 1980s decadence with the nostalgic accuracy of a Polaroid snapshot. However since then total immersion has proved more and more elusive and his recent novels have been marred by generational misunderstandings, clueless errors, political prejudices, and unfortunate, altogether creepy portrayals of women and youth. This descent is evidenced by his latest imitations of rap lyrics. I Am Charlotte Simmons subjected us to: “Short’s Johnson, he go roamin’ / Homey’s jeans a his is packin’ heat / Inside that cracker jack’s own home, an’ / Bottom lady wants ‘at sweet dark meat.”
Fortunately, Wolfe has done some more homework this time. While his rap lyrics haven’t improved (“Caliente! Caliente, baby. / Got plenty fuego in yo caja china / Means you needs a length a Hose put in it, / Ain’ no maybe —”), he has apparently grasped Miami more firmly than he could grasp the American university system. Real places and legitimate commentary are sprinkled throughout the novel like cocaine in a South Beach bathroom. One of Wolfe’s Cuban characters correctly describes Hialeah and its vicinity (Dade County’s most overwhelmingly Latin neighborhoods) as being similar to “Singapore or Taiwan or Hong Kong” in that it’s a sort of free enclave within another country. Other actual Miami institutions are depicted satirically and accurately, such as the trendy and porn-soaked Wynwood Art Walk, the decadent Art Basel festival, and the orgiastic Columbus Day Regatta. (Don’t Google image search that last one if you’re at work.) Wolfe nails the power structure that keeps Miami mired in inertia: the political reality that, just as too many cooks can spoil a broth, too many interest groups can stall a city.
As for his exhortation to emphasize the real over the imagined: Wolfe demonstrates his abilities here as well. In a refreshing bit of contemporary insight – and as a contrast to Jonathan Franzen’s improbably technophobic college students in Freedom – the young people in this novel send one another texts, tweets, and “Instagrams” on their iPhones. Real musicians like Pitbull, Shakira, Rihanna, and, hysterically, LMFAO are name-checked. Somebody said to be getting “white boy wasted” (!!!) has “Wild Ones” as their cell’s ring tone. At one point, a police boat is described as “the Ugly Betty of boatbuilding.”
However despite these superficial accuracies, the novel is ultimately tripped up by the banal. Compared to their vibrant setting, Wolfe’s characters and plot details are predictable and flat. We learn scarcely anything about Nestor’s motivations and interests, only that he likes to tinker with cell phone ringtones. Magdalena is an enigma: a college-educated psychiatric nurse who doesn’t know the difference between a “logotherapist” and a “pill therapist,” and who doesn’t understand the words “cutting-edge,” “invests,” “extortionist,” or “penthouse,” yet does somehow know the word “czar.” Some characters are introduced (like Edward Topping’s wife) only to be completely forgotten later on. Almost every male character is a hulking, powerful wall of muscle. Almost every female character is a vivacious Latina in tight clothes. One of them even refers to doing the deed as “giving [the guy] some papaya.” (Ugh.)
What’s worse, though, is that the city Wolfe depicts isn’t the full Miami. It’s instead limited by Wolfe’s own perspective: that of a wealthy, conservative anglo. It was T. D. Allman, author of Miami: City of the Future, who wrote that “practically everything everyone says about [Miami], both good and bad, is true.” But is it still true to depict a Miami with only one African-American character? Is it still true if you set only one scene in Overtown, a black neighborhood once known as “Colored Town” but renamed following the construction of the Dolphin Expressway literally “over” the entire area? (That scene, by the way, takes place in a crack house.) Is it still true if you set the novel during the tail end of hurricane season, but fail to mention any rainfall?
It shouldn’t have to be this way. In other American cities, like Burlington or Austin, residents implore one another to “Keep [City Name] Weird.” In South Florida, these calls would be superfluous. Perhaps it’s the lack of a state income tax, or perhaps it’s to be expected from a state founded by hustlers, degenerates, and outlaws, but this place is a veritable treasure chest of weird. Hell, they eat people’s faces here. They overdose on bugs. They alternately molest and cockblock manatees. Wolfe, who loves realism, should’ve been able to uncover these things and more. He should’ve been able to build his novel on the framework of real weird (real interesting) details instead of on things that could take place anywhere: art forgeries, love triangles, and social apprehension. He should’ve been able to give us the Miami you’d encounter if you actually lived here, not the Miami you’d encounter only if your research consisted of Scarface and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, which is surprising because his guides seem like they were totally capable and qualified. Instead, I suspect Wolfe was caught up in the same trap as the writers of Treme. He seems compelled to check off the boxes of Miami sightseeing without ever delving into what created those sights; he seems to favor the granular detail in place of the overarching narrative, the historical context.
Perhaps one reason for this superficiality is the author’s apparent distraction. Distracted by what? Let this series of rhapsodies – off-putting on their own, but doubly so when you think of the “on-the-ground” reporting that went into this book – answer that question:
Wolfe on women in shorts: “‘Attractive’ barely began to describe the way he felt! Such nice tender legs the two girls had! Such short little short shorts! So short, they could shed them just like that. In an instant they could lay bare their juicy little loins and perfect little cupcake bottoms!”
Wolfe on women in jeans: “Their jeans hugged their declivities fore and aft, entered every crevice, explored every hill and dale of their lower abdomens, climbed their montes veneris.”
Wolfe on women in bathing suits: “Wisps of thong bikini bottoms that didn’t even cover the mons pubis…Tops consisting of two triangles of cloth that hid the nipples but left the rest of the breasts bulging on either side and beckoning, Want more?”
Wolfe on a female stripper: “Her tail is thrust up like a bonobo’s or a chimpanzee’s toward John Smith, offering a full view of the perineum and its forbidden folds, crevices, cracks, clefts, cloven melons, alluring labia, gonophores — the entire fleshy arc.”
