Sorry, Zack Budryk, But I Don’t Want to Fuck You

It seems I have a stalker.

Zack Budryk wants to fuck me. I know this because this puny man of the media world has been obsessively spying on me and harassing me on social media in the last few weeks and he has been rather careless in covering his tracks, despite his professed occupation as a “journalist.” (Look, Zack, I know you’re a hopeless clod (for some reason, media people have emailed me stories about you and I shall save you further embarrassment by keeping these confidential), but here’s a tip. Burner accounts and VPNs. Or maybe don’t sign into a social media account with your real name, as you did in harassing me, you pathetic rube. Oh, and I have the receipts if I ever need to file a police report or a lawsuit.)

His beef with me — and it’s really incredibly pathetic — is an article I wrote two years ago in which I called out his utterly mediocre and completely unaccomplished hackery. Rather than take his lumps and move on like a grownass adult, Zack Budryk has engaged in a seething and obsessive fury towards me, for which there is only one obvious conclusion. Zack Budryk wants to be my bottom. And he wants me to fuck him in a raw and animalistic manner.

Well, I’m flattered, Zack. But I’m not interested in helping you fulfill your kinks. I’ve been spending much of the day contemplating the repugnant and inexcusable attack on Salman Rushdie — a truly terrifying development that I obviously oppose with every fiber of my being and that seems to be an escalation point in the disturbing war against outspoken and transgressive artists, a trajectory that seems to have started with Will Smith’s assault on Chris Rock at the Oscars.

Hey, Zack, instead of obsessing about me, why not think about stuff like this:

1. For fuck’s sake, Salman Rushdie is going to lose an eye.
2. Salman Rushdie is on a ventilator and we don’t know if he’s going to pull through.
3. A writer was stabbed ten to fifteen times on an American stage simply for speaking his mind.
4. This shouldn’t be happening in America.

I mean, that’s where my thoughts have been right now.

I’ve also been thinking about the guy who was shot outside my Brooklyn apartment building tonight. I’ve lived close to shootings, but never this close. It literally happened about four hundred feet from where I’m now writing this. The entire neighborhood congregated together to make sure everyone was okay. We were obviously not okay. But it was nice to chat with the neighbors and to see that this community was united against violence. Nor is America okay. One would think that any thinking person would be contemplating this instead of despicably pointing his finger towards me as one apparent source of the problem:

I am vehemently opposed to violence. I only fight in self-defense and have talked my way out of 99.999999999999999999999999999999999% of all dangerous situations I’ve experienced. A gutterpunk once pointed a gun at me and I not only got the guy to put the gun down, but I got him to laugh. I somehow didn’t lose my cool. And I doubt very highly that Zack Budryk can say the same thing. I know violence. I’ve been the victim of violence. I’ve stopped dozens of people from committing violence. I once stopped a man from cracking a beer bottle over the head of a very prominent and very famous figure that everyone knows. I’ve put my white body in front of Black bodies to stop cops from beating the shit out of them. I hate violence. I want this cycle of violence to stop.

The absurd portrait that Zack Budryk has painted of me involves my first thought encompassing some narcissistic comparison of myself with Rushdie. I challenge anyone to find a single word among the millions I’ve written over more than twenty years in which I’ve compared myself to another person. You won’t. I’ve never expressed anything along those lines. I simply do not possess that type of mentality. My first thoughts upon hearing the news this morning were utter horror, sympathy, and sadness — and this despite the fact that Rushdie has used his literary power and influence to burn me, as well as a few friends and acquaintances.

Nevertheless, I offer my sincerest wishes to all of Salman Rushdie’s family and friends. This is a tragic reminder that we need to do far more than what we’re doing.

And, Zack, I know you’ve been waiting eagerly about what I’m going to write about you. I know your pants are bunched around your ankles right now. I truly hope that you’re equipped with enough Kleenex. And, hey, don’t worry, I don’t believe in original sin. You do what you need to do. But, for the record, I don’t want to fuck you. In fact, I don’t give a fuck about you at all. My DMs are not open to you, sir. But I do need to point out that you are actually part of the problem. In fact, in your deranged fixations on me, I’d say that you have more in common with Hadi Matar, the 24-year-old man from Fairview, New Jersey who pulled off this act of terrorism. Maybe that’s what you actually meant in saying that I would absurdly suggest that I was “just like Rushdie.” Given your recent behavior, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if I picked up a physical copy of the Sunday Times about five years from now, sipped a cafe au lait, and read a story about you that concerned an act of violence that you perpetrated.

I have only five more words for you, Zack Budryk: Seek help and fuck off.

Heart of Darkness (Modern Library #67)

(This is the thirty-fourth entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: Main Street.)

Hello, Darkness, my old friend. I’ve come to talk with you again. Except that I don’t particularly want to. It’s not you, Joe. It’s me.

Don’t worry. We’ll still text each other. I’ll still speak fondly of you. We can still meet for Sunday brunch sometimes. I’m just in a different place these days. Namely the 21st century.

