New York

The Conversation


Hi-dee-hie, as my fave character on South Park used to say. What to make of this? Name’s kind of dull. Still, what was she gonna call it, Godot? Say, how about Balk? Or Bulk, since at 254 pages, from opening splash of Crème De La Crème ads to herself’s coy toodle-oo, the preem ish could take the Neiman-Marcus catalogue in a bar fight.

The first surprise, though, is how much text predominates over graphics in a design that varies from the cover’s Euro-cheesy to the inside’s pure Wisconsin. The surfeit of lengthy feature articles, running-off-at-the-mouth columns, and lesser natterings all jostling for jump space in Talk‘s clutter leave Thomas Pynchon looking like a greeting-card writer. Magazines should be a single meal, from antipasto to dessert; you picture this one dominating the refrigerator like a Thanksgiving turkey in mid December, the family sitting down to sandwiches in another morose attempt to finish it off at last.

By Tina’s lights, whatever isn’t worth overdoing isn’t worth doing. But since she (a) does know good writing, even if they aren’t on a first-name basis, and (b) does value journalism that gets to the bottom of things, even if she’d rather it made a splash on the way, Talk isn’t all idle chatter. In fact, if she needs a blurb, here’s mine: it’s boring in a different way than other magazines are boring. Qualitywise, the serious pieces are acute in inverse ratio to their subjects’ obviousness, from a Tucker Carlson profile of Bush the Younger that’s revealing mainly for the way Carlson falls under the spell he’s attempting or affecting to elucidate to Charles Bowden’s sociological gem about the young Mexicanas drawn to Juárez’s factories by the post-NAFTA economy. One annoyance is an incurable fondness for horses’ mouths on the editrix’s part that apparently precludes looking in them; in particular, former UNSCOM head Richard Butler’s description of his frustrated efforts to disarm Iraq is minatory enough to leave you yearning for the sort of corroborating evidence that a participant’s account, by definition, can’t give. In other words, it’s a piece that should have been done by a reporter, at whatever cost in buzz.

And who gives a rat’s patootie, I hear you holler, speaking of buzz. Despite the Clinton fatigue that’s rapidly becoming the late-’90s answer to Epstein-Barr, you want to scoot straight to the Hillary interview— which your eyes and fingers crave, even as your poor old brain says no más. (Tina has trained us well.) But I’m going to make you suffer as I suffered. Seemingly assembled in a last-minute panic, the front of the book is a debacle through which one wades like an extra in Saving Private Ryan, alternately sidestepping the fallen and praying for the bullet that will end it all. After a photo-op special styled “First Talk”— and devoted this time to what the famous wear to prizefights, although thinking of James Woods as a fashion plate is more likely to inspire you to buy a dishwasher than a suit— the reader lurches onto a darkling plain of tidbits, swept together under the vapid rubric “The Conversation.” Among other things, Tina is the David Attenborough of editors, letting us share the beautiful moment when a vogue word pupates into a cliché; “conversation,” of course, is Clintonese for monologue.

Conversating away in top form is the inimitable— but who’d want to?— James Atlas, clearly a scallop among shrimp if not quite a giant among men in this company. Grim experience having persuaded him that all sorts of mere “people with regular jobs,” from lawyers to hairdressers to (save us!) travel agents, now behave like celebrities, Atlas explains: “The reason I know this is because [sic] this new class has adopted one of the primary emblems of a high place on the social ladder: inaccessibility. As a journalist who makes a living interviewing people, I see this. The more in demand someone becomes, the more trouble I have getting them on the phone. It’s ironic, given how connected we all are now. . . . ” And so on, giving reader if not writer numerous insights into the real reason no one wants to return Atlas’s phone calls, as he builds to this heartrending shriek: “We’re less valuable than the people who serve us.”