The novel’s only actual sex scene: “But then the tips of her breasts became erect on their own, and the flood in her loins washed morals, despair, and all other abstract assessments away in a cloud of some sort of divine cologne of his. Now his big generative jockey was inside her pelvic saddle, riding, riding, riding, and she was eagerly swallowing it swallowing it swallowing it with the saddle’s own lips and maw — all without a word.”
The phrases “lissome legs” and “lubricous loins” are repeated more times than I cared to count. Some of them even take place on my alma mater’s campus, and I shudder at the thought of Wolfe’s gaze stalking the UC Breezeway. I could go on, but you get the idea. It’s disappointing when these bits are so vivid and yet the Miami sun is described as a “big heat lamp in the sky” more than four times.
I dislike savage reviews, and I did not set out to write one about this book, which I genuinely looked forward to reading. I remember loving The Pump-House Gang when I read it in high school. To this day I can recall Wolfe’s description of the door to the Playboy Mansion, how its Latin inscription read, “Si Non Oscillas, Noli Tintinnare” (“if you don’t swing, don’t ring”). But now part of me wonders, were I to reread that book, would I enjoy it as much? Is Wolfe’s writing only appealing to young boys – or perhaps older boys with the minds of young boys? Is there really any shame in liking this style of writing, or is it just a matter of personal taste? I cannot say for certain, but I can say that those seeking a deeper understanding or an accurate depiction of the city of Miami would be better-served by books different from this one.
As a starting point, and because when it comes to Miami, truth is better than fiction, I would recommend John Rothchild’s Up For Grabs, a personal memoir as much as a rollicking trip through South Florida’s outrageous history. Rothchild recounts the way the state’s first American settlers evolved from a cavalcade of land and mineral speculators into mobsters, rumrunners, “pot haulers,” escaped Latin American political players and Cocaine Cowboys. This is the book I wanted to read when I started Wolfe’s novel.
I would also recommend, for a more flatly historical perspective, a double shot of Michael Grunwald’s The Swamp and Arva Moore Parks’s Miami: The Magic City. Both books cover the geological and human histories that make South Florida and Miami unique. Neither one dwells on its inhabitants’ “declivities.”
There are few iron facts in the crapshoot of the literary life, but here’s one: In book publishing — no less than in music, war, and sex — timing is everything. I have found five books that illustrate different facets of this fact. In the first, what initially appeared to be bad timing proved to be the opposite. In the second, the timing of publication was simply horrible. And the three others were graced with something no amount of publicity or hype can buy: great dumb luck.
Joe Posnanski, a decorated sportswriter, snagged a $750,000 advance in March of last year to write a biography of a living American sports legend with a reputation so flawless and immense that the man had already been cast as a seven-foot-tall, 900-pound bronze figure with his right index finger pointing toward heaven. A first printing of 75,000 copies of the biography was scheduled. Publication was set for Father’s Day, 2013. As Posnanski got busy, success — in the form of a monster bestseller — seemed assured.
His working title, suitably breathless for a subject already immortalized in bronze, was The Grand Experiment: The Life and Meaning of Joe Paterno.
But Posnanski’s dream began to unravel almost immediately. The same month he signed his contract, the Harrisburg Patriot-News reported that a grand jury had been hearing testimony about allegations, originally made in 2009, that Jerry Sandusky had molested a teenage boy while working as an assistant football coach for Paterno at Penn State University. Eight months later, Sandusky was arrested and charged with sexually assaulting eight boys over a 15-year period.
Then it came out that a graduate assistant had told Paterno, way back in 2001, that he had witnessed Sandusky raping a 10-year-old boy in a Penn State locker room — and Paterno had notified the university athletic director but not the police or any child protective agency. The university’s board of trustees promptly fired Paterno, who had been football coach for 45 years, winning a record 409 games.
Two months later Paterno died of lung cancer at the age of 85. At this delicate moment, already swamped by bad news, Posnanski probably did himself no favors by writing a column in Sports Illustrated that called for a balancing of his subject’s “full life” against “a single, hazy event involving an alleged child molester.”
On June 22, a jury convicted Sandusky of 45 counts of sexually abusing young boys. In a blistering report issued a month later, former-F.B.I. director Louis J. Freeh stated that Paterno not only failed to report the sex-abuse allegations to police, but that he and other university officials concealed Sandusky’s activities for more than a decade. Also, it was revealed that in 2011 Paterno had renegotiated his own contract, winning more money and perks — even as the scandal was becoming front-page news. Ten days later after the Freeh report was issued, in a Sadam Hussein moment, that 900-pound statue of Paterno was removed from its pedestal in front of Beaver Stadium.
This wasn’t a perfect storm of bad timing; it was a typhoon, a tsunami. Posnanski’s publisher, Simon & Schuster, reacted accordingly, pushing the publication date up to this summer, limiting author interviews, and scaling back the book tour.
Reading the book is an unsettling experience. Posnanski is a solid reporter and a nimble if not elegant writer. He enjoyed complete access to Paterno, his family, university staff and many others, and he paints a largely sympathetic portrait of a man who touched thousands of young lives in positive ways, but then drifted out of touch and over-stayed his welcome. Posnanski points out that Paterno was never fond of Sandusky, who retired in 1999 after it became clear he was not going to succeed Paterno as head coach. Sandusky, a teetotaling Christian, then devoted his time and energy to his Second Mile charity for young people, while enjoying the run of the Penn State football facilities. It was a dream setup for a pedophile.