It can’t be an accident that the wildly underrated Julian MacLaren-Ross skewered the idea of reading Conrad as an upwardly mobile class aspiration in Of Love and Hunger. In Frog, Stephen Dixon took the piss out of Conrad along these lines as well. Indeed, slagging off Conrad seems to be a common trait among many of my literary Bohemian heroes. And I do need to heed them. I feel and trust their instincts. It’s almost as if we’re told that we should simply accept that Conrad is a great writer who changed the course of literature (and he did) even as we pretend that he isn’t ancient and hoary and horribly regressive. When I confessed my reluctance to reread Heart of Darkness to a few friends, they told me, “Well, it’s only a hundred pages.” Which suggested very strongly that nobody really wants to read Conrad anymore. He doesn’t pop out at you like Joyce or Faulkner or Nabokov or even Lawrence. And, to tell you the truth, I would much rather reread Finnegans Wake than anything from Conrad.

Yet I don’t detest Conrad. Certainly not with the full-bore commitment in which I direct my fierce energies loathing Henry James — a man who is represented on the Modern Library canon with three hideous doorstoppers and who I have tried to learn how to enjoy (even enlisting the tremendously gracious Dinitia Smith for assistance), but whose “charms” I have proven totally impervious to. And since I’m getting ever closer to fifty and there hasn’t been a break in the Henry James ice floe, I suspect that I’m fated to go to my grave hating him, possibly living a few extra months not only to spite my enemies, but to deliver a few final rounds of vitriol towards one of the most overrated and egotistical writers in the English language. I truly dread the James slog that’s in store for me about forty titles from now. The horror! The horror! Perhaps I shall be driven mad like Kurtz.

But not so with Conrad! There is much about Conrad to like: his intensity, his often beautiful imagery, and his insights into human atavism. Eleven years ago, Lord Jim did hold my attention — but I had to give Conrad everything that I had. Decades before I read Lord Jim, I was dazzled by Heart of Darkness in high school. I reread it twice in the last few months and, while the allure that once hypnotized me seems to be gone, I can’t gainsay that this is a masterpiece.

First off, I think we can all agree that Marlow is one of the most long-winded bastards in all of literature. “Mansplaining” doesn’t even begin to describe the dude’s incessant need to talk. Compared to your FOX News-watching uncle going on and on about Marxist conspiracies at the Thanksgiving table, Charlie Marlow is an outright conversational tyrant. All these poor sailors want to do is play dominoes, but the unnamed passenger listening to Marlow’s tale notes that only “the bond of the sea” keeps the sailors from bitching about this incessant rambler “so often unaware of what [his] audience would best like to hear.” (Incidentally, this two-layer approach to narrative is a shrewd move by Conrad to insulate himself from any charges of planting autobiography into his fiction. Conrad and Marlow share many similarities. Not only did Conrad go to the Congo to fulfill a boyhood dream, but he also, like Marlow, endured the stench of a fresh corpse while commanding a steamer. Small wonder that the Polish-Ukranian bard decided to devote all of his time and energies to a full-time writing career not long after this hideous tour of duty.)

Graying technophobes — the kind of unadventurous dullards best epitomized in today’s literary world by the likes of Jonathan Franzen and Sven Birkerts — often complain about the Internet’s impact on attention spans. But consider the alternative. Do you honestly want to live in a pre-radio world in which men explain things with indefatigable logorrhea? In this case, we have Marlow counterbalancing the “savage” world with the “civilized.” There were points in which I felt great sorrow for the poor sailors and imagined sending smartphones back in time so that these poor men could wile away their hours with Candy Crush and cat videos instead of listening to a reactionary seaman splaying out his white supremacy.

And about that white supremacy. Chinua Achebe has been perhaps the most vocal literary figure who has denounced Heart of Darkness, calling Conrad “a thoroughgoing racist,” rightly impugning Conrad’s belittling and dehumanization of Africa, and pointing out how Conrad’s “generosity” in having Black people show up for token cameos is anything but. Achebe scolds Conrad for avoiding the word “brother” in lieu of “kinship” in relation to Black people. (Indeed, the ocean itself, described as “a positive pleasure, like the speech of a brother,” gets more dignity than the dark-skinned “natives” of this tale.) What draws Marlow to Africa on a map is “a white patch for a boy to dream gloriously over.”

On the other hand, there is some modest pushback when the Company’s office is compared to a “whited sepulchre.” Smoke from gunpowder is described as “white,” thus suggesting some white complicity. Can we likewise interpret Marlow pointing to the Blacks being unable to distinguish between individual white men as “being so much alike at a distance” as an acknowledgment of Marlow’s tendency to do the same with Black people? And what are we to make of the white worsted tied around the neck of a dying Black man? Or the foreman whose beard is tied up in “a kind of white serviette he brought for the purpose”? Or a book “lovingly stitched afresh with white cotton thread”? Or the “cold and monumental whiteness” of a marble fireplace?

