Posts from October 2011

October 26th, 2011

Androids from the Future in the Penny Press!

Apparently, my bittersweet relationship with New York magazine will now be permanent (perhaps I should save time and just apply to work there?), so every week I’ll be thrilled by great writing even while I’m appalled at dismaying subjects. First it was an extremely well-written Evan Hughes piece on how the literary world once had the temerity to ignore the Lucretius-Cicero-Catullus troika in its midst, and then it was Noreen Malone’s equally extremely well-written piece on the “occupation” of Wall Street by the skinny-jeaned tobacco-addicted hordes of slackerdom, and now it’s a piece in this current issue, a look at candidate Mitt Romney’s past written with fantastic energy and intelligence by Ben Wallace-Wells. If writing for New York involved the privilege of working with such glowingly talented young people, it might be worth the agitation of the subjects they go after (and as an old friend of mine reminded me the other day, “they can’t all be book reviewers”)

But oh, sometimes that agitation is very agitating! Take this October 31 issue, for instance. Ordinarily, I try to leave worrying about the 2012 presidential election to my Open Letters colleague Greg Waldmann, but it’s impossible for any resident of Boston to ignore a story like this about the financial background of Mitt (short for ‘mitten’?) Romney, who briefly paused as governor of Massachusetts before he launched himself into national politics (I realize its an unpopular stance, but I miss Governor Weld precisely because Massachusetts wasn’t some sort of cheap consolation prize to him – it was more along the lines of a family heirloom, to be lovingly cared for and justifiably bragged about). I’ve been looking at his 2012 candidacy as something of a joke, I admit. Not only has he flip-flopped on virtually every major ‘official’ position he’s ever held (which once upon a time was the kiss of death for a candidate), but (don’t tell my young Facebook friends!) I’ve been tremendously impressed by President Obama in the last three years and was sort of hoping the 2012 election would be a simple walk to his re-election.

That’s clearly not going to happen, alas (I have abyssmal luck with ’12 presidential elections, I guess) – the American voting public is still largely stupid (blaming President Obama for a recession created by his predecessor) and largely racist (blaming President Obama just for being), so 2012 will be a hotly-contested race that the incumbent stands every chance of losing. So serious attention has to be paid to his front-running possible opponents in the general election, and the aforementioned Greg Waldmann tells me with complete confidence that the foremost of these will be Mitt Romney. Sigh.

Wallace-Wells obviously believes it too. This piece, “The Romney Economy” has nothing of the jaunty tone you’d find in a profile of, say, Michele Bachmann or any of the other large number of obviously insane hopefuls spewing hate in Iowa these days. Wallace-Wells clearly thinks Romney is as serious as a heart attack, and the article’s digging into his past with the financial consulting firm Bain Capital ought to get readers thinking. Reading this piece, with its pitch-perfect evocations of Romney’s world (“Romney’s father had been the head of American Motors Corporation, the governor of Michigan, and a member of Nixon’s cabinet; the is no credible way to describe the American elite that excludes Romney”), you come away with one certainty beyond all others: if the “1%” being decried by the smelly, iPad-using occupiers of Wall Street really exists, Mitt Romney is its living embodiment. His career of raping companies, impatiently waiting nine months, then selling the babies to the highest bidder before dashing off to his next rape is clearly detailed by Wallace-Wells, who brings up a few of the many malpractice lawsuits brought against Bain but stops short – as he has to, as his editors at New York would certainly told him to – of drawing the obvious conclusions about them.

But even more unsettling than the prospect of Americans electing as President a junk-bond huckster is the prospect of that junk-bond huckster not even believing in junk bonds – or anything else. Wallace-Wells eventually confronts the subject of all that flip-flopping when he comes to the subject that’ll be hardest for Romney to weasel out of in the general election: the fact that when he was governor, he passed a version of universal health-care that’s extremely similar to the ‘Obamacare’ the President’s opponents hate because he’s black. Here Wallace-Wells is both instructive and insightful:

But what separates Romney’s plan from Obama’s – and gives some clues about his potential presidency – is its almost-accidental origin. Romney did not begin with a philosophical quest to improve American health care. He began with the idea of himself as a problem solver and asked those around him for a problem that he might usefully solve. I remembered, when I was told this story, an anecdote I’d heard from a former political staffer of Romney’s. On even basic philosophical questions like abortion, the staffer said, Romney did not try to resolve the question in the abstract, as a matter of principle, and would consider instead various hypothetical cases – for instance, a late-term abortion – and build from them a politics. The line that Romney is a flip-flopper may vastly understate the depth of the condition.