In this 402-page book, the chapter entitled “Sandusky” runs just 14 pages, which opens Posnanski to at least the appearance that he’s soft-pedaling his story’s dark heart. Near the end of the book, Posnanski reveals an incident designed to portray his subject as almost touchingly out of tune with the times. When his family insists that he read the appalling indictment against Sandusky, Paterno reluctantly complies. Halfway through it, he turns to his son Scott and says, “What is sodomy, anyway?” But the episode backfires once you’re aware that Paterno may have been 85 years old at the time and hopelessly out of touch — but he was in touch enough to be aggressively negotiating for more money and perks.
During his final conversation with his biographer, the dying, defrocked legend confesses, “I wish I had done more.” As contrition goes, this strikes me as falling far short of Robert S. McNamara’s mea culpa — “We were wrong, terribly wrong” — in his 1995 memoir about his disastrous mishandling of the Vietnam War, In Retrospect. Then again, McNamara sent tens of thousands of young Americans to pointless deaths while Paterno merely looked the other way while an underling ruined the lives of a few dozen boys. Maybe size matters when it comes to assessing monstrous acts.
On the eve of Paterno’s publication, The New York Times reported that the book’s subject had gone, almost overnight, from “revered to radioactive.” But then a funny thing happened. On Sept. 9, shortly after its publication, Paterno debuted on The Times hardcover bestseller list at #1. The next week it slipped to #5. A week later, it was at #12. Not the monster bestseller Posnanski and his publisher had envisioned, perhaps, but far from shabby. It turns out that even the very worst publicity can be good publicity, and there will always be a market for radioactivity. On Oct. 9, Sansdusky was sentenced to 30 to 60 years, virtually ensuring that he will die in prison.
And Joe Posnanski has a #1 New York Times bestseller on his resume. All writers should suffer from such terrible timing.
Alex Shakar’s timing, on the other hand, was truly, deeply, immaculately dreadful. In the summer of 2000, when he was 32 years old, Shakar had the surreal experience of watching a small army of publishers trample each other for the privilege of paying him a small fortune for his first novel. The bidding frenzy finally peaked at “about a third of a million bucks,” Shakar reported in a rueful recounting of the episode in The Millions last year.
The following summer, as an elaborate marketing campaign was taking shape, Shakar found himself signing galleys of his forthcoming novel at Book Expo in Chicago, alongside such literary stars as Joyce Carol Oates, Clive Barker, and Ann Patchett. Details magazine did a photo shoot of Shakar tricked out in 1980s clothing. People magazine wanted to do a profile. The early reviews in the trade papers were “glowing.”
Shakar’s novel, called The Savage Girl, deals with the fallout of rampant consumerism, predicting that the current bubble can’t last and an era of “post-irony” is on the way. The protagonist has taken a job with a trend-spotting savant who sees the perfect consumer product: diet water. The story includes a bomb threat by a terrorist, and computer screen savers that show a city being destroyed by a nuclear attack. When the electricity in a high-rise building fails, a character asks, “What is it this time? Terrorists or the usual incompetence?” He then answers his own question: “Can’t rule out Armageddon.”
Late that summer Shakar’s editor, the renowned Robert Jones, lost a long battle with cancer. A memorial service was held on Sept. 10, eight days before the book’s publication. The day after the memorial service, Shakar heard a radio bulletin at his parents’ house in Brooklyn, and he and his father climbed the fire escape to the roof to watch the north tower of the World Trade Center burn. White pages — legal documents — had fluttered all the way across the East River to Brooklyn. Fearing chemical weapons, father and son went downstairs to watch the two towers collapse on television.
“There goes your novel,” Shakar’s father said.
The scheduled book tour went forward, though turnouts were modest or nonexistent. The publisher pulled the planned second round of national advertising. There were no national television appearances. Shakar noted that even the rave reviews read like obituaries. A reviewer for The New York Times called the novel “a sharply observant relic of the recent past.” With pundits everywhere proclaiming “the death of irony,” People magazine decided not to run its profile of Alex Shakar.
Among the authors who wrote enthusiastic blurbs for The Savage Girl was Jonathan Franzen, who had published his novel The Corrections just 17 days earlier, on Sept. 1, 2001. Franzen called Shakar’s book “an exceptionally smart and likable first novel that tries valiantly to ransom Beauty from its commercial captors.”
While Shakar’s misfortune was that events made his novel seem instantaneously dated in many eyes, Franzen’s good luck was that those same events made his novel look prescient to just about everyone. Life is not fair.
The Corrections opens with these lines: “The madness of an autumn prairie cold front coming through. You could feel it: something terrible was going to happen.” The novel is marinated in this sense of dread, which was about to become the dominant American mood. And while it makes no mention of bomb threats, terrorists, Armageddon or post-irony, the book traffics in topics that would become part of the national conversation in the coming decade, from global warming to viral marketing, psychopharmaceuticals, even the coming organic and artisanal food movement, with its Brooklyn epicenter.
Irony didn’t die on 9/11, but The Corrections marked a major shift not only for its author but for many writers working in America — a shift away from the irony-laced pyrotechnics of postmodernism, and toward the rich hardware of realism. This was no small thing, it didn’t happen overnight, and it wasn’t easy to do. As Franzen told BOMB magazine, “Simply to write a book that wasn’t dressed up in a swashbuckling, Pynchon-sized megaplot was enormously difficult.”
The Corrections ended up becoming a literary sensation, fuelled by a bit of counter-intuitive marketing that cemented Franzen’s status as a canary in America’s cultural coal mine. When Oprah Winfrey invited Franzen to appear on her book club show, he declined, citing her tendency to pick “schmaltzy, one-dimensional” books. People howled that Franzen was the worst thing you can be in America: an elitist. (During his 2008 campaign for the presidency, Barack Obama would feel compelled to reassure voters that he and his wife are not “elitist, pointy-headed intellectual types.”) The marketing director for Franzen’s publisher had the good sense to be delighted by the uproar over his Oprah snub, saying, “This level of news activity works to keep him front and center in bookstores.”
