The November 13th attacks upon Paris have caused many to feel understandable horror, but the city’s incredibly brave efforts to restore itself prove that this great and beautiful city cannot be stopped.
Paris is one of the most magnificent cities of the world, burgeoning with leisurely life and bold human energy. It is a city to walk in and get lost in, a place to fall in love and find adventure, to be reborn, to stumble onto unanticipated discoveries. Cross any of the thirty-seven bridges across the Seine and you will encounter a region you never expected. The summers are warm and the cafes are plentiful.
Scale Monmartre and you will find the beautiful bleached stone of the Sacre Coeur, with some of France’s most noble figures immortalized in statuary. The city possesses many great libraries and bookstores and has welcomed such rebels as Gertrude Stein, James Baldwin, James Joyce, George Orwell, Chester Himes, Henry Miller, Anais Nin, Man Ray, Dennis Cooper, Isadora Duncan, and too many others to list. And this doesn’t even begin to account for Paris’s limitless homegrown talent. This great and glorious city will endure for all these reasons and more. It has survived revolutions, invasions, incursions, involutions, and it will endure well beyond this nightmare. Because Paris, no matter how much anybody tries to wound it or debase it, is incapable of being destroyed. It is a grand monument to romance and knowledge and enlightenment and will continue to thrive long after we have all had our giddy spin upon this mortal coil.
What happened tonight was unspeakably terrible. At least 118 innocent people are dead in the Bataclan theater alone, with at least 40 more reported dead in the six other attacks. We don’t yet know who did this. We know that the gunmen were perfunctory and methodical, taking the time to reload their Kalashnikovs for additional rounds. And this tragedy has caused a number of inhumane opportunists to emerge from their dark and unimaginative caves: waving scolding fingers at the paucity of guns, shaming college activists at Yale and Missouri for their lack of perspective, and flaunting their unfathomable xenophobia before they even know the score. In the end, none of their crass sentiments matter. Because you can’t stop Paris any more than you can halt the greatest love affair of your life.
Some people have taken the time to express their fears, to claim that, because of these attacks on a place so magical, there is no space where they can feel safe. But I’m thinking about the brave man who posted Facebook updates from inside the Bataclan. I’m thinking about the taxis who went out of their way to give people free rides home. I’m thinking about the way in which Parisians conjured the hashtag #PorteOuverte to give total strangers somewhere safe to say. There have been endless reports of kindness and generosity from the people of Paris. And that is because you can’t stop Paris. Nobody can. It is too rich in compassion and compatriotism and joy and joie de vivre for any force to stop. It has continued to recirculate its remarkable qualities so well and seemingly without effort that it is nearly impossible for any other city to measure up. Paris is a great example to us all.
So if you’re feeling paralyzed right now, if you’re feeling uncertain what the future is, just take one small look at the remarkable perseverance that Paris has already displayed. You can’t stop Paris. And you sure as hell can’t stop the human spirit.
Truman Capote was a feverish liar and a frenzied opportunist from the first moment his high voice pierced the walls of a literary elite eager to filth up its antimacassars with gossip. He used his looks to present himself as a child prodigy, famously photographed in languorous repose by Harold Halma to incite intrigue and controversy. He claimed to win national awards for his high school writing that no scholar has ever been able to turn up. He escorted the nearly blind James Thurber to his dalliances with secretaries and deliberately put on Thurber’s socks inside out so that his wife would notice, later boasting that one secretary was “the ugliest thing you’ve ever seen.” Biographer Gerald Clarke chronicled how Capote befriended New Yorker office manager Daise Terry, who was feared and disliked by many at the magazine, because he knew she could help him. (Capote’s tactics paid off. Terry gave him the easiest job on staff: copyboy on the art department.) If Capote wanted to know you, he wanted to use you. But the beginnings of a man willing to do just about anything to get ahead can be found in his early childhood.
Capote’s cousin Jennings Faulk Carter once described young Truman coming up with the idea of charging admission for a circus. Capote had heard a story in the local paper about a two-headed chicken. Lacking the creative talent to build a chicken himself, he enlisted Carter and Harper Lee for this faux poultry con. The two accomplices never saw any of the money. Decades later, Capote would escalate this tactic on a grander scale, earning millions of dollars and great renown for hoisting a literary big top over a small Kansas town after reading a 300 word item about a family murder in The New York Times. Harper Lee would be dragged into this carnival as well.
The tale of how two frightening men murdered four members of the Clutter family for a pittance and created a climate of fear in the surrounding rural area (and later the nation) is very familiar to nearly anyone who reads, buttressed by the gritty 1967 film (featuring a pre-The Walking Dead Scott Wilson as Dick Hickock and a pre-Bonnie Lee Bakley murder Robert Blake as Perry Smith) and a deservedly acclaimed 2005 film featuring the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman as Capote. But what is not so discussed is the rather flimsy foundation on which this “masterpiece” has been built.
Years before “based on a true story” became a risible cliche, Capote and his publicists framed In Cold Blood‘s authenticity around Capote’s purported accuracy. Yet the book itself contains many gaping holes in which we have only Smith and Hickock’s words, twisted further by Capote. What are we to make of Bill and Johnny — a boy and his grandfather who Smith and Hickock pick up for a roadside soda bottle-collecting adventure to make a few bucks? In our modern age, we would demand the competent journalist to track these two side characters down, to compare their accounts with those of Smith and Hickock. Capote claims that these two had once lived with the boy’s aunt on a farm near Shreveport, Louisiana, yet no independent party appears to have corroborated their identities. Did Capote (or Hickock and Smith) make them up? Does the episode really contribute to our understanding of the killers’ pathology? One doesn’t need to be aware of a recent DNA test that disproved Hickock and Smith’s involvement with the quadruple murder of the Walker family in Sarasota County, Florida, taking place one month after the Clutter murders, to see that Capote is more interested in holding up the funhouse mirror to impart specious complicity:
Hickock consented to take the [polygraph] test and so did Smith, who told Kansas authorities, “I remarked at the time, I said to Dick, I’ll bet whoever did this must be somebody that read about what happened out here in Kansas. A nut.” The results of the test, to the dismay of Osprey’s sheriff as well as Alvin Dewey, who does not believe in exceptional circumstances, were decisively negative.
Never mind that polygraph tests are inaccurate. It isn’t so much Hickock and Smith’s motivations that Capote was interested in. He was more concerned with stretching out a sense of amorphous terror on a wide canvas. As Hickock and Smith await to be hanged, they encounter Lowell Lee Andrews in the adjacent cell. He is a fiercely intelligent, corpulent eighteen-year-old boy who fulfilled his dormant dreams of murdering his family, but Capote’s portrait leaves little room for subtlety:
For the secret Lowell Lee, the one concealed inside the shy church going biology student, fancied himself an ice-hearted master criminal: he wanted to wear gangsterish silk shirts and drive scarlet sports cars; he wanted to be recognized as no mere bespectacled, bookish, overweight, virginal schoolboy; and while he did not dislike any member of his family, at least not consciously, murdering them seemed the swiftest, most sensible way of implementing the fantasies that possessed him.
