Friday, October 17, 2008

small consolations in the penny press!

It's been a weirdly dismaying week out there in the literary world, as some of you may have noticed. First, the Nobel Prize for literature was awarded to ... the third-best poet from the island of Mauritius (note to the freakishly wayward Nobel Committee: at best, you've only got a few more years left before Vladimir Putin conquers your neutral asses, so you might want to think about giving the next Prize to somebody known, instead of every year playing this idiotic game of watching copy-editors all over the Western world scurry for Wikipedia immediately after your announcement). Intelligent readers barely had a moment to collect themselves after that gigantic gesture of irrelevancy than the Booker Prize was awarded to an earnest nonentity from Chennai, out in the colonies (note to the Booker judges: see above, and while you're at it, try actually reading Salman Rushdie's The Enchantress of Florence).

And on top of all that, Open Letters Political Editor Greg Waldmann, attending a book-party on the Upper West Side, while talking about the upcoming U.S. presidential election, was heard to say, "The election's over. Unless something horrible happens, it's already over." Granted, Waldmann was drunk at the time (Political Editors! Can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em, know exactly where to find 'em at 2 in the morning!), but still - you'd think somewhere in his mainly Slovakian upbringing there would have been a kindly Irish washerwoman who could have patiently taken him aside and said, "Jaysus Mary and Joseph! Are you wantin' trouble t'find you?" As it is, his sloshy pronouncement virtually guarantees that a) the election isn't over, and b) something horrible will happen.

It's a sentiment you find cropping up in a lot of different places, and it's damn unsettling. Say what you want about President George W. Bush, but in the ramp-up to neither of his elections did you ever read ominous prose hoping nothing, you know, happens to him. But with presidential front-runner Barack Obama, this kind of worry has crept even into the hallowed pages of The New Yorker, where the always-interesting Hendrik Hertzberg's "Talk of the Town" piece started off with some crack observations about candidate John McCain's supposed love of "town hall" style chats with his supporters ("McCain's town hall meetings have been one-man shows, based on a relationship between candidate and audience that falls somewhere between that of a celebrity to his fans and that of a king to his subjects - one important man in a roomful of little people") but ended up with that same worried expression on its face:

"I admire Senator Obama and his accomplishments," he [McCain] told a restive crowd in Lakeville, Minnesota, last Friday. "I will respect him, and I want everyone to be respectful." The crowd - the mob - booed. If McCain loses, or even if he wins, his campaign will be remembered as a tragedy in the Aristotelian sense, in which a hero is ruined through some terrible choice of his own. One can only hope that the tragedy will be his alone, and not the nation's.

This tallies neatly with comments heard everywhere in the last week, all to the effect that Barack Obama is some kind of Kennedyesque marked man, that the rabid supporters of his Republican rival (and his equally mob-baiting running mate) will stop at nothing to thwart his bid for the White House, that maybe the reason Obama seems too good to be true is because, tragically, he'll never get to be too good to be true. And this is the kind of talk certain Political Editors only encourage when they've been a little too grabby with the Glenlivets. Yeesh.

Rather unhappily, something of the dour tone of all this broke out of politics and seeped into some other parts of the latest New Yorker, most notably John Lahr's scathing review of the new Roundabout Theatre Company production of Robert Bolt's "A Man for All Seasons." But surely, you say, scathing theater reviews are par for the course with New York magazines? Maybe so, but Lahr isn't lambasting the new production starring Frank Langella: his scathing review is of the play (with a little slopped-over scorn for Thomas More himself). You know times are tough when even Robert Bolt isn't safe:

Bolt ... spins his yarn as if he were trying to make history accessible to nincompoops. He reduces the tumult of the English Reformation to a domestic drama about a good guy with strong feelings about divorce who tangles with a king who wants an heir. Caricature, not character, is the play's idiom. Although Bolt uses Erasmus's famous encomium about More as a title, he is uninterested in complexity, and certainly unable to demonstrate it.

Again: yeesh. Eugene O'Neill better watch his back.

You'd think you could gain some respite from all this stress in the pages of the latest GQ, where inevitably a lighter tone is struck, but at first you'd be as overwrought and confused as you were in The New Yorker. For instance, there's yet another full-page ... ad? poster? ... something picturing a confused-looking Justin Timberlake sporting stubble and wearing the most gawd-ugly white trash polyeurythane jacket imaginable, and superimposed over the whole page are the words "My Name is William Rast." To which the most prompt answer is "No it's not - your name is Justin Timberlake." But clearly the thing isn't a misprint; so what is it? A clothing ad? For something that ugly? Not likely. A movie ad? Without a single detail about the movie? Just some guy's name? Who knows? Presumably Justin Timberlake, but he hasn't been updating his blog, so the subject remains dark.

Equally confusing is Carter Smith's photo-spread of outdoorsy clothes starring underrated young actor/tobacco addict Scott Speedman. Despite the wide spectrum of outdoorsy-style things he could be pictured doing, Speedman in several shots is shown holding, examining, and even perhaps writing books. This has its own layer of irony (in real life, Speedman is so sinfully lazy that he couldn't finish his morning's Sudoku, much less that pesky novel that's been germinating inside him for lo, these last 12 years), but perhaps it's wishful - if so, Speedman should email the editors of Open Letters Monthly without delay; they'll help him with his productivity, if nothing else.

But good things come to those who wait, and this issue of GQ is no exception! The hoot of the issue - the hoot of the month so far - is Devin Friedman's hilariously cringe-inducing "Will You Be My Black Friend?"

Friedman looks around his life one day and realizes it's drastically monochromatic: he has virtually no black friends or acquaintances. This doesn't sit well with him, of course:

There's a bright line there. The Condoleeza line. Admitting that you count your black friends is a violation of the Unracist White Person Magna Carta, but really, I couldn't handle walking around knowing that I have the same number of black friends as George W. Bush.

So he does what we all do when faced with a tough problem: he puts an ad on Craigslist. After first quite drolly summarizing the lay, as it were, of the land:

People basically want to do one of three things on Craigslist: buy a sofa, find a place to live, or get a blow job in the next fifteen minutes. You can do other things, I guess, like find a tennis partner or someone to read your aura. But are you sure "aura reader" doesn't really mean "guy who's willing to give you a blow job in the next fifteen minutes"?

The piece has lots of laughs in it, although even here there are somber notes being struck in the background. Ultimately, Friedman isn't saying white people and black people can't be friends - he's saying they don't want to be friends:

Amicable racial estrangement is also the story of America at large, circa right now. Demographically, studies show that the country has been quietly resegregating - and this time, self-segregating. It's the era of racism without any actual racists - 8 percent of white people say they would be "uncomfortable" voting for a black man to be president; it's the other 92 percent who say they'd vote for a black person, but as often as not aren't actually friends with one, that I'm talking about. Contemporary life can be arranged as a series of homogeneous zones that white folks can glide between - with only the most glancing, waiterly contact with all but the least foreign-seeming black people, or really with anyone different from you at all.

We'll have to hope Friedman is wrong about this growing racial complacency, or that if he's right, the presidential nay-sayers (and fate-tempters) are wrong about the bullseye between Barack Obama's shoulder blades. Twenty years ago, a wise man in Iowa said, "The only way to put race relations in America on the right track is for a black man to get elected President." Let's hope he was right about that part and not about his next line: "And that is simply never going to happen."

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