Humorless sods like Jonathan Jones have written masturbatory articles defending Conrad (and dissing Achebe) with all the clueless gusto of a Trump cultist declaring noted Hungarian tyrant Viktor Orban “a good guy.” But the truth of Conrad’s racism is somewhere in between. Conrad was racist. (The N-word appears ten times within Heart of Darkness‘s 38,000 pages. And the Black caricatures are frequently sickening.) Like all great writers, he executed his storytelling with instinctive ambiguity. And since many of the colonialists carry remnants of white, Conrad’s imagery — whether intentional or not — can also be read as condemnatory of imperialism and privilege.

And you cannot deny Conrad’s commitment to atmosphere! The old woman who greets Marlow with “flat cloth slippers…propped up on a foot warmer, and a cat reposed on a lap.” The Eldorado Exploring Expedition manager who resembles “a butcher in a poor neighbourhood.” The “torn curtain of red twill” hanging in the doorway of a hut that “flapped sadly in our faces.” A “long, decaying building on the summit…half buried in the high grass.” For all of Marlow’s garrulity, Conrad was a master of imagery, knowing the exact measure of words — never too many, never too few — to connote this tropical world.

Still, for all my complaints about Conrad’s racism, Kurtz is truly one of the all-time creepy fucks of literature. On one hand, we are told that “Mr. Kurtz lacked restraint in the gratification of his various lusts” and that he is possibly mad. But his seemingly calm rationalization about how he has manipulated the world around him is deeply unsettling. And while Conrad suggests that Kurtz has become this way because of uncharted and unfamiliar terrain (“The long shadows of the forests had slipped downhill as we talked”), it is quite likely that Kurtz was always unhinged. And if this is indeed the case, then Conrad is saying something very vital about the tyranny of white privilege, even if it comes saddled with tacit endorsement.

Next Up: W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage!

Main Street (Modern Library #68)

(This is the thirty-third entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: The House of Mirth.)

Evelyn Waugh, Erskine Caldwell, Iris Murdoch, Nathanael West, George Orwell, Joseph Heller, James Joyce, Rebecca West. They — and so many other writers — were far nimbler in their shellacking of institutional norms than Sinclair Lewis ever was. Yet it was Lewis who won the Nobel Prize. And they didn’t. Why? Likely because the Nobel Prize Committee had it in for Edith Wharton and the Norwegian cultural oligarchs may have secretly believed they were correcting a “wrong.” Just nine years before, Lewis quietly seethed after the Pulitzer Prize Board changed its mind and awarded the Fiction Prize to Edith Wharton for The Age of Innocence instead of Main Street. It was an appropriate correction. Not only is The Age of Innocence a far superior novel to Main Street, but this was also the first Pulitzer Prize for Fiction awarded to a woman. And Edith Wharton could write Sinclair Lewis’s wino ass under the table. (Meet me in a coffeehouse and I will argue this point for hours! I am Team Wharton all the way!) We also know from Hermione Lee’s biography that Wharton, who was tremendously gracious and got along with nearly everyone, became disappointed in Lewis after he revealed himself for the self-serving drunk he truly was. She wrote to Gaillard Lapseley that Lewis was “utterly unperceiving, & frankly interested only in the sale of Arrowsmith! What a queer product — for he really is an artist, though he is so unaware of it.”

Wharton was being kind. Sheldon N. Grebstein suggested that Lewis’s clear disinterest in style is one of the reasons why he is not more widely read today. And even Grebstein, who was in the tank for Lewis, pointed out that the Minnesota bard was not exactly your goto guy when it came to unpacking the complexities of human behavior. (Main Street, in particular, fails on this front. More anon.) But Grebstein also held up this absence of eclat as a virtue, for Lewis’s primordial approach liberated him to explore chance and contrivance. And when his id was hitting the right targets, he could be just as efficiently brutal as any twentieth century writer. (Lewis’s line in Elmer Gantry about the preacher flunking Greek, but winning a ten dollar prize for “Sixteen Ways of Paying a Church Debt” is a genuinely funny one.) Perhaps this is one big reason why Gore Vidal declared Lewis a romantic.

But ultimately Sinclair Lewis’s visceral qualities are often vitiated by his limited understanding of human behavior. Jealousy is one of the cornerstones to the Sinclair Lewis formula. Martin Arrowsmith hates the starry-eyed men who fawn over his wife, as well as the success of his associates. In his 1930 Nobel lecture, Lewis was to invoke jealousy as one salient reason for American literature being poorly regarded in Europe. In his biography Rebel from Main Street, Richard R. Lingeman makes a persuasive case that Lewis’s late-life romantic relationship with Marcella Powers was cemented in jealousy. It’s certainly true that jealousy can take you far in life. Sure, you may end up looking and behaving like Emperor Palpatine near the end of your days. And you probably won’t have a sense of humor. And countless people will secretly hate you even after you achieve a modicum of fame and renown. But, by Jove, you tripled down on your reach and you got somewhere! And in Lewis’s case, it landed him a Nobel and a slot on the Modern Library list.