We have modifiers (“shy,” “ice-hearted,” “gangsterish,” “silk,” “scarlet,” “bespectacled,” “bookish,” “virginal,” “swiftest,” and “sensible”) that conjure up a fantasy atop the fantasy, that suggest relativism to the two main heavies, but there is little room for subtlety or for any doubt in the reader’s mind. Capote does bring up the fact that Andrews suffered from schizophrenia, but diminishes this mental illness by calling it “simple” before dredging up the M’Naghten Rule, which was devised in 1843 (still on the books well before psychiatry existed and predicated upon a 19th century standard) to exclude any insanity defense whereby the accused recognizes right from wrong. But he has already tarnished Andrews with testimony from Dr. Joseph Satten: “He considered himself the only important, only significant person in the world. And in his own seclusive world it seemed to him just as right to kill his mother as to kill an animal or a fly.” I certainly don’t want to defend Andrews’s crime (much less the Clutter family murders), but this conveniently pat assessment does ignore more difficult and far more interesting questions that Capote lacks the coherence, the empathy, or the candor to confess his own contradictions to pursue. Many pages before, in relation to Hickock, Capote calls M’Naghten “a formula quite color-blind to any gradations between black and white.” In other words, Capote is the worst kind of journalist: a cherry-picking sensationalist who applies standards as he sees fit, heavily steering the reader’s opinion even as he feigns objectivity. The ethical reader reads In Cold Blood in the 21st century, wanting Katherine Boo to emerge from the future through a wormhole, if only to open up a can of whoopass on Capote for these egregious and often thoughtless indiscretions.
Capote’s decision to remove himself from the crisp, lurid story was commended by many during In Cold Blood‘s immediate reception as a feat of unparalleled objectivity, with the “nonfiction novel” label sticking to the book like a trendy hashtag that hipsters refuse to surrender, but I think Cynthia Ozick described the thorny predicament best in her infamous driveby on Capote (collected in Art & Ardor): “Essence without existence; to achieve the alp of truth without the risk of the footing.” If we accept any novel — whether “nonfiction” or fully imaginative — as some sinister or benign cousin to the essay, as a reasonably honest attempt to reckon with the human experience through invention, then In Cold Blood is a failure: the work of a man who sat idly in his tony Manhattan spread with cadged notebooks and totaled recall of aggressively acquired conversations even as his murderous subjects begged their “friend” to help them escape the hangman’s noose.
In 2013, Slate‘s Ben Yagoda described numerous factual indiscretions, revealing that editor William Shawn had penciled in “How know?” on the New Yorker galley proofs of Capote’s four part opus (In Cold Blood first appeared in magazine form). That same year, the Wall Street Journaluncovered new evidence from the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, which revealed that the KBI did not, upon receiving intelligence from informant Floyd Wells, swiftly dispatch agent Harold Nye to the farmhouse where Richard Hickock had lodged. (“It was as though some visitor were expected,” writes Capote. Expected by Hickock’s father or an author conveniently tampering his narrative like a subway commuter feverishly filling in a sudoku puzzle?) As Jack de Bellis has observed, Capote’s revisions from New Yorker articles to book form revealed Capote’s feeble command of time, directions, and even specific places. But de Bellis’s examination revealed more descriptive imprudence, such as Capote shifting a line on how Perry “couldn’t stand” another prisoner to “could have boiled him in oil” (“How know?” we can ask today), along with many efforts to coarsen the language and tweak punctuation for a sensationalist audience.
And then there is the propped up hero Alvin Dewey, presented by Capote as a tireless investigator who consumes almost nothing but coffee and who loses twenty pounds: a police procedural stereotype if ever there was one. Dewey disputes closing his eyes during the execution and the closing scene of Dewey meeting Nancy Clutter’s best friend, Susan Kidwell, in a cemetery is not only invented, but heavily mimics the belabored ending of Capote’s 1951 novel, The Grass Harp. But then “Foxy” Dewey and Capote were tighter than a pair of frisky lovers holed up for a week in a seedy motel.
Capote was not only granted unprecedented access to internal documents, but Capote’s papers reveal that Dewey provided Capote with stage directions in the police interview transcripts. (One such annotation reads “Perry turns white. Looked at the ceiling. Swallows.”) There is also the highly suspect payola of Columbia Pictures offering Dewey’s wife a job as a consultant on the 1965 film for a fairly substantial fee. Harold Nye, another investigator whose contributions have been smudged out of the history told Charles J. Shields in a December 30, 2002 interview (quoted in Mockingbird), “I really got upset when I know that Al [Dewey] gave them a full set of the reports. That was like committing the largest sin there was, because the bureau absolutely would not stand for that at all. If it would have been found out, he would have been discharged immediately from the bureau.”
In fact, Harold Nye and other KBI agents did much of the footwork that Capote attributes to Dewey. Nye was so incensed by Capote’s prevarications that he read 115 pages of In Cold Blood before hurling the book across the living room. And in the last few years, the Nye family has been fighting to reveal the details inside two tattered notebooks that contain revelations about the Clutter killings that may drastically challenge Capote’s narrative.
Yet even before this, Capote’s magnum opus was up for debate. In June 1966, Esquire published an article by Phillip K. Tompkins challenging Capote’s alleged objectivity. He journeyed to Kansas and discovered that Nancy Clutter’s boyfriend was hardly the ace athlete (“And now, after helping clear the dining table of all its holiday dishes, that was what he decided to do that — put on a sweatshirt and go for a run.”) that Capote presented him as, that Nancy’s horse was sold for a higher sum to the father of the local postmaster rather than “a Mennonite farmer who said he might use her for plowing,” and that the undersheriff’s wife disputed Capote’s account:
During our telephone conversation, Mrs. Meier repeatedly told me that she never heard Perry cry; that on the day in question she was in her bedroom, not the kitchen; that she did not turn on the radio to drown out the sound of crying; that she did not hold Perry’s hand; that she did not hear Perry say, ‘I’m embraced by shame.’ And finally – that she had never told such things to Capote. Ms. Meier told me repeatedly and firmly, in her gentle way, that these things were not true.
(For more on Capote’s libertine liberties, see Chapter 4 of Ralph F. Voss’s Truman Capote and the Legacy of In Cold Blood.)
Confronted by these many disgraceful distortions, we are left to ignore the “journalist” and assess the execution. On a strictly showboating criteria, In Cold Blood succeeds and captures our imagination, even if one feels compelled to take a cold shower knowing that Capote’s factual indiscretions were committed with a blatant disregard for the truth, not unlike two psychopaths murdering a family because they believed the Clutters possessed a safe bountiful with riches. One admires the way that Capote describes newsmen “[slapping] frozen ears with ungloved, freezing hands,” even as one winces at the way Capote plays into patriarchal shorthand when Nye “visits” Barbara Johnson (Perry Smith’s only surviving sister: the other two committed suicide), describing her father as a “real man” who had once “survived a winter alone in the Alaskan wilderness.” The strained metaphor of two gray tomcats — “thin, dirty strays with strange and clever habits” – wandering around Garden City during the Smith-Hickcock trial allows Capote to pad out his narrative after he has exhausted his supply of “flat,” “dull,” “dusty,” “austere,” and “stark” to describe Kansas in the manner of some sheltered socialite referencing the “flyover states.” Yet for all these cliches, In Cold Blood contains an inexplicably hypnotic allure, a hold upon our attention even as the book remains aggressively committed to the facile conclusion that the world is populated by people capable of murdering a family over an amount somewhere “between forty and fifty dollars.” As Jimmy Breslin put it (quoted in M. Thomas Inge’s Conversations with Truman Capote), “This Capote steps in with flat, objective, terrible realism. And suddenly there is nothing else you want to read.”
