Gotham Diary:
Dinosaurian Ethic
October 2015 (I)

Monday 5th

It is cold right now, but it’s going to get warmer. It was cold all weekend. Outside, it was only in the 50s, but there was no heat, and the apartment got chilly. All the apartments got chilly: on Saturday night, there was no hot water. Everyone had taken a bath by dinnertime. We were at home, instead of at a restaurant celebrating our anniversary, because the weather was not only cold but wet. I had made a pizza that had not performed as expected. Happily (I suppose), I foresaw that the pizza was not going to slide right off the peel onto the stone. I managed to transfer it to a cookie sheet, but the result was not pretty, and of course the crust didn’t really bake. It just steamed like all the pizzas I’ve made so far, in cheap pizza pans. There is much to learn about sliding the pizza onto the stone. (But it was good.) As I washed up, I noticed that the hot water was not hot. Everybody had used up the hot water. At least, that is what Kathleen said. I hoped that she was right, but I knew that if I relied on her theory, the water would be freezing by bedtime, because her theory would be wrong; what would have happened was a boiler breakdown. So I took a cool shower. An hour later, the hot water was hot again.

Today, the nor’easter that we had instead of the hurricane is moving off, and the temperature will climb into the 60s. Kathleen’s throat is sore. She is thinking of staying in bed today.

After the cool shower on Saturday night, I watched Casse-tête chinois (Chinese Puzzle) the third film in Cédric Klapisch’s Xavier Rousseau trilogy. I missed it when it came out — I had stopped going to the movies by the spring of last year. Then I forgot about it — also characteristic of last year, and of this year until last month. Toward the end of last month, I remembered it and ordered it from Amazon. On Saturday night, we were going to watch Shanghai. Kathleen saw an ad for it in the Times. She had never heard of it; she didn’t know that it was made five years ago, and that it was supposed to come out ages ago, that Ray Soleil and I went to a theatre in the East Village that announced showings, only to find out that the showings had been canceled. (As I recall, we saw Bel Ami instead.) Kathleen didn’t know that we had the DVD. She said she wanted to see it. So I got it out of the drawer. By showtime, however, Kathleen was engrossed in a stitching project — she’s making Christmas ornaments to give as Christmas presents. So, since she wouldn’t be watching the screen, I asked for a substitution, and she was fine with that.

Casse-tête chinois takes place in New York City, in Chinatown, mostly. I know where Chinatown is, of course, and I have walked around some of its edges, but I have never really gone in. I keep talking about going, but it’s just talk; I never go anywhere. Not since Ms NOLA and Ray Soleil went back to work have I gone anywhere, by which I mean anywhere new, because I can’t see where I’m going. All I can see is the sidewalk. To see where I’m going, I have to stop and try to stand as straight as I can, then look round. I should feel both foolish and vulnerable shuffling around Chinatown in search of a good wok, which I do need. Casse-tête chinois reinforced this reluctance. But I enjoyed the cinematic visit.

Basically, the title of the film is the title of the book that Xavier (Romain Duris) is working on, and also his way of describing his crazy situation. His relationship with Wendy (Kelly Riley) has broken down, and she has taken their two children to New York, where she has met a banker, John (Peter Hermann), with an apartment on Central Park South. Xavier decides that he must follow the children so that he can be a good dad, but, needless to say, Central Park South is not in his neighborhood. It turns out that his old friend Isabelle (Cécile de France), the lesbian who became his best buddy back in Barcelona (and L’auberge espagnole), is living in Brooklyn with Ju (Sandrine Holt), a Chinese-American woman who, conveniently, has held on to her tiny Chinatown apartment. Finding a place to live is only Xavier’s first big problem, however. To have any kind of say in how Wendy brings up the children, Xavier will have to get a job, and to get a job he will need a green card. Perhaps because the concept of anchor babies doesn’t exist in France, the scenario overlooks Xavier’s role as Isabelle’s semen donor — her child is born in New York — and commits Xavier to the usual routine of a sham wedding. This brings in the INS, which Klapisch handles just as distinctively as Anne Fletcher did in The Proposal. Meanwhile, Martine (Audrey Tautou), Xavier’s girlfriend at the very beginning of the trilogy, comes to New York on business. Guess what! Martine speaks Chinese well enough to confront a powerful tea mogul in his own boardroom! (The board applauds, but we are not provided with subtitles — because Xavier, also in attendance, doesn’t understand a word.) And then Martine comes back for another visit, this time with her two children.

And then Isabelle falls for her babysitter, also Isabelle. Oh, what a pile-up!

Xavier’s apartment is tiny so that the climax will be funny. In what begins as a bedroom farce, people keep pouring into the apartment. Even the INS. It’s almost as good as the finale of Act II of Le nozze di Figaro. And yet there is nothing mannered, nothing that whispers, This sort of thing never happens in New York. This is a French movie. No; it’s all hilariously naturalized. The crowd not only symbolizes but embodies Xavier’s crazy situation, which is, basically, that he is the father not of two children but of five, with three different moms, and probably more to come. (Kids, that is.) Cédric Klapisch is probably the world’s leading director of social films, by which I mean films about groups of people, or perhaps clusters of people, the different clusters of people that we all know, and whom we usually manage to keep separate. Keeping his clusters separate is a skill that Xavier lacks, probably because he is a writer, and inclined to let things happen.