That’s great stuff, though terrifying, and it proves that I should never assume I’ve seen the worst that U.S. presidential politics can deliver. Wallace-Wells calls Romney a “perfectly objective efficiency machine,” but such a thing can’t be: the very nature of efficiency involves a goal, and goals preclude objectivity. More accurate to say Romney is “a perfectly efficient Romney machine” whose goal is the presidency, regardless of what he has to say or unsay, believe or unbelieve. It’s the close reflection of his days at Bain: personal profit over not only ethics but everything. After eight long years of the nation and the world suffering because Americans elected a man who cared about nothing more than just being president, the country came a whisker away from doing it again by electing John McCain (“We’re gonna drill right now, my friends! We’re gonna drill right in the middle of Yellowstone! Drill! Drill! Drill!”). Sanity prevailed (“that one” got elected), but in America, sanity has to re-fight its title bout every four years – and, Gawd help us all, Mitten Romney is a contender.

My only consolation would be if Wallace-Wells opts to chronicle the whole sorry spectacle. But who’d want to wish that on anybody?

October 24th, 2011

Insults Large and Small in the Penny Press!

It’s been a rough couple of weeks for New York magazine here at Stevereads. Last week there was that noxious, fawning travesty of a piece by Evan Hughes titled “Just Kids,” a gushing piece of hagiography that tried to get its readers to shudder with veneration for those literary titans, Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace, Mary Karr, and Jeffrey Eugenides. The article tries over and over to elicit frissons of retroactive horror that once upon a time, bookstore clerks and reading audiences didn’t recognize the greatness in their midst, these scruffy, unassuming kids who were, unbeknownst to all, the greatest writers to ever walk the Earth. I read the thing with white knuckles, trying hard not to bunch it up and hurl it at the nearest basset hound – my nerves no doubt strained by the fact that I only just read the exact same article in Vanity Fair – only that article was written by one of the literary titans, and it was a different group of demigods, the group right after the one Hughes writes about.

I’d no sooner calmed down from reading Hughes’ piece than I saw the cover article of the following week’s issue, “The Kids are Actually Sort of Alright” written by Noreen Malone. The piece springboards from the ongoing “Occupy Wall Street” farce to an analysis – such as it is – of the second-half of the “Millennial” sub-generation, the kids the issue’s cover claims are ‘coming of age in post-hope America.’ The article itself makes for fantastic reading (Malone is one hell of a writer, if this is any indication), but it’s hard to care about that when the subject is such an inherent waste of time. The young people profiled by Malone (she repeatedly characterizes herself as one of them, but I’m free to doubt it – if she’s not making very good money freelancing features for Vanity Fair inside of three years, I’m the Shah of Persia) have been let down by a cratered economy, yes – but they’re also, quite apart from any economy – insufferably feckless, pampered, arrogant, and brainless. And like their smelly compatriots in Zuccotti Park, each and every one of them is a walking talking chunk of pure hypocrisy. When unwashed young people marched and sat in and protested in the 1960s, they were marching and protesting and sitting in against actual things – mainly an obscene, illegal war in Southeast Asia, but also vicious, backward racial policies at home. And although those unwashed young people were every bit as insufferable as their modern-day counterparts, they at least weren’t big fat liars: there certainly wasn’t anything anybody could do to make them suddenly embrace the war in Vietnam, or fire-hoses in Alabama.

