Gotham Diary:
August 2016 (I)

1, 2, 4, and 5 August

Monday 1st

For years, I have not read White Noise. It has been an ongoing thing, of which I was always aware: “I have not read White Noise.” I missed it when it came out — I was on a different wavelength in 1984. But I was sufficiently tuned in to hear the big noise that it made, and, eventually, I bought a copy of the original hardback, complete with dust jacket, at the Strand, for $2.95. But I did not read it. “Don DeLillo” sounded too much like a sports writer. Later, I would read Underworld, but I would hate it. Such bloat! And of course it did start out at a baseball game. But it taught me that White Noise must have been very good indeed, to create the kind of reputation that would mislead a writer into thinking that he could do anything. I gave my copy of Underworld away.

I was wondering if I’d given away White Noise as well when I found it on last week’s visit to the storage unit. (I’ve packed fourteen boxes of books to give away, and have an appointment with someone to come pick them up and haul them to Housing Works next week.) Yesterday, I sat down with it, and wound up reading almost all of it; I read the last forty-odd pages this morning. I was expecting a more difficult read. It might have been a difficult read thirty years ago, I suppose. Now it was easy. It was like a well-planned ride at an intellectual amusement park. It was also, obviously, the template for a wide range of novels, ranging from the work of Tom Perrotta to that of David Foster Wallace. Its structure seemed to have been the model for And Then We Came to the End, Joshua Ferris’s first, and I think best, novel. Its relish for the absurdity of American life brought George Saunders so much to mind that, in one or two sleepy moments, I thought that White Noise was his. I was left wishing that I had read White Noise a long time ago, because then I should have been able to assay the frequent references to it. It has come to be regarded as a book that every literate American ought to read. A nasty little corner of me hoped to find out that this status was not deserved, that White Noise was a meretricious entertainment. But it is no such thing. It is a good book, and whether or not it is a great book, it has had an undeniably great impact.

The novel’s setting, in a fictional town overwatched by a small but eminent college (College-on-the-Hill), turns out to be a weird stroke of genius — weird because it’s not easy to say when the stroke actually struck. Now, in any case, it is impossible not to see Don DeLillo taking the place of his narrator, Jack Gladney, with a dozen or more future novelists sitting on the lawn surrounding a very famous creative writing program — somewhere in Iowa, maybe, or in upstate New York — while he instructs them, not how to run a Hitler Studies department, but how to open a novel with the delightfully shocking surprise of something like a Hitler Studies department. I can hear him noting that this arresting invention need not become a distraction in the foreground. “Hitler Studies” is a joke, and it knows its place. (Hitler qua joke — who’d ‘a’ thunk it?) I envision the future novelists taking furiously comprehensive notes. I can even smell the grass stains.

It was fun to read a cutting-edge critique of the usual suspects that nevertheless lacked the Internet. Typing out “Internet,” just now, I shuddered to think that it sounds like a word that DeLillo might have made up for White Noise; it has become a retrospective target of his satire. The novel’s ridicule of supermarket tabloids does a very good job of standing in for the nonsense of today. Jeanne Dixon — that’s who she was. I was trying to remember her name last night, chatting with Kathleen. Do you remember how the year always began — or maybe it always ended — with a list of Jeanne Dixon’s predictions? DeLillo rolls out a bundle of parodies; I love the one about Elvis because it describes Graceland as “his musical mansion.” But gold has to go to this one:

UFOs will raise the lost city of Atlantis from its watery grave in the Caribbean by telekinetic means and the help of powerful cables with properties not known in earthlike materials. The result will be a ‘city of peace’ where money and passports are totally unknown. (145)

Do tabloids still publish predictions? Where have all the psychics gone? Were they, too, victims of the Internet’s creative destruction? Atlantis has sunk beneath the horizon of the culture’s imagination. But the magnitude and worthlessness of random crap have not diminished. We have replaced glimpses of the future with the glare of present reality.