(I must interrupt here to mention a delicious instance of the perversity of writers, novelist Elinor Lipman’s contribution to the Times’s “Modern Love” column. As a new widow, Lipman felt that she must “get out of the house,” so she signed up at

Dates followed. Not all were horrible, but the reporter in me liked the worst ones for their anecdotal value. There was the man who stuck his Nicorette gum under his seat, the 70-ish actor who had been among the six husbands of one of the “Golden Girls” and the guy who asked proudly if I had noticed that he stirred his coffee without the spoon touching the cup. I had not.

“Sincerity” can be a zero-gravity proposition for writers.)

There is a moment in Chinese Puzzle when it appears that Xavier is going to earn money as a bicycle messenger, but this plotline is quietly shed, like a jacket that doesn’t quite do anything. A more disciplined filmmaker would have cut it all out, but Klapisch is more interested in conveying the madcap chaos and the countless dead-ends of starting out in a new place. I was grateful for this, because the confusion and the noise and the subways — there is even a subway drummer in Casse-tête chinois — quite often reminded me of another picture, the vastly less cheerful movie about illegal immigrants, The Visitor.

Writing all of this down, I’ve been chuckling over Joan Didion’s “In Hollywood” (from The White Album), which I read last night.

Making judgments on films is in many ways so vaporous an occupation that the only question is why, beyond the obvious opportunities for a few lecture fees and a little careerism at a dispiritingly self-limiting level, anyone does it in the first place.

The answer is that people love to read about the movies, but Didion has a point: what are the critics talking about? Don’t they realize that Hollywood is a gambling den, and that films in release are a by-product of the game? The producers make their bets, and then they wait for the box office. Each film is indistinguishable, from the standpoint of what Didion calls “the action,” from all the others: it is just another spin of the roulette wheel.

The “motive” in Bullitt was to show that several million people will pay three dollars apiece to watch Steve McQueen drive fast…

My father was on the Board of Directors of Twentieth Century Fox when The Poseidon Adventure project was floated. My father and his worthy colleagues decided that the action was too hot, or maybe too cold (I’m so not a gambler), and they voted to limit the studio’s participation instead of bankrolling the whole thing. They got to watch Irwin Allen’s production company walk away with millions every week. You can be sure that they took a bigger piece of Towering Inferno.

In other words, there would be no movies without the gamblers. This thought is uncomfortable in the same way that being aware that the earth is spinning around the sun in the middle of nowhere is uncomfortable. Could it be that foreign movies are more interesting because foreign producers get to gamble with other people’s money?


Tuesday 6th

A week ago Friday, I think it was, I noted my lack of interest in reading Purity. In the prospect, that is, of reading Purity. Actually reading Purity turned out to be very exciting., but it has been difficult for me to add, to “exciting,” any other literary characteristics. The longest section of the book, which really ought to have been called “The River of Meat,” if only because it’s a lot easier to read, not to mention to type out, than the actual title, is written as if by someone who has had a peculiar kind of stroke: the language is still there, but the style has vanished. Or perhaps, being narrated by Tom Aberant, it has no style because Tom has no style. (So without style is Tom Aberant that he is seduced by Anabel Laird’s, marking him as not even ingenuous.) Most critics seem to like this part the best (although not Diane Johnson!); James Meek praises its “emotional rawness” and “visceral engagement” — figures of speech that, in such close proximity, remind me of an abattoir. I found “[le1o9n8a0rd]” deadly, or almost, because the writing was so flat-footed, just like Tom. The other sections are viscerally engaged with the art of writing. Those featuring Pip and Andreas, for example, are firmly set in appropriate keys, signifying and sounding (respectively) Pip’s head-scratching discovery that her father’s identity isn’t the only mystery in the world, and Andreas’s insane attempt to organize his own disorder. Every sentence is composed with regard to these states of mind. Tom’s section has all the style of a contribution to class notes in an alumni magazine. He’s writing about one of the nuttiest women in literature, and although he knows it he doesn’t show it. Which is to say, he doesn’t feel it. He tells you that she was a pain in the ass, but you already knew that. What you want to know is what in hell was the matter with him, putting up with Anabel for eleven-plus years. “There’s no accounting for love,” seems to be Tom’s hayseed answer. You are left to imagine how far even Flaubert or James would get with that.

Tom Aberant is what I was afraid of finding in Purity, only I feared that it would be all Tom, which it isn’t. (Even his girlfriend, Leila, has more style; she has survived and even faced down her compromises, but she’s still the happy opportunist — I mean, reporter — at heart.) Some commentators suggest that Tom is a stand-in for the author, and while I don’t agree, I do suspect that Tom is supposed to be the book’s all-American guy, tweaked to carry, instead of the ball, Jonathan Franzen’s disdain for sport. I do hope that Franzen will outgrow the confinement of being an, even the best, American novelist. Being American has never been so meaningless, as the presidential contest ranging from Trump to Sanders makes clear. Many Americans, particularly on the coasts, have outgrown being American, only too many of them are still trying to hog the word for themselves. Those Americans who have not outgrown America have been fertilizing it with so many noxious notions that it stinks like a corpse flower.

