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Like every institution, The New Yorker has its detractors. Nonetheless, and especially in the case of its famed profilers, The New Yorker’s as close to a common value as we have at the intersection of American letters and journalism. This is not lost on the publishing industry, which sometimes seems to balance the middle of its lists on the multiplex output of New Yorker-associated writers.
New Yorker writers, after all, tend to be thoughtful, articulate, equally wary of the easily zeitgeisty and problematically abstruse. More important, they perform the crucial task facing every lifestyle magazine (make no mistake, or just look at the ads—The New Yorker is a lifestyle magazine par excellence). They help the readers feel the way they would like to feel about their lives. The New Yorker offers much that’s worthwhile; it sells That New Yorker Feeling.
That New Yorker Feeling is one of double consciousness, perhaps best emblematized by the priggish aristocrat who lords over the mag. We are put off by his arrant snobbery: We work for a living, you and I. Nonetheless we should like some access to the world at his disposal, and know we have the taste and discretion—but also the liberal vision—to make the most of it.
This state of mind is the natural condition of the bourgeoisie, that French invention on par with deconstruction and the guillotine. One might say The New Yorker is itself a Gallic invention. The Revolution delivered a standing army of the middle class, but even Napoleon had his Waterloo, and the next thing you know, the survivors are standing around wondering what to read. Hence the inevitability of Paris to the Moon (Random House, 338 pp., $24.95), staff writer Adam Gopnik’s return to his employer’s locus classicus for five years in the ville famously dubbed “the capital of the 19th century.”
If Gopnik does not take New York with him, he certainly packs That New Yorker Feeling. His is a Paris determined by double consciousness, an overlay of oppressive, stately ancien régime, and the vivid daily life lived beneath it: Here is the prig; here are the good times to be had playing in his gardens. Against every state monolith, there is “the most beautiful commonplace civilization there has ever been: cafés, brasseries, parks, lemon on trays, dappled light on bourgeois boulevards . . . ”
Gopnik spots these beckoning goods, and the bureaucracy that would claim and limit their luster, at every turn: apartment hunting, at the park’s puppet theater, in the midst of haute couture shows. He doesn’t find them in the banlieue rouge, the suburbs ringing the beautiful museum city with displaced workers. Perhaps this is because he doesn’t go there.
Nor must he. This is not comprehensive sociology; it’s an account of a life he’d always wanted and then got, and got to write about. And Gopnik is a terrific writer. At one moment he can bon motify dueling tours by Jürgen Habermas and Bill Gates: “the German philosopher who tells you that you need only connect and the American businessman who will sell you the software to let you do it.” In another piece, bemused by a river walk, he nails the romantic interior monologue of the expat: “You feel as if you’ve escaped your ghosts if only because, being you, they’re transfixed looking at the lights in the trees on the other bank, too, which they haven’t seen before, either.”
That Manhattanite and his ghost, part of and apart from the glittering vista, stand for each doubling, as if we needed reminders. At the Musée d’Orsay he discovers that “Paris is marked by a permanent battle between French civilization . . . and French official culture.” We are not shocked by this revelation. Nor are we surprised when he clarifies, “By French civilization I mean the small shops”—the very escutcheon of the middle class. The book, sweetly and deftly written, turns out to be a story neither of Paris nor New York but of the bourgeoisie, observed in as close as we can get to their natural habitat. It is a distillate of That New Yorker Feeling. Sure, it’s a bit of a fantasy world, where the waiters dream only of perfecting their craft of serving you, but it’s a beautifully rendered fantasy. Gopnik’s ironic misfortune is that his sharp prose promises an equally piercing vision, which never quite materializes.
Susan Orlean suffers no such misfortune. The New Yorker staff writer and author of The Orchid Thief doesn’t produce a lot of expectations with her prose. Over the course of some 20 profiles collected in The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup (Random House, 295 pp., $24.95), she leans heavily on detailing nice rooms, and noticing her subjects’ favored expressions. Her own lexical hobbyhorse is significant and its variations. The typical 10-year-old she profiles has “significant foot speed”; his fave video game has “not an insignificant amount of popularity” and this is “not an insignificant thing.” Well, if you can’t generate the effect for your readers, the least you can do is mention it often.
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.