Monday, May 15, 2006

Asad Raza ~ The New York Dialectic: Make Art or Make Money, But Keep Hustling

From 3QuarksDaily

In the last fifteen years, a certain era in New York has ended. From roughly 1970 to 1993 (from the late-sixties flight of whites to the onset of Giuliani time), a strange state of affairs obtained in the city: most central districts between Midtown and Wall Street were also fairly undesirable by bourgeois standards. The Upper East Side and the Upper West Side were known as the East and West Sides, as though there was nothing beneath them, and with the exception of Greenwich Village, the area between 34th Street and Canal Street was filled with zones of freedom from many forms of compulsion: economic, regulatory, etc. These autonomous zones were able to shelter many populations from the need to have regular work and income: artists and street people, partygoers and throwers, various and sundry types who disidentified with the mainline of U.S. culture. Indeed, one of the cultural meanings of New York in recent decades has been as the city that represents the escape from U.S. culture, from cars, commuting, cultural homogeneity, national chains, social segregation, order. That meaning is not necessarily permanent.

Many cities, of course, perform this function in their nation's social imaginary. Many metropolises are seen as, paradoxically, shelters from the capitalist economy of which they are also the beating heart. The difference is that the shelter is usually on the periphery, not smack in the middle. Whereas Houston Street and Broadway, which in 1993 was a sort of crossroads of a uniquely New York art-music-film-performance culture, is also structurally central to the city, both geographically and in terms of the other relevant urban topology, the subway map. Back then there were pieces of street art on three corners. Today the intersection features a Pottery Barn, a Crate and Barrel, an Adidas flagship store, and a branch of HSBC. Down the street, on Bowery and Houston, a giant condominium building awaits the opening of its major commercial tenant, Whole Foods (which I, unlike Steven Shapin, find a soul-destroying place to shop). These nationwide brand names, along with others such as Home Depot, Bed Bath and Beyond, etc, were never to be seen here until recently.

Much hand-wringing occurs about this state of affairs - Whole Foods within sight of CBGB's? Oh, my. Yet I think from a longer perspective it is the period in which the Lower East Side and Soho represented zones of autonomy that is the anomalous one, not the present re-corporatization of New York. Would I prefer that Bowery was still a bustling restaurant supply district by day, a urine-soaked sleeping gallery by night? Would I prefer that the East Village not become the home of another twenty-dollar entree yuppie joint and retain the Ukrainian bars with pool tables of yore? The Soho of After Hours, in which Fanelli's was the only place to go, instead of an upscale outdoor mall? Sure, I would. But I also think that artificially preserving the short-lived bohemian character of these neighborhoods is equally unreal: should NYC pay people to squat in LES buildings and drink in the Mars Bar, a la nineteenth-century gentry who employed hermits to live in the artfully ruined hermitages on their Capability Brown-designed grounds? Clearly making the city into a museum of itself, as with large stretches of Paris, is not the answer to anything.

The freedom from hugely expensive rent is no longer something that now exists in many places in the city, center or periphery. But with real estate developers and lawyers and rezoning permits comes in addition a much more invasive state presence. Neighborhoods that were once nearly outside the boundaries of the law are now routine and orderly places where people wearing jogging clothes walk their dogs. East River Park, which was roamed by bands of freaky ruffians, is now the site of friendly barbecues and safely ironic activities like the hipster street hockey league. This elevated policing has had a terrible side-effect: it has almost killed dancing. Not only are large spaces downtown nearly impossible to come across, but cabaret licenses (the city's license to dance) must have the signatures of six or seven different city agencies before approval. The only sites that can be found nowadays for large, vaguely eclectic nightlife are in peripheral places like Greenpoint and Bushwick, instead of on East 14th Street or Gansevoort Street. Nightlife in the center has fallen victim to the need for (quiet) order brought along by bourgeois residents of neighborhoods that until recently were the domain of the disenfranchised: West Chelsea, the Meatpacking District (is there a more off-putting transformation in the city?), Alphabet City.

So has the city lost a facet of its identity, the one that holds up Downtown as the site of a unique creativity and roughness? To some extent, it never was so free as they say. A paradise lost is much easier to maintain than to regain. On the other hand, I think it's objectively different from the days when squeegee guys reigned and the city's image as ungovernable was confirmed by the, well, lack of governance. Strangely, though, the social identity of the neighborhoods seems not to have caught up with the new reality. The Lower East Side, despite the fact that an apartment on Orchard Street costs as much as one on the Upper East Side, retains some patina of countercultural transgression. A recent 'happening' in the disused half of the Essex market was a perfect example of this incoherence. It was a kind of avuncular imitation of an underground event: noise bands, artists talking to each other, a cavernous and dilapidated space. But on the other hand, the event was sponsored by Hermes, and some trendy new vodka sprung for an open bar, hoping to convince the connected to drink their brand. There were porta-potties with Musak playing in them outside, trucked in from some Westchester wedding. The City had approved the use of the Market. You had to sign a release to get in, saying you wouldn't sue if you got lead posioning. Corporate-art dinosaur Jeff Koons spoke. Hardly a subterranean upswell of pure creativity.