That the book endures — and is even being adapted into a forthcoming “miniseries event’ by playwright Kevin Hood — speaks to an incurable gossipy strain in Western culture, one reinforced by the recent success of the podcast Serial and the television series The Jinx. It isn’t so much the facts that concern our preoccupation with true crime, but the sense that we are vicariously aligned with the fallible journalist pursuing the story, who we can entrust to dig up scandalous dirt as we crack open our peanuts waiting for the next act. If the investigator is honest about her inadequacies, as Serial‘s Sarah Koenig most certainly was, the results can provide breathtaking insight into the manner in which we incriminate other people with our emotional assumptions and our fallible memories and superficially examined evidence. But if the “journalist” removes himself from culpability, presenting himself as some demigod beyond question or reproach (Capote’s varying percentages of total recall memory certainly feel like some newly wrangled whiz kid bragging about his chops before the knowledge bowl), then the author is not so much a sensitive artist seeking new ways inside the darkest realm of humanity, but a crude huckster occupying an outsize stage, waiting to grab his lucrative check and attentive accolades while the real victims of devastation weep over concerns that are far more human and far more deserving of our attention. We can remove the elephants from the lineup, but the circus train still rolls on.
Next Up:The Promise of American Life by Herbert Croly!
Sometimes it takes only two words, uttered by someone very kind at the right place at the right time, to keep you soaring for days. There is nothing wrong with giving or receiving affection or coveting a loose ledger that is never in need of an audit. It is the gamble we all take as we stumble upon the fine intuitive glue that keeps the heart pumping in a ferociously stable place and that fills the spirit with newfound signposts to paths uncharted and untried. There is always the risk of heartbreak, but it is overshadowed by salacious quips and dancing eyes and exchanged smiles, the discovery of bright lively flora blossoming inside another soul, the enchanting unknowingness of it all.
Once the poker faces of our best selves dissolve over a few glasses of malbec, we learn of forgotten cards buried up our sleeves. The stagecraft is intuitive and vaguely mystical, transcending optical illusion, undetectable by the smartest Broadway crowd. A good pair of magicians understands that they can bring down any house through a shared glance or a sotto voce declaration or the slightest brush of fingers on a windy stage. Good living theater is all about the magic that arrives out of nowhere when no one, not even the featured players, is looking.
In recent years, we’ve abandoned our late night telephone conversations for flirty evocative texts that careen across the 4G matrix well past the midnight hour, circumventing the long established rule of never calling another after ten. But maybe we confine our expressions to words because we crave shared physicality more than ever before, perhaps because it is more easily consummated than at any other time in human history. The phones are parked in our pockets and our purses in the early stages of whatever counts for current courtship, intimating that we are occupying some private shared territory that will never be intruded upon. Dating, like show business, is all about showing up.
We sometimes succumb to cliches, but we can still be surprised by someone else even when we are exhausted. This is the magic and the fluidity of romance. The jittery excitement of meeting someone new or deepening something that seems to be tottering happily along a thrilling edge can turn a seemingly collected and rational mind into a visceral thunderball, prone to wild whims and daring moves that were never staked out on the syllabus.
It becomes easier to listen and glisten and kiss and even miss out. It becomes easier to be courteous even when the date is disastrous. It becomes easier to be honest about whatever it is you truly want. The only requirements for enjoying yourself amid a series of pleasures and mishaps are curiosity and a zest for life. And when someone emerges from the ever rotating throng who is gentle with your ventricles and willing to accept your totality, it can shoot you across the moon in ways that no cosmonaut can mimic.
It will never go the same way. This is the first thing you learn. You are more of a catch than you know. This is the second thing you learn. But there are more important lessons following these obvious revelations.
We learn of our resilience. We learn how many chances we give to other souls. We learn, even the skeptics and the bitter cynics among us, that we allow more idealism in our lives than we are willing to acknowledge. We even learn somehow to be comfortably alone during the breaks. There are patterns, but there are also deviations.
It does not matter how many there are. Equations are meaningless in this journey. There is no need to scribble gibberish upon the theoretical chalkboard of your mind. Some grand soul will emerge, even if for a brief time, if you have the courage and fortitude to go the distance.
A recent radio interview with Chrissie Hynde reveals NPR’s colossal limitations, the covert sexism of Morning Edition host David Greene, and gender double standards. Why aren’t shocked about Hynde’s treatment rather than the interview’s roughness?
Twitter isn’t always the best yardstick when it comes to pinpointing the vox populi’s whims and anxieties, but given the way that the digital horde reacted to Chrissie Hynde’s interview on NPR’s Morning Edition, you’d think that it had just survived the Battle of Stalingrad or an unscheduled viewing of The Human Centipede 3:
“Not for the faint of heart,” “still recovering,” “gamely soldiering.” These are not the phrases one typically associates with a junket interview. But the Pretenders founder adroitly decided that she didn’t enjoy being subjected to David Greene’s insipid questions. Greene, a man apparently terrified of a woman with an independent mind and a fuddy fuss who muttered “bleeping’ instead of “fucking” when quoting a passage from Hynde’s new memoir, Reckless: My Life as a Pretender, made several mistakes. Instead of asking Hynde for the story behind her 1979 rock anthem “Brass in Pocket,” Greene wrongly assumed that Hynde would subscribe to his reductionist thesis that this was “a song that empowers women”:
Hynde: You know, it’s just a three minute rock song. It’s…I don’t think it’s as loaded as that.
As someone who has interviewed close to a thousand authors, filmmakers, and other celebrated minds and who fully cops to an exuberance involving overly analytical takes on an artist’s work, I’ve seen plenty of moments like this unfold before me. What you do in a situation like this is backtrack from your prerigged thesis and let the subject talk. The whole purpose of a conversation is to listen very carefully to what someone else is saying and ask questions that specifically follow up on the other person’s remarks. There was an opportunity here to get Hynde talking about how her music had been appropriated by ideological groups or whether a three minute rock song could ever have any real cultural stakes. But Greene, with an almost total lack of social awareness, could not read Hynde’s clear cues and sustained his foppish interlocutory thrust to the bitter end:
Greene: People certainly thought in its day [sic] as being very different and really emboldening women. Hynde: Okay, well I’m not here to embolden anyone.
From here, the NPR producer cuts away in aloof and hilarious fashion to a lengthy clip of “Brass in Pocket” to pad out time, leaving the listener wondering what embarrassing (and possibly more interesting) bits were left on the cutting room floor. Perhaps there were many minutes in which David Greene, a man who seems incapable of improvisation, was left with his tongue capsized in a Gordian knot. Greene tells us that “Chrissie Hynde is a really tough interview,” even though Hynde sounded perfectly relaxed with Marc Maron last December and, most recently, with Tig Notaro.
Nice try, David. The fault here is clearly with the stiff interviewer and NPR’s despicably antiseptic culture, which is all about soothing the listener with pat platitudes easily forgotten in a morning commute haze. It’s telling that Greene speaks of Hynde “sharing her story,” as if the rock and roller’s rough life was akin to a child showing off a hastily composed watercolor painting at nursery school. Greene condescends to Hynde by calling this 64-year-old music veteran “a Midwestern girl” and trying to use her Ohio roots to presumably appeal to NPR’s easily shocked demographic. If Greene had truly been interested in Hynde, he might have described her in less innocuous and truer terms. Moreover, Greene can’t even deign to praise the Pretenders. Instead, he gushes over the Rolling Stones rather than the band that Hynde has been a member of:
Greene: And the Rolling Stones. They came — I mean, I, I loved reading about how you sort of took some of the staging off to take it with you, almost as a souvenir. Hynde: Yeah. Do you want me to repeat the story? Greene: I’d love you to. Hynde: Is that the question? Greene: No. I’d love you to. Hynde: Can I just not repeat the stories that I’ve already said in the book? Can we talk about things outside of that? Is that possible? I don’t want to do a book reading, as it were.