Nevertheless, if White Noise provides the template, it does not contain the contents. The novelists of the future, having become the novelists of now, have had to mine that from other sources. What distinguishes George Saunders, you might think, is his soaring imagination, which effortlessly surpasses DeLillo’s; but it is really his aching humanity that sets him apart. In Saunders, you laugh at the language, never at the characters: his characters are no joke. And when I think of a novel written in a very different tradition, to wit by Penelope Lively, White Noise hardens somewhat into an extremely elegant toy. Almost everything in it can be understood and criticized by Heinrich, Jack Gladney’s brilliant fourteen year-old son. (Just what kind of a joke was Hitler Studies?) Did part of DeLillo suspect that Heinrich would grow up, shed his callow rigor, and grow a heart?


Tuesday 2nd

In Sunday’s Times, N Gregory Mankiw published an “Upshot” entry about “trade skeptics.” Trade skeptics are voters who disagree with economists about globalization, free trade, job offshoring, and so forth. Economists like Mankiw want to know why. Mankiw cites a couple of recent studies, conducted by political scientists, not economists, linking trade skepticism to xenophobia and to lack of education — the usual suspects. These studies apparently rule out joblessness, or loss of jobs to globalizing trends, as factors leading to trade skepticism — according to Mankiw. I find it hard to believe that he is right.

I am in no position to run studies of my own, but then I’m pretty skeptical about studies, and polls, too. I believe that they are hopelessly tendentious, designed, whether consciously or not, to prove a point, not to discover one. I believe that they are skewed by their participants. And, in this case, I am haunted by the echoes of George Saunders’s recent New Yorker piece about Donald Trump’s supporters. Saunders reports a lot of conversations with ordinary people. (Disclosure: I chatted with Saunders once at a book signing. I trust him.) Many of these people offered an anecdote about a friend or a neighbor who had been laid off. Then, too, I’m haunted by what I’ve read about plant closings. The Philips plant in Sparta, Tennessee. The Carrier plant in Indianapolis. The plants in Warren, Ohio, that George Packer writes about in The Unwinding. A quick Google search turns up plenty of job-loss-related trade skepticism.

I suspect that the political scientists find no correlation between trade skepticism and job loss due to globalization because of disciplinary preconceptions. The political scientists query voters on political views. Knowing someone who has been laid off is not a political view. Nationalism is; isolationism is; even racism is. But worries about job security do not register as a political factor. They might well be excluded in advance, simply by the design of the study.

But even if the studies are nonsense, Mankiw is a serious economist, an adviser to President George W Bush and a professor at Harvard. His opinions appear regularly, and I imagine that he wields considerable influence in Republican circles. What this Sunday’s upshot piece says — and it actually does say it — is that, with the expansion of higher education, fewer voters will be trade skeptics. Trade skepticism may be a political problem now, but it will go away when more people go to college.

Is that because college-educated people think clearly enough to agree with economists on the benefits of free trade, or is it because, until recently, college-educated people have been far less vulnerable to job loss attributable to free trade?

I am not opposed to free trade on principle. I’m opposed to the mainstream view of free trade because it nurtures unrealistic expectations of education — both higher education and re-education or re-training. First, we have probably reached the point at which those who are capable of pursuing a college education are doing so. Second, there is little evidence that re-training workers leads to a restoration of their status quo ante. They may get jobs, but the jobs are unlikely to be as good (in any sense) as the ones that were lost. Advocates of free trade never proceed beyond breezy statements of their nostrums. They never point to studies showing that displaced workers have fully recovered. They don’t seem to regard as the sense of job security as a factor.

Gregory Mankiw’s opinion is that uneducated voters are bigoted — and bigotry, as we all know, is a kind of stupidity. If the United States withdraws from the globalist carnival, it will be down to stupid, uneducated Americans. End of discussion.

I hope that more educated people will disagree. I hope that more educated people will become “studies skeptics.” Most of all, I hope that educated people will learn to treat those who aren’t as human beings like themselves.