That is the kind of event that gets put on here these days. It has become much more important, downtown, to ape the signifiers of the chaotic eighties scene, than to recreate it (see Strokes, The). The scenesters of the moment like to think of themselves as bohemians because of their stylistic choices, but they are players in a world of intense competition for status and yes, money. A successful gallery or a major label record release are also paths to embourgeoisment, and they require constant networking, and regular working, just as much lawyering does. Finally, the money to be made by the real estate boom has conferred a strange kind of status on people who bought a building on Greene Street for twenty thousand dollars in '75, which is now worth five million. They are hardy bravers of the frontier beyond gentrification, but also economically rewarded for their defiance of purely economic motives. It's a self-knowing take on the concept of aesthetics as the reverse of economics, in which the eschewing of monetary advancement is the secret to eventually having both virtue and money. If anything, this is the permanent dialectic in which New York is ensnared: make art or make money, but keep hustling.

Bataille: Embracing Darkness

From New

In the 1920s Georges Bataille's art magazine Documents embraced all that was "soiled, senile, rank, sordid" in western civilisation. Its radical message is as fresh as ever.

What place does surrealism, once the most insurrectionary of modernist art movements, have in our brave new world of laptops, "passionate" sandwiches and CCTV? In the first Surrealist Manifesto of 1924, the group's self-appointed leader, André Breton, called for the liberation of desire and asserted the magical power of dreams. He argued that if we all unshackled the vital energies of the subconscious, not just in art but in our lives, the grim spectre of 19th-century humanism would be banished for good.

According to some, you have only to look around at our virtual, prodigious and ever-transforming landscape to see the ubiquity and triumph of the surrealists. Conversely, a recent article in the Observer contained the peculiar, dry-as-dust statement that "the relevance of surrealism . . . is generally agreed to be at an all-time low" (but relevant to what, and agreed by whom?).

In fact, these seemingly opposed positions both contain an element of truth. One cannot deny the dazzling bizarreness of contemporary life, yet this represents not freedom, but the manner in which industrial society turns the imagination to its own conformist ends. Far from having been liberated, the "rational" but pathologically destructive culture that the surrealists opposed with their calls to poetry and love has become more neurotic and impervious to change.

In this regard, One-Dimensional Man, Herbert Marcuse's analysis of advanced societies, was prescient. Like all subversive currents, the surreal has become window dressing, in a world characterised more than ever by "the need for stupefying work where it is no longer a real necessity; the need for modes of relaxation which soothe and prolong this stupefaction; the need for administering such deceptive liberties as free competition at administered prices, a free press which censors itself, free choice between brands and gadgets". If surrealism can safely be dismissed as irrelevant today, that is because its defeat has been almost total. Absorbed into a way of living whose end is a bland narcosis, André Breton's "convulsive beauty" has become an advertiser's gimmick.

In this somewhat dispiriting light, the Hayward Gallery's latest show on the surrealists is nothing if not timely. First conceived after the gallery's "Dada and Surrealism Reviewed" exhibition of almost 30 years ago, "Undercover Surrealism" pays homage to the movement's most uncompromising provocateur: Georges Bataille (prudently, Microsoft Word advises that I change his name to "Bastille"). Bataille was temperamentally opposed to the dreamier aspects of orthodox surrealism, despising what he saw as the latent idealism of Breton's project. He despised everything, in fact, that gave it an obscure kinship with the progressive civilisation it claimed to reject.

Bataille thus stayed closer to the surrealists' roots in Dada, that primal howl which rose out of Zurich in the depths of the First World War. The black soil to surrealism's wildly exotic flower, Dada prescribed strange chants and the ancestral throb of drums as remedies for a culture engaged in ritual self-slaughter. Enlightenment and the march of reason having led to a mass grave (both literally and psychologically), Dadaism sought a solution in the healing powers of so-called darkness.

In many respects, Bataille's Documents magazine - the central focus of "Undercover Surrealism" - was a continuation of the Dadaist onslaught against cultural somnambulism. In it, he wrote that "horror alone is brutal enough to break what is stifling", a statement that communicates the essence of his aesthetic. If the European mind had indeed become a "whited sepulchre" (as Marlow describes the unnamed city in Conrad's Heart of Darkness), cracking it open would require formidable tools.

more here

Friday, May 05, 2006

The Legend of 'Howl'


Poetry makes nothing happen, Auden duly informs us, but when mythology takes over, anything goes. Or so it would seem, to judge by a new collection of essays, ''The Poem That Changed America: 'Howl' Fifty Years Later" (FSG), commissioned by Beat hagiographer Jason Shinder to mark the golden anniversary of Allen Ginsberg's epochal barbaric yawp.

Ever since ''Howl" first appeared in its instantly talismanic City Lights pocket edition in the fall of 1956, it's been hard to reckon where the poetry ends and the mythology begins. The Poem That Changed America? Never mind that there's no parsing such a blunderbuss hypothesis-the startling thing is that any poem at this late date can still have the kind of potent half-life in the collective imagination usually reserved for platinum pop hits.

When the legend becomes fact, runs the imperishable line in John Ford's ''The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," print the legend. In the case of ''Howl," it was a seamless transition: The poem was already legendary before it saw the light of print.