Lewis’s canonical “importance” has been greatly inflated because Lewis cloaked his privilege in Midwestern roots. Even those who were enlisted to stump for Lewis in his prime did so with great reluctance. (In 1961, Mark Schorer wrote a Lewis biography for the money and dreaded every minute of it.)

To my mind, Lewis’s strongest novels are Babbit, Elmer Gantry, and the underrated It Can’t Happen Here. All three of these books document the peculiarly American dangers of obsession and conformity. Read this triptych today and you feel that Lewis was writing from a place of great urgency. Read his other work and you will find slipshod prose (Lewis was an alcoholic and it has been suggested by a few scholars that he wrote most of Arrowsmith completely blotto), rambling and often incoherent narratives (particularly in his later work), and wildly inconsistent quality. To write well, Lewis needed beastly instinct and emotional angst. And when he didn’t have that, he floundered along with bloat and bitterness.

Sadly, Main Street is the only Lewis volume represented on the Modern Library list. And the unfortunate truth is that this is a vastly overesteemed, doughty, and ponderous volume — not entirely without merit — that will surely fade from public memory by the middle of the 21st century. Its attempts at Minnesota vernacular feel belabored rather than felt. (“W a’n’t it in 1979?” “Why no ‘twa’n’t.” Yeah, whole pages like that.) Yes, Carol Kennincott does try to bring culture and progressive values to a town steeped in bland vanilla values. But her calls for revolution are unpersuasive:

We want our Utopia now — and we’re going to try our hands at it. All we want is — everything for all of us! For every housewife and every longshoreman and every Hindu nationalist and every teacher. We want everything. We sha’n’t get it. So we sh’n’t ever be content —

Frankly I’ve heard more convincing platitudes from some “mic check” kid at a protest

Granted, Lewis is very good at showing how the town of Gopher Prairie subsumes Carol’s identity and erodes her standards. These uneducated Caucasian hicks — the great grandparents to today’s right-wing morons who rapturously pay attention to Tucker Carlson and other hate merchants with a bafflingly big draw when not donning their red hats and fascist paraphernalia and claiming to be victimized by critical race theory even as they espouse racism — truly believe that they are remarkable (Mrs. Ole Jenson’s “thoughts” on Shakespeare are the apotheosis of incuriosity and are truly more pitiful than a poorly sourced Wikipedia entry) and that they are “just as good as anybody in Minneapolis.” Midway through the novel, Carol and her husband actually make a trip to Minneapolis (the only place to see happening new plays and buy fashionable new threads) and we see just how residing so long in a backwards town has altered her:

She felt rustic in this once familiar city, after a year an a half of Gopher Prairie. She was certain that Kennincott was taking the wrong trolley-car. By dusk, the liquor warehouses, Hebraic clothing-shops, and lodging-houses on lower Hennepin Avenue were smoky, hideous, ill-tempered. She was battered by the noise and shuttling of the rush-hour traffic. When a clerk in an overcoat too closely fitted at the waist stared at her, she moved nearer to Kennincott’s arm. The clerk was flippant and urban. He was a superior person, used to this tumult. Was he laughing at her?

As someone who spent half his life slowly migrating his way from the colorless doldrums of the California Central Valley to the thrilling possibilities of New York City, Carol’s uncertainty and anxieties truly resonated with me. When Lewis juxtaposes Carol against the relentless judgment of Gopher Prairie, Main Street is good. Carol can’t even have a quiet moment of joy to herself without inciting the judgmental scrutiny of being a doctor’s wife. She can’t be anonymous. Her every move is written up with illiterate relish in the local newspaper. (These days, the libeling and shaming and speculation can now be found on the great hellscape of social media, where your residency in a big city or a small town no longer matters to the twisted hateful losers who condemn you for living a fun and interesting life clearly beyond their talent and initiative.)

Yet despite Lewis’s attempts to show how Carol is victimized for being a woman, the sad irony is that Carol is less of a character and more of an object. We really don’t have a strong sense of what attracts Carol to her husband Will other than his neck. (Look, I’m not going to kink-shame. But seriously? One of the interesting eccentricities about Main Street is its relentless neck imagery, applied equally to humans and horses. When Lewis preposterously described how Carol is attracted to “the last light brought out the planes of his neck, his flat ruddied cheeks, the side of his nose, the depression of his temples,” I laughed so hard on the subway that two otherwise indifferent New Yorkers shot me disapproving glances. Even accounting for the unconsummated lust that Carol is acting out in this late section of the novel, it’s abundantly clear that Lewis didn’t really understand what women are attracted to.) We are told at the start of one chapter about how Carol suddenly loves her husband Will — this mediocre scumbag who won’t even give her enough money to buy groceries — but why? Then when Carol pops out a baby, we are told that “she loved him with all the devotion and instinct at which she had scoffed.” Sinclair, buddy, put the bottle down and give us more than these superficial details!

