Gotham Diary:
October 2016 (I)

3, 6, 7

Monday 3rd

And here I am. It has been a chaotic day, on the smallest of scales, as I’ve resisted old habits and tried to launch new ones, therefore doing without the help of all the established priorities. On top of that, we went to bed early for San Francisco and got up late for New York, which wouldn’t make any sense if it weren’t evidence that we needed a lot more than the prescribed eight hours of sleep.

I have discovered, working on the writing project, that I can write well enough in the afternoon — but it is no longer the afternoon. It is early evening, and I have onions caramelizing on the stove and requiring constant attention. With my thoughts on dinner, I can hardly expect to do justice to my vacation reading, which consisted of two-plus books: the new Carl Hiaasen, Razor Girl; Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run; and a wedge of Tana French’s In the Woods. The first two books are brand new — Born to Run was officially published on the day we left New York, and I bought it at JFK — but In the Woods has been out for almost a decade. Canny readers will attribute my sudden interest in the French to the influence of Laura Miller’s piece in last week’s New Yorker. I’m in the middle of it now. I like it, but I wish that its language were more Irish. Never have I so sympathized with Donna Leon’s reluctance to permit the Guido Brunetti novels to be translated into Italian. There is a point, well into the book, at which a detective ends a sentence with a pleonastic “sure,” as the Irish do. I almost dropped the book. Finally (to paraphrase heroine Cassie Maddox) a sign of Irish intelligence.

What to say about Carl Hiaasen? The simplest is this: I don’t know his people. They’re fantastic on the page — literally. The eponymous character is enormously attractive, despite an unappealing start, but a world in which the male victims of rear-enders can be so easily distracted by extreme impropriety (you have to read the novel) is too dystopian for me. Hiaasen’s topical satire of reality television is almost more thoughtful than it is biting, but then why should I feel bitten if I’ve never watched a reality TV show? Razor Girl is trenchant and funny, and certainly worth the time it takes to read. I’d be enormously grateful to find Hiaasen’s work on the shelf of a remote beach house if I ever got marooned in one. But the moment Razor Girl was over, South Florida in general and Key West in particular vanished from my imaginaire — if you’ll pardon my French — perhaps because I’ve actually been to Key West and and so not curious to know more. It is always somewhat horrible, when reading Carl Hiaasen, to know that he is making up only so much. The rest (like those Gambian rats) is real.

Born to Run — something of a stunt, I’ll admit. My reading it, that is, not Bruce Springsteen’s writing it. And I do believe that he wrote it. I had been prepped by high-end journalism: a profile in The New Yorker some while back and then David Kamp’s cover story in a recent Vanity Fair. If the book disappoints, the fault lies in the somewhat anemic account of Springsteen’s development as a sophisticated musician. That he is a sophisticated musician I knew from experience, even if I’m not quite a fan. (Not yet.) If you want to know what I mean by “sophisticated,” let me just say this: I can’t think of another pop artist who has divided his work so evenly between what in classical music would be called concert and chamber formats. Springsteen writes for arenas (does he ever), but he also writes for empty coffee houses (the emptier, the better). He was always a rocker, but he was always something else, too: a severe melancholic. Over time, he managed to accommodate both impulses, sometimes simultaneously.

Presumably, Bruce Springsteen did not manage to do this with the help of archangels. Something happened, I should say, in between his first two voyages to San Francisco. I’d like to know more. Springsteen writes well about lessons — musical and otherwise — learned later in life, by which time he seems to have been articulate enough to recognize what he was doing when he was doing it. This was perhaps not the case as he transitioned from belonging to Steel Mill to creating and patronizing the E Street Band. He’s articulate now, though, and I suspect that he’s the only one who will ever be able to tell us what happened.

Fans, of course, will relish the history of a rock ‘n’ roll career with which they’re already familiar. Less zealous readers will appreciate the many well-told tales of scrapes and escapades, especially as it emerges that none of these would have occurred if Bruce were truly the boss of everything. Everyone, I think, will honor Springsteen’s account of dealing with bipolar disorder, which is both lucid and discreet. (I concluded, on the basis of the book’s sheen of candor, that ECT treatments would have been acknowledged had they been administered.) To me, Born to Run will be memorable for the very quality that the author himself highlights near the end (on page 501, to be exact): it is a portrait of the mind of Bruce Springsteen.

Now I’m back home, where the new Ian McEwan has just arrived.


Thursday 6th

Kathleen calls them my “girlfriends.” We saw one of them last night. When A Little Romance came out in 1979, I was enchanted by Diane Lane’s fresh, intelligent beauty. For a few minutes in the third act of last night’s performance of The Cherry Orchard, she was perched not ten feet away, and in profile she was almost the same young lady.