Let’s unpack why this is terribly insulting to Hynde and why Hynde, much as any woman should, might react as hostilely as she did. Here is someone who has been creating music for many decades. She’s not a neophyte. She’s an accomplished rock performer. Instead of talking to her about The Pretenders, Greene has opted to paint Hynde as some Rolling Stones groupie plucking staging as souvenirs. Hynde has given Greene a big clue, pointing out that she’s not some automatic doll who performs book readings.
Compare this with Greene’s fawning treatment of Stones guitarist Keith Richards back in September. Not only was Richards permitted the courtesy to smoke inside the studio, but Greene gushed about Richards’s considerable accomplishments (children’s book author, raconteur, solo artist) in a manner so obsequious that you’d think he was the Pope. It would never occur to a sycophantic sexist like Greene to ask Richards what he thought of the Pretenders, much less paint him as some febrile fanboy.
Instead of recognizing his clear mistake, Greene digs in the dirk further, demanding that Hynde, presumably because she is a woman, express her “emotions” about an experience that is nowhere nearly as germane as her rugged life:
Greene: No, I would just like to hear some of the emotions of why you love the Rolling Stones so much. I mean, you were — you were taking some of the notes that people had written for Mick Jagger and Keith Richards and taking them home with you. I mean, what was driving you? Hynde: Well, well, I just loved the bands. That’s what drove me all my life is that I just loved the bands. Back in those days, nobody thought I wanted to grow up and be a rock star. Nobody thought about fame. Nobody thought about making a lot of money. I just liked music and I really liked rock guitar. I didn’t think I was going to be a rock guitar player because I was a girl. I would have been too shy to play with, you know, guys.
It’s bad enough that we have to suffer though NPR’s crass abridgements of complex emotion into superficial seven minute segments, but it’s hard for any progressive-minded listener to hear a talented and interesting woman, one who emerged from an uncertain blue-collar existence to a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, reduced to something akin to a toy.
If Hynde were a man, this interview wouldn’t be a controversy. One would think that the Twitter crowd, so eager to denounce such demoralizing portraits of women, would have glommed onto an autonomous voice being diminished by an incurious and inattentive fool. But instead the shock is with an interview departing from mealy-mouthed form. The time has come for more women to stop letting “nice guys” like Greene diminish their accomplishments and for all radio producers to be committed to organic conversations. If NPR insists on being a forum for gutless toadies and the celebrities who tolerate them, then perhaps the cure involves opening up the floodgates to every voice on the spectrum with thought and compassion. Of course, podcasting has been doing all this quite wonderfully for years. So if Greene cannot adjust his timid mien to the 21st century, then perhaps his stature should perish.
Graham cites a recent uproar over Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks in Knoxville, Tennessee, whereby a mother objected to “pornographic” descriptions of infidelity and a lump on Lacks’s cervix being taught in a public school. Graham is right to observe that it was more or less a slam dunk to find the right side on this particular debate, but where she goes astray, undoubtedly aided and abetted by the usual gang of reductionist editorial idiots, is her insane suggestion that Banned Books Week somehow used the occasion to reveal itself as a sinister venue specializing in fearmongering. But Graham doesn’t cite a single word that the Banned Books Week group actually wrote. Blogger Maggie Jacoby compared the mother’s recriminations to “a modern day kind of book burning,” but how is this fearmongering? What Jacoby was rightfully suggesting is that the old forms of suppressing books — fearsome censorship laws, burning books, removing them from school reading lists — have been replaced by an equally diabolical practice whereby one imperious individual or group now decides, irrespective of scholarly or literary merit, that a book or a viewpoint should be expunged from the community.
Censorship battles aren’t limited to blinkered crusaders in Tennessee. “Prudish moms” can be found in such sanctimonious types as Francine Prose and Peter Carey, who cannot seem to comprehend a universe in which offensive and disagreeable ideas are meant to be argued against rather than silenced. The literary world has increasingly failed to understand that an awful idea — and Charlie Hedbo’s juvenile and despicably racist caricatures were indeed meretricious, to say the least — needs to be articulated rather than silenced and that accolades such as the James G. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award are vital reminders of our duty to ensure that anyone has the right to say something offensive or provocative, especially if it runs counter to our perspective, without fear of death or censorship.
Books may not have not faced as many overt censorship challenges in recent years, but the need to squelch undesirable or offensive viewpoints is now being practiced in covert and personal ways that are just as unconscionable. The courageous author Alissa Nutting not only faced a relentless wave of indignant emails and threats after her novel, Tampa, was published, but was also subjected to a histrionic op-ed piece in which a mother believed Nutting’s book was so dangerous that she kept it locked away from her daughter. If the morally scolding can’t get reading material banned from classrooms, then they have proven quite effective in removing “offensive” material from the stores, such as the three men’s magazines ejected by Walmart in 2003 because of efforts made by querulous Christians or, most recently, Rhonda Rousey’s memoir pulled because it was “too violent.”
In her insistence that “books win” in this new age of condemnation, it’s telling that Graham practices the naive first year law school student’s overused argument of clinging to taut definitions of “banned or challenged” even as she overlooks some very obvious developments which demand that these terms be expanded outside of their presently rigid definitions. A fear of “bad language, violence; and, over and over, sexual content” very much applies in the cases I’ve cited above, just as it does when college students increasingly dole out the manipulative dog-ate-my-homework “trigger warning” charge for classic literature because they don’t want to contend with human realities. These plaints are no different in scope from the mother who tried to pull Skloot’s book from a public school and demand that we expand what a “banned book” really means in 2015.
Nobody wins when some easily offended reader expends a great deal of time and energy to guarantee that a book is withdrawn from a vital forum rather than assembling a provocative and possibly unpopular argument against it, especially when the same ninny fails to provide any evidence of having read the book in question. But American culture is increasingly drifting towards an impulsive immaturity where we cannot fathom that a person is more than the sum of a few foolhardy tweets or inopportune soundbytes and we lack the fortitude to speak with our enemies, let alone maintain cordial relationships with friends we disagree with. It is, however, instinctive enough to find other primordial methods to ban books, whether through trigger warnings or thoughtless censorship campaigns, rather than fostering opportunities for spirited and informed debate. Salman Rushdie should not have to suffer “lasting damage” to his friendships because of a disagreement, but American culture is too wrapped up in blocking or banning anything it finds remotely offensive to have adult conversations. And we are cursed with Pollyanna types like Ruth Graham, serving as myopic propagandists, who are just as implicitly prescriptive as the “prudish moms” who avoid uncomfortable truths that require a drastic change in the ways we relate to the written word and other readers.
THE SEED COLLECTORS
by Scarlett Thomas
Canongate, 384 pages
(UK only, unavailable in the United States)
A little more than a decade ago, fiery ambitious fiction was in something of a crisis. Time-taxed readers flocked to meliorative middlebrow, thrilled to have their middle-class worldviews confirmed by authors too paralyzed to take real chances, but pretending to be prodigious talents. Remarkably mediocre novelists like Julia Glass actually won distinguished awards for pounding out sappy pablum. Jennifer Weiner — the Michael Moore of literature — conned smart readers (including this one) into believing that her privileged pink-covered rubbish was as meritorious as such deservedly popular authors as Stephen King, Laura Lippman, Megan Abbott, and Richard Russo, befriending the right people to ensure that her formulaic tales were vaguely perceived as “literary.” Before he found appropriately mercantilist stature on a Times Square billboard, Jeffrey Eugenides preyed on progressive naiveté with Middlesex, his big fat Greek wedding of a novel, using transgender symbolism to deliver a epic that was only as sweeping as the hot air blowing against his vest, even as he doled out references and metaphors that, as Sarah Graham has smartly argued, were complicit in the exploitation he seemed to be railing against. Michael Cunningham entered this scene like Isaac Pocock carving up Waverley into bits of melodramatic balderdash, braying about happiness contained in a kiss and a walk and sealing the illusory import with the portentous inclusion of Virginia Woolf. It was no surprise that Cunningham’s treacly Madison Avenue nonsense (“It’s the city’s crush and heave that move you; its intimacy; its endless life.”) was adapted into a pretentious film scored by Phillip Glass. Ask any dependable reader today with any self-respect about The Hours and she will give you the look of a shellshocked Frenchman still taking in the miracle of surviving the First Battle of the Marne. Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, was a YA book before its time (“Sometimes the dreams that come true are the dreams you never even knew you had”) that practically demanded a string section to accompany its condescendingly pat narrative.
