Gotham Diary:
December 2015 (IV)

Monday 21st

It’s like binge-watching an electrifying serial. Or trying to. All the episodes haven’t come out yet, and, sometimes, nothing happens. It takes a while to realize that nothing is happening, because there are no signals. There is no rolling of credits, no trailers for what’s coming up next. On the other hand, every moment is a kind of cliffhanger. I’m mesmerized. When the atmosphere of crisis abates, and then nothing happens, it takes me a while to catch on. I find that I have no taste for resuming my regularly scheduled life.

But make no mistake: it is not fun.

On Saturday evening, the landline rang. It was Kathleen’s senior associate. The formulation of an agreement, which a client had declared, two days earlier, to be of no pressing importance, suddenly had to be completed by Sunday morning. There was an air of fire drill about the whole thing, but Kathleen and her team took it very seriously. The agreement was hammered out. The team met via conference call on Sunday morning, and then the client was dialed in. Everything was great, fine, super job and so forth; but something the client said in an offhand way gave rise to new worries.

Kathleen agonized over these new worries as she got into bed last night. She couldn’t see how she would ever get to sleep. So we talked about it and sorted it out. We were lucky. Sometimes, this sort of late-night discussion backfires, and makes things look even worse. Last night, however, the talk seemed to tire Kathleen out. We nailed down the issues, so that they stopped swirling in her mind. We worked out the implications of the various awful scenarios that she had imagined. This exercise didn’t solve any problems, but it did settle them down. Bit by bit, Kathleen’s fears were transferred to an unwritten checklist that she would run through when meeting with her team in the morning.

Kathleen asked me to play Vaughan Williams’s Serenade to Music, and even I began to feel that everything would work out all right. Then she fell asleep. Somewhat later, I, too, went to bed. It was very late.


This morning, I am tired and spent. A little drama goes a long way with me. Like a strong antibiotic that kills all the healthy microbes in one’s intestinal tract, worrisome excitement strips my mind of connectivity. Nothing is related to anything else; nothing is particularly interesting. There is only the static buzz of the latest crisis, and a longing to go back to bed. The idea of getting dressed and going outside is horrifying. The effort to write the next sentence calls up not an array of words but a tide of languorous fatigue. Close my eyes, and I’ll fall asleep at the desk.

And just think! Christmas is upon us! How jolly.


There’s a story in today’s Times about how difficult it is for local farmers to sell their produce at the massive Hunt’s Point market in the Bronx — the wholesale food operation that stocks the city’s grocery stores and restaurants. “Historically, it has been difficult for local farmers to pay the fees or follow the arcane rules of consignment necessary to sell in the Hunts Point market.” Any solution depends on cooperation between the governor and the mayor — two men who embody the impossibility of seeing eye to eye. But the problem is the problem. Yes, that’s what I meant to say. We’re so much in the habit of solving problems that we don’t devote much attention to preventing problems in the first place. The problem at Hunt’s Point is almost certainly the standard sclerosis that builds up between the regulators and the regulated. It all begins innocently enough. In the interest of public health and safety, regulators demand that certain conditions be met. The regulated comply, but in such a way as to create special interests and barriers to entry. The regulations, meanwhile, pile up like Ptolemaic epicycles. There is no mechanism for reforming the regulations as a matter of course, and, with the passage of time, there is no particular will for reform. On the contrary! The regulators and the regulated alike gain power and permanence from mastering the regulatory complications — those arcane rules. They work with and around them, transforming them into a virtual infrastructure that supports the way we do business.

It is not that no new businesses can join the club, but rather that new kinds of business cannot. Local farmers, in this case, inhabit a different economic environment from the one created to deal with large-scale growers and shippers. Local farmers do not deal in the volume of produce that would allow the time or expense required to master the regulations, even if compliance were in every case possible. It requires fiat from on high to create a separate space for outsiders.

This happens in almost every walk of everyday life. Licenses and permits are required to conduct most forms of legitimate business. There would be nothing wrong with that if the process of acquiring licenses and permits were made easy for those qualified to acquire them. But the people who already have permits and licenses are not keen to ease the entry of competitors, and they, of course, happen to be the only people with a political interest in the matter. That ought not to be the case.