Worse, being American is no longer interesting. Being an American — as distinct from being a New Englander who stayed behind or a Southerner with a wicked sense of humor — always involved taking Christian civilization to new places — to places previously devoid of Christians. It meant reformatting the territory to suit the needs of settled agriculture, no matter how unrealistic such an undertaking might be. It meant quitting the compromised old world and heading out for the virgin new. It meant courage, endurance, and tenacity, and sixty years of television have rotted its teeth right down to the gums. Even if it hadn’t, there are no more frontiers, no more regions in which to plant crosses for the first time. The terminus of our expansions has dimmed our wits. Once resilient and adaptable, we can’t, for example, figure out how to conduct warfare in a non-European manner. Donald Trump is right: the country is broken. That his claim to the presidency is greeted with anything but incredulous laughter is proof of that.

Purity is vexed by many of the foregoing concerns, and it would be unfair to charge the author with handling them in a provincial, Yankee-centric manner. In one of the novel’s truly grand passages, he likens the apparatchiks of the DDR (a/k/a East Germany) to the shills of Silicon Valley.

The apparatchicks, too, were an eternal type. The tone of the new ones, in their TED Talks, in PowerPointed product launches, in testimony to parliaments and congresses, in utopianly titled books, was a smarmy syrup of convenient conviction and personal surrender that he remembered well from the Republic. He couldn’t listen to them without thinking of the Steely Dan lyric So you grab a piece of something that you think is gonna last. (Radio in the American Sector had played the song over and over to young ears in the Soviet sector.) The privileges available in the Republic had been paltry, a telephone, a flat with some air and light, the all-important permission to travel, but perhaps no paltrier than having x number of followers on Twitter, a much-liked Facebook profile, and the occasional four-minute spot on CNBC. The appeal of apparatchikism was the safety of belonging. Outside, the air smelled like brimstone, the food was bad, the economy moribund, the cynicism, but inside, victory over the class enemy was assured. Inside, the professor and the engineer were learning at the German worker’s feet. Outside, the middle class was disappearing faster than the icecaps, xenophobes were winning elections or stocking up on assault rifles, warring tribes were butchering each other religiously, but inside, disruptive new technologies were rendering traditional politics obsolete. Inside, centralized ad hoc communities were rewriting the rules of creativity, the revolution rewarding the risk-taker who understood the power of networks. The New Regime even recycled the old Republic’s buzzwords, collective, collaborative. Axiomatic to both was that a new species of humanity was emerging. On this, apparatchiks of every stripe agreed. It never seemed to bother them that their ruling elites consisted of the grasping, brutal old species of humanity. (448-9)

Finally, I thought, when I read this. Finally, someone noticed that the Pages and the Cooks and the Thiels talk as though the United States, as a complex governmental structure requiring a great deal of care and understanding, simply no longer exists. Perhaps it is obsolete. But it still commands a big budget and major armed services. Several hundred thousand men, and even a few women, are serious stakeholders in its standing as the sovereign authority in this part of the world. You would never know this, to hear the California dreamers. The dreamers have imagined them out of the picture. Their sense of reality is only virtual. (Our experience with television could have told us that this would happen.)

But this outside/inside conundrum is not peculiar to America. It is the condition of educated elites everywhere on earth. It is the plight of everyone who failed to make sure that a package labeled “liberal democracy” would, upon being opened, benefit all or most people, and not just a cohort of deep-pocketed businessmen. Perhaps it is only human nature to overlook the importance of all the educational factors that have encouraged you to think as you do, but face it: you’ve been supposing that people without any of your background, with rather hostile backgrounds, even, would leap at the chance to share your outlook. The higher Europeans are living a nightmare at the moment, one that I suspect would militarize rural America if the influx of refugees were happening here. What’s happening across the sea was never foreseen, because Europeans lazily supposed that governments on the other side of the Mediterranean would continue to do what they themselves have abandoned, and maintain firm border controls. We were habituated the Cold War to see the world as opposed camps, with plenty of guard-towers overlooking no-man’s-land. Now, however, the world is divided between places where everyone wants to live, if only for the chance of making a living, and places where nobody much cares if you stay or go. In fact, if you’re not just like the people around you, in those places, you’d better go. Newcomen’s engine comes to mind, with the floods of would-be immigrants climbing out of the cold sea and condensing decades of European hot air.

Talk about hot air: all I meant to say was that Purity doesn’t particularly need the ramblings of a regular guy whose bland personality is doughy enough to embrace the bristling peculiarities of Anabel Laird’s privileged egotism. What it needs — well, not it, Purity, but the next novel — is an anti-Andreas, someone sane and clear-eyed and armed with a plan, even a doomed plan, to rectify the elites without sending them all to the guillotine.