Nothing could be further from the truth about Occupy Wall Street and the zombie-liars effecting it today. These young people drone about the radical distribution of wealth in this country, about the evils of greed and the miseries of poverty. But not only are they not poor (every occupier I’ve seen on the news has in his hands a nicer computer than mine – I’ve lost count of how many iPads I’ve spotted … I don’t have an iPad)(and the iconic cover photo of this issue features a ‘street performer’ named Kalan Sherrand, 24, who looks to be a two-pack-a-day tobacco addict – that’s hundreds of dollars a month in New York, which is certainly more extra cash than I have), but they’re not sincere – if you walked up to any one of these kids when they weren’t grand-standing for Youtube and offered them $4 million, they’d promptly take it. They aren’t angry with the so-called 1% for their rampant, unseemly greed – they’re angry at the 1% for sucking up all the money before they themselves got out of high school and had a fair chance to suck it up themselves.

I turned to a jam-packed issue of the New York Review of Books in search of a little relief, and of course in that issue I turned first to Daniel Mendelsohn, since in this issue he reviews Alan Hollinghurst’s fantastic new novel The Stranger’s Child. One of our very best literary journalists – who just happens to be gay – reviewing one of our very best novelists – who just happens to be gay – a perfect match, I thought, and perhaps a perfect anecdote to the rather disappointing reviews of this book I’ve been reading all over the place since it reached this country. The grumpy part of me has been overheard saying the reason for this is as simple as it is deplorable: that the critical community has been so ravaged by the mental scurvy of post-modern crapola that it’s no longer inclined to lay out the effort to grapple with an honest-to-gosh real adult novel. Surely, I thought, that won’t be the case with Mendelsohn, who, in addition to his extreme stylistic finesse, is also (along with Anthony Lane) one of our smartest working critics.

And I wasn’t wrong – about that part of the review, anyway. Mendelsohn is very observant and very funny, and although he manufactures reasons to rein in his praise of the book (like lots of critics, he ends up faulting it for the very central thing Hollinghurst is intentionally doing in the book, which is a lot like having critics fault Ulysses for being “ulimately non-traditional” or Brideshead Revisited for being “a bit elegiac”), he treats it with very becoming intelligence.

Until I got to his footnote. Here it is:

I may as well mention here, not without dismay, another lapse into an old British literary habit. Daphne’s marital history seems intended to suggest a descending arc: her second, untitled husband is a bisexual painter who is killed in World War II, and her third and final spouse is a certain “Mr. Jacobs,” a small-time manufacturer who did not, apparently, fight in the war. This seems to be a marker of the “plain Sharon Feingold” sort. In this context it’s worth mentioning that in the 1920s section of the book, the irritating photographer who plagues the Valances – he represents the distressingly crass “modern” world of publicity and celebrity – is called Jerry Goldblatt.

Naturally, I was horrified at the suggestion, and in this one case, I hope the lie authors always tell about never reading their own reviews is true, otherwise Hollinghurst has by now read himself called an anti-Semite in the New York Review of Books. It’s absolutely no mitigation whatsoever to try gentrifying this kind of thing by putting it in a footnote, and it helps not at all to couch that footnote in the kind of semi-involuntary rhetoric Mendelsohn uses – it’s an odious thing to suggest no matter how you do it. The names are utterly immaterial here (as a critic so expert at seeing beneath surfaces should bloody well have known) – it’s the sentiment that’s important, and the sentiment being imputed to Hollinghurst here is entirely absent not only from this book but from all his others. In other words, it’s a cheap shot. Not the sort of thing to pick up my mood at all, especially since it was done by a writer I like to a writer I like. Talk about a no-win situation.

There was a small glimmer of hope, however, as there usually is in the Penny Press. In the 24 October New Yorker  (the second one in a row featuring a sublime cover by Barry Blitt), there’s a winningly odd piece by Elif Batuman about birding in Turkey – yes, birding in Turkey – that’s just bound to end up in all of those ‘Best Magazine Writing of the Year’ volumes in due time. The piece is classic New Yorker, everything we long-time readers come to the magazine hoping to find: an irresistibly told tale of something odd and semi-poetic. And it featured a quick, classic exchange that shows perfectly why the rest of the world finds Americans so inexplicable. At one point Batuman is being told about bird-watching contest held in Turkish wilderness, in which contestants drove around like mad and made lists of all the birds they saw. They weren’t required to take pictures:

When I asked what prevented people from cheating, Cagan stared at me with ravaged eyes. “Who would cheat at a bird-watching contest?”

The answer, of course, is “your average American,” but Batuman is too kind to offer it.