At some point in last night’s discussion, Kathleen and I went off on a tangent about Puerto Rico and the hedge fund managers who, dazzled by a 20% yield and the implicit understanding that the federal government would somehow force the Puerto Ricans to pay it, come hell or high water, threw good money after bad earlier this year, swelling the island’s already unmanageable debt. Why shouldn’t the hedge funds managers expect to be bailed out? Look at what happened in 2008 and after.

But the federal bailout of Wall Street was pressured in part by something that the hedge fund managers can’t claim: the public interest, even if the public never gave it a thought. If the hedge fund managers go down, they and their investors will be the only losers. In 2008, in contrast, for a week to ten days, as I recall, the American economy trembled on the brink of a collapsed short-term credit market. This sounds banal and unimportant. Banal it may be, but only because the short-term credit market, which deals in something called commercial paper (among other instruments), is what puts food on supermarket shelves and pays the clerks at the check-out lines. In the short term, that is. The short-term credit market is what keeps the cash flow of the nation flowing at a regular pulse. You might indeed call it the heartbeat of everyday commerce.

The terrible eventuality was avoided — and then promptly forgotten. Few people ever knew that the risk was even there, because nobody is taught to look for it or to worry about it. Only professionals and their smarter friends are aware of such things. When I think of all the useless things on the high school curriculum, I boil at the perversity with which important matters of every life are not on it instead.

How many Americans know that the Interstate Highway System was initiated as a matter of national defense? Long before World War II, Dwight Eisenhower suffered years of frustration in the movement, with which he was tasked, of Army trucks from base to base, and, as president, he was determined to do something about it. It makes sense, therefore, to regard the highway system as a weapon. That’s why it was built. Not the ring roads around cities — they came later — but the long, uninterrupted stretches through farmland and wilderness. Now, a question for the class. How important is this weapons system today — qua weapons system? Is it budgeted as an item of national defense? Who is interested in keeping the system going now? Does that party (or parties) have the money to pay to maintain it, or does it have to ask somebody else?

It occurs to me to inquire into how new updates of operating systems, and other very complex software, are prepared. Do coders have to examine every line? Or have they developed algorithms for focusing on the lines that have to be changed? How automated is the update process?

Lots of boring things become quite interesting when they put on a little history. And then, what to do you know: They become too important to overlook.


Wednesday 23rd

There was no point to trying to write yesterday. The building announced that it would be shutting down the water to our apartment for five hours, from ten until three. That would have been an insurmountable distraction. Not to mention the lack of a working bathroom. So I got up and got dressed early (for me), and went off to the movies.

I’ve wanted to see Spotlight since it arrived on 86th Street, some time ago. Yesterday, the reasons for staying home disappeared. I expected a film that would feature scenes of confrontation between journalists and church officials, with perhaps the threat of violence to the reporters. That isn’t Spotlight at all. Spotlight is more like Apollo 13, another movie in which knowledge radiates outward and is accepted with reluctance (and fear, in the case of Ron Howard’s masterpiece). Once Spotlight gets going, the church officials (who already know everything) disappear, remaining an offscreen menace right up to the end, only to be neutered and disgraced by some concluding title cards that note the resignation of Cardinal Law, the number of pedophile priests and their surviving victims, and the towns around the world where investigations have uncovered priestly molestation. It’s as though the Roman Catholic Church were too shabby to appear in the movies.

At the beginning of Spotlight, which is set in 2001 and the early days of the following year, three priests have been involved in court proceedings. (Or something of the kind. I’m pretty sure of the number three, but I didn’t pay attention to the rest of the details because I knew too well what was coming.) For the new editor of the Boston Globe, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), there is an air of whitewash about the handling of these cases. His idea of exposing an institutional coverup (as distinct from bad priests) is met with horror by his staff of investigative journalists, all of whom seem to be lapsed Catholics. “So you want to sue the church?” asks the assistant managing editor, Ben Bradlee, Jr (John Slattery), incredulously. Boston is a Catholic town, and a majority of Globe subscribers are Catholics. The pedophile priests are bad enough, but a manageable disgrace. A bad church hierarchy would be very unwelcome news.