Franzen has followed The Corrections with a book of essays, a memoir, a work of translation, and another big novel, Freedom. He wound up on the cover of Time magazine in 2010. It took Alex Shakar 10 years to produce a second novel.
Perhaps no writer enjoyed better timing than Tom Wolfe with his novel Bonfire of the Vanities. The book, a giddy lampoon of the go-go Reagan years, including preening Wall Street bond salesmen who fancied themselves “Masters of the Universe,” appeared just weeks after the Bloody Monday stock market crash in the fall of 1987. The collapse of global markets and the ensuing recession — the payback for a decade’s worth of hubris and unbridled greed — certified Bonfire as an almost magical bottling of the ’80s zeitgeist. Timing doesn’t get any better than that.
The book became a smash best-seller. It hit such a nerve that Michael Lewis, a former bond salesman, paid it the highest of compliments by noting that one of its central coinages had entered mainstream American lingo. “By the end of the 1980s,” Lewis wrote, “it was not unusual to see a bond salesman celebrate the sale of a block of $100 million mortgage bonds by standing on top of his desk, beating his chest and hollering, ‘I am a Master of the Universe!'”
Come to think of it, there was a book that enjoyed even better timing than Bonfire. It was a sensationally salacious tell-all called Elvis: What Happened?
The book consisted of the tape-recorded words of three of Elvis’s former bodyguards as told to Steve Dunleavy, Rupert Murdoch’s favorite mad-dog tabloid reporter. The three members of the Memphis Mafia, bitter over being fired by Elvis’s father after years of loyal service, started telling their stories to Dunleavy in 1976. And what stories! They talked about a daily diet of uppers and downers that would have taken down a bull elk and eventually turned Elvis into “a walking pharmaceutical shop.” They talked about the King’s one experiment with LSD. They talked about Elvis’s love for guns, which led him to blast a television set when smarmy Robert Goulet’s face swam onto the screen. They talked about Elvis’s fascination with death, which led him to break into a mortuary and give lectures on embalming in the presence of corpses.
The book was published on Aug. 1, 1977. Fifteen days later, Elvis pitched off the toilet in the master bathroom at Graceland, constipated, overweight, drug-addled, and very dead at the age of 42.
Rupert Murdoch had planned to run excerpts of the book in his New York Post tabloid later in the summer. But Murdoch, never a man to pass up a chance to turn a buck, pounced. The Post ran the first excerpt on the day Elvis died, under the headline NEW BOOK TELLS OF HIS DECLINE IN DRUG NIGHTMARE.
Elvis’s drug use became the focus of much of the publicity surrounding the book. Late on the day Elvis died, Dunleavy appeared on an NBC News special anchored by David Brinkley. Sporting a beard and waving a cigar, Dunleavy talked about Elvis’s prodigious drug intake, his seclusion and his weight problem, then added that Elvis was “a poor kid from the South…a bad word, a nasty word, but one that is often used, ‘white trash.'” People were furious, but they kept buying the book. Even after ham-fisted Dunleavy appeared on “Good Morning, America” the next day and got into a pissing match with Geraldo Rivera, Elvis: What Happened? kept flying off the shelves.
But the troika of Memphis Mafioso were chagrined by their book’s “good” timing. They held a press conference expressing their undying love for Elvis, and denying that they were “bloodsuckers” trying to capitalize on his death.
The book sold 5 million copies in the year after Elvis’s death. Which proves, beyond all doubt, that timing is everything.
Image Credit: Flickr/..stiina..
Today’s media machine is so consumed with Lindsay Lohan’s latest perp walk and whether Ashton really did cheat on Demi that the general moviegoing public is as functionally illiterate about the day-to-day workings of the film business as it is about the financial industry. Some day Michael Lewis may turn his sardonic eye from the business of sports to the business of Hollywood make-believe, but until then, those of us who want a smart, well-reported peek behind the camera will have to return to Julie Salamon’s The Devil’s Candy, her classic behind-the-scenes tale of the making of The Bonfire of the Vanities, published 20 years ago next month.
The magic of The Devil’s Candy is that it wasn’t conceived or written as a hit piece. The book is subtitled “The Anatomy of a Hollywood Fiasco,” but when Salamon, then a film critic for the Wall Street Journal, began following Brian De Palma around the Bonfire set, he was riding high on the success of Scarface and The Untouchables, and he saw Bonfire as a prestige project that could boost him into the first rank of Hollywood auteurs. It didn’t turn out that way, but no one — not the studio executives, the stars, the film crew, nor De Palma and Salamon herself — knew just how disastrous a flop the film would be until it opened in the winter of 1990.
As much as The Devil’s Candy benefits from the reader’s foreknowledge that the film everyone in the book is struggling to get made will turn out to be a notorious turkey, the true value of the book lies in Salamon’s reporting. She is blessed with that rare talent for not missing the forest for the trees while, at the same time, being able to see the trees. She places the production, a big-budget adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, a bestselling novel about the fiscal excesses of the 1980s, squarely in the age of Hollywood excess. The Studio System, with its tight budgets and cookie-cutter approach to filmmaking, was long gone, replaced by high-stakes, risk-hungry corporate culture designed to chase blockbuster hits like Jaws and Star Wars. Unlike the founding generation of immigrants who built Hollywood, she writes, the crop of executives then heading the major studios were “refugees not from Russia but from Wall Street.”
They were the young M.B.A.’s and lawyers who had come of age during the eighties, men and women who had never built or run a company, but who thought nothing of buying and selling them — before they were thirty… It didn’t matter whether [their companies] made food or furniture, or if the food or the furniture was any good. The companies were merely components. The thing that mattered was the deal.