Thursday 4th

On Tuesday night, we went to a Mostly Mozart concert at Geffen Hall. On the program were Haydn’s 59th Symphony, Fire, which I didn’t know, and two works by Mozart, the 25th Piano Concerto and the 40th symphony. Thierry Fischer, conductor of the Utah Symphony Orchestra, stood in for the ailing Andrés Orozco-Estrada. I’m not familiar with Mr Orozco-Estrada, whose somewhat hoopla’d début this was to be, so I was free to take what Mr Fischer had to offer without the burden of comparisons. In the event, I’m not sure that comparisons would have occurred to me. Fischer had an entirely new approach to everything. Even the unknown-to-me Haydn sounded unusual. Just now, I found a recording in my library, led by Trevor Pinnock, and it sounds exactly like what I’d have expected, and nothing at all like what I heard on Tuesday.

First, Fischer displayed a penchant for sforzando piano, a trick of following a suddenly emphasized sound by an equally sudden withdrawal. In practice, this worked to prevent the suggestion of shrillness that can accompany Mozart’s dramatic outbursts, replacing mere agitation with polished insistence. Second, Fischer was willing to alter tempos for expressive purposes. This is a commonplace for the big Romantic orchestral works, and its application to something as early as the Fire Symphony (1768) might be regarded as anachronistic — but perhaps not, given that this symphony is one of Haydn’s Sturm und Drang experiments. Ten or fifteen seconds into the first movement, the texture of the music undergoes a bizarre change, passing from a clackety, almost late-Baroque tonic simplicity to a mysteriously chromatic iridescence. In a blink, the orchestra appeared to be playing a different piece of music. This was very startling, and almost irritating, the first time, but as the gesture was repeated its experimental urgency seemed better-controlled — by Haydn, I mean, as well as by the musicians. It’s a shock that you’re supposed to get used to — and Haydn’s symphonies are full of such. There’s another shock, in the slow movement of the Fire I think it was, when the languid strings are interrupted by a bizarre blast from one of the horns. That didn’t make sense, but I’m not sure that it was a mistake.

The third characteristic of the evening’s performance was a plush lambency, a melting clarity, that muted all abruptness. This must have at least in part owed to the orchestra’s skill as an ensemble, but Fischer depended on it. The two Mozart works, which are of course enormously familiar, sounded altogether new and different, the Symphony especially. “Melting clarity” sounds like a muddle, I know, but what I mean is a way of going from here to there that is at the same time both perfectly lucid and perfectly suave. And I suppose that what I’m trying to get at by “plush lambency” is the physical, organic nature of the sound. Nothing could have been less mechanical, or less “precise.” Fischer’s final trick was a knack for distant thunder. I heard it all evening, but I can’t explain it. It was as though Fischer had exported all the excitement to an offstage band. Some may prefer the violence of a storm overhead to the menace of distant thunder, but, at least outside the opera house, I do not.

The pianist, Martin Helmchen, suited Mr Fischer’s style down to the ground. A delicate presence at the piano, he was almost a dandy of exquisite nonchalance. I have found that it is very difficult for pianists to put their personal stamp on Mozart’s late concertos. Today’s piano did not exist when Mozart was writing. In particular, Mozart’s pianos lacked the burly lower registers that Beethoven would be the first to enjoy. It’s for this reason, I think, that the concertos are always a little more interesting when recorded. Mozart’s brilliant runs, moreover, are so demanding that merely to get through them coherently is an achievement. In the end, pianists are either headlong or elegant. I am mad about the exuberance of Daniel Barenboim’s recordings of the concertos, but I can delight in elegance when it shows reserves of power. That’s what Mr Helmchen and Mr Fischer did on Tuesday. Helmchen also played a cadenza to the first movement that I’d like to hear again.