I didn’t outright hate Main Street, but I was greatly disappointed by it. After a hundred pages of this, all the potshots at Gopher Prairie locals feel like Lewis shooting monkeys in a barrel. Sinclair Lewis either lacked the desire or the talent to portray small town people as anything other than caricatures. But three years ago, the town of Sauk Centre erected a statue to the man. And in the immediate wake of the book’s publications, many rural Minnesotans proudly called themselves “Main Streeters.” Either they missed the point of the book or, more likely, they never bothered to read it.

Next Up: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness!

The House of Mirth (Modern Library #69)

(This is the thirty-second entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: The Alexandria Quartet.)

“But brilliant young ladies, a little blinded by their own effulgence, are apt to forget that the modest satellite drowned in their light is still performing its own revolutions and generating heat at its own rate.” — The House of Mirth

Our universe has become more hopelessly transactional. Vile narcissists with limitless greed and an absence of smarts and empathy have taken over the landscape with their blunt bullhorns. At every socioeconomic level, you will find a plurality of mercenaries who will push any bright and promising head beneath the waterline with ruthless cruelty. Perhaps I’m finally understanding, at an embarrassingly late age, just how commonplace such self-serving treachery is in our world. But what’s the alternative? Cynicism? At times, I have a sense of humor that is darker than the nightscape above the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory, but no thanks. I’ve always been a cautious optimist with a healthy handle on reality, but I still detest this state of affairs. I will still speak out vociferously against it and fight the business-as-usual cowards who uphold this great sham known as the status quo at any personal cost. I stump for the outliers and the misfits. The people who have authentic and vital voices. I don’t care who they are or where they come from. I will stick up for the gas station attendants and the baristas. I will listen to their full stories rather than judge them from a fleeting glance or a superficial and supercilious position. I despise bullies and opportunists. I believe in affording everyone basic dignity. I believe that everyone has it within them to grow and to learn and that inquisitive efforts should never be mocked, especially when genuine curiosity is now in such short supply. Reprobates who use their positions of power to denigrate the marginalized and the underprivileged are scumbags who need to be fought and, if necessary, destroyed.

So you can probably imagine how much The House of Mirth means to me. It is one of the best books on the Modern Library list and it should have been ranked much higher. This is my favorite Edith Wharton novel, although The Custom of the Country is a close second. Just this year, I have purchased four copies of this book for friends, urging them to read it with every ounce of exuberance I can summon. And you need to read it too, if you haven’t already. This book is vivacious and brilliant and funny and utterly heartbreaking. I rooted for Lily Bart. I wept for her. Even when I knew her fate. She did not deserve her downfall. She is one of the great tragic heroines in all of literature, right up there with Emma Bovary, Dido, Anna Karenina, Ophelia, Bertha Mason, and Francesca da Rimini. Much like Muriel Spark’s masterpiece The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, you can read this novel multiple times and always discover a new angle. That the rules of the game haven’t changed all that much in the one hundred and seventeen years since this classic was published is a great testament to Wharton’s sagacious and prescient genius. And if you finish this novel and you’re not in the “ride or die” wagon for Edith Wharton, then I’m sorry, but you simply have no literary taste.

Should Lily Bart be blamed for her fate? Conservatives (and privileged neoliberals) will likely condemn her for her apparent financial irresponsibility, but the peer pressure from her rich friends to gamble away vast sums she doesn’t have at bridge will be deeply felt by anyone who can recall the youthful horrors of trying to fit in. (In fact, I’d say the only contemporary writer today who could be an Edith Wharton in the making is the ferociously talented Adelle Waldman, whose excellent novel, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P, mined similar territory. MacArthur people, are you listening? Award her a fellowship already! We really need to get her writing more books so we can find out!) And Wharton is exquisite in communicating to us precisely why Lily is so susceptible to social pressure from these higher-ups and hangers-on:

Her naturally good temper had been disciplined by years of enforced compliance, since she had almost always had to attain her ends by the circuitous path of other people’s; and, being naturally inclined to face unpleasant facts as soon as they presented themselves, she was not sorry to hear an impartial statement of what her folly was likely to cost, the more so as her own thoughts were still insisting on the other side of the case.

More than a century later, with the Dobbs Supreme Court decision and the Democrats’ failure to revive the Equal Rights Amendment serving as disheartening signs that a Handmaid’s Tale future could be in store for us, women are still pressured to be “good” and compliant. And while women have a lot more freedom today than they did in 1905, patriarchal conformity upheld through peer pressure has ensured that a lot of women silently endure such internal and external conflict.

Lily is lucky to have true friends like Carry Fisher (initially described as a “professional sponge” and “a mental habit corresponding to the physical titillations of the cigarette or the cock-tail,” but she turns out to be a hell of a lot more than this) and Gerty Farish (an indefatigable charity worker who doesn’t easily buy into any of the false charges eventually leveled towards Lily) when she eventually slips, but the affluent allure of the Trenors and their circle amaurotizes (and thus amortizes and possibly amouritizes?) her to the deadly puppetry of the Trenors and, most diabolically, the repellent and calculating bedhopper Bertha Dorset, whose doctors, we are informed, forbid “her from exposing herself to the crude air of the morning.” (Such a beautifully compact way of foreshadowing Bertha’s vampiric nature!)