Gifted financial reporter that she is, Salamon walks the reader through how this deal-centric mentality led studio executives not only to lavish multi-million dollar salaries on the movie’s director and stars, but also to squander many more millions satisfying De Palma’s every artistic whim. In one gripping sequence, De Palma’s second-unit director Eric Schwab spends hundreds of thousands of dollars choreographing a shot of the Concorde landing at JFK against a background of the sun setting over the New York skyline — a shot that, while breathtaking, lasts all of a few seconds in the final version of the film.
At the same time, Salamon allows all the book’s characters, from the most egomaniacal stars to the lowliest production assistant, to shine with real humanity. For me, the most poignant figure in the book is Melanie Griffith, who is cast as the blonde bimbo mistress of Sherman McCoy, a wealthy bond trader played by Tom Hanks. Hanks comes off as a talented, hard-working young actor skillfully climbing the ladder to stardom, but Griffith, who was 33 and coming off her second pregnancy, was already on the downslope of her career. The film’s creative team holds meetings to discuss what to do about the age lines on her face (“Use Preparation H,” one producer says. “That’ll shrink ’em.”) and everybody on the set feels free to discuss whether she is too fat to be believable as a rich bond trader’s mistress. Griffith throws diva-like hissy fits about the size of her trailer and the crowds of onlookers on the set during her scenes, but for once, in Salamon’s telling, one understands Griffith’s neurotic rage, and even sympathizes with her.
This keen insight into the artistic personality, more so than her reportorial skill, is on display in Wendy and the Lost Boys, Salamon’s new biography of playwright Wendy Wasserstein, published in August. As the title implies, Salamon appears to have intended to use Wasserstein’s life story as a springboard for a group portrait of New York’s off-Broadway theater scene in the 1970s and 80s. Wasserstein, best known for her plays Uncommon Women and Others and The Heidi Chronicles, knew everyone who was anyone in New York theater and seemed to have a singular talent for falling hopelessly in love with the dreamy, driven gay men who made the theater world of that era tick.
The book is very well done, and if you are a Wasserstein fan, Wendy and the Lost Boys is a must-read, but it pales in comparison to The Devil’s Candy. In part, this is because Wasserstein, who won a Pulitzer Prize for The Heidi Chronicles, is just not an important or interesting enough writer to merit the attention Salamon lavishes on her. At the same time, any effort on Salamon’s part to use Wasserstein’s career as a window to the broader theater scene is eclipsed by the sheer complexity of Wasserstein’s private life.
Wasserstein, the youngest daughter of a wealthy, hyper-successful Brooklyn Jewish family (her brother was billionaire investment banker Bruce Wasserstein), had a succession of tortured love affairs with gay men and finally a daughter, via artificial insemination, at age 48. In 2006, just seven years later, she died of lymphoma. The levels of secret-keeping and duplicity this life required is worthy of an Elizabethan drama, but ultimately Wasserstein comes off less poignant and plucky than self-deluded and bullheaded. In this telling, Wasserstein is a woman who simply refused to give up in the face of insurmountable odds, whether those odds were that the gay man she was in love with would return her affections or that the cancer she was hiding from the world would simply go away. This can be charming in characters of romantic comedies for whom all turns out well in the end, but for a real person, who leaves her daughter motherless and alone, it can get a trifle infuriating.
None of this is Salamon’s fault, of course, but books on the entertainment industry work best as guilty pleasures, and while the pleasures of Wendy and the Lost Boys are many, for sheer guiltiness, nothing can touch the pleasures of The Devil’s Candy.
Herman Melville wrote, “To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many have tried it.” The realm of great literature covers death, love, religion, war, sex, and politics, but rarely economics. There are novels that tackle money and greed, but usually not from an insider’s perspective. Peter Mountford hopes to change that with his debut novel, A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism. Mountford’s views are formed not by cursory glances at Paul Krugman and Noam Chomsky, but with acuity worthy of The Black Swan author Nassim Taleb.
Mountford, whose father worked for the International Monetary Fund, studied international relations and became the “token liberal” at a think tank. He has lived in Sri Lanka and spent time in Ecuador researching the country’s development. He understands how markets function. Mountford weaves his knowledge into a captivating tale about an American in La Paz, Bolivia, during Evo Morales’s rise to the presidency and offers a twist to the conventional “love or money” saga. Mountford and I recently met at the Tin Hat, a great dive bar in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood. We took advantage of cheap beer and eats, and talked about the pros and cons of wealth and romance.
The Millions: Why do literary works generally avoid economics?
Peter Mountford: Finance and economics are complicated and often poorly understood, for one thing, and they’re not thought of as sexy, for another. People, especially of an “artistic” inclination, are proudly dismissive of economics– they paint it as boring – it’s either viewed as nerdy, in the unattractive way, or it’s associated with these cartoonish preppy monsters – like in The Bonfire of the Vanities or American Psycho.
This is nonsense. A cursory glance at our recent history reveals that economics and finance are not just the engines of our era, not just what defines virtually everything about our time, but they’re also spectacularly dramatic. It’s not abstract. Not just a guy with a calculator. It’s very emotional and makes and breaks the lives of – well, everyone.
One example: Bernie Madoff’s son put his kid to sleep and then went to the next room and tried to hang himself. But his noose broke. So, he picked himself up off the floor and scoured the apartment until he found a stronger implement, something that would hold his weight better, but the second one broke, as well. Finally, he found a sturdy enough object, a dog leash. And that’s how he killed himself. Broken nooses scattered around the apartment, his child sleeping twenty feet away, it was like slapstick, except that it’s unimaginably horrific.
Think about the bailout negotiations that happened between the Greek finance minister and the IMF team. They sat down in a room for a few days to figure out how they were going to solve that problem. Those people have lives: children, spouses, friends – and they’re in this ludicrous situation together. I’ve never read a book that attempts to comprehend that kind of material.