As to the G-Minor Symphony, I can say simply that the first three movements were so unlike anything that I had ever heard before that the finale was almost boring in its regularity. From the beginning, the blend of strings and winds was amazing (a word that you’re not supposed to use when writing about this sort of thing). The strings produced a warm and enveloping sound that provided a luxurious mounting for the colorful gems spun by the clarinets, the bassoons, the flute, the horns, and, more quietly, the oboes. Tempos were brisk, which allowed Fischer to make a statement just by leading the trio of the minuet at a slower pace. (I had never noticed that Mozart keeps the clarinets out of the trio. It took the sight of the two musicians rather ostentatiously cleaning their instruments, finishing just in time, to bring home the point.) Altogether the magnificence of the performance was enhanced, rather than the reverse, by the rigor with which Fischer took all the repeats.

Through all of this, there was the performance of the man sitting in front of me.

Later, recovering from her nightmare, Kathleen said that the familiarity of the music helped get her through the fear that we were about to be blown to kingdom come by a terrorist bomb. This was no idle dread. The man sitting in front of me was an odd bird to see at a Mostly Mozart concert. Somewhat ferret-faced, with thinning but almost lacquered waves of fine black hair running back from his temples and a goatee of stubble, he was a medium-sized man of very firm build. Fifty at least, he might have been an exceptional athlete of some kind. He might have been a coach, too, but his manner made this seem unlikely. He could not sit still. For some reason, Kathleen noticed this more than I did. He swept sweat from his brow, his arms were alway in motion, and if he wasn’t peering up at the balconies, as if to make contact with an accomplice, he was peering restlessly into his large red Century 21 shopping bag. What I noticed was his attire. He wore dark crocs, black pants, and, most dissonantly, a black V-necked T shirt that had reinforced seams at the shoulder. It’s the sort of shirt that is usually sleeveless. This one, thank heavens, wasn’t. But although the items of clothes might seem similar, the man sitting in front of me could not have been less like the sloppy, gangly kid in a white T, jeans, and trainers who sat not far away. The man in front of me carried himself, agitation notwithstanding, as if he were wearing a suit — suitable attire. He was unaware that he wasn’t.

When I returned from having slipped away at the interval, I found Kathleen on her feet, which was odd, since she is usually placidly reading or just staring into space. The man was not there, but his bag was, and it was scaring Kathleen to death. What to do? We mentioned our concern to three ladies who were chatting in the row behind us; they looked nervous for a moment before relapsing into their conversation. I, too, should have regarded the bag with very mild concern had I been alone. But Kathleen was channeling Doris Day in The Man Who Knew Too Much. I knew that, if we said something to one of the ushers, we might risk bringing the concert to a premature end, and perhaps creating a dangerous furore. And although I was quite aware that the bag owner’s entire demeanor bordered on the inappropriate, I remembered that we were, after all, in New York City. Nevertheless, I had caught Kathleen’s discomfort, and could hardly bear standing near the bag. My compromise was to lead Kathleen to the rear of the auditorium. “But now no one’s watching our bags,” Kathleen complained. I pointed out that we could keep an eye on them from where we stood. When the man returned, we followed him down to the aisle back to our seats.

Later, I told Kathleen that she ought to have asked to leave the concert then and there. I’d have missed a great and very interesting performance, but then I shouldn’t have known it. And it was only music, only a symphony that I’ve heard possibly too many times. She did ask to leave the moment it was over. I hate walking out on ovations, but I didn’t think twice, given Kathleen’s wretchedness. As we scooted across the lobby, Kathleen said that she was glad after all that we hadn’t “done anything” (complained to the management); I said that the man clearly didn’t belong at the concert. At that very moment, the man who clearly didn’t belong at the concert walked right past me, reaching the escalator first. It would have been nicer not to know that he was standing ten steps behind us than to see that he was ten steps ahead. On the way out, he paused unaccountably at a turn in the traffic, and we very nearly did the same. Then he headed out into the night. It was we who struck out the different course, crossing the plaza to the State Theatre side, from which we stepped down to the crosswalk at 63rd Street. At our post-concert dinner at PJ Clarke’s, Kathleen had two glasses of Cabernet.