A leader, in short. Would the novelists of the world please try to imagine a realistic leader? A genuine leader, someone relying entirely on persuasion and not at all upon force.


Wednesday 7th

By now, you will surely have read Nicholas Lemann’s profile, in The New Yorker, of Reid Hoffman, “The Network Man.” That’s my way of saying that, even though the current issue of The New Yorker arrived in my mailbox only yesterday (as usual), the piece is too urgent not to read at once. There can be no dispute about this. Nicholas Lemann has been dean and/or faculty member at the Columbia School of Journalism for a long time, and he usually speaks with great natural authority. Not so here. Here, Lemann sounds like an ER patient who is babbling after an overdose. He also sounds like someone who has had very unfortunate “work” done, not to his face, but to his brain. Don’t be surprised to read, somewhere down the line (this has not in fact happened), that he has just married a twenty-five year-old majorette in digital cheerleading. What Lemann has to say about “the network economy” is morally depraved.

Never have I read a less critical Profile. A great deal of it was so riddled with enthusiastic jargon that it barely made sense. I found two points of distance between Lemann’s thought and his subject matter — two points at which Lemann stood back, like a good reporter, and frowned skeptically — but in neither case was the distance very great. He is clearly almost as intoxicated by Hoffman’s vision of the future, in which our LinkedIn profiles are utilized to compose entrepreneurial teams that will create “solutions” and, with luck, massive wealth, as Hoffman himself is.

These dreams may never be fully realized. But what if they are? Hoffman and LinkedIn represent the distilled essence of Silicon Valley’s vision off the economic future. People will switch jobs every two or three years; indeed, the challenge is to prevent them from switching more often. Hoffman’s friend Evan Williams, the co-founder of Twitter and the founder of Medium, showed me around Medium’s San Francisco office. Gesturing toward the open workspace, he said, “Everyone out there has had a call from a recruiter this week.” Hoffman’s most recent book, “The Alliance,” argues that it should be considered honorable to remain in a job for an unmistakably long four years.

Because Silicon Valley jobs don’t carry with them twentieth-century expectations about security and benefits, employers compensate people as much as possible with stock, so that they think of themselves as owners rather than employees. It’s assumed that what everybody really wants is to quit and create a startup, and, for those who aren’t in tech, the future as imagined in Silicon Valley may not entail full-time employment at all. Instead, people would assemble their economic lives through elements provided by online marketplace companies from Silicon Valley: a little Uber driving here, a little TaskRabbiting there.

If you grant Hoffman’s premise that the networked economy is the new model, you can view its advent with excitement or with unease.

Or how about both: Panic. Little did I think, when writing yesterday’s entry, that an example of the worrisome delusions that hypnotize our socioeconomic elite would pop right up as if in response. It is assumed that everybody really wants to quit and create a startup. I don’t detect a flicker of awareness that the size of everybody in that sentence is tiny, minuscule, infinitesimal. An economic model designed to accommodate this particular everybody would be punishingly useless to most, to nearly all, of the world’s able-bodied and -minded workers.

I don’t think that I need to dilate on the horror of all this. It’s enough to point to two grave flaws in network thinking. The first, of course, is the supposition that there is a significant population of workers, with any amount of useful skills, who would be capable of attaining sufficient network competence to support themselves. Network competence requires a mind capable of high degrees of abstraction; it is not a matter of reading want-ads and showing up for job openings. It’s rather a matter of fashioning a sophisticated self-portrait and then refashioning it as shifting circumstances require. Nobody is truly fungible in the network economy — a great thing, perhaps, for very bright people who are driven by personal missions, but terrible for ordinary souls. The second fault is that the network model calls for reading want-ads all the time. At the beginning of the Profile, Lemann tells us that what Reid Hoffman likes to do most is to network. There is a chart in his office, it seems, that places him at the center of many networks, and that labels him as “Ubernode,” the world’s most-networked person. What kind of a model spins from that? There is only one Ubernode. Most of us enjoy doing things that take us out of ourselves, or that engage what’s inside us with the world around us. Networking is not that kind of activity. It is nothing but jockeying. If you want to be a truly networked macrame artist, then you will have no time for macrame. Or, at any rate, not enough time.

I should point to a third flaw, but I’m not sure that it is one, because I just don’t get gamification. Or rather, to me it seems to be just another Industrial-Revolution evisceration of human activity, a drastic reduction in the scope of life. “Business is the systematic playing of games,” Hoffman tells Lemann. Really? I asked Kathleen if she agreed, but when she did, it turned out that what she meant was that “businessmen” play games instead of doing anything useful. Business cannot be a matter of games. The whole point of games is to simplify the complexity of experience by imposing foreordained rules. Games also propose a verifiable outcome: this or that will or will not happen. When this or that does happen, the game is over. Business isn’t like that at all, or General Motors would have gone out of business just when it was taking off. Business is open-ended. Indeed, I don’t think that there are nearly enough rules for the conduct of business — and I’m thinking not of governmental regulation here but simply of moral integrity. Maybe I just have a different idea of business satisfaction. While a business ought to strive to provide the best goods and services that it can, it ought to be content with managing its affairs well enough. I don’t think that it’s a capitulation to discredited command-economy thinking to judge the liquidation of a functioning, profitable business, solely for the purpose of allowing its owner to cash in, to be a wicked, immoral thing to do.

Behind Silicon Valley, there hangs a curtain of oblivion. What has been forgotten is the meaning of the word medium. A medium enables the connection of two or more distinct entities, whether people or institutions or radios. As a matter of function, the medium is not itself a distinct entity. It exists only to link. To the extent that Google is a corporate entity, with many businesses alongside its search engine, it is not a medium at all, or, in any case, not a trustworthy one. Even then, however, it cannot take the place of a genuine non-medium, an entity that would exist without media. There is an inability to see such entities in Silicon Valley. The “Internet of Things” looks like a mad attempt to make a medium out of everything, but even “smart” refrigerators must be manufactured according to design and engineering principles that have nothing to do with connections. The smartest refrigerator must still keep things cold. If it can’t, then its smartness becomes moot and empty. Silicon Valley prefers to believe that, if you slap WiFi capability on an appliance, its nominal function, whether to make toast or to mop the floor, will click into place. The boring stuff will take care of itself.

But no. The boring stuff will come back and eat you.


Almost as if to refute everything that I’ve just said, I’d like to say a word about Evernote. I used to wonder what my life would have been like had the Internet been there when I was growing up. Now I ask the same question about Evernote — which, to be sure, requires the Internet. Officially, I suppose, Evernote is a project-management tool, an application that allows managers to organize the elements of a project and to share information with pertinent staff. I have no use for any of that, so I have to wonder how I should have organized my life — my reading, my thinking, my grasp of my possessions (and where they are), plus all the personal and contact information that was already a part of modern life, even if a much smaller one, when I was young.

As it is, I’ve been using Evernote for nearly three years, and I keep finding new uses for it. Even though it has no calculating tools that I can find, I’m using it for keeping track of bills and expenses, and using Quicken only for printing checks. Why? Because Evernote, even if it doesn’t add things up, allows me to keep information in a manner that suits me, not the coders at Intuit. That’s just one example. I’m also letting it teach me how to keep a journal.

The problem of keeping a journal is like that of networking: it’s an interruption, a distraction from the things that I want to do, and, presumably, to keep track of in a journal. This Web site might look like an intellectual journal, a record of what I’m thinking. But in fact it is the thinking itself. A true record of my thinking would be the index that this site so conspicuously lacks. It would trace the development of ideas that, for the most part, I’m too immersed in to be aware of any development. At any given moment, you have a choice: you can do what you’re doing, or you can create a record of it. Ideally, the record is created automatically, but we’re a very long way, I fear, from Apple Watch capabilities that grasp intellectual history. Somewhat less than ideally, therefore, the record must be brief but intelligible — a contest in itself.


More anon, about the brief but often unintelligible notes that I’ve been keeping with Evernote, about how I’ve begun at least to re-read and try to make sense of these notes, and about how one entry made me re-read a novel by Penelope Lively.


Thursday 8th

Yesterday, I went to the movies — I saw The Martian — and then, after dinner, I watched one of our favorite movies, perhaps the most engaging satire ever put on film, Mike Judge’s Extract. Kathleen was stitching, but she was howling, too: Ben Affleck’s hirsute impersonation of an inconsequent hedonist cum spiritual adviser nails a very ridiculous type of person. We love it when Kristin Wiig gives David Koechner a heart attack. We can’t imagine how anyone smart enough to behave in front of a camera could look as dim and dumb as Dustin Milligan, but when he admits that he did have sex with somebody else’s wife sixteen times and helplessly smiles, we’re blown away. We adore Beth Grant’s twanging announcement that “if he’s not going to do his job, then I’m not gonna do mine,” and, even though we never get the line quite right, we repeat it all the time. We cringe with delight when Gene Simmons offers to drop the lawsuit if only… well, you just have to see it. And, of course, we have a soft spot for Jason Bateman. Did I forget dinkus? I mean, J K Simmons? And we love the bong. Can you buy them, or did Judge have this one made?

Then there is Mila Kunis, the trickster goddess. She steals across the landscape, wreaking havoc, right into our hearts. I don’t mean that we fall for her feminine wiles. I mean that we respond to her screen presence as though Extract were, during her appearances, a great drama, a sort of Soviet Anna Karenina. No matter how false her character’s intentions, she is always a genuine diva. When she begs Jason Bateman not to call the police, she communicates an horripilating dread of incarceration that is veiled only just enough to be decent. Yet the last thing you see, during the credits, is Kunis blithely driving a stolen car toward the nearest state line. A very great actress playing a damned good actress.

But, as I say, I also saw The Martian, a film that, for all of Matt Damon’s wisecracking, is absolutely pure of satire, as adventure stories usually are. (Satire appears when the adventures are over.) I should say that it is a worthy successor to Robinson Crusoe, but I have never read Robinson Crusoe, not even in a bowdlerized version for children. (I have not read The Martian, either, although Kathleen and Ray Soleil have.) I find the language of adventure to be flat-footed and boring. Best to be done with it in the run-time of a film. Also, unsafe conditions make me wretched, and I seem to be more aware of them in the movies than I am in life. I will not have anything to do with an adventure story unless I can be sure that it ends well. Otherwise, it’s just a nightmare.

And, even though The Martian does end well, there are several near misses with disaster. I cannot dismiss the image of Jessica Chastain and Matt Damon waltzing in a festively disordered garland of orange tape. Nor can I stop seeing the sleek Hermes, more a billionaire’s severely modern hideaway pavilion than a space ship. All very disconcerting. So, I could hardly get out of bed this morning. I was clinging to the comforts of blankets and pillows. I felt very safe there, and equally disinclined to leave that safety behind by getting up. But when the alarm that reminds me to take my meds began pealing, I responded appropriately, and here I am.


We were talking about Evernote. The iPhone app of Evernote keeps changing its opening screen, but there is always the one-button option to create a new note. Such a note will be headed with an address, as, “Note from 1498 2nd Avenue in New York.” The address is usually slightly incorrect; there is a lot to learn about GPS. Whenever I start a note at home, it’s got “87th Street” in the address, even though you cannot, in any regular way, get to our apartment from 87th Street. Nevertheless, because of our views, I do feel that I live on 87th Street, so it’s all right.

For the sake of clarity, I am going to distinguish the note that is an entry in Evernote from the note that simply refers to something by capitalizing “Note” in the former case. Each mobile Note is full of miscellaneous notes and reminders of a general nature. (I keep an excellent shopping list Note for groceries that is not only furnished with check boxes but organized according to the layout at Fairway.) I pour everything in using as few keystrokes as possible, and I often forget key details. For example:

Hobsbawm LRB – thought
Left doesn’t accept human nature
Right panders to it

Which issue of the LRB? Incidental clues suggest a date from last April. The latest Note stays open indefinitely, usually coming to an end when I take one of my rare trips, and a new Note is headed with an address in San Francisco or Fire Island. There’s no need to create new Notes when I travel; I just do. This means that some Notes cover a range of many months.

Most of my Evernotes are not at all miscellaneous. They’re lined up in numerous notebooks and sub-notebooks. I keep a list of books that I’ve read, with each book having its own Note. Into this Note I may transcribe passages that have caught my attention. I am not as diligent about this as I should like to be, but I try.

Until last Sunday, the messy Notes that originate on the iPhone rather than on a computer were allowed to pile up unreviewed — I might as well not have bothered to make them. In the afternoon, I began with the most recent Note. Unfortunately for today’s purposes, I edited it (instead of working in a new note), so it no longer resembles what I had to work with, which was a handful of words and page numbers from Victory, Purity, and other recent reads. I got out the books and transcribed the full passages. It was easy work, because the books were still fresh in my mind. Soon, however, I was working with a Note from last spring.

photographs (ph) 150

What could this mean? Thanks to my book-reading list, I was able to identify the source as Penelope Lively’s Perfect Happiness. The word “photograph” does appear on page 150 of Perfect Happiness, but why had I made a note of it?

She looked, unable not to, and it was as though she saw, with the eyes of inexorable experience, a ghost of herself; thus she remembered recently meeting the eyes of the five-year-old Tabitha in the photograph on Frances’s dressing-table: eyes that did not now, and did not wish to, and to which there was nothing to be said.

But who was Tabitha? Who was Frances? Holding Perfect Happiness in my hand, I found it perfectly unfamiliar.

Regular readers may recall that I read most of Lively’s novels last spring. I simply went through them, one after another. I can see now that they were a tonic for the distress that I experienced while Kathleen was consulting head-hunters in search of a more congenial law firm. The process wound up taking six months, and day by day throughout that time it became ever clearer that Kathleen could not stay where she was. That in itself was rather dire. Then there was the fact that Kathleen had never dealt with head-hunters before. She had never, so to speak, had a screen test, and undergoing the experience for the first time past the age of sixty was more than mildly disconcerting. It all worked out very well, very well; but I didn’t know that it would when I was reading Penelope Lively.

How could Perfect Happiness be so unfamiliar? I decided to re-read it. What was interesting about the second reading was what came back, and what didn’t. Also interesting was the nature of my recollections. Sometimes, I remembered having read something only when I re-read it. Sometimes, I saw things coming, and in one case, I saw how the whole thread was going to be knotted from the first mention of a character’s name, at the bottom of the first page. Another line that came back to me, as I held the book, was the introduction of Frances Brooklyn, which appears at the top of the second page:

Frances, sitting with hands folded and face blank, recollecting not in tranquillity but in ripe howling grief her husband Steven dead now eight months two weeks one day.

I began to remember: Perfect Happiness is a book about bereavement, about the oppression and then the fading of grief. Steven Brooklyn, Frances’s dead husband, was something of a paragon. First off, he was faithful to her. They had an officially happy marriage. But Frances learns that she has to put it behind her. Steven left her living in it, alone, and of course she had no immediate desire to leave it, but leave it she must. For it was not, despite the title, a perfectly happy marriage. How could it be? Second thing: Steven lived for his work. He was one of those television academics whose opinion is so much more prized in Britain than in the United States, probably because Britons enjoy hearing their native language spoken well. Steven was often away on trips, participating in conferences. He was also a very reasonable man, which meant that his everyday attire was somewhat unfeeling.

There is an interesting Alice-in-Wonderland aspect to Perfect Happiness. Not far into the book, there is an episode in Venice, which happens to be where Frances and Steven spent their honeymoon. Frances becomes convinced that if she cannot hold onto her recollections of that honeymoon, if she cannot hold on to remembering that she and Steven walked here, that they ate in that cafe, then she will lose her husband forever. In the process, she loses touch with the present, and almost has a breakdown at the front desk of the hotel where she and Steven stayed — but at which she is not staying this time. I saw this scene coming about ten pages before it happened. But the moment Frances arrived in Venice, I knew that she was going to be sustained, if not rescued, by her sister-in-law’s friend, a music critic called Morris Corfield. I knew that Morris — the character mentioned on the first page — was going to fall in love with her, and that she, while very friendly, would not fall in love with him. I remembered a very poignant moment at which Frances registered this asymmetry in the middle the night, in bed with Morris. But I was wrong, there, because it is Morris himself who registers it in that moment.

It was much later, in the cold small hours, that Morris woke and realized, almost dispassionately, that Frances did not love him and perhaps never would.

Frances’s sister-in-law is a journalist called Zoe. The novel could perfectly well have been called Frances and Zoe, or Sisters-in-Law, because the book is really just as much about Zoe as it is about Frances. Zoe has never married, but her life has hardly been virginal. Where Frances is polite and reserved, and very much the caregiver, Zoe is brusque and impatient. She and Frances have been friends since university; it was Zoe who introduced Frances to her brother, Steven. But there is an even stronger tie between them, and Steven’s death obliges them, they both conclude, to disclose it. No, they are not lovers. It is rather that Tabitha, who has always known that Frances and Steven adopted her, is in fact Zoe’s child. The passage about the photograph of five-year-old Tabitha is expressive of the immediate alienation felt by the twenty-one-year-old Tabitha once she has heard this news.

And yet, I didn’t see it coming. I forgot at first that Frances’s children were adopted. Very gradually, Tabitha’s parentage came back to me, as my recollection was refreshed, or perhaps beguiled into reappearance, by vaguely-reported discussions that Frances and Zoe had about “it’s time.” It’s time to tell her is what they weren’t saying. (There is no such exciting backstory about Harry, Frances’s son. His relief at discovering that his adoption was just an adoption can only be called British.) I’d also forgotten that, contrary to all her planning with Frances, Zoe blurts out the story at an odd moment, without even telling Frances that she’s going to do it.

Two of the notes about Perfect Happiness were references to passages on facing pages, 164 and 165. I wasn’t quite sure why I’d noted these passages, but I found them and copied them out. As I re-read the novel, however, I found out that I’d completely forgotten the episode in which they appear. I’d forgotten that Zoe has a cancer scare, complete with richly-described hospital visit. The passages that I noted both capture Zoe’s exultation at being alive, before her tests. Ave morituri.

The world had never shone so brightly. Wherever she went in the city she was transfixed, as though she saw for the first time the crisp frontages of the Nash terraces, the symmetries of the darkly stooping trees in the parks, the opalescence of clouds above the river. She watched from her window, from buses and taxis, and recorded its indifference. She could not decide if the inhumanity of what she saw outweighed its pleasure; she worried at this as though there might be a correct answer. Is the physical world a comfort or not?

There is time, which is supposed to be linear, and there are seconds and minutes and hours which are supposed to be of a particular duration. And there are also days, in which we live. The day on which Zoe went into hospital was not linear, neither was it composed of minutes or hours that bore any resemblance to one another. They raced, or they crept. Occasionally the day stopped altogether and hung suspended in the greenish light of the ward, quite self-contained, like the sterile world of a space capsule.

I must have been moved by the poetry here, by the “universal experience” of facing a question of life and death in the way that most of us face them these days, before a biopsy or some other exploration.

The second Alice-in-Wonderland episode is quietly graded to show Frances’s gradual recovery: she is not quite so undone. It involves her neighbors after a move to the precincts behind King’s Cross. Just down the road, there’s a bomb site from the War, and wouldn’t you know that in the house next door to the crater lives a man who has resented Steven Brooklyn since their days at prep school, where Steven was the golden boy and Philip the perpetual loser. I didn’t remember anything about him, or his strangely bedraggled wife, until Frances’s new puppy (an unwanted gift from Harry) dodged into the bomb site, and Frances, rescuing him, needed to be rescued herself. Something that couldn’t be perceived on a first reading was the finality with which Philip and Marcia are dismissed from the novel when the Alice episode is complete. It’s as if they’d been exiled, banished from the insight of Penelope Lively. The third Alice episode, in which Frances is just fine and not unnerved at all, or only slightly, is her little romance with Morris. It is through this episode that Frances walks out of the cage of her dead marriage.