When I was in college, I took a class on 20th Century Mexican history. We got up to about 1970 and then the professor halted class, and basically said, “Look, if you haven’t studied macroeconomics or international economics, you’re not going to be able to follow much of the rest of Mexican history…best of luck.”
TM: Without giving too much of your novel away, your protagonist’s moral ambiguities might make him difficult to embrace. Do you think there’s a commercial interest, even in higher literary circles, for books to have “happy” or “noble” characters and an upbeat conclusion?
PM: Yes, there’s no question that such a bias exists – and it’s not even just to do with the end of a book, but the very fabric of it. It’s no different than what you find in the film business, where financial success requires the product to be marketable to a known audience of book buyers and also…entertaining. An editor who rejected my book said she wanted the character to be more like James Bond. Then she backed away, fearing that she sounded like an idiot, which she did, but the point had been made. You can’t blame publishers for wanting to remain in business. The fact is, 95% of books bomb. A certain kind of reader, a very common kind, reads literature to get away from the world. Even when they read something artistically ambitious, they want to escape from the world. It’s a difficult contradiction for writers to address.
That’s why there’s so much fantasy and historical fiction. Even among more straightforward literary fiction, a lot seems willfully antique. The world most people live in has more in common with The Office than, say, Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!. But think of how uncommon it is to read a book about someone’s office job. Then count how often a debut author gets compared to Faulkner. One book that I think did a superb job of satisfying the escapist need and the desire to provide more than re-heated Sherwood Anderson was Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City. It was a deeply escapist fantasy of this beguiling and cushy life in Manhattan, a very fun place to frolic in while you’re reading, but beneath that seductive veneer the book became a savage critique of that very escapism, of our blinkered philistinism. I loved that book.
TM: You mention Che briefly in the novel, alluding to why he failed in Bolivia, leading to his eventual death. How should history look at Che?
PM: He was an incredibly interesting guy…a passionate idealist who got distracted by the adventure of war. After Cuba, he went looking for that feeling, building up ragtag bands of revolutionaries and heading off to the mountains to wage a guerrilla war.
You know, when he went to Bolivia, I think he sort of knew he was going to die. What happened, though, was quite instructive about the limits of rigid ideology. He thought Bolivia had all the elements that Cuba had: disenfranchised poor people in a small country, lots of hills and jungle, a long history of wanton exploitation. But Bolivia had undergone a different revolution not long before, they felt like they’d done that, they’d already ousted the fuckers. So, when Che came along telling them it was time to get rid of their oppressors, the Bolivian peasants called the cops. The cops called the CIA and then he was dead.
TM: Distracted by the “adventure of war”? I hope that’s a euphemism. Che has been romanticized. I lived in Argentina, traveled through Bolivia, and while there bought and read a copy of Che’s Bolivian Diary. Che’s ideology evolved into one reminiscent of Abimael Guzman of the Shining Path. In Havana, he oversaw executions. He lost most of his humanity by the time he reached Bolivia. Why does literature insist on ennobling him?
PM: Yes, that’s a euphemism. What I mean is that, like you say, he became a warrior, a person who lived for battle. Of course he believed in what he was fighting for, but the fight became the main thing. People ennoble him because he’s like William Wallace, or any doomed crusader for justice. Plus, it’s easy to hate the CIA, and when you find out that they sawed the hands off his cadaver and sent them along to Argentina and then Cuba, basically as a warning – well, that’s ghastly. Still, that doesn’t mean Che was a good guy and the CIA were bad guys. Life does not provide actual heroes or villains, unfortunately.
TM: Developing countries don’t react well to infusions of money… corruption is rampant and often increases, benefiting the oligarchy and not the common person. How should wealthier nations appropriate aid, and how important and effective are microloans?
PM: Indeed, corruption has been the ruin of an amazing number of would-be success stories. The aid organizations have a hell of a time working with and against those forces, from what I gather. In Sri Lanka, I heard a story about a project, partially financed by a major aid institution. The plan was to get cell-phone towers into rural areas, but they found they had to bribe a complex and changing array of officials in each zone, and the officials had different expectations, different limitations. It took years and years and people were getting replaced, so they’d have to bribe the new guy. Finally, they bribed someone higher up in the government, who then got the lesser officials on board and the project was finished in a few months.
Microloans are fantastic. There are different models: the not-for-profit microloans and the for-profit microloans and there’s a healthy argument underway about which is better. I’m not sure, personally. I did a research project once on a for-profit micro-bank that was administering a subsidy for housing in Ecuador. People were to get cheap houses and the bank would make money, and it should have been wonderful. The subsidy was financed by USAID in a soft loan, but the architects of the project in DC hadn’t done enough research. In order to qualify for the loan you had to have saved five thousand dollars, and you had to earn less than a certain amount, and it was a ludicrous combination of criteria. The bank had zero applications for the subsidy in the month that I worked on it.
TM: What countries’ development would you point to as success stories?
PM: Chile is my example. In the 1990s they taxed any foreigner who invested in the country and then yanked it out in under a year, safeguarding against speculative foreign investment. As a result, they didn’t enjoy the wild bonanza a lot of other countries had, but they also didn’t get demolished during the Asian crisis. Once the bubble burst, the emerging markets started reeling as capital fled back to Wall Street, and Chile removed that tax since it was no longer necessary. It was a modest policy to limit exposure to frenetic hedge fund activity, and it worked: they didn’t implode.
TM: Your novel follows Gabriel as he decides whether or not to forsake “love” for money. What’s more important? Money or love?
PM: Love is better, unless you’re in sub-Saharan Africa, then money trumps. Also, if your lack of money ruins your love…since money problems are the number one source of fights between married couples, then that’s a problem. I think Gabriel’s question is a bit more complicated. He’s in his mid-twenties, you know, so love will probably come along again, but financial opportunities like his don’t grow on trees.