As the movie unspools, it appears that every mature Catholic in Boston is aware of some small corner of the problem. Bad priests are an open secret. But what everyone also believes is that the evil is isolated and rare. It’s shocking to the journalists that there are as many as three, and suddenly four, ordained predators. In the end, their list will include 87 names, almost exactly confirming the prediction of an offscreen psychiatrist (and former priest; voiced by Richard Jenkins), who estimates that six percent of all priests are molesters. What’s more troubling is the revelation that, until now, the Globe has been burying this scandal as well. A defense lawyer and the leader of a survivors’ group both complain that their long-ago alerts were ignored by the paper. That the allegations are being taken seriously now is ascribed to the fact that Marty Baron is Jewish.

The action of Spotlight is a series of end runs around the submerged barriers that the Archdiocese has constructed, with the knowledge of Cardinal Law and a great deal of cooperation from lawyers and judges. Relevant documents have been sealed by the courts — where they exist at all; many cases have been settled as “private mediation” between victims and the Archdiocese, leaving no public records. The investigators form a four-man team, with Michael Keaton as the captain, and Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Brian D’Arcy James as his lieutenants. They attack the coverup with all the devices of classic newshound cinema. Doors are slammed in their faces. Angry victims are mollified. Hours are spent poring over church directors with rulers, looking for priests who have been placed on sick leave and moved from parish to parish. A clerk is bribed to provide a reporter with copies of case files (because the courthouse copy center has closed for the day). You’ve seen it all before, but then again, you haven’t, because co-writer and director Tom McCarthy and his magnificent cast do what great performers always do: they make it new.


In the evening, I went to Carnegie Hall for the Messiah. I didn’t want to go at all, but I knew that Kathleen would be happier if I sat next to her. And she was. Eventually, I was almost glad on my own account. There were stretches in which the music shook me free of the embrace of pointlessness and cleared the air of disgrace. (Kathleen was just told that, before any bills could be paid, an important client would conduct an internal review of all work done by her and her out-on-bail partner.)

“It doesn’t get any better than that,” I overheard one concertgoer say to another as we left the hall. With one important caveat, I had to agree. The caveat is that I always prefer Mozart’s Messiah (1789; K 572) to Handel’s leaner original. I miss, especially, the clarinets. It wasn’t a big deal last night, because I heard them in my mind. Handel is grandly austere; Mozart is gorgeous.

But I also had to concede that my caveat might be wrong-headed. Messiah is a work for singers, not instrumentalists. And the singers last night were simply the best. They all had fantastically secure tops — soloists and chorus alike — and when they weren’t nailing a dramatic note they all sang with supple elegance. I should not have thought it possible to produce such a wall of sound with 32 singers, but that was the size of the Musica Sacra chorus — I counted — and the wall of sound was roaring. Yet, most of what we could see from our box seats at the extreme left end of the First Tier was the planking of the stage floor. There were nine violins, three violas, one cello and one bass. There were two oboes and one bassoon. That and the positif organ were it, with trumpets and drums added sparingly. From such slight forces, Kent Tritle conjured an insuperably powerful performance. Although brisk, it made time for a full da capo reading of “He was despised.”

I don’t know what it means when I say that I have never heard a countertenor who sounded so completely womanly: is that a compliment? There was nothing weird or uncertain about Christopher Ainslie’s voice; it was simply beautiful. I must confess to a certain lingering cognitive dissonance, watching such lovely sound pour out of a slender blond man in tails. But it was never really distracting. Kathleen, who closed her eyes, claiming that she hears better that way, simply forgot that the singer was a man.

Kathleen’s favorite singer was the soprano, Kathryn Lewek. This was because Kathleen’s favorite arias from Messiah are for the soprano, and Lewek had the kind of voice that Kathleen likes — which is to say that she didn’t have the kind of voice that Kathleen dislikes, which may best be described as “spinto.” (Kathleen calls it “screechy.”) Lewek’s voice was pure and secure. She managed to be youthful and mature at the same time. I thought that she was quite thrown away on Handel, and longed to hear her sing “Come scoglio,” from Così fan tutte. The tenor was Minjie Lee. His Chinese accent was almost undetectable — although I do wish that he had been coached to sing “comfort” more formally, and not as “comfert,” even if that’s how we all say it. I’d have put up with plenty more such faults, however, to hear a voice so warmly, effortlessly accurate. Matt Boehler was the bass, and he both sounded and acted like a prophet, at one point raising a warning finger at the audience (in the trio of “Why do the nations”). Tall and slim and almost piratically bearded, he had a solid command of the bottom of his register, and his top rang with an authority that was strangely inviting.