Having seen another one of my girlfriends, Kristin Scott Thomas, in The Seagull, a few years ago, I’m inclined to wonder if Chekhov works in English. We are so cool, so hostile to unnecessary histrionics. Our language is designed to make enthusiasm look foolish. It is also difficult to register class distinctions in plain English. Steven Karam’s adaptation of The Cherry Orchard dealt with this latter problem boldly enough: Lopakhin, the scion of serfs who has risen in the world and is now rich enough to buy the Gayev estate, was played by Harold Perrineau, a handsome and personable African-American actor, and serfdom was swapped for slavery. This maneuver had its effective moments, but overall it pushed the play into a Nowhere that made caring much about the plight of impoverished landowners more trouble than it was worth.

Had the play been acted absolutely straight, though, I might well have felt no different. Chekhov makes me as impatient as his characters are supposed to do. And there are far too many of them. If I were adapting The Cherry Orchard, I would eliminate the parts of Charlotta (the governess), Yepikhodov (the clerk), and Yasha (the servant). I would consider doing away with Gayev (the “heroine’s” brother), too; as his nieces remind him several times, he talks too much. Take this as my way of saying that there was little that Tina Benko, Quinn Mattfeld, Morris Jones or John Glover, respectively, could do to entertain me, except to leave the stage. Simeonov-Pischik (the lucky landowner) is there explicitly to remind us that life is absurd, so I suppose we can’t do without him; Chuck Cooper made him a jolly old fellow, but also, convincingly to a fault, someone who might die at any moment.

Worse, Chekhov fails to give his diva a big moment. Ranevskaya is a complicated woman, but the play seals her in unexplained glamour. She remembers her childhood with pleasure, and the death of her son with grief, but these elementary responses are untouched by any reflections on the “fallen,” world-weary state that might make her interesting. Why has she come home? Has Chekhov dragged her back from Paris only to demonstrate her inability to forestall the family’s loss of its principal ornament? If you were compiling a psychological profile, you might wind up with no more substantial description of Ranevskaya than “leading lady in a play.” Diane Lane brought Ranevskaya to life by spoiling her beauty a little and looking confused. It was impossible, however, to imagine that the actress herself would ever be confused by such circumstances. She may be too apparently bright for the role.

Varya, played well if a tad scoldingly by Celia Keenan-Bolger, is a thankless role as well as an unthanked character. Her status as Ranevskaya’s “adopted daughter” is superficially ambiguous, but that seems to be a matter of politeness only. In fact, the Gayevs want her to marry Lopakhin, a man of the class to which she was born. Her adoption is merely another manifestation of Ranevskaya’s Lady-Bountiful compulsion, like the handouts to servants; it will slide into meaningless when Ranevskaya moults into the former owner of the cherry orchard. Perversely, the pretense that Varya is Ranevskaya’s daughter is what makes her not good enough for Lopakhin, who intends to marry the real thing now that he can afford to — if he marries at all. You feel sorry for Varya, but you want her to exit stage left with the more supernumary characters.

I was annoyed by the young lovers, particularly by their claim that they’re “above love,” but I wasn’t inclined to cut the actors any slack. Tavi Gevinson’s Anya was incredibly ingenuous. She behaved like someone who begins every day with a perky dose of amnesia, still as innocent and unblemished as a four year-old. Kyle Beltran’s Trofimov was also incredible. Far from a surly, scruffy student, he was a gleaming Millennial, with a Google internship lined up at the very least. His scenes seemed to be played with a view to highlighting the similarities between Russia on the eve of Revolution and the United States of the eve of Donald Trump, but the more I listened to him the less alike the two eras became. Our present-day situation may be as precarious as any, but we face it with strengths and weaknesses unknown a century ago. No thanks to totalitarian evils, we have put an end to leisure (for the time being), and we are drowning in information and its counterfeits. For all its many faults, the bourgeoisie has emerged as the first genuinely, if partially, humane class in history.

The bonbon of the night was Joel Grey’s Firs, the ancient loyal butler who misses the old days when master could beat their serfs. This was distracting, at least until the very end, when Grey brought a cold draft of Beckett to Firs’s abandonment in the abandoned house. It seemed absolutely right: he was the last man lying down.

One final quibble with the production (which I found to be somewhat overdirected by Simon Godwin): although the fancy costumes were truly delightful — hats off to Michael Krass! — having the ball take place onstage instead of just offstage introduced a very inappropriate note of carnival, and when the dancers withdrew, as they had to do so that the principals could have their dramatic moments alone, the stage looked unduly desolate without them.