Wharton was a master of gentle ambiguity nestling just beneath the surface of narrative clarity. The first time you read Mirth, you don’t buy Simon Rosedale’s mercy near the end. With his “small stock-taking eyes,” he’s little more than a bean-counting arriviste and his despicable tabulating also applies to people. (When Rosedale says, “I can’t help making love to you” to Lily near the end of the book, he’s basically every vulpine loser hitting a singles bar at 3 AM, scoping out the remaining women who haven’t gone home with anyone.) But the second time you read Mirth, you’re not so sure. Rosedale says, “The wonder to me is that you’ve waited so long to get square with that woman.” Can Rosedale be forgiven for simply being socially clueless? Is he a product of the system? And does his gesture actually mean anything? I’ll leave it to the capable writers of Jezebel and The Cut to argue the culpability of mediocre men.

Mirth‘s vast cast of characters tend to glom onto the split-second flourish of a socialite’s physical gesture to fuel gossip and umbrage. Consider the way that Mrs. Peniston is described as “the kind of woman who wore jet at breakfast.” But Wharton’s meticulous study of mercenary manipulators is far from vapid. She hoped to show that “a society of irresponsible pleasure-seekers…can acquire dramatic significance only through what its frivolity destroys.”

Perhaps one of the reasons why The House of Mirth is so authentically devastating is because Wharton was undergoing a great deal of stress as she wrote it. Her husband Teddy had just experienced a nervous breakdown and his erratic behavior was worse than ever. Her fiction was in demand and was being published everywhere, but her social calendar was spiraling out of control. Scribner’s editor Edward Burligname needed a serialized novel at the last minute after another writer had dropped out. And amazingly, Wharton produced this masterpiece in ten monthly installments, with Mirth appearing in publication before Wharton had even finished it (although the tale had gestated in her notebooks for at least five years under the working title “A Moment’s Ornament,” taken from a Wordsworth poem).

Scribner’s knew that it had a big hit on its hands and promptly placed sensationalist ads on the cover — packaging that Wharton objected to — when The House of Mirth hit bookstores in October 1905. The publicity forces also talked up Wharton’s social movements and, while Wharton was happy to have her novel read, she feared that her work would be seen as nothing more than a juicy gossipfest.

She need not have worried. The book was fiercely debated in various letters sections, with many wondering if Wharton was accurately portraying the leisure class or mercilessly skewering them for her own gain. And the robust discussion lent greater credibility to Mirth‘s considerable literary merits.

In her excellent Wharton biography, Hermione Lee has suggested that The House of Mirth can be defined by the presence of books within the book: largely decorative and untouched by few outside Lawrence Selden, the young lawyer who toys with Lily Bart’s need to land a husband. But Mirth can also be epitomized by the actors recruited to entertain the wealthy at Bellomont:

Indeed, so skillfully had the personality of the actors been subdued to the scenes they figured in that even the least imaginative of the audience must have felt a thrill of contrast when the curtain suddenly parted on a picture which was simply and undisguisedly the portrait of Miss Bart.

If all the world’s a stage, why then are we still susceptible to objectifying people? It’s actually quite astonishing how effortless it is to transpose the cruelty of class trappings to the casual character assassination that now passes for “truth” on social media. (As Wai-Chee Dimock has observed, Lily Bart spends most of the novel marketing herself, attempting to appeal to the highest bidder. This is not unlike the behavior of a comely Instagram influencer or, if we want to take Gus Trenor’s sinister insinuation on its face, an OnlyFans model willing to say or do almost anything to extract money.)

Many disgusting creatures in high places fancy themselves Lily Barts — even as they stab with the fierce sociopathic duplicity of Bertha Dorset. (On literary Twitter, there can be no better contemporary parallel to Bertha than the monstrous bully and largely mediocre writer Jennifer Weiner, whose relentless attacks on other writers are quietly circulated among those in the know and whose odious demands for “literary respect” were smartly captured by The New Yorker‘s Rebecca Mead in 2014.) They jockey for precarious perches to cleave to their careers while piling onto the week’s “main character” with gossip and lies. An otherwise innocent figure’s glaring mistake is used to perpetuate further prevarications and even those in the know, like Rosedale, will not lift a finger to salvage their own shaky ascent into a perceived predominance. Indeed, as someone who has been the target of multiple smear campaigns, I can report that a literary man of modest renown — a figure who once maintained a blog inspired by Wharton — treated me, when I was homeless, with the same false solicitude that Rosedale tenders to Lily Bart in the final crushing pages of The House of Mirth. He strung me along with phony plaudits about my writing talent and he offered me the sham promise of a prominent magazine gig that I would have killed to land at the time. He was not unlike Rosedale. Indeed, like all of Wharton’s socialites, he inevitably deemed me invisible — likely with a cognizant irony. It is doubtful that I will ever forgive this motherfucker for tinkering with my dignity and my then shaky self-respect to delude himself into thinking that he was a “kind and decent man.”

So Lily Bart’s awful and needless plunge into the abyss resonates deeply and painfully with me. Today I am tremendously grateful to be gainfully employed, doing what I love, tackling new creative mediums, and to be very much alive. That there are so many “influencers” who hold this book up without comprehending or practicing its emotionally instructive lessons about the need for empathy says everything about the vicious myopia of the contemporary literary world, which now thrives on stubbing out noisemakers and ruining outliers. They cancel anyone with an even remotely disagreeable opinion and they murder anyone who stands in their way of their self-serving and meretriciously earned “success.” Cutthroat capitalism and opprobrious opportunism at its finest! Edith Wharton had her finger on the pulse of 1905 life. And sadly 2022 life.

Next Up: Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street!

Tod Goldberg Starts His Day

From the lonely dust and the deadbeat winds and the torrid torpor of an unremarkable home in an Indio gated community, Tod Goldberg — the least adept and most pathetic and most quietly scorned of all Southern California writers — sat at a forlorn chair in his home office and started his day off with rage. This wasn’t principled indignation. You never saw Tod Goldberg taking a real stand or attending a protest or servicing anything other than his own fragile ego. And he certainly never wrote anything important! No, this was garden-variety narcissism: the infantile umbrage that can’t even be mollified by buying a candy bar for a braying brat while you stand in the checkout line.

Tod Goldberg didn’t believe in himself. And because kindness, empathy, and decency are impossible qualities to find within such a self-serving snake, Tod Goldberg decided that he was going to destroy someone. Ideally someone who Tod Goldberg thought could not fight back. And even if Tod Goldberg didn’t have the smarts to figure out how to murder a rando’s rep, he could still send an email to some writer claiming that he would destroy them. These emails were forwarded to other writers — including one bald writer in Brooklyn who didn’t give two fucks about Tod Goldberg, except in correcting a recent injustice and condignly replying to such defamation from a toxic asshole whom a lot of people detest (and maybe, if the bald man happened to be in a wicked frame of mind years later, celebrating Tod Goldberg’s inevitable death with a joyful pop of a champagne bottle, although Tod Goldberg was doing a remarkable job of wasting his life and such a gesture, however justified it may be, would likely be supercilious and supererogatory by the time Tod Goldberg kicked the bucket, which would hopefully be sooner rather than later — if only to put Goldberg’s incurable enmity to a permanent end). Tod especially loathed this bald man and went well out of his way to lie about him any chance he landed. Tod Goldberg’s incessant browbeating was tolerated in the Los Angeles literary world (1) because the cartoonish nature of Hollywood makes boorish deportment somehow more acceptable and (2) because most writers are introverts who live with a trenchant fear of conflict. Tod Goldberg knew this on some primordial level. He had, after all, antagonized other kids in high school and smiled at the frisson he felt as they ran away, terrified. But he carried on with these baleful shenanigans anyway. Largely because he was one of those sad despairing bastards who lacked the imagination to pass his fleeting time in any meaningful way. Largely because he was the most pathetic type of all middle-aged men: a predictable bully. He bullied Starbucks baristas while risibly claiming to be “a good and decent man.” Although Bookworm host Michael Silverblatt (a national treasure) had never uttered an unkind word to anyone and had been nothing less than generous in sustaining a major forum for writers so that they could thoughtfully discuss their work, one of Goldberg’s big “comedic staples” involved a wretchedly untrained impression of Silverblatt at book parties. This is because Tod Goldberg walks this earth with the intent of tearing people down. It was truly a wonder that the illiterate MAGA crowd had not thought to scoop Tod Goldberg up.

Tod Goldberg had nothing to offer the world other than hate and social media defamation. And, of course, his fiction, which nobody read anymore. He had caviled with Oscar Wilde on the qualities of a great mind and proclaimed himself a great wit simply because he had often used the word “fucktard” (and he still used this even after the word “retard” was long considered a belittling and insensitive epithet). The stuff of genius! He delivered incessant fast-talking monologues to his remarkably patient wife Wendy, who, unbeknownst to Tod, alleviated the great mistake of shacking up with such an unaccomplished lowlife by spending her time flirting with other men on Tinder. Dammit, he would spread gossip and still believe that he was a towering giant! The people who knew Tod tolerated him, much as one tolerates a mousy Yorkipoo whose only aspiration is to lap from the toilet water. He still cleaved to the hopeless illusion that he actually possessed talent. That he was sui generis! An essential voice! But at 51, he had little more than the sad portentous paunch of a deep-seated loser gone to seed, a man who could never comprehend physical exercise, even if you educated him at gunpoint on how to perform a crunch. Not that he had the physical strength or the body type to do more than fifty crunches at a time.

But Tod Goldberg, despite the rapidly drooping fat of his hideous double chin, was a published author! An incredibly awful writer of zero distinction, but a published writer nonetheless! Tod Goldberg had told his publicists to append the label “New York Times bestselling author” to all of his books, barking this like a boorish cantor to the few small presses who would still tolerate him. But his books weren’t selling. He was a grasping midlister and he hated anyone with talent and success. He hated anyone with a voice. Oh, how he longed to be original! He did have more than eight thousand followers on Twitter as well as a blue checkmark. And this helped, at times, to briefly placate this most implacable of parvenus. Tod Goldberg had such little confidence that he relied on Twitter for validation. His wife Wendy, a woman whom he knew deep down that he didn’t deserve, would no longer tolerate his sad male tears and his puerile bitching. So he needed an outlet. He did show up each year to the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books to talk shit about other literary writers, particularly literary writers who were far more talented and peaceful in their lives than he was. But since Tod Goldberg was unable to distinguish between genuine and fake laughter, and because Tod Goldberg had such a pressing need to be liked (that is, when he wasn’t bullying people), he deluded himself into thinking that he was a much-needed jester. When, in fact, he was merely tolerated.

He had written a lackluster story called “The Low Desert” and had summoned the name of a man whose every orifice he wanted to violate for the deputy character. His small Johnson grew harder as he had assembled the tale with all the care of Yanni randomly banging discordant triads on a keyboard. They would accept this plodding and poorly written story. Because he was Tod Goldberg! Sure, this oafish ape had little more in his routine than sour milk and jokes that would be greeted with crickets at any open mic night. But he was a writer!

Tod Goldberg knocked on the bedroom door. His wife Wendy was there, unpacking her compact and applying shimmering butterfly eye to her face. She rolled her eyes.

“Hey, baby, let’s fuck,” said Tod with his soi-disant and not particularly inventive thuggery.

“No,” she said. She promptly left the room to go about her day, which was a better and far more productive day than Tod Goldberg’s.

Tod Goldberg wondered if he should copulate with his wife without her consent. Then he realized that this was probably not a very good idea in an age of #metoo! I mean, he had never once used the hashtag in his thousands of tweets. And there was, after all, his own reputation as a “Great Writer” to think about! And wasn’t he already raping people with his words? With his emails? With his tweets? His casual libel and spontaneous slander? Still, he had to deposit this unconsummated lust somewhere. He really wanted to fuck Matt Bell, but Bell (as much of a self-serving scumbag as Goldberg, but a far better networker) was too nimble with his gentle replies (and, Tod knew, far more of a writer than he ever could be). So he texted his equally mediocre colleague, David, at UC Riverside. Tod and David often met up for dalliances. David, who was every bit as commiserable and solipsistic and talentless as Tod, quickly drove over.

“I’d like to try something different,” said Tod.

“Oh?” replied David.

“Can you piss on me?”

“Tod, my man! I won’t just piss on you. I’ll shit on you!”

“Sounds great!”

And so Tod removed his gaudy suit — its liquid black pinstripes somehow failing to help Tod’s porcine frame in any way — and presented his ass upward for later violations. But penetration was not to occur. David had one, and only one, reason to be there. David drank two gallons of water and told Tod that he had enjoyed a very big breakfast that morning and that he was ready to drop a few deuces on his most sensitive regions.

“Open your mouth,” said David.

Tod did as he was told.

A stream of piss jetted into Tod’s mouth. A beatific parabolic arc! David’s marksmanship was excellent! He had, after all, practiced in fast food restaurant restrooms during the 1980s. Those urinals that used to exist with the green plastic dartboards planted beneath the cakes. (And, like Tod, David too had grown heavier and more dissolute and more rancid with age. Together, the two flunkees radiated the redolent aura of a small boutique with little more than long expired cheese to sell.)

“I thought you said you were going to shit on me,” said Tod.

“I lied,” said David, as he zipped up his fly. “Besides, I hate myself more than you do. I just wear it better than you.”

“I don’t think that you do,” said Tod, before further words became lumped in his throat.

David didn’t even say goodbye as he shut the door.

And so Tod remained on the floor, a naked and disgusting sight, his every pore reeking of David’s urine. But he would not shower that day. He would sit with his misery for several hours. And then he’d tear someone else a new one online. And he’d await the dreadful day when his wife would serve him with divorce papers after nobody in the literary world wanted to hear from him anymore. Tod Goldberg was incapable of changing. He was, however, quite capable of devolving. The only question was just how low he would fall.

[7/21/2022 UPDATE: Tod Goldberg is a worthless son of a bitch who now believes that he can drink his vile sociopathic qualities away. (Does he have any decent aspects to his personality? I think not.) There have been many backchannel emails tonight. Apparently I’m not the only one who Tod Goldberg has abused. Goldberg has harassed me, on and off, since 2009. Thirteen years. Tod Goldberg will soon discover that he made a huge mistake libeling and defaming the wrong man.]