Over dinner afterward, I answered a lot of Kathleen’s questions about Handel. I saw what she was doing, even if she didn’t: she was validating the idea of useful knowledge. But I couldn’t help worrying about whether the musicians’ expertise will be carried on by future generations. Although the Carnegie Hall boxes were packed, and the balconies were respectably crowded, there were patches of emptiness at the rear of the parterre, and also up close to the stage. I had received an online message during the day headlined “Discount Messiah seats still available.” When a performance is as good as it gets, the hall ought to be as full as it can be.


In the afternoon, I read Stoner, the John Williams novel of 1965 that has become a widely admired classic since its republication in 2003 by New York Review Books. I’ve had it for years, but resisted reading it, because I was given to understand that it was a study in disappointment. The son of poor farmers goes off to the local state university to take an agricultural course, so as to help to improve the farm. Soon, however, he falls in love with literature, of which he has known nothing, and he switches his major. He goes on to spend the rest of his life at the university, as we’re told on the first page. We are warned from the beginning of impending obscurity. I was put off by the prospect of reading about provincial American lives, set forth in hardscrabble American prose. But the story of Stoner is not provincial, and its language is not hardscrabble.


Thursday 24th

It is the tone of Stoner that distinguishes the novel. It is a grave, occasionally exalted tone. The prose is not stuffy, but it is groomed and discreet; vernacular usage appears only between quotation marks. There is nothing to occasion laughter, but there is also no heaviness. Indeed, the limpid but somehow far from ingenuous candor with which Stoner’s life is unfolded reminds me of the great European fairy tales. There is no authorial voice, only an impersonal narration. This is what happened. Although world-shaking events are not only noted but dated, Stoner could be set in once-upon-a-time.

Another thing that struck me about Stoner is the absence of an American accent. If you repackaged it as the translation of a German or perhaps Scandinavian novel — now I think of it, Stoner could pass for the work of the Nederlands writer known as Nescio — no one would doubt you. The academic setting (which, while it is specific, lacks any non-accidental detail that, aside from its name, could not be found at any university) may be provincial, but it is not regionally provincial. This is not a book about Missouri, or the Midwest, or even the United States. It is a book about scholars and teachers in the early Twentieth Century. After all, universities are the same everywhere; they differ only as to how well they do what universities are supposed to do — a matter that was much clearer in Stoner’s day than it is in ours, unfortunately.

The following paragraph, which appears early in the book, while Stoner is still an undergraduate, describes Stoner’s budding imagination, a faculty that the young man discovered one day in class, when the professor, Archer Sloane, asked him to tell the class what Shakespeare’s great sonnet, “That time of year,” meant. Stoner can get no further than a stumbling start, “It means….” He raises his hands, and his eyes glaze over. The perceptive professor, understanding that this muteness betrays a deep (if new) love of literature, dismisses the class. Shortly thereafter, we find Stoner alone in his room, where we are confronted by the starkest limitation of the novel.

He had no friends, and for the first time in his life he became aware of loneliness. Sometimes, in his attic room at night, he would look up from a book he was reading and gaze in the dark corners of his room, where the lamplight flickered against the shadows. If he stared long and intently, the darkness gathered into a light, which took the insubstantial shape of what he had been reading. And he would feel that he was out of time, as he had felt that day in class when Archer Sloane had spoken to him. The past gathered out of the darkness where it stayed, and the dead raised themselves to live before him; and the past and the dead flowed into the present among the alive, so that he had for an intense instant a vision of denseness into which he was compacted and from which he could not escape, and had no wish to escape. Tristan, Iseult the fair, walked before him; Paolo and Francesca whirled in the glowing dark; Helen and bright Paris, their faces bitter with consequence, rose from the gloom. And he was with them in a way that he could never be with his fellows who went from class to class, who found a local habitation in a large university in Columbia, Missouri, and who walked unheeding in a midwestern air. (16)