TM: I think that’s one of the things about Gabriel that made him genuine, his take on the fleetingness of love…that it’s easy come easy go. People in love can suffer, but people with money rarely suffer, although they seem less happy. Your novel concludes with a powerful statement about money and the…er, soul. What are your own personal desires for wealth?
PM: You know that Liz Phair song “Shitloads of Money?” The chorus goes: “It’s nice to be liked / But it’s better by far to get paid / I know that most of the friends that I have / Don’t really see it that way / But if you can give ’em each one wish / How much do you wanna bet? / They’d wish success for themselves and their friends / And that would include lots of money.”
Personally, I’d like to be on the next financial plateau. I think all my problems would be solved if I could just get there. But I know once I got there I’d just want to be up one more step. It would be nice to get away from that paradigm, somehow. Any suggestions?
It’s been a moment since my last post, and I am here to apologize and explain. Ever since the fifth grade, when I took my birthday party to see the movie Outbreak and then read The Hot Zone thrice a row, I have been terrified of epidemics. Two weeks ago, my beloved and I returned from a week’s holiday in Mexico and immediately commenced moving our household to the other side of the country, in an automobile. We had spent the holiday in points around the state of Oaxaca, and then the last day we were in Mexico City, larking around the metro and holding hands with everybody.I know that currently public opinion finds the Swine Flu to be very passe, and we’ve all been reminded several times that regular flu kills a third of Americans every year, but three days after we returned from Mexico it was very scary to receive a phone call informing us of the new flu that was killing all these young people in the place from whence we came, and it was more scary when my beloved shortly thereafter developed a sniffle. What with my intense paranoia and the terrifying reportage on every website, I insisted we spend two days sitting in a seedy motel, taking our temperatures with a Hello Kitty thermometer which cost ten goddamned dollars yet recorded our temperatures at a steady ninety-six degrees. It was truly a long, dark teatime of the soul (for me, that is. The invalid was remarkably cheery about the whole thing), but it was only a cold that he had, and we are fine. However, all the furor, and the move and all, has limited my brain function; furthermore, most of my books are still packed away. So, friends, excuse this post, for it is budget, as budget, perhaps, as the motel in which we awaited our deaths. Here is my holiday/cross-country move reading list:1. The Magus. I have read and really enjoyed this book about four times. This time it sort of soured on me (or did I sour on it? I can never remember how that expression goes). The narrator Nicholas is, in the crude parlance of our times, a “douche.” This never bothered me before, but this time I found him sort of boring. Maybe it’s the fact that the novel, which is about a big elaborate game perpetrated on the narrator by some crazed rich people, is very mysterious and fast-paced and racy when you don’t know what’s going on, and once you are familiar with the plot you have more gray matter available to ponder how annoying the narrator is. Maybe it’s just not holiday reading. I do find it bizarre that it is on the Modern Library List (#93), while The French Lieutenant’s Woman is recognized only on the Modern Library Reader’s List (#30). The French Lieutenant’s Woman strikes me as an incredibly elegant and complex jewel in the crown of twentieth century literature, while The Magus is just kind of thrilling and has sexy twins in it. Am I being unfair here?2. The Things They Carried. Kind of contemporary for me. During my phase of reading about sad things I read a lot of novels about Vietnam, but it has been a long time since I revisited that period of American history. I thought these stories by Tim O’Brien were wonderful, but I don’t have a lot to say about them. I wept. War is awful. I don’t understand why anybody would want to send a young person off to kill people and die. We should stop having wars. Full stop.3. Garden of the Gods. The sequel to My Family and Other Animals and Birds, Beasts and Relatives. It pains to say this, but this third in the trilogy was kind of rubbish. The writing was careless and I got the distinct impression that Durrell needed to raise money quickly and decided to dash out something along the lines of the earlier successes. Although, in his defense, he probably needed the money to save a rare pink-footed equatorial mongoose, or some such. So, while disappointed with this third effort, I do not hold it against him.4. The Rise of Salas Lapham. I always wanted to read something by William Dean Howells, and now I have.5. The Bonfire of the Vanities. We stayed in a hotel in Oaxaca that had a classic example of the hotel/hostel library of books left behind by guests. Most of the books are in Dutch or German, the ones in English either have something to do with the Dalai Lama, or are by James Michener, or are a Tom Wolfe novel with the first sixty-three pages ripped out. I’ve read this before so I wasn’t worried about the first sixty-three pages, but I did miss them once I had gotten underway. I really get a kick out of Tom Wolfe. Everyone is reprehensible and there is no justice, but he doesn’t make me feel sad. Possibly contributing to the downfall of civilization, but super holiday reading.
