Gotham Diary:
The Real Game
23 April 2014

Waiting for the handyman to come and snake the kitchen sink drain, I re-read In a Summer Season, arriving at the final, one-page chapter just as the doorman called to say that the handyman was on his way up. My relief was extravagant. Not only would the kitchen situation be set to rights (I considered this as good as done — backed up by thirty years’ experience), but the novel had triumphed in that most crucial literary test, the Second Reading.

The first time you read a novel, it is merely another new novel. The second time, it is either a disappointment or literature itself.

Anxious about the handyman —when would he come? when?— I was anxious about the novel, too. When would it happen? When? As the pages flew by, the pace seemed to slacken. After a nasty rudeness, Kate and Dermot even seemed to be on their way to making up. I knew that this would never quite happen, but when would it be ruled out? Ten pages before the end of the penultimate chapter, Kate has some bad news. There is much worse news five pages later. Within a few paragraphs, she is a widow, and, very shortly after that, the daughter of the widower whom she will marry at the very end (a year later, on that last page), a girl whom Kate’s son hoped to marry, dies as well. I knew that it was going to happen, I knew it — but I began to lift my brows in doubt. Then, bam! The dashing sportscar, recklessly driven, spins out of control and overturns. Most tremendously satisfying!

For many connoisseurs of fine fiction, a last-minute catastrophe that clears the way for a happy ending must seem both slapdash and melodramatic, and such resolutions usually are signs of inferiority. But not here. The re-reader, who can’t possibly have forgotten how the novel ends, so shocking is its finale the first time, sees hints and augurs at every turn, from the very start. Kate, a wealthy widow in her forties, has married Dermot, a half-Irish charmer ten years her junior. The word for Dermot is “feckless.” He has never held a job or completed a project. He has never sustained a relationship before, and for a while he is borne up by the honeymoon of really loving Kate from day to day. Kate doesn’t mind his not working, and she regrets that he is shamed by his idleness. That is indeed the problem that all the love in the world can’t salve. Dermot is deeply unhappy with himself, but he lacks the character for change, because he invariably positions himself as the victim. We understand from the very beginning (although not because Dermot himself understands it) that this life of his with Kate is to be his last chance, and that if he muffs it, there will be nothing but bitter ingloriousness after.

And there is no reason to believe that Dermot won’t muff it, just as he has muffed everything else.

From the very beginning, the accident at the end feels inevitable, because Dermot is already somewhat out of control himself. Then, midway through, two new characters arrive on the scene. They are the husband and the daughter of Kate’s best friend, who died some time ago, before Kate’s first husband’s death. Charles Thornton shut up his house and took his daughter off to Europe. Now he has come back, and so has his daughter. Charles quite smoothly slips out of his role as “best friend’s husband, no man more forbidden” and into that of the man with whom Kate will find happiness if and when Dermot disposes of himself. Araminta, educated abroad, has grown out of recognition. She is a sylph — a sylph and something of a minx. She commutes to her job in London as a fashion model, drenched in the perfume of stylish heartlessness that, in retrospect, seems to have foreshadowed the wave of feminism that would presently transform the Anglophone world. Araminta cares deeply about absolutely nothing, and she does so enchantingly. (She is the only principal character whose point of view we are never allowed to share.) She responds to Tom’s affection with a “chilling friendliness” that nevertheless falls far short of outright discouragement. Meanwhile, she lets Dermot take her to the pub by the station whenever they happen to meet on the homebound train — Dermot’s commute is to a job that exists only in Kate’s imagination — and, fatally, she eggs him on to higher speeds when he takes her out for rides in his new car.

Araminta is probably never going to make anyone else happy, and Dermot cannot be happy with himself. They make a perfect couple, especially in death.


The handyman is replacing all the pipes under the sink. That’s new.


A month or so ago, Kathleen went to Madison Square Garden to see a Knicks game. She did so, of course, as the guest of a client whose invitation could not be politely declined, and even I told her that it might be interesting. She certainly wouldn’t have to pay the game any mind. She could sit comfortably in the skybox and chat about other things. I knew this partly from experience (not in a skybox) but mostly from Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. And I was quite right, too. Kathleen had a very good time, so much so that she remembered to tell me that the Knicks actually won.

What intrigued Kathleen was the plethora of video monitors, both in the skybox and throughout the arena. The monitors all showed the same thing: the game being played on the court. Even at the distance of a skybox, the game was not hard to follow, and presumably the fans in the bleachers, sitting that much closer, had no real need of the gigantic screens hanging over the court. Kathleen found this mystifying — why all the screens, with the game itself right there.

I wasn’t mystified. I couldn’t quite explain it, but I knew that it made some kind of dark sense. I was in the middle of The Human Condition, or perhaps I had moved on to Margaret Canovan’s book about Arendt’s political thought. I was thinking (almost all the time) about the plurality of points of view (one per human being) and the collapse of this plurality in the mass society that might or might not be swept up in totalitarian movement. I knew, somehow, that the real game was being shown on the screens. The actual game was only the raw material from which cameramen were fashioning the official game, the one that everyone could see from anywhere.

This image, of thousands of spectators watching the mediated version of an event taking place before their very eyes, has surcharged my mind ever since Kathleen sparked it. More to come, you may be sure. For the moment, I’m too distracted by the countdown timer on the dishwasher as I run it through a cycle to sit thoughtfully at my writing table.