In one way or another, these authors produced fiction that was wrongly perceived as different and ambitious. (The Lovely Bones: “refreshingly experimental, and ambitious in the extreme.”) They believed that ambition was not so much a burning drive to stir the hearts of readers, but a buzzword that could cover their lumpy noggins like a borrowed chapeau. But none of their crass careerist efforts held a candle to the most entitled and pampered literary huckster of them all. Jonathan Franzen, rightly condemned by Ben Marcus as “against the entire concept of artistic ambition,” presented himself as a subversive by defying Oprah even as he renounced his experimental roots with The Corrections. Yet Purity, his latest barking dog of a novel, is despicably Republican-minded and unrealistic in its treatment of women. Nearly every female character is sexually assaulted, sexually humiliated, inexplicably serves up her body to an older man (and often apologizes for it!), uses her body to get ahead, is defined more by flirtation than the prowess of their minds or the depths of their souls, and, if sex isn’t an option (because apparently older people don’t fuck in Franzen’s universe), is considered crazy or bipolar. (Indeed, one of Purity‘s characters, Anabel spends many years working on a film about the female body, as if this is the only topic that a struggling woman artist is meant to explore.)
All these novelists had to do was bang you over the head with a traditional narrative that ran way too fucking long and — voila! — marketing forces could turn these dithering Pollyannas into putative literary titans.
In fairness, people probably sought comfort reads, much as they always do in tragedy, in 9/11’s immediate aftermath. In recent years, the major literary awards have redressed concessionary wrongs, recognizing fierce and original talents like Jesmyn Ward, Jaimy Gordon, Paul Harding, Junot Diaz, Edward Jones, and Adam Johnson. Bold websites such as the regrettably departed HTML Giant kept the flame alive for the quirky, experimental, and small press titles, with the legacy continuing today in spurts. Yet the reductionist symphony of Goodreads groupthink, Slate clickbait (“Can a public intellectual speak for us all in an era of fragmented culture?” reads one recent subhed, as if meaningful intellectual argument involves universal concord) and Book Riot circlejerks (“If Shakespeare Plays Were Fast Food Chains” and “The Therapeutic Effects of Reading Middle Grade Fiction as an Adult” read two Book Riot posts) belie the same childish, unambitious, and risk-averse hydra that buttressed Claire Messud’s spirited response to a foolish question about “unlikable” characters. Today, the reading comprehension problems cited by Jack Green in 1962 in relation to William Gaddis’s masterpiece, The Recognitions, are now applicable to only remotely “difficult” books. When Mark Z. Danielewski outdoes Knausgaard with The Familiar, an ambitious and visually striking 27 volume project that works to tell its story in a challenging manner that is perhaps only an eighth as “difficult” as William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, a professional jackass declares the first installment “unreadable” rather than comprehend the book on its own terms. While great novels such as Hanya Yanagahira’s A Little Life have changed the rules on how to depict abuse in contemporary fiction, one cannot gainsay the clunky magazine-style prose used to push forward the message. Today’s young authors are so desperate to please and so fearful of social media recriminations that their books are more likely to feature predictably escapist tales with likable characters.
But there is one author who may very well be our great hope out of this predicament, if people are willing to read her. Much like Richard Powers, Scarlett Thomas is one of the most unsung novelists working in literature today. Her extraordinary new novel, The Seed Collectors, is smart, funny, willing to explore all sides of thorny moral and intellectual questions, and defiantly working against reader expectations even as it grabs the reader by the lapels. Yet no American publisher has the stones to issue her book on this side of the Atlantic.
When Scarlett Thomas’s The End of Mr. Y arrived in the United States, it was rightfully heralded among hardcore Yankee readers as as the arrival of a major talent: someone who didn’t see literary and genre as working against each other, yet someone also determined to fuse fun and thought with a realm known as the Troposphere, whereby people could enter into a unified consciousness and dance with the thoughts of others. Thomas followed this novel up with Our Tragic Universe, an equally extraordinary volume that was foolishly derided by Thomas’s professed boosters as “[relying] on the two laziest storylines the world of fiction has ever thrown up.” What Thomas’s sudden apostates couldn’t seem to understand was that this thoughtful author was using coincidence and predictability, not unlike David Foster Wallace investigating boredom in The Pale King, to create a rich portrait on what it is to live a life when we are surrounded by endless structure:
A couple of years before, I’d sat on my father’s lap and asked him what he did all day at the university. He told me that he spent most days looking at numbers and doing calculations in order to try to find out how old the universe was. He said his whole job was like being a detective where you look at clues and find out what things are made of or how old they are. I asked why he wanted to know how old the universe was, and he said that was a good question, but a difficult one. I remembered something from school assembly and suggested that perhaps he wanted to know more about God, and his smile died and he put me down on the floor and told me it was time for bed.
Published in 2010, when we were only just starting to understand how social media’s liking and favoriting was hindering unpopular or less glamorous content, reducing the wonders of curiosity into quantified binaries devoid of nuance, Our Tragic Universe was not the big American breakout hit that its publisher hoped it would be, perhaps because it adamantly refused to kowtow to the trite pleasantries that American readers were increasingly becoming drawn to.
The Seed Collectors is the first book I’ve read in a very long time that not only has its finger perspicaciously on the pulse of our anxieties and afflictions, but that challenges the notion of family structure and the way in which we push forward our best selves. It is ambitious not necessarily because of its form (although the number of thoughts that Thomas contains within less than 400 pages is quite phenomenal and makes the novel difficult to describe), but in the way that it unites numerous observations into a Weltanschauung that the smart reader will feel compelled to argue with. To a certain degree, The Seed Collectors is almost a referendum on the early Lily Pascale mysteries with which Thomas established her literary career (and which she no longer lists in her credited works). The engaging Lily Pascale trilogy, which is hardly as egregious as Thomas would have you believe, was as much about exploring whether normalcy and family could serve as acceptable panacea as it was a trio of gripping yarns about murders and psychedelic cults leaving inexplicable imprints on small communities. But now Thomas is a wiser and more adroit writer, nimble enough to take on a remarkably broad range of subjects in one go — what we don’t hear when people are telling us their most intimate thoughts, body image, toxic masculinity, gamification, porn, thwarted career ambition, botany, travel, online shaming, interpretive rigidity, and numerous other topics — even as she spins an elaborate story involving a vast and variegated family drawn together by the recent death of a beloved matriarch who has left a collection of mysterious seed pods to her many scions.