So that you may get to know us better, we introduce The Millions Quiz, yet another occasionally appearing series. Here, as conceived of by our contributor Emily, we answer questions about our reading habits and interests, the small details of life the like-minded folks may find illuminating, and we ask you to join us by providing your own answers in the comments.Today’s Question: What’s on your nightstand right now?Emily: Deciding where the nightstand stops in my dorm room is something of a quandary. And sadly, in this final dissertation push, pleasure reading is a thing of the past (Swift Studies 2006, Romanticism, Nationalism, and the Revolt Against Theory, The Chicago Manual of Style…). But among the piles that daily encroach on my bed are two recent purchases: Dover’s paperback editions of Goya’s print series Los Caprichos and The Disasters of War. If you haven’t seen them, take a look. I hesitate to call either a pleasure, but they are, in their ways.Edan: I’m about to read The Great Man by Kate Christensen, which won the PEN/Faulkner Award this year. I enjoyed her previous novel, The Epicure’s Lament, and this one, about a recently deceased painter and the women in his life, sounds like something to dive into.After that, I’m going to give Edith Wharton my attention, beginning with The Age of Innocence. I also have a galley of Joan Silber’s novel, The Size of the World, the follow-up to her terrific and pleasing story collection Ideas of Heaven (which was nominated for a National Book Award).I just snagged the latest issue of Field, the poetry journal published by the Oberlin College Press, and a copy of Darcie Dennigan’s debut poetry collection, Corinna A-Maying the Apocalypse. Aside from this poetry reading, I’ll be steamrolling through months of unread New Yorker and Gourmet magazine issues.Garth: I seem to be having a big books problem this summer; my nightstand is about to collapse under the weight of three of them. The first is Roberto Bolano’s 2666, which I’m about 600 pages into (out of 900). The second is Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans, which I’m about 300 pages into (also out of 900)… and let’s just say that, for all that she does well. Gertrude lacks the, shall we say, narrative velocity of Mr. Bolano. Finally, clocking in at over 1000 pages, I’ve got Joseph McElroy’s Women and Men, which seems insane and brilliant and possibly unfinishable. I keep thinking there are only a finite number of gigantic books, and that once I get them out of the way I can move on, and then I learn about writers like McElroy. I’m also hoping to get to Robert A. Caro’s The Power Broker this summer. Seriously. In order not to get hopelessly depressed about my rate of reading, I try to read really, really short things in between the long things. My current favorite amuse-bouche or palate-cleansers are Lydia Davis’ Varieties of Disturbance and Ted Berrigan’s Sonnets. It occurs to me that I may be suffering from some variety of disturbance myself. Call it gigantobibliomania.Ben: I have 18 books on my nightstand at the moment, three of which I think I’m supposed to be reviewing. Most interestingly, I have two autobiographical accounts by historians who retraced the steps of Mao’s Long March. When I learned would be going to China this summer, I briefly toyed with the idea of spending a few months traveling along the route taken by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as they fled from the Kuomingtan. The three year journey was a harrowing race across thousands of miles of China’s most unforgiving wilderness, and it would eventually go on to become the founding myth of the CCP. Its story is replete with violence and political intrigue and following in its steps while observing how China has changed in the intervening years “would make one great book,” I thought. I was wrong. It has made two mediocre books. The Long March by Ed Jocelyn and The Long March by Sun ShuyunAndrew: It would appear that thirty or so books have taken up occupancy on or near my nightstand. This is where the triage happens. Every few weeks, books seem to show up, sometimes all at once, sometimes individually. Compulsive second-hand book-buyer that I am, I’m afraid I can’t control the in-flow.Like an ER, this may seem to be a chaotic place, but it’s functional and I give prompt attention to the book that demands to be read next. When completed, the book is transferred to the recovery area (aka the bookcases in my den), a much more orderly place. Calm. Perhaps too calm.I began M.G. Vassanji’s The In-Between World of Vikram Lall a few weeks ago, then had to abruptly stop when my life took a chaotic turn, and now that calm reigns once again, I’ve restarted it. Up next will likely be A History of the Frankfurt Book Fair, by Peter Wiedhaas, unless some literary emergency comes in off the street.Emre: My oft-cluttered, permanently dusty nightstand is home to months-old copies of Harper’s and New Yorker magazines, the occasional New York Times Magazine and four books. The books are all byproducts of articles I read in the aforementioned publications. Yet, despite the enticing reviews/mentions I find myself unable to read any of them. Top of the list is Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities. After reading an article about the Bronx’s revival and realizing that as an adopted New Yorker with literary vices it is a sin not to have read a single Wolfe novel, I immediately picked up a used copy. Despite my best intentions to get going with it right after finishing Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo, I am still only some 20 pages into the book. But it remains my top priority. Kind of.I might have a commitment problem. The second book is Parag Khanna’s The Second World: Empires and Influence in the New Global Order. A book review in the NYT, as well as an excerpt from the book which appeared in the Times Magazine, sounded oh so interesting and timely that the politics wonk in me returned from the depths, turning me into the four-eyed nerd that I actually am to begin reading about how global powers – U.S., EU, China – are attempting to wrest control of the Second World – a term formerly ascribed to the communist bloc, which now may be morphing to describe emerging-market and resource-rich countries. Despite its accessible, Thomas Friedman-ish language, however, I am stuck at the end of Chapter 1. I blame my job for it. Part of my work description is to read news all day. After reading the Wall Street Journal, NYT, the FT and assorted other publications all day long, I have little appetite left for politics and business. On the other hand, I do feel an urgency – as in, lest I read this in the next six months, it may be obsolete.Sharing the third spot and making for a potential good duo-read are my girlfriend’s birthday presents to me: Walter Lippmann’s Public Opinion and John Dewey’s The Public and Its Problems. The gifts were, of course, not coincidental. They were conceived in the aftermath of a New Yorker article about the dying news industry (damn you, Huffington Post, et al.!) and born of our conversations regarding, well, the dying news industry. As conceptually interesting as Lippmann and Dewey’s books are, they also fall into the realm of thought-provoking, attention-requiring books, a la The Second World, which these days is a far stretch from the TV-watching couch potato I am after work. I might have to add a new book to my nightstand. Something in the 200-300 page range that involves fiction and is a light read – as in Dr. Seuss’s Oh, the Places You’ll Go!-light. Any suggestions?Max: I’ve got just one book on my nightstand: Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End, which Mrs. Millions recently finished and which is waiting to be put back on the Reading Queue shelf. I’ve also got a teetering stack of magazines – issues of The New Yorker, The Week, and The Economist – that keep from reading my books. The book that I’m currently reading, meanwhile, is more often in the same room as me (or in my laptop bag if I’m on the go). This does make for occasional overnight stops on the nightstand.So, tell us, in the comments or on your own blog: What’s on your nightstand right now?