That ‘New Yorker’ Feeling

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie

Orlean is at her best when she backs away and gets her subjects to do the talking, as in the compilation of Talk of the Town entries filed under “Short People.” She doesn’t muddy the waters much with, say, ideas or interesting phrases of her own: a style that finds itself in fashion these days, accessible but not trashy. Supplemented by her insistent descriptions of whatever room we’re in, the result is a seeming empiricism, with Empire furnishings. It’s a Feeling we could get used to.

A paradoxical effect of this pass at objectivity is how urgently we must care about the subjects just to make it through. I enjoyed “The Maui Surfer Girls,” but I suspect this is because I like girls and surfers and feel fine about Maui; it’s not because the waxy last paragraph includes the phrase “to look at this wild water and think, I will glide on top of those waves.” A competent interviewer, Orlean can’t actually write—unless writing is knowing the names of curtain styles, and ending piece after piece by spinning into significant lyric reveries.

The New Gilded Age (Random House, 432 pp., $26.95), collected by New Yorker editor in chief David Remnick, anthologizes profiles from the bubble economy. Roughly half (more, of course) are dedicated to Super-Haves, with occasional hints they might not be so great. The remainder look at a skewed list of Have-Nots: a broke novelist, a South Bronx mom, and several New Yorker writers busily profiling how they themselves are not millionaires, except for the one who in fact seems to be.

Ah, That New Yorker Feeling: leering at the luscious matériel of the world, while frenziedly sublimating our cupidity into an ironic knowing-better. We’ll never be Donald Trump or Bill Gates, but in return we’ll never be such knobs or dorks. We are the middle class; we are above these guys exactly because we are below them.

Even as plutocrats are piquantly skewered, the engine driving them is ennobled. Ayn Rand appears and reappears as the good angel of the New Economy, lurking behind Internet gaga and Alan Greenspan’s fiscal erotikon, insistently framing capitalism as an ethical-spiritual system. That’s one way to go, I suppose; the version where it’s a gritty, deadly clash between the powerful and the excluded seems so Last Millennium, doesn’t it?

In our sour spring this book itself seems already antique and a bit puzzling. Was there really a time when we cared enough about techno-zealot George Gilder to read (or, good heavens, write) 10,000 words about him? Was it only last year? Even with the gilding off the lily, several essays sparkle. For every banality (“Shoes have always had meaning” determines Michael Specter, mad for Manolo Blahnik), we get Joan Didion heroically rendering Martha Stewart a plausible topic for human thought. If there is only one tough critique—Nicholas Lemann’s formalist skewering of management consultants—then only once do we encounter an essay featuring the incisive lede “It is March 17th, and my friend Brooke Astor . . . ”

That last, by Brendan Gill, seems like nothing so much as a mistake, in which the aristocrat appears not as an object of contempt and longing but simply as a pal. Or perhaps that’s a version of the dream, the old dream, where we are all of us gilded in égalité and lucre, here in the last great days of our town, the capital of the 20th century.

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