Really, what do you do in this day and age? It’s difficult to describe the situation, because everything depends on one’s own physical response to another person’s physical presence. Kathleen is a good judge of people, and she has spent more of her life in New York than I have. But her experience has been battered by the phenomenon of support for Donald Trump. It is inexplicable to her. I try to explain it — it is anything but inexplicable to me — but my explanations don’t take root; she always reverts to an understanding of the world in which people who say the things that Trump says in public are shunned. That Trump is saying these things not only in public but as a candidate for the presidency is simply intolerable. Then there is the understandable worry that what has happened in Paris and Brussels and elsewhere is going to happen here.

When I came into Geffen Hall, someone poked a flashlight into my tote bag but didn’t dig into it. Someone else ran a wand up and down with an apologetic air. These interferences inspire no confidence whatever. I do not believe that the civil state and the security state can co-exist, which is why I believe that dangerous materials ought to be, as they used to be, far more difficult to acquire. Opposition to gun-control is framed as the right to bear arms, but of course it is fueled by the desire to sell arms. As for bombs, I often wonder if the “household materials” that are said to be all that one needs to wreak mayhem might be adulterated in some way so as to make combustion impossible. Behind all of this is the far more important task of recognizing troubled minds before they sink into criminality. This is a social concern, a local matter, the requires closer connections among neighbors. To some extent, every town has to be a small one. The decision to intervene in a stranger’s life ought to be a civil, social one, not the response of security professionals. Let them deal with the guns and the bombs. The shooters themselves are out problem. We must learn to accept that.

I said to Kathleen that if she had really known the music, she would have been furious with Thierry Fischer for taking all those repeats.


Friday 5th

Bear in mind that Tuesday evening’s bomb scare found me more susceptible than usual because I had just seen, and then read, My House in Umbria. The novella is by William Trevor; I had not read it before. The film, directed by Richard Loncraine (for HBO), is an old favorite. Maggie Smith plays a woman with a past, now going under the name of Emily Delahunty. The film promises to be a breezy light comedy on the order of Under the Tuscan Sun, but within five minutes its subject becomes survivorship. Mrs Delahunty (never married) is one of four survivors of a terrorist blast on a train. She and the three others retire to her ample farmhouse in the country, not far from Siena. How she came to acquire this villa and what she does with it make one strand of the story; the other concerns the uncle of the little girl whose brother and parents perished in the explosion. He is played by Chris Cooper, an actor who consistently holds my attention even though I find him almost painful to look at.

The film has a happy ending that I knew better that to expect in the novella. Otherwise, the two are very close, with great swathes of dialogue lifted verbatim from one to the other. The screenwriters tweaked a few details, but by and large the movie is one of the more faithful adaptations — but for the ending, of course, which only the conning magic of cinema could make convincing. The book, however, is richer, as books usually are. Much richer, given the author. Mrs Delahunty is an unreliable narrator, of course. She is also the author of romance fictions. And she has prophetic dreams — doesn’t she? In the book, the subject of a paragraph can shift from one of these things to another without any notice, and the result, given a soft and light texture, is the portrait of a life all of a piece. Of a life that was all of a piece, before the event. Or, rather, before the aftermath of the event, the four survivors gathered in the house, almost a family, the closest that Mrs Delahunty has ever come to belonging to one, dissipates.

The movie has a feel-good air that, until the most recent viewing, muffled the focus a little bit and made it hard to see — made me want not to see — just how drunk Mrs Delahunty often is. Maggie Smith is ruthless about this; when I finally saw it, I wanted to look away. Mrs Delahunty believes that if she can find the right pitch, she will capture the uncle’s attention; she seems incapable of recognizing that he views her with a distaste that turns into disgust the harder she tries. It is embarrassing. On a sort of meta level, the uncle, Thomas Riversmith, is the kind of man who doesn’t want to watch this kind of movie. He doesn’t like soppy stories about survivors that involve dreams and astrology, and he couldn’t care less about sunny Italy. He wants to watch something else, anything else. When you see My House in Umbria through his eyes — through Riversmith’s piercing but hollow eyes — it becomes a much darker affair.