In the standard telling, it all began with a thunderclap on what Jack Kerouac later called that ''mad night" of Oct. 7, 1955, in an erstwhile San Francisco auto-body shop converted to a Boho art gallery. That was the mad night Ginsberg took his turn on the orange-crate podium and declaimed his work in progress to the assembled ''angelheaded hipster" faithful, leaving the throng in an uproar and Beatnik paterfamilias Kenneth Rexroth in tears. That was the mad night that Ginsberg's full-throttle first line-"I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked"-burst into the American vernacular as the first and perhaps still unbested of countless generational war cries. That was the mad night that turned a spindly Jewish twentysomething from Jersey into a rock star avant la lettre, prompting ever-canny City Lights impresario Lawrence Ferlinghetti to fire off a telegram the next day that echoed Emerson's storied note to Whitman on the publication of ''Leaves of Grass" exactly a century earlier: ''I greet you at the beginning of a great career."

It's the stuff of fable, and it goes to show that there's nothing like a classic creation myth for industrial-strength staying power. That night has gone down in the annals as the official kickoff of the San Francisco Renaissance as a brand-name literary movement, but that's not the half of it. There was an earthquake that night, and it presaged the birth of the counterculture, the spawning of Sixties youth rebellion, and the annunciation of redemptive transgression as a radical social creed and a libertine fashion statement.

''Howl" was its epicenter, and the fault lines would be redrawn as battle lines practically overnight. By the time the revised text began to circulate far and wide as Beatnik samizdat, complete with a lionizing benediction by Ginsberg's old hometown mentor William Carlos Williams (''Hold back the edges of your gowns, Ladies, we are going through hell"), ''Howl" was already more of a landmark cultural artifact than a mere work of literature, the breakneck lines on the page barely able to keep up with the zeitgeist whirlwind they were reaping.

More here

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Hipster rebel punk outsiders -- 99 cents a dozen


Every weekday, everyone in New York who is tangentially involved in the entertainment business receives a depressing piece of e-mail spam that demands, "Are You VIP?" If you decide you are, it invites you to click through to some nightclub promoter's Web site, where you can get on the guest list for a party that features "Guaranteed Celebrities in the Building!!!"

Meanwhile, laddish authors like Tucker Max and Frank Kelly Rich (founder of Modern Drunkard) achieve short-lived fame for being young men who celebrate drunkenness and boorish behavior. (Imagine that.) Then there's that just-above-the-coccyx tattoo on young women, which seemed, 15 years ago, like some vaguely racy advertisement for hedonism and is now just today's answer to raspberry lip gloss. And let's add the snowboarders who showcase their uncontainable, slope-shredding radicalness in Mountain Dew commercials.

These may seem to you like disconnected little pieces of pop monoculture, with nothing threading them together except the vacuum-cleaner whine of boredom that fills your head when you try to think about them. But Hal Niedzviecki, the author of "Hello, I'm Special," sees a pattern. A Canadian essayist and fiction writer who founded the alt-culture magazine Broken Pencil, Niedzviecki identifies phenomena like these, and many more besides, as characteristic of a paradoxical culture in which "individuality is the new conformity" or, to say the same thing backward, "nonconformity is now the accepted norm of society."

On one level, this idea is so obviously true it hardly bears mentioning, let alone repeating and reformulating over and over again (as Niedzviecki tends to do). This is after all the age of "American Idol" and "Survivor," perhaps the greatest celebrations of pseudo-individuality on a mass scale ever witnessed. The flannel-suited organization man, with his ideal of outward social conformity and private, inward individuality, has all but disappeared as a cultural icon, except as the butt of sitcom humor or an object of reactionary nostalgia. As Niedzviecki frames it, these days one must present the outward appearance of being distinctive and special, even eccentric, while pursuing the most hackneyed and conventional dreams of money, power and celebrity.

Today's avatar of success has abandoned the bowling leagues, country-club parties and Presbyterian church socials that supposedly occupied the organization man's leisure time. His signifiers are different: He plays Texas Hold 'Em in Vegas, BlackBerrys his broker from his whitewater kayak, hits all the best spots for mojitos in South Beach, chaperones models to the Croatian Riviera and leaps from job to job in a lonely, lustful quest for accumulation and domination. At least, he aspires to do all those things. He (or, increasingly, she) has upgraded from an old version of conformity to a new one, whose central oxymoronic commandment is: Be yourself. If "yourself" turns out to be nothing more than an amalgam of brand names and images plucked from TV shows, movies and magazine layouts, so much the better.

On the other hand, there's something wobbly about Niedzviecki's contention that the "individual conformist" lies at the heart of our culture; he doesn't always seem to believe it himself. A blend of cultural analysis, reporting and memoir, "Hello, I'm Special" is full of sharp and funny observations (most of them somewhere on the spectrum from bemusement to rage) and is generally a bracing read. But as Niedzviecki wanders from New Age Judaism to self-esteem training for teens, the "low-power" TV movement, karaoke clubs, the real estate boom in the remote coastal islands of British Columbia and boy-band entrepreneur Lou Pearlman's latest product (a group called Natural whose members actually play instruments), it becomes increasingly less clear what his target is.

Sometimes he's writing about the rise of conformist individuality. Sometimes he's writing about the paralytic disorder of celebrity worship (with its concomitant belief that each of us is a potential celebrity). And sometimes he's writing about the pop-culture economy that makes these things possible, a bloblike entity whose only products are image and spectacle and that has grown so big that nothing, including our purportedly private inward selves, can be said to remain outside it.

There are times when Niedzviecki seems like a paleontologist trying to reconstruct an entire extinct critter from a single metatarsal, or like a physics undergrad who has noticed a peculiar relationship in the lab between mass and energy, but doesn't know about that famous equation. His reading is eclectic, ambitious and scattershot: He draws from classic works of sociology by Ulrich Beck, Serge Moscovici and George Simmel; contemporary cultural analysis by Benjamin Barber and Stuart Ewen; and the great postmodern philosopher Michel Foucault. But he doesn't seem fully aware that for 50 or 60 years cultural critics of various stripes have been wrassling pretty much the same problem he is: that is, the tendency of late-capitalist culture to absorb all forms of opposition and resistance, whether real or symbolic, and then crap them out on our heads as interchangeable commodities.

This isn't entirely a liability. The world of ideas doesn't really need another grad student hauling the brains of dead Marxists around in his suitcase. Niedzviecki can't (or at least doesn't) call upon the dour heavyweights of the Frankfurt School, the apocalyptic bravado of the Situationists or the dense aphorisms of Jacques Derrida, Jean Baudrillard and company. That sometimes leaves him bumping around in the dark, stumbling over objects discovered long ago by others, but it also lends his account an undeniable freshness and vigor.

Whatever the theoretical or analytical weaknesses of "Hello, I'm Special," it offers you the experience of an intelligent young writer struggling to think for himself. As Niedzviecki is well aware, this is something that the culture of individualistic conformity has made obligatory, and thereby almost impossible.

In his early 30s, as Niedzviecki explains in his introduction, he experienced a sort of personal epiphany. He had devoted his post-collegiate years to playing the role of anti-establishment, hard-partying bad boy, a "pop-influenced semi-slacker" who celebrated deviance and attacked corporate culture. When his parents, two years running, gave him Hallmark cards that celebrated his nonconformity ("Happy birthday to a one-of-a-kind you!") he abruptly realized that his alleged defiance of convention had become utterly conventional, a ritualized behavior that was "not merely tolerated, but replicated and accepted."

"Hello, I'm Special" is not primarily a memoir, but its quality of personal quest, fueled by both confusion and anger, lends it a peculiar power. Writing the book, Niedzviecki tells us, is partly an act of self-indictment; he has looked into himself and found the same infection of "narcissistic I'm Specialness" and "pop-culture-inspired fantasies" that afflicts almost everyone else in North America. His punk-anarchist-intellectual pose was mostly about "exuding a pretense of cool," and it's now time, he writes with disarming frankness, to "get on with the business of figuring out what and who I want to be."

So like any good reporter, he has an emotional stake in the story he's telling. Late in the book, while attending 2002 World Youth Day activities in Toronto, he meets a group of devout young Catholics from Arizona who are fervently patriotic and fiercely antiabortion. They represent almost everything he has hated and feared his entire life, and he doesn't share their nationalism, their politics or their religious faith. But he writes about them with a kind of awe, describing their shimmering blond hair and glowing tans. Indeed, his primary reaction is not revulsion but envy: "They believe in something. It's more than many of us can say."

What most of us believe, Niedzviecki thinks, is not just a lie but a cheap and secondhand lie. He begins his narrative by exploring the world of backyard wrestling, a tiny corner of pop culture beloved of journalists in recent years. Countless short-lived backyard wrestling "federations" have staged tournaments in which bored young men somewhere in suburbia beat the bejesus out of each other, often using outrageous props, in front of a camcorder and then post the results on the Internet for the enjoyment of like-minded souls. As Niedzviecki observes, the whole enterprise is "an imitation of a TV spectacle (a spectacle that is, itself, an imitation of a sport)."

But the meta-ness of backyard wrestling isn't what engages him. Most accounts focus on how dangerous it is for untrained teenagers to leap off the garage or bash each other into the cement birdbath (which is arguably the point), or they tell us, with postmodern hopefulness, that these young fans are inscribing their own meanings onto an established cultural practice. For Niedzviecki, backyard wrestlers embody "the kind of specialness that characterizes the new conformity ... a genuine desire to articulate genuine individuality that is nonetheless mired in cliché and convention."

That's his argument in a nutshell: Those of us who grew up in the post-industrial, pop-culture-saturated West (and a whole lot of people who didn't) have been raised to believe that we are unique individuals with special destinies. When it comes to imagining that destiny, however, all we have are the mass-produced images of fame and success that everyone shares: Donald Trump in his corner office with its vulgar but expensive furniture, Howard Stern partying joylessly amid pneumatic boobs, pop stars and movie actors trying vainly to imitate the more real-seeming pop stars and movie actors of the past.

Stuffed with half-baked philosophies of self-actualization and self-fulfillment, we also believe that we are ourselves primarily or even solely responsible for reaching that destiny. We have all embraced that e-mail from the cosmos assuring us that we're VIPs -- the Guaranteed Celebrity in the Building can only be us! -- even though that requires pretending not to notice that everybody else got the same message.

We didn't need Niedzviecki to tell us that the Toronto cattle-call auditions for the debut season of "Canadian Idol" -- in which 10,000 potential pop stars packed into a gravel parking lot -- made for a pathetic spectacle. (Let's not even ask whether "Canadian Idol" is an unintentionally amusing title in the first place.) Almost everyone he talks to among the "thousands of young people planning on singing interchangeable pop songs" expresses the same New Age-flavored confidence. "Anyone can become what they want to be," says 16-year-old Brooke. "If you really want to make it there's always a way," says Billy, a 20-year-old house painter.

Even the 7,000 or so aspirants who don't make the first cut refuse to act daunted. "This isn't the last of me," one rejected girl tells Niedzviecki. "I know I'm going to be a star. The only person who can make your dreams not come true is yourself." To stop believing in your own specialness, no matter what the evidence, would be to violate the creed of the new conformism. Furthermore, if you fail to realize your dreams -- the same "shared, colonized, implanted" dreams millions of other people are chasing -- the fault must be yours.

One of Niedzviecki's sharper moments arrives in his chapter about the teen self-esteem industry, where he points out that this unstable conundrum -- we're all special, but almost none of us actually become superstars, and that's supposed to be our own fault -- creates its own solution. The end product of the "new-conformist society steeped in pop," he writes, is a solitary "citizen consumer" who is "passive, focused on the self, willing to work hard to buy the stuff that will make him stand out." If his specialness continues to elude the rest of the world, he "blames himself and turns inward to therapy, image adjustment, altar consultation, yoga" and so on.

There's a flash of genuine illumination here; Niedzviecki has captured one of the principal personality types of our time (one likely to seem uncomfortably familiar to most of us) in straightforward and commonsensical prose. Still, like a lot of his book, this is overstated and a bit simplistic. So far as I know, no one has previously identified yoga as a modality of social control, and that seems a bit harsh.

It also isn't half as original as he may believe. The idea that the individual, as a social category, was essentially invented by consumer capitalism is a central observation of 20th century Marxist and post-Marxist philosophy. Individual human beings have existed as long as the species has, and of course no two possess exactly the same attributes. But the idea of the individual as a hermetic entity surrounding a self, a mystical inner well of needs and desires capable of fulfillment, realization, repression and so on, could not have existed before the combination of capitalism, Protestantism and the beginnings of psychology called it into existence. Medieval Christian society had no time for the self; neither of course did communism or fascism.

Liberal humanism, at least in its popular incarnation, has always insisted that while the human body is imprisoned by circumstance, the soul always remains free. Niedzviecki draws heavily on Foucault's famous assertion that the reverse is actually true: Every human being possesses at least some physical freedom to do what he will with his body, but the soul is an "instrument of a political anatomy," impressed upon us by the institutions and ideologies around us. We are free, in other words, to become Pilates enthusiasts, drag queens or debauched junkies. We are not free, Niedzviecki writes, "to evoke an individuality that has not already been implanted in us by a combination of state-sponsored regulation and the wish-fulfillment fantasies of our pop culture."

Throughout his book, Niedzviecki seems to be restating, presumably at second hand, many of the points in the controversial and massively influential 1944 essay "The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception," by the German-Jewish refugee scholars Max Horkheimer and T.W. Adorno (from their book "Dialectic of Enlightenment"). All human needs, they write, are "presented to individuals as capable of fulfillment by the culture industry," but "individuals experience themselves through their needs only as eternal consumers, as the culture industry's object." The point here is "the necessity, inherent in the system, of never releasing its grip on the consumer, of not for a moment allowing him or her to suspect that resistance is possible."

There's plenty more one could quote; later in the essay Horkheimer and Adorno have a long paragraph describing the "pseudoindividuality" of Hollywood starlets, "serially produced like the Yale locks which differ by fractions of a millimeter." They conclude, "The peculiarity of the self is a socially conditioned monopoly commodity misrepresented as natural." I don't think this similarity of theme is accidental, but I don't think Niedzviecki is borrowing ideas without credit either. Probably Horkheimer and Adorno's vision of culture has just percolated so widely in the academic world that it wasn't possible to receive a liberal-arts education in the '90s, as Niedzviecki presumably did, without imbibing it.

You could even say that the criticisms leveled at the angst-ridden Frankfurters over the years also apply to Niedzviecki: Like any convert to a systematic ideology, he is overzealous, and he now sees pop culture in dark, Manichaean, monolithic and humorless terms. (Famously, Horkheimer and Adorno thought that jazz and the movies were fatally debased forms, incapable of genuine aesthetic expression.) To suggest that all struggling artists or musicians share the same scripted dreams of "specialness" and superstardom -- that if they don't want to be Britney or Spielberg, they want to be Cobain or Tarantino -- is patently false, and Niedzviecki knows better. I suspect he is still trying to explore and debunk his own dreams of alt-world stardom, and I can sympathize. Perhaps a subtler way of making his point would be to argue that, in a world where every form of cultural expression has become an exchangeable commodity, no individual can be so strange and no artist so confrontational as to escape it entirely.

What all this points toward is the likelihood, already mentioned, that Niedzviecki's book isn't really about what he thinks it's about. It's unquestionably true that a stylized pseudo-individuality is among the hallmarks of our age, but that's only one limb of a much larger beast. Niedzviecki seems insufficiently alive to the constantly contradictory, push-me-pull-you nature of contemporary pop culture, a system that resembles top-down dictatorship at the top and grass-roots democracy at the bottom, and which could be said to combine the psychoses and superstitions of both.

I'm not sure that celebrity worship, and the dream of celebrity, for instance, is really about individuality at all. It's more about transcending individuality, and leaving behind its pain and isolation for an identity that is general and universal. In what sense is Tom Cruise an individual? His emotional life, wacky religious beliefs and childbirth principles are public property, more urgent and present to many of us than the fact that our government has been torturing prisoners in secret jails.

When Niedzviecki visits the theme parks of Orlando, Fla., he writes compellingly about the fact that the throngs gathered there seem bored and dissatisfied. (Horkheimer and Adorno make the same observation about movie audiences.) But to argue that anyone goes to Walt Disney World or Universal Studios believing that it's in any way an individual experience is stretching his theoretical rubber band past the breaking point. Surely the point of theme parks is to replicate real or imagined collective experiences of the past -- the county fair, the vaudeville show, Fourth of July in the town square -- while somehow supercharging them. (Does the disillusionment come from recognizing that such things can't be resurrected, or that they weren't worth it in the first place?)

Yes, the 10,000 kids in the "Canadian Idol" gravel pit are all hopelessly deluded, and share virtually the same delusion. But every high school in North America has 15 girls who all think they'll become Mariah Carey, when their real destiny is "Good evening, Holiday Inn Express at Saugatuck Center. How may I direct your call?" That's not a news flash. Niedzviecki tries and fails to make the same point at a karaoke bar, where the patrons are just goofballing, play-acting at stardom for an evening. Nobody is fooling themselves; nobody believes that Simon Cowell's people will somehow hear their tape. (The same is probably true for the vast majority of backyard wrestlers. Would Niedzviecki feel more kindly to them if they were playing Batman or Spider-Man?)

When he discusses the rise of "neo-traditionalism," as with the Arizona Catholic teens or the case of his own brother, who became an ultra-Orthodox Jew despite a secular upbringing, Niedzviecki basically has to admit that the issue isn't individuality but other troublesome categories such as "authenticity" and "meaning." As another European expat scholar, George Steiner, has put it, we live in a "post-culture" (he means post-Auschwitz and post-Hiroshima) in which all the moral certainties of Western civilization have been stripped away and we wander about with no clear purpose, like ants whose hill has been blown up by a kid with a firecracker.

Some of us try to stride confidently forward, into late capitalism's model of conformist individualism. Some try to dig existing collective institutions out of the crushed anthill and breathe new life into them (hence the recent rise of fundamentalist religion, Islam included). Most of us are stuck somewhere in between, trying to piece together identities out of incompatible shards of culture: the flag, vegetarianism, Bill O'Reilly, Iranian cinema, the Isaac Mizrahi clothes at Target sewn by some Chinese teenager. Hell, we might as well all answer that e-mail spambot. Am I VIP? I don't know; probably not. But there will be genuine celebrities in the building. Why be left out?

Andrew O'Hehir

Monday, May 01, 2006

Gay Talese: A Reporter's Reporter

Kurt Andersen reviews "A Writer's Life" by Gay Talese in The New York Times

It's hard to overstate Gay Talese's gold-standard reputation. A few years ago, David Halberstam called him "the most important nonfiction writer of his generation, the person whose work most influenced at least two generations of other reporters."

The bedrock of that reputation consists of several exceptional magazine profiles from the 1960's, in particular "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold," published in Esquire in 1966. Helped along by one of the great modern magazine headlines, the piece became a canonical archetype of the so-called New Journalism — nonfiction conceived and written in the manner of fiction, with fully rendered scenes, extended conversations and plainly subjective depictions of mood. In 1969, Talese published "The Kingdom and the Power," an institutional portrait of The New York Times, where he had been a reporter for nine years. That book became a best seller, certifying him as a literary pop star as well as a reporter's reporter. Just two years after the Times book, he published another first-rate best seller, his story of a Mafia family called "Honor Thy Father."

Talese was now a publishing brand (with a brilliant Bible-o-matic titling template) who had earned enough money to buy a town house on East 61st Street and to slow his output way, way down. Since 1972, when he turned 40, he has published two books — "Thy Neighbor's Wife," a panoramic chronicle of post-1960's sexual hedonism, and "Unto the Sons," an exhaustive history of his parents and his Italian roots.

He's now 74, and one's instinct is to let him take his victory lap and applaud respectfully for the good work he has done. "A Writer's Life," I figured, would be a traditional memoir that picked up where "Unto the Sons" left off, in the 1940's, when he was 12. But this book is something else. It's mostly an account of Talese's inability these last 14 years to find a story that he and his editors were excited about. His dead ends and dry holes might have been usefully deconstructed and illuminated with careful, tough-minded, craftsmanlike introspection — something akin to the way, for instance, that Joan Didion created a masterpiece last year out of the death of her husband. But instead he has simply recapitulated and redoubled his botches by aggregating old notes and manuscript pages and interlarding them with bits of autobiography and self-abasement. The whole is less than the sum of its mostly arbitrary parts. It's a saga of serial professional failures that is itself a failure.

The book begins — and ends, more or less — in 1999, with Talese four years late on the autobiography he has contracted to write. This has been his M.O. — he delivered the manuscripts for "Unto the Sons" and "Thy Neighbor's Wife" four or five years late, because he produces prose "with the ease of a patient passing kidney stones." He never explains, however, why he could not bring himself to hunker down and write a more or less straightforward memoir. As close as he comes is a glancing comic aside — "frankness has never been my style." But "Unto the Sons" suggested he is capable of distilling drama and pathos from his own life: in that book's extraordinary final scene, his Italian father, enraged after Allied bombers destroyed an ancient Italian abbey south of Rome, smashes little Gay's balsa-wood models of Army Air Force planes, whereupon the distraught boy runs out onto the street and falls through a bakery's plate-glass window.

Rather than a memoir, though, Talese had decided to write a book "set within the milieu of a restaurant." He had accumulated files of notes since the 70's, although by the summer of 1999 he had written only 54 pages. So instead of working one Saturday afternoon in 1999, he's watching baseball on TV — and happens to change channels to the final game of the Women's World Cup soccer championship, the United States versus China. This prompts many pages of weirdly generic text about modern China, of which this is a typical passage: "Brand-name merchandise from the West had been distributed and also made in China for many years, encouraged by the trade policies of Deng Xiaoping, who became the Party ruler in 1978 (two years after Mao's death) and proclaimed, 'To get rich is glorious.' But now in 1999, as this nation of 1.3 billion people was about to mark a half-century of Communist rule that had been inaugurated by Mao's triumphant entrance into Tiananmen Square in October of 1949, China was hardly rich."

We know all this, of course, so why do we need to read it again? It is setup. It is drumbeat. Because the quietly desperate Talese is deciding he has stumbled onto his next Big Story. A Chinese player named Liu Ying misses a penalty kick, which gives the game to the Americans. "Never in the history of China," he writes breathlessly, "had a single person so suddenly been embarrassed in front of so many people." And shortly thereafter, at the end of a 40th anniversary Mediterranean cruise with his wife, instead of returning home to New York he flies east to China — a change of plans his wife learns about from a phone message he leaves with a clerk at her hotel.

He doesn't return to that bizarre, cliffhanging moment for more than 300 pages, and when he does arrive in Beijing the anticlimax is monumental. He gets almost nothing out of his chats with Liu Ying. And her mother tells Talese that his animating premise — the presumed national swell of embarrassment and blame after Liu lost the game — was a figment of his imagination, that a day or two after the missed kick people stopped caring, and the Chinese president told her: "Don't worry. . . . You will have another opportunity." But even then, Talese won't give up, and follows the team around the world for another year, as if his sheer tenacity might transform a non-story into a story.

Between those curious Chinese bookends the book is more hodgepodge than collage. Dozens of pages about an old building on East 63rd Street ("the Willy Loman of buildings in New York") that housed a series of failed restaurants. A half-dozen pages about the closeted gay manager of an Upper East Side club who died of AIDS, a dozen pages on the former headwaiter at Elaine's who quit to start his own restaurants. In the course of a dozen more on his years at The Times, a whole page about an affair between a nameless Times reporter and a New Yorker writer. And many flabby dozens concerning Alabama — not just his years at the state university and his weeks covering the 1965 civil rights march for The Times, but stray details like the number of Selma middle-school students in 1987. And nearly 80 pages on the John Bobbitt penis-chopping case.

Most of the interesting fragments of memoir concern his unhappy childhood in New Jersey. Contrary to Italian-American stereotype, he remembers no jolly home-cooked meals. He and his sister "grew up thinking we were in the way of our parents' relationship." He did poorly in school, and was rejected by every one of the 20-odd Northeastern colleges to which he applied.

But his personal life as an adult remains largely blank. A brief account of eloping in Rome is charming — but then he retreats, archly, declaring almost everything else about his family off the record. Although Nan Talese is an important book editor as well as his wife of 47 years, we learn almost nothing about her. Her professional accomplishments are glossed over in two cursory paragraphs. He is so reluctant to tell his own story that he reprints 800 words from a Vanity Fair profile of himself. Friends and children scarcely appear in "A Writer's Life."

It's one thing to rummage through the files and cut and paste together enough material to fulfill a very old book contract. Talese has hustled enough over the years to be permitted a punt. But a great deal of the prose in "A Writer's Life" is shockingly, inexcusably bad.

Some is ungrammatical, some is clumsy (Tina Brown "was particularly compelling and seductive when dealing with men of means or other assets who were close to the age of her father"), and much is simply imprecise and amateurish — like his 1965 Selma memory of "wooden clubs and rifle butts pounding with muted audibility the demonstrators' clothes-covered flesh," and his conviction that in the newsrooms of his youth, unlike today, "Journalism was . . . performed with resonance and impartible vivacity."

He's naturally old-school — always wears a suit and tie, writes longhand, flies on "a jet airplane," takes a "motor ride," calls blue jeans "dungarees" and China "the mainland." Fine. But most of the bad writing seems faux-old-fashioned in a stilted, wordy, strenuously highfalutin way — Restoration Hardware prose. "We journalists, in my view, were the pre-eminent chroniclers of contemporary happenings," he writes, and "I still respond inharmoniously to home cooking." About nepotism, he writes of employees "on the Times payroll in part (if not entirely) because of their cosanguinity or their conjugal affiliation with the Ochs patrilineage."

When single sentences run on for half a page, they read like a pastiche of Henry James and Vanity Fair magazine's fictional hack journalist Ed Coaster. And Talese is full of staggeringly obvious insights about restaurants. They are "rooms of recognition, salutation and reassurance" where "there is no greater aide-mémoire than a $20 bill" for a maître d', whose "midday kisses" with "the ladies who lunch are quintessential manifestations of unfelt affection."

Humor is not Talese's strong suit. He is under the impression that alliteration equals comedy — thus we hear about the restaurateur Elaine Kaufman as a "doyenne of dyspepsia" and Times copy editors as "desk-bound deprecators." Concerning sex his take is Hefneresque — a pseudo-sophisticated, circa-1955-bachelor-pad smirk. Tina Brown reminds him of his high school English teacher, "a comely, decorous and demanding taskmistress who was often at the center of my teenage erotic fantasies." "The penises of married men were treated far better, I believed, during the era of my early adulthood in mid-20th-century America" because of "the almost effortless accessibility and the abundance of what the marriage manuals then preferred to call 'coitus,' and which under normal circumstances was readily and conveniently available within one's own home and usually within an arm's reach at most hours of the day and night." He regrets that because the television cameras covering the women's World Cup "were not catering to the sexual concentrations that might enliven my afternoon," he spotted no "large-breasted women" on either team.

Even more surprising, given that Talese was the New Journalist celebrated for deep reporting rather than virtuosic writing, is the paucity of well-observed moments. At the Upper East Side restaurant Elio's, for instance, he sees fit to note that one night he sat "near a large table where the talk is all about book publishing and real estate prices in the Hamptons." Wow! Really? In Beijing, he decides his interpreter is lousy, but keeps the examples of poor translations to himself. Talese spent five months in China, but there's scant evidence here of what he saw or heard or smelled or felt.

The thing is, he wears his self-doubt on his sleeve throughout this book — announcing his uncertainties and flounderings but never really making any sense of them. He refers to his "ridiculous life as a prolific author of unfinished manuscripts." He thinks of writing a short, lighthearted book to be called "Profiles in Discouragement."

In 1993, with "nothing that I could rightly point to as a book in progress" and in a "state of indecision and discontent," Talese is invited by Tina Brown to join The New Yorker "as the 'writer at large,' which was the title she had bestowed upon Norman Mailer when he had worked with her at Vanity Fair." "I hesitated . . . thinking that it was not a good idea at the age of 61 to do what I might have already done better when 30 years younger." But he agrees, plunging into the Bobbitt story. "I had often wanted to write more about the penis since completing 'Thy Neighbor's Wife,' " he explains, apparently in all seriousness. However, Tina doesn't like the resulting 10,000-word article; he begs for another chance, and offers to make it much shorter; finally she kills it — and the excruciating correspondence between Talese and his comely, demanding editorial taskmistress is reprinted in full. In 1997, after he sends an outline of his proposed restaurant book to his editor at Knopf, the response is blunt and chilling. "I'm sure it would be an interesting book," the editor responds to the most important nonfiction writer of his generation. "But I don't see it selling very many copies. I don't know what else to say. At your level we need a book with very large sales potential. I don't think this is it."

Even as he throws himself into the Liu Ying story two years later, Talese worries that it's just an elaborate act of procrastination. He calls his proposal that Time Inc. send him to China "utterly stupid," and instantly regrets his "false modesty" and the "obviousness of my opportunism." His acquaintance Norman Pearlstine, Time Inc.'s editor in chief (56 at the time but described by Talese as being "maybe 50"), has an underling call back to tell him no thanks.

Near the end of the book, as he's leafing once more through his "hundreds of pages of typed notes," he discovers "a kind of diary" of his "doubts, vacillations and rationalizations about the work I was trying to do." In one such memo-to-self, he had asked, "Why am I not writing this book faster?" And he had answered, using the second person: "You're demonstrating concern for readers in not burdening them with bad writing. . . . There's so much bad writing out there, why add to it?" Yes? "The bookshelves of America are lined with the second-rate work of first-rate writers." Yes?

In other words, he seems about to see the awful truth, but then he can't, or won't, and says instead that reading his indulgent, hortatory answer to himself "made me feel better."

Gay Talese reminds me of another cultural star of his generation who spends way too much time in the cozy bubble of the Upper East Side, walking the same streets, talking to the same people at the same places night after night. Like Talese, Woody Allen did his career-making work in the 1960's and 70's, maintained a high standard in the 80's — but then seemed to lose his touch. Allen recovered his mojo last year with "Match Point" — a film unlike any he'd made before, set and shot thousands of miles away from his standard Manhattan mise-en-scène. So one sympathizes with Talese's rash expedition to China. For him, alas, the gambit didn't pan out.

Better luck next time. "A Writer's Life" is only a failed book, not a failed life. One hopes that Talese has purged himself, and can start anew, with a fresh story he's passionate about telling honestly and clearly. And maybe stew a little less, and write a little faster.

Kurt Andersen

Read Gay Talese's fabulous article "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold" here