Don’t think that I’m sorry that I saw the show. No! I enjoyed every minute, even, or especially, the wrong bits. Filing all the complaints that I’ve summarized here was a pleasure, because Diane Lane was no farther away than the wings.

Susannah Flood was delicious as the housemaid. I was always glad to see her. She is not one of my girlfriends, though. My girlfriends are all very brainy (as well as very beautiful). When I try to imagine having the chance to talk with them, I clam up. I’m sure that I’d bore them. In my imagination, we are all still in high school. In real life, they might bore me (although I cannot really believe for a moment that Helena Bonham Carter would). And in real life, as it occurred to me just the other day, when I was looking forward to seeing Diane Lane from a seat very near the stage, I have the girlfriend of girlfriends, my dear Kathleen. She loves me, yes; but what counts for this discussion is that she finds me snappydoodle. How cool is that?


Friday 20th

It was very hard to get up this morning. I had awakened at dawn and found it difficult to get back to sleep. It was a mistake to read this week’s New Yorker at bedtime. Tad Friend’s profile of Sam Altman, the new head of Y Combinator, like the piece that Raffi Khatchadourian wrote for the magazine about Nick Bostrom, nearly a year ago, upset me enormously. Altman and his friends embody the very danger of “AI takeover” that worries them. They have no idea of the consequence of their immense cultural ignorance, and they believe that you can know all that you need to know by the age of thirty. They claim to be motivated by humane impulses, but they haven’t done the reading. They’re not schooled in human error. They’re besotted by the prospect of “10x.” (Shame on Tad Friend for adopting such usage!) They are also afraid of “the coming chaos.” So am I. It’s not very cheering to try to comfort myself with the hope that I’ll be dead by then.

Louis Menand’s meditation on Karl Marx approached the coming chaos from a more traditional perspective. I don’t want to overstate it, but Menand appears to belong to the large club of educated people who think that Marx’s critique of capitalism was more or less spot on, and that the tensions that he described in The Communist Manifesto have only become more tightly wound. I wish that one of these believers would write a new book, without mentioning Marx at all, that would lay out the current state of play and propose solutions completely free of the taint of Hegelian reasoning. That way, we could talk about the ideas of this new writer, and leave Marx to history, along with the nightmares that, rightly or wrongly, he inspired.

One interesting idea that I gleaned from the Altman profile came in a kernel of news about a Y Combinator pilot project will “test the feasability” of an urban settlement in which, among other things, “no one can ever make money off real estate.” Now, this is a proposition that I heartily embrace. While I believe that farmers ought to own the land that they work, I think that urban residences ought to be owned and managed by not-for-profit companies that are free from the pressures of both government control and rentier greed. We have seen that the value of urban real estate too often chokes, like runaway kudzu, the value of urban population. I believe that markets have a place in healthy economics, but that it is a small place. Everything about markets ought to be scaled to the local, with as many markets and small participants in them as possible. I’d like to give Efficiency a major rethink, because, after all, the most efficient operation is one that never begins. I don’t think that we know very much about capitalism, actually. The wild success of highly capitalized projects over the past two hundred years has implanted an unexamined standard model that, among other problematic things, takes growth for granted.

In any case, there are different kinds of property. As I say, urban lots and rural farmlands are not the same sort of thing at all. And then there is “stuff.” Jonathan Sperber’s biography of Marx makes recurrent mention of the family linens, which were its most important possession. Things have changed. We are now living in the age of Marie Kondo, trying to empty our crammed closets. We are trying to make do with less, not out of frugality, but simply to unburden our minds. It seems ridiculous to think of “stuff” as “private property,” because who else would want it? This reflects our highly safeguarded property rights as well as an era of material plenty; I don’t mean to suggest that human nature has changed since Marx’s day. But our arrangements have changed — more than we may think.

Finally — before turning to the opening of Ian McEwan’s Nutshell — I read James Wood on David Szalay. I read a story by Szalay late last year, and it made a strong impression. I shall probably pick up a copy of Szalay’s book, All That Man Is. Wood brought up Knausgaard and Houellebecq, which startled me, because no writer is more joyously alive, or more capable of articulating minutiae in spacious narrative arcs, than Knausgaard, whereas Houellebecq’s literary weight is no greater than that of any other boring French think piece. (Dwight Garner gave the Szalay a rave in this morning’s Times.)

Where are the women? That’s what all this depressing reading left me wondering. Are the women off doing girlie things? Are they rolling their eyes? Do they really understand what a total mess unsupervised men can make? Help!

Bon week-end à tous!