The novel’s considerable dramatis personae represents a wildly vast cross-section of contemporary life, yet it is a great testament to Thomas’s extraordinary talent that we come to know all these characters quite vividly. Bryony Gardner is, to a large degree, the book’s conflicted heart: an overweight alcoholic who, not unlike Our Tragic Universe‘s heroine Meg Carpenter, ponders whether her marriage and her life is all that it’s cracked up to be. If The Seed Collectors had been written by Jonathan Franzen, Bryony’s needs would have been ridiculed or belittled. If The Seed Collectors had been written by Jennifer Weiner, Bryony would become a superficial plus-size stereotype squeezed into a predictable story template. But Thomas is too good and too humane a novelist to wince away from Bryony’s inner world. Despite Bryony’s extraordinary behavior, we come to empathize with her because she is always measuring her calorie intake and her weight against fears that she is not cut out for normal life, whatever that might be. Her three glasses of champagne after an afternoon tea and her casual eating binges are part of a full-bore commitment to excess and entertainment, an imposing pit that anybody can fall down in our age of instant gratification and casual swipes of the credit card. Bryony thinks about an ugly man following her into a train restroom and becomes alarmed at how her fantasy alters into something grotesque as she masturbates. “Your job was not to CHOOSE Holly’s birthday present,” says Bryony to her husband midway through the novel, “just to collect it.” And with the purchase of this tennis racquet neatly compartmentalized, we come to wonder whether Bryony’s impulsive and often quite specific consumption habits could be remedied if she had the guts to place her stock in warm nouns rather than cold verbs.
To a large degree, The Seed Collectors is holding up a very large mirror to the Quantified Self movement, whereby everything we do in this world creates data, collected and hawked and redistributed in ways that are not necessarily compatible with our complex feelings. The above passage, a glorious pisstake on gamification, sees Ollie, a man who Bryony is considering sleeping with, at the mercy of an Oral B Triumph SmartGuide, an alarmingly horrific (and quite real) device that demands its practitioners to brush teeth in highly specific ways, with emoticons rewarding a commonplace activity with Candy Crush-style perdition. Even a monstrous man named Charlie, who is introduced sexually violating a blind date before the thirty page mark (perhaps another reason why American houses lack the spine to publish this book), is someone who clings to a list of attributes that he’d like to see in “my perfect girlfriend.” And if quantification is the deadly condition uniting all these characters, then how do these disparate characters live? As the novel progresses, Thomas introduces a great deal of dialogue in which the speakers are never identified. And this missing data, so to speak, steers the reader towards an emotional intuition well outside any data subset. And as Thomas serves up more twists and revelations, we come to understand that it is still possible in our age of unmitigated surveillance to be attuned to our private thoughts (though for how long?). The novel, which we have believed all along to be thoroughly structured, has perhaps been a lifelike unstructured mess all along. And this unanticipated alignment between fiction and our data-plagued world feels more artful and poignant than such conceptual stunts as writing a short story composed entirely of tweets. It makes The Seed Collectors almost a cousin to Louisa Hall’s recent novel, the quite wonderful Speak, which used a computer algorithm to determine which of its five perspectives would be on deck next. But even if you don’t want to play this game of six-dimensional chess, The Seed Collectors still works as a sprightly narrative on its own terms, at times reading like an Iris Murdoch novel written for our time and beyond.
But the forces that be will not publish The Seed Collectors in America. They have remained distressingly resolute in recoiling from any book, even one as enjoyable as The Seed Collectors, that understands that readers have brains and are worthy of being respected and challenged. This is a pity. Because The Seed Collectors proves that a great novel can be poignant, ambitious, artful, and a bit punkish.
An investigation into Josh Ostrovsky reveals that the “comedian” has not once offered an original line and that he lied to Katie Couric, one of his highest-profile interviewers, even as he continued to steal the work of others for his financial gain.
“You gotta understand. The Internet is like a giant, weird orgy where like everything gets shared. A lot of people are using stuff that I make. And every time that I make a photo and I put it out there, it gets reblogged on a million sites, and I would never put my name on it. ‘Cause we’re like all in this giant — it’s kind of like we’re all on ecstasy at a giant rave.” — Josh Ostrovsky, after being asked by Katie Couric about his plagiarism
Josh Ostrovsky is an unremarkable man who has built up a remarkable fan base of 5.7 million Instagram users by stealing photos from other sources without attribution under the handle The Fat Jew, claiming the witticisms as his own, and turning these casual and often quite indolent thefts into a lucrative comedy career. His serial plagiarism, which makes Carlos Mencia look like an easily ignored bumbling purse snatcher, has understandably attracted the ire of many comedians, including Patton Oswalt, Kumail Nanjiani, and Michael Ian Black. The ample-gutted Ostrovsky transformed his gutless thieving into a deal with Comedy Central (since cancelled by the comedy network), CAA representation, and even a book deal. Ostrovsky is an unimaginative and talentless man who believed he could get away with this. And why not? The unquestioning press fawned over the Fat Jew at every opportunity, propping this false god up based on his numbers rather than his content. While the tide has turned against Ostrovsky in recent days, the real question that any self-respecting comedy fan needs to ask is whether they can stomach supporting a big fat thief who won’t cut down on his rapacious stealing anytime soon.
After a two day investigation, Reluctant Habits has learned that every single Instagram post that Ostrovosky has ever put up appears to have been stolen from other people. His work, his lies, and his claims were not checked out by ostensible journalists, much less corporations like Burger King hiring this man to participate in commercials and product placement that he was compensated for by as much as $2,500 a pop.
In an interview with Katie Couric earlier this year, Ostrovsky offered some outright whoppers. Ostrovsky, who claimed to be “such a giver,” presented himself as a benign funnyman who said that “it’s just my gift” to find photos and apply captions to them. Tellingly, Ostrovsky declared, “It’s the only thing I can do in this world.”
“A lot of stuff I actually make myself,” said Ostrovsky. “Like sometimes if you see a tweet from like DMX, you know, or some kind of hardcore rapper being like, ‘About to go antiquing upstate,’ like ‘I’m refinishing Dutch furniture,’ like he probably didn’t write that. I Photoshopped that.”
Actually, the sentiment that Ostrovsky ascribed to DMX (assuming he didn’t pluck the image from another source) on April 14, 2015 (“YEAH SEX IS COOL BUT HAVE YOU EVER HAD GARLIC BREAD”) had actually been circulating on the Internet years before this. It started making the rounds on Twitter in November 2013 and appears to have been plucked from a now deleted Tumblr called whoredidthepartygo. This tagline theft is indicative of Ostrovsky’s style: take a sentence that many others have widely tweeted, reapply it in a new context, and hope that nobody notices.
The Couric interview also contained this astonishing prevarication:
Couric: I like Hillbilly too. You took half-Hillary, half-Bill Clinton.
Ostrovsky: Yup. A friend of mine actually made that and like just really exploded my brain into like a thousand pieces.
If this is really true, then why did Ostrovsky wait four years to share his “friend”‘s labor? Especially since it had “exploded his brain into like a thousand pieces.” After all, doesn’t a giver like Ostrovsky want to act swiftly upon his “generosity”? The Hillbilly pic was posted to Ostrovsky’s Instagram account on January 7, 2015.
But this image was cropped from another image that was circulating around 2011 — nearly four years before. If Ostrovsky’s “friend” gave the Hillbilly photo to him, then why was it cropped, with the telltale link to demotivatingposters.com (a now defunct link) elided?
* * *
Reluctant Habits has examined Ostrovsky’s ten most recent Instagram posts. Not only are all of his images stolen from other people, but Ostrovsky often did not bother to change the original image he grabbed. In some cases, it appears that Ostrovsky simply took a screenshot from Twitter, often cropping out the identifying details.
For the purposes of this search, I have confined my analysis to any photo that Ostrovsky uploaded with a tagline. As the evidence will soon demonstrate, not only is Ostrovsky incapable of writing an original tag, but he appears to have never written a single original sentence in any of his Instagram captions.