As I typed out this passage, it occurred to me that it is so much the heart of the novel that it could stand in for the entire novel. But of course it could not; you must read the whole novel to hear the heart beating. Stoner never outgrows this rapture, no matter how outwardly sophisticated, worldly, and disillusioned he appears to be. The problem with Stoner is that it is easy to forget the paragraph on page 16 in the small blizzard of tribulations that ensues. First, he marries badly; his wife is not only foolish and shallow but resentful, someone who nurses her grudges and learns how to wound while appearing to help. Second, he is afflicted by an unsavory colleague, also a reservoir of resentment (his shoulders and upper back are misshapen). In contrast to Stoner’s academic morality, Hollis Lomax has ambitions. Finally, Stoner falls in love, in high middle age; and for a moment — a matter of months — the vision of denseness is made flesh. Stoner shuttles between two worlds, and manages to distract himself from the knowledge that the two worlds cannot coexist for long.

These miserable episodes are very well done. You can see them coming, and you might wish that Stoner could see them coming, too; but he does not, and therein lies my tale. Stoner is still on page 16. Stoner is a love story that cannot be told — not as a novel, anyway.

In John McGahern’s Introduction to the republished novel, we’re told that the author, John Williams, regarded Stoner as a hero.

A lot of people who have read the novel think that Stoner had such a sad and bad life. I think he had a very good life. He had a better life than most people do, certainly. He was doing what he wanted to do, he had some feeling for what he was doing, he had some sense of the importance of the job he was doing. He was a witness to values that are important. (xi)

We don’t really have to be told this. Time and again, we watch Stoner as, after every upset, he regains his footing and walks on. He is pained, to say the least, when things go badly, but he moves on. His childhood of inexpressive labor on an increasingly infertile farm endows him with the habits of stoic perseverance, but it is not mere resolution that sees him through. It is that love of literature.

But you can’t write a novel about a love of literature, no matter how sustaining it is for the lover. What you must write — but what only the lover can write — is literary criticism. Novels are about people in the substantial world. They may be limited to one character, but that character must inhabit a part of the world that readers can imagine because they have seen something like it themselves. General things about human life — food, clothing, shelter — cannot be entirely taken for granted; a fictional character must inhabit a plausible space with recognized needs. No one can love literature without seeing to those needs, either, but the love takes place in a world beyond them. It is not only private but invisible. It exists without manifestation. It exists without consummation, too.

So what we get, in Stoner, is something like the corolla of the sun. It is the periphery of Stoner’s life — the part that we can see, and that Stoner himself could see only if he could blot out his central attachment to words on the page and to the images that they conjure in his mind. We do not even see much of him as a teacher, and we’re given conflicting reports about his capacities as an educator. At the outset, we’re told that Stoner is unmemorable, but we’re also shown instances of his classroom incandescence — hints, really. The one anecdote that most nearly provokes a laugh recounts a misscheduled lecture into which Stoner pours himself so completely that he shoos away the university bigwigs who have an authorized claim to the hall. We’re told that Stoner becomes a “campus character.” But we don’t get to see it, for the good reason that we couldn’t. Nobody picks up a novel to read a lecture, no matter how magnificent, on Donatus’s influence on medieval Latin poets.

So, while I regard Stoner as a highly successful novel, a finely rendered “Portrait of an Assistant Professor,” I think that it is also successful as an anti-novel, as a demonstration that there are very important depths that fiction cannot sound.


It is two o’clock in the afternoon on Christmas Eve. You would never know that from the look of our apartment, which, for the first time in either of our lives, is absolutely devoid of seasonal decoration. Kathleen was insistent on this, and I was too sore to disagree. I can remember hoping, last year at this time, that the new year would be better than the old, but it was, to say the least, not; entirely half of it was consumed by the gross uncertainty of Kathleen’s search for a new law firm that would have her. And it has ended with the arrest of the partner with whom she undertook that search, in order to continue to represent a very substantial client. A client who cannot have been happy to be named in news stories about the downfall of Martin Shkreli. For us, it is a matter of the injustice of injustice. I nevertheless go on hoping, that 2016 will be a better year.

I’ll be back before then; we still have nearly a week of 2015.


Bon week-end à tous!