Why buy one Trevor when you can buy two? I ordered Fools of Fortune along with My House in Umbria. It is a novel about the Troubles in which the Republic of Ireland was born, and about an expulsion from paradise. As such things go, it is beautifully understated. Two young cousins fall in love but cannot say so; they don’t really wake up to the fact until they have been parted. When they are brought together later for a funeral, the boy is almost deranged with shame and grief, so, again, there is not opportunity for more than a blind leap. The novel is presented in the form of the letters that the lovers cannot write. I don’t feel sure about why, but it seems as though they can’t settle for writing; they simply want to be together. And so they don’t write the letters that they promise themselves to write. With almost tragic grandeur, they decline to “stay in touch.” On the surface, there’s a good deal of fuss about how awkward situations could have been avoided if they had only stooped to making plans for the future, but as the fuss subsides it appears that plans were indeed made, if not jointly. Then the novel drifts off into uncertainty; what we’re told may be the ravings of the lovers’ deranged daughter.

A great deal of the middle pages of Fools of Fortune follows some boarding-school high jinks that might have made for one of Trevor’s lapidary stories. I don’t know how much its detachment from the novel would take away, besides mere length.


The writing project that I announced two weeks ago has been coming along more quickly than I anticipated. At the risk of seeming gross, I can say that I’ve piled up nearly 25,000 words, with the first drafts of two sections complete. Plans for four or five more sections, as well as the expectation that there will be no more than that, have taken shape.

It has been more than twenty years since my last attempts to write something with an end as well as a beginning. Three plays were completed; a strange novel with supernatural inclinations that I could never gratify was not. In one theatre producer’s opinion, the plays were saddled with bloated expositions; I took too long introducing characters and situations. It was mortifying to hear this, of course, but I saw that the producer was right. The light, however, had gone out, and I never undertook repairs. I meant to, but the Internet came along, and everything changed.

So I am shy about trying again. My project is neither a play nor a novel — I can say that much. Regular readers of this site would find much of what I’ve been writing familiar. Much of the joy of writing it has so far come from not worrying about repeating myself, because it doesn’t matter if I’ve already said something somewhere else (that would be here). Now, everything that I say has its place in a much larger context, a much longer piece of writing. When I first planned this project, several years ago, and even had a go at writing bits of it, the going was very hard, and I was not optimistic. I knew that I must try, but it was hard to muster enthusiasm. I did not wait for enthusiasm; I took to writing longer entries here. That required a lot of thinking, and sometime near the beginning of this calendar year, the thinking and the writing began to chug along in synchronization. Knowing what you think is also knowing how you want to say it — that’s how you know.

I follow advice that I remember reading in Jane Smiley’s book about novels. Every day, you pick up where you left off, and write your daily allotment of words or pages. It is important to settle on an allotment. I used to fear that I might just write to fill pages, stuff that would have to be cut out later. With experience, however — and this is where the past year’s blog entries have been so helpful — you begin each day with a lively awareness of how far you are going to go. You might not know how much ground you’re going to cover, but that’s something different. You may have to go back and fill in. But — and this is the second prong of the advice — you don’t go back. You may re-read a little, to check something out, but you do not try to re-write anything. If you notice, as I did yesterday, a point that ought to be opened up and filled in with material that you overlooked in the moment of writing, you make a note of it, but you carry on. It’s likely that the material that needs to be inserted didn’t flow because you need to think about it some more. Meanwhile, it’s important to proceed, to build the edifice of a complete first draft.

Sometimes I think that all of this is easier than it might be because I’m so old, because I’ve read so much and, here, written so much. Sometimes I worry that I’m in for a dreadful reckoning, for the discovery that I’m no more skilled at this than an undergraduate with literary aspirations. But I can say that I am almost perfectly untroubled by one worrying botheration: it never occurs to me to wonder if anybody would be interested in what I have to say. I’m interested.

When the first draft is complete, but not until then, I’ll start looking for readers. Now you know as much as I do.

Bon week-end à tous!