I have included links to Ostrovsky’s Instagrams and the original tweets. But I have also taken screenshots in the event that either Ostrovsky or his originators remove their tweets.
As if to exonerate himself from the theft, Ostrovsky’s Instagram post included a callback to Instagram user @pistolschurman, who posted it onto Instagram that same day. One begins to see Ostovsky’s pattern of behavior: bottom-feed from a bottom-feeder.
But the image had already been widely distributed on Twitter with the tagline, “The international symbol for ‘what the hell is this guy doing?’,” “The international symbol for ‘what the hell is this douchebag doing?,” and “The international symbol for what the fuck is this nigga doing?'” But have traced its first use on Twitter to Betto Biscaia on August 10, 2014:
SOURCES OF PLAGIARISM: While it appears that Ostrovsky or one of his minions may have typed the sentiment upon a new image, a Google Image Search shows that this sentence has been widely attached to photo memes. The first use of the joke on Twitter appears to originate from @TinyCodeEye on March 11, 2015.
SOURCES OF PLAGIARISM: This has been a long-running tagline/photo combo, but Ostrovsky didn’t even bother to swap the font for this photo. The tagline appears to have been added to the photo for the first time by user @ViralStation on July 17, 2015:
In other words, Ostrovsky was so slothful in his theft that he couldn’t even be bothered to generate a new image.
I have reached out to EM3 on Twitter, asking if he was the first person to take this photo. He responded that he did not take the photo, but that he plucked it from eBay. (The latter response may have been facetious.) What EM3 may not know is that his quip was stolen by Ostrovsky and monetized for Ostrovsky’s gain.
SOURCES OF PLAGIARISM: This was among the oldest tags I discovered and quite indicative of the desperate thieving that Ostrovsky practices. It appears to originate from Alex Moran, who tweeted it on July 17, 2014.
I have reached out to Mr. Moran to ask him if he was the person who snapped the photo. He has not responded.
SOURCE OF PLAGIARISM: This joke has become so widely circulated that only the world’s worst hack would use it. Ostrovsky thinks so little of his audience that he’s circulating a joke that’s been around since at least August 2012, when it first started appearing Tumblr. The first Twitter link to this is from August 2, 2012:
Mr. Robot is a veritable referendum on Nic Pizzolatto’s excess and hubris. This is a terrific television series dripping with thrilling depictions of broken and fascinating people that deserves your attention. The show, created by Sam Esmail, is so meticulous in its vision of corporate malfeasance (and those who would exploit the security holes) that it extends its attentions to even the most fleeting of roles, such as the great character actor Tom Ris Farrell as a middle-aged man clutching onto scraps of dignity. Mr. Robot‘s vibrant electronic soundtrack and close verisimilitude of command line moves cements its commitment to the genre of post-cyberpunk, yet the series is even more accomplished in its pursuit of pain and desperation. It has become more poignant and more aware of mortality with each episode.
The show’s heart is steered by Elliot Alderson (played with painstaking fragility by Rami Malek), a techie who works for a security firm called Allsafe. Elliot describes his life through voiceover with dry introspection that could quaver at any minute, one that recalls Edward Norton’s narration in Fight Club. He has an uncertain commitment to revolution, as he dares to fight a two-front war of depression and drug addiction, and an unexamined past populated by demons that he can’t even bring himself to discuss with his therapist. What Elliot does instead is hack into the computers of anyone who enters his life. Elliot’s eyes bulge like an extra terrestrial as he uses credit card items, emails, Twitter accounts, and metadata to piece together these lives on his computer. He burns these details onto discs, labeling each life with an album title. It’s a touching metaphor for the way that an iTunes collection is an insufficient cure for loneliness, yet it doesn’t stop any smartphone addict walking down the street with earbuds perched in her ears.
The show delivers its visuals across an uncanny valley that places subjects to the far edges of the frame. No matter how brilliant our minds or how formidably subcultural our passions, the show’s honest ethos suggests that we can never be the center of any reality. Go the way of normality, whether it be sticking with a putatively loving partner or a commitment to a seemingly respectable firm, and you will find yourself thrown off course by an outside force, whether it be internal corruption, sinister hackers or a creepy Patrick Bateman-like sociopath played with fearsome vivacity by the incredible Martin Wallström. There is an anarchist who goes by the name of Mr. Robot (Christian Slater), who leads a team of hackers that includes a fascinating Iranian Muslim named Mobley who has yet to mention the events of 1979, and hopes to bring the largest corporation in the world (appositely nicknamed “Evil Corp”) to its knees. Mr. Robot is the father figure that Elliot so desperately craves, yet, like most victims, Elliot cannot quite see through Mr.Robot’s violent haze or manipulative motivations. At one point, Mr. Robot pushes Elliot off the edge of a Coney Island railing, leaving him battered for weeks. Of course, Elliot isn’t the only one damaged. There’s Angela Moss, one of Elliot’s coworkers (and a childhood friend), who allowed her philandering boyfriend to install malware on her computer because of his shameless commitment to infidelity. On the more sinister side, there’s Fernando Vera, a drug supplier who first declares to Elliot how his depression is a strength. In the early episodes, I was slightly skeptical with the way that these characters were introduced as cartoonish stock roles. But as the series has gently doled out more character complexity over time, I have come to see these impressions as reflective of Elliot’s view of the universe.
And that’s another quality that’s striking. The show has restyled perfectly safe regions of Manhattan as seedier and more dangerous than they really are, even as it presents authentic drug scenes. Indeed, the show’s commitment to Elliot’s perspective is so liberating and surreal that we see Elliot’s mother force him to eat his pet fish in a fancy restaurant with a design that resembles the Allsafe cubes. Elliot ponders what would happen if people were like webpages. Upon considering whether he can “view source” on others, we see workers sauntering about the corporate office with signs reading I PRETEND TO LOVE MY HUSBAND and I’M EMPTY INSIDE, recalling the subliminal messages in John Carpenter’s They Live.
Some opiners have opted to ascribe a moral imprint upon all this, claiming that Sam Esmail is “playing Sixth Sense-style tricks” on his audience. But this misses the point. Whether “fact” or “fiction,” Elliot’s world is true to his nightmares, even when we witness scenes that he is ostensibly not a part of. And if we know the niceties of Elliot’s shattered existence, maybe we might be tempted to put down our phones and actually talk with the people we judge through social media accounts and shambling about poorly lit cubicles. Perhaps that’s Sam Esmail’s real call for revolution.
Like addicts, they say that they cannot help themselves. They beg for clemency when arriving thirty minutes late, yet admonish you when your best efforts to muzzle your understandable frustration over minutes wasted cannot be sufficiently disguised. They justify their tardiness by pointing out that they texted you fifteen minutes after they were supposed to arrive, offering the defense that your phone buzzed with a running commentary of their delayed movements. “Hey, I’m at 72nd Street!” the late person will pound with unrepentant thumbs into a keypad. “I’ll be there in five minutes!” But any cursory consideration of Manhattan traffic patterns quickly leads to the facile conclusion that there is no way for even the most nimble mortal to get to the East Village bar you agreed to meet at in anywhere less than fifteen. You sit, nursing a drink, possibly ordering a supererogatory appetizer to ensure that you keep your table. It is, in short, a maddening predicament. If you have made an elaborate dinner for a few people, the late person keeps everyone sitting around the table as the meal gets cold.