When you finally reach Hillary, you collapse with a sob. At this late date, I don’t see how a single citizen of the indispensable nation can get it up to be scandalized by her bid to blame her husband’s busted zipper on the traumas lil’ Bill suffered at the hands of two women now dead, since both Clintons are not only shameless but adept at using therapeutic cant to avoid calling anything their fault. It’s still fun when she starts denouncing our hyena time— “the way we sort of strip away everyone’s sense of dignity, of privacy”— in the middle of a profile that doesn’t just expose her innermost uncandid feelings about Bill’s infidelity, an intimacy I’d bet anything was the quid pro quo for the cover’s boost to her Senate campaign. The real if implicit scoop, given a preliminary drumroll by HRC chief of staff Melanne Verveer’s heroically unembarrassed comment that “We’ve slowly seen a physical passion come back into their lives” and reaching crescendo in the final image of the First Couple striding bedroomward hand in hand, is the hot news that Bill and Hillary are fucking again. Stop the presses! Start the Magic Fingers!

Elsewhere, the dross includes Tom Stoppard’s sheepish announcement that he’s discovered he’s Jewish— and you’d be sheepish too, if you found the fact as nonearthshaking and the topic as bracketed by obligatory attitudes (that is, secondhand even if felt, no pleasant spot for a writer who prefers original perceptions) as Stoppard plainly does. Even if he’s commuted to Dutchess County for 20 years, getting a suave type like Michael Korda to write about the joys of country life is like hiring Bill McKibben as a nightclub columnist. And speaking of obligatory, did you really think that Tina wouldn’t find a way to invite Di’s corpse to Talk‘s debut? But even if Gerald Posner has become the go-to guy on debunking conspiracy that Michael Beschloss is on presidents, his piece about Mohammed Al Fayed’s quest to prove that his son and the chick with him didn’t die by accident nicely balances analytical skepticism with modest investigative surprises.

However, unlike Fayed’s list of perps, not all of Talk‘s writers are the usual suspects. If you ask me— and maybe you shouldn’t, since he’s been to my house— Tina’s best stroke was hiring Washington City Paper vet Eddie Dean, whose account of life in a Virginia trailer park should tell you why he’s been a local treasure in D.C. for years. All the same, that Dean’s piece winds up cheek by jowl with two pages of Angelina Jolie in the layout, with no indication of a break in mood, is symptomatic. So far as I can tell, Tina isn’t competing with any existing magazine. She’s competing with Wal-Mart, cramming in everything from high to low and portentous to trivial in the hope that all of it will stick, right down to Hillary and George W. balancing each other on the cover. (To blunt if not moot the obvious questions raised by the Miramax connection, however, she includes no movie reviews— or any other critical writing, except for a book section that’s darned proud to have Martin Amis on the team.) The simple explanation for this glut is ambition combined with insecure taste, which I suspect Tina’s is when she steps up to the net to serve instead of volley.

But even if that’s true, you could say she’s also quit playing tennis. As you squint at this pudding in search of its theme, you notice omissions more than continuities. For one thing, the contents aren’t particularly youth-oriented; not only do the prattling lists of what and who’s in practically reek of anxiety, their function as a vaccine against cluelessness helps you pin down the context by being noticeably incongruous. For another, despite a cursory nod to Cornel West and a haven’t-our-readers-seen-you-somewhere-before to Queen Latifah, Talk isn’t particularly multiculti. Always something of a mouse in parrot’s clothing, Herself does have her old-fashioned side; after all, if she were really forward-looking, she wouldn’t have started a magazine, but something more post-Gutenberg. Instead, not only has she stayed in Printland, this is her trad move— a mag whose only
discernible message, peeking through the hoopla, is that it’s hip to be square. Again. Tina’s PR burblings about reviving the golden age of American magazines named no specific titles, and no wonder: the model she doesn’t want to acknowledge, if only because it would alarm her advertisers, is the magazine that Norman Rockwell used to do illustrations for.

One reason she’s probably eager to put irony behind her is that humor has never been her strong suit— and isn’t in evidence here, despite her attempt to prove she’s a good sport by including a parody letters column that isn’t nearly as funny as other people’s prepublication parodies of Talk. Then again, those parodies also guessed wrong, since they took an ever more frantic pursuit of glitz for granted. Nobody expected Tina to produce The Saturday Evening Post-Modern, and decide the time was right to turn the cutting edge into a giant spoon. Call the consensus she’s gambling on the new middlebrowism if not the new fuddy-duddyism, and while you’re at it, feel bad Norman Rockwell’s dead. His portrait of Bill and Hillary in postcoital glow— he checking his library plans in boxers-not-briefs, she consulting Harold Ickes with sheet demurely yanked to breast— would have been Talk‘s ideal cover.

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