I did remember, once I’d read it again, that I loved Perfect Happiness the first time. Somehow, though, it didn’t stick in my mind as a novel. Not as novels such as According to Mark, Heat Wave, Family Album and How It All Began have done. I’ve no idea why I remarked on those passages, either, why them? This time round, I didn’t note any passages. But I did take notes for the entry that I have just written.


Friday 9th

Instead of tidying the apartment yesterday, I wrote a few letters, and one of them produced an almost instant reply. My letter had caught an old friend in a mood that she described “full of piss and vinegar.” Nothing to do with me, but it did inflect her answer. In her opinion, the robot question (can we design robots, and our commercial lives as well, to assist human beings, and not to replace them?) is already moot, because “people are already themselves turned into robots.” Then she said,

People en masse have become dangerously dumbed down. You are keeping alive a dinosaurian ethic of intelligent inquiry.

I think that this was the piss and vinegar talking. “Dinosaurian,” I mean. I don’t think that my friend meant to say that what I’m doing here amounts to nothing more than rearranging the proverbial deck chairs. Well, maybe she did, a little. I am fairly certain that she would retract the tangle of oxymorons in “dinosaurian ethic of intelligent inquiry.” Anger can make you say such things.

This is not the sort of thing that my friend usually writes. She cultivates a positive outlook. But I know that maintaining a positive outlook obliges her to avoid giving much thought to politics and society. She has pretty much written them off. The violence of her disavowal is reflected in a somewhat fractured sentence toward the end of the paragraph written in response to me.

I think the only solution to our morass is overthrow and distributed wealth, not mere subsistence. I await that revolution.

I realize that this statement reflects a momentary impatience. But my dread of overthrow and revolution is such that no encounter with such words can be casual. The violent overthrow of power invariably creates a vacuum that is quickly filled by opportunists — people who are undistracted by concerns other than self-interest. A landscape of opportunists just as quickly creates a climate of reasonable paranoia: no one can be trusted. History shows that only the exhaustion of the revolutionary impulse puts a stop to the bloodshed. Eventually, people want order more than they want reform.

My friend’s letter betrays a hopelessness that I shall try not to take too seriously. I am nonetheless aware that she is expressing what almost everyone I know thinks about American society. Nobody really believes that education, economic assistance, or improved housing will improve a lot of lives at the bottom of the ladder. Nobody expects the shrinking middle class either to outgrow the rhetoric of polarization or to become conversant with actual current affairs. My friends are not at all surprised that a minority of their countrymen holds passports.

The people I know — affluent, well-educated men and women who are trying hard to get the most out of life — have, in short, just about given up on liberal democracy as a practical matter. Men and women whose wealth and education ought to have inspired them to be model citizens, activists for a healthy, inclusive society, instead feel politically pointless, trivialized by television entertainment. Their disgust with political parties goes back to Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. They no longer even ask what is to be done.

Meanwhile, serious jobs go on disappearing, leaving only “a little Uber driving here, a little TaskRabbiting there.” Without jobs, people will be either destitute or the beneficiaries of “free stuff.” Neither course is meaningful or satisfying to human beings.


I don’t know why I’m any different — it must have something to do with the dinosaur in me, or at any rate the historian — but I believe that the situation is only as hopeless as the people in it. To quote The Martian (more or less), when everything goes south and you know you’re going to die, you can either accept that, or you can get to work. You have to begin with an idea of a more hopeful situation. Easy for Mark Watney: staying alive is easily imagined. Making it possible to stay alive is not easy, but it’s doable, at least with heaping doses of ingenuity and determination. We’ve got plenty of both, plus all the necessary resources. What we don’t have is that idea. We don’t really try to imagine a more hopeful social situation. I don’t think that we ever have. We don’t really believe that we can make this terrestrial world a better place, so we imagine paradise. We imagine lives of dolce far niente. This is what we have always done, because we couldn’t make the world a better place.

Until, that is, we discovered that we could make it much worse place. Until recently, we believed in progress. Progress allowed us to increase health, wealth, and speed. We believed that progress — these three increases — would improve the lives of millions. We believed that progress would stop there. We did not imagine that progress would poison the earth or destroy meaning. We never had a comprehensive plan for progress; we simply settled for more and better. I suppose it’s no wonder that the people who benefited most from progress were the first to see through it, or at any rate to see how inadequate the idea of progress really was.

We need an idea of the world that accounts for more than the idea of progress did. Then we need an idea of what, given our resources, the first step toward that world would look like. This is not what do we need most but what can we do right now without upsetting our human ecology (and creating power vacuumes, &c). There are lots of things that we can do as individuals, and we know what they are. But there are things that we can do only as a society, not in compliance with some socialist diktat but as fellow-citizens imagining together. (That’s how the United States got going, in case you missed class that day.) What is the most urgent of the things that we’ll have to do together?

We have to imagine how to provide everyone who wants one with a meaningful, sustaining job, with something to do in the world that earns a decent wage. The first step seems to entail imagining how we could simply create more good jobs right now. As Americans, I think we have a duty to imagine jobs for Americans; every other nation has the same duty. So, can we begin with that?


Bon weekend à tous!