The late person’s excuses are manifold and vastly creative and never entirely sufficient. Late people make you feel like a chump, trampling upon your cheery punctilious demeanor with the clueless rudeness of Jeff Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High. While the dependably tardy person who is always ten minutes behind schedule can be easily contended with through the swift legerdemain of agreeing upon a meeting time ten minutes before the two of you arrive, the casually impertinent late person is the true malefactor. She claims to be busy but never seems to comprehend that you sacrificed time too, leaving early to ensure your timely arrival, perhaps persuading another party that you needed another day to get back on something as you race to the subway, sweat pouring down your brow, because you foolishly believed that respecting the late person’s time was important. As you wait in a restaurant, feeling the book you brought to pass the time droop from your fingers, looking at your phone and wondering how many minutes you should stay before bolting, and detecting the judgmental eyes of strangers poring over your solitary presence or a group of people glaring behind the host stand for you to leave, you wonder why you allowed yourself to fall for the ruse again.
Late people annoy me, probably more than they should. This may be an eccentric pet peeve. It may be the beginning of some cantankerous midlife period in which I will spend more time barking at adolescents to stop trespassing on my patch of grass. But as someone who tries to be sensitive and courteous about other people’s time, I don’t think I’m being unreasonable in expecting others to show up when they say they will. We ding late people in just about every other circumstance. Ushers bar the tardy from entering a theatre after a show starts. Unless the late person is an important dignitary, there’s little chance of an airplane waiting for her presence on the tarmac. (On the other hand, I loved it when German Chancellor Angela Merkel bailed on meeting Putin last October because the Russian despot couldn’t be bothered to show.) A worker who does not show up to her job can be fired for repeat infringement. Why then is tardiness tolerated in social scenarios? We clearly want to honor a charming and brilliant person with character flaws, but are we giving up some of our dignity in doing so? Our culture frowns upon deadbeats. Credit bureaus exact harsh score-shaving penalties for those who cannot pay their bills on time. Why then should we give chronically unpunctual offenders a fair shake? Late people rob us of our hours and seem to be rubbing their hands with glee.
Diana DeLonzor, late in an altogether different sense, once suggested that the chronically tardy are not consciously trying to annoy those around them. Of course! Much like any idealist with a firm commitment to belief, late people regularly breach the very principles they preach. Surprisingly, there has been very little research into the late person’s psychological motivations, although the Wall Street Journal‘s Sumathi Reddy has helpfully compiled what we know about late people: they could be more susceptible to the planning fallacy, whereby they greatly underestimate the time needed to complete a project, or cannot break down the components of a common and not terribly difficult obligation such as meeting someone for a date to get a true assessment of how much time it will take. While we’re all capable of distraction, getting lost in imagination, and falling down time-sucking rabbit holes because of our curiosity, why can’t organizational commitment and optimistic wandering coexist in the same head? Even the cult director John Waters is a stickler for punctuality. One doesn’t have to be a cold corporate autocrat to understand that honoring other people’s time should be one of life’s first duties.
Psychology Today‘s Adoree Durayappah-Harrison offers the provocative suggestion that late people arrive at meetings when they do because they don’t want to be early. But this too seems a strange reason to pardon the late person. Isn’t arriving early a plus? You don’t have to walk into a meeting place right away. You can survey the surroundings, saunter around a new neighborhood, chat with a stranger, send a text, and perform countless other acts because you see time as something to be savored. Moreover, does the late person seriously believe that the punctual person always enjoys being early? Why should the late person get preferential treatment?
There’s obviously a Western bias to my plaints. In The Dance of Time, the sociologist Edward T. Hall studied how different cultures establish rhythm. He divided cultures into monochronic and polychronic. Monochronic societies, which would include most Western societies, are very much committed to performing one task a time and it is vital that a life schedule is not uprooted by too many interruptions. In M-time, time is a quantifiable commodity. But in polychronic cultures, people are committed to conducting many events at once so that they can have a greater involvement with people. These differences in how one spends time can cause international problems, not unlike the Merkel-Putin showdown referenced above. (In 1991, some behavioral economists proposed a Polychronic Attitude Index in an effort to map marketplaces.) Hall established these terms in 1983, but I’m not so sure his dichotomy holds up thirty years later in an age of multitasking and people glued to their phones. We all have somewhere to be going.
Patience is as a virtue, but it is more easily upheld after the other person has shown up. I’d like to be more forgiving of late people, but they never seem to be entirely forgiving of me. I am not asking for the trains to run on time like Mussolini. There are elements of the universe outside our control. When I interviewed the aforementioned Waters five years ago, he was slightly late and offered one of the most effusive and unnecessary apologies I have ever witnessed. Had the roles been reversed, I suspect that I would have been just as exuberantly contrite. But if it takes forty-five minutes to do something, why not schedule an hour just to be on the safe side? It is 7:31 AM as I type this sentence. I have given myself until 8:00 AM to finish this essay and it appears that not only will I complete it on time, but I will have some leftover minutes to peruse a few pages from one of the six books I’m now in the middle of reading or check in on a friend. If late people could only understand that one can be ambitious and liberated while keeping appointments, we wouldn’t have to tolerate the stings of their relentless absenteeism.
The first step in solving a problem is admitting you have one and, in this essay, I come clean about some pain that has been clawing at me for some time in the hope that this hidden problem will encourage other people to be honest about the terrible lessons they learn and put into practice for years.
On most days, my mother, the most manipulative and emotionally scarring narcissist I have ever known, would spend the entire evening feeling sorry for herself, tanking herself up on a box of cheap wine and lounging about like a squeamish lout on the couch. I don’t know how many times she asked us to refill her glass because she could never be bothered to get up, but it was surely somewhere in the thousands.
On any given night, my mother would shamble into drunken oblivion. Yet there was nothing more horrifying than the occasion of her birthday to reveal the full depth of her affliction. The hell of it was that we were too young to see it.
We loved her, even with all the Gehenna she marched us through. We hated to see her sad. We tried so desperately to please her. We didn’t understand that she had a much bigger problem.
So when her birthday rolled around, no amount of celebrating her life would suffice. She could not summon gratitude for having a loving family or a stable job. She could not find any real reason — and there were many — to be alive. She could not stretch one inch outside herself. My mother wanted attention, but she would never spell out the deranged egocentric fantasy she truly craved. Her true ideas, never expressed, were grandiose and delusional. Here was a woman incapable of apologizing for her mistakes or seeing what had gone wrong, much less right. Her solution to her self-pity involved the world stopping everything that it was doing to celebrate her existence in the most unvoiced yet extravagant way. What I think she sought was a deranged and surreal scenario not unlike that old Twilight Zone episode, “It’s a Good Life,” in which a tyrannical boy with demonic powers has everyone in town doing anything he wants. What the boy cannot see, what he refuses to consider for even a second, is how these obliging and miserable adults must live out this perdition. The people around him are never once allowed to be themselves as they serve his every whim.
When it came to my own birthday, I never wanted anything big, just some basic acknowledgment that I existed from the people who were dear to me. But my mother did a number on me. And as much as it hurts me to say this, I want to be able to live with myself. I have a very serious birthday problem. I am certain that some of you do too, whether it is tied up in comparable abuse or some other hangup. But I am here to tell you that this is okay and that you don’t have to be ashamed. I’m hoping that those of us who suffer from paralyzing birthday anxieties can come together and tell ourselves that it is perfectly reasonable for us to celebrate our lives. We can beat this in the same way that we have stared down other demons. If you need someone to tell you that you matter, I urge you to email me and, whoever you are, I will be happy to celebrate your existence each year. Because I know too well what you’re feeling.
There was my twentieth birthday in which I was trapped in a remote cabin and my mother spoke to me in her high quavering voice and treated me as if I were a boy of five. I was still trying to figure out how to be a man in the wake of abusive father figures, and I just couldn’t take this bullshit anymore. I felt enraged and humiliated for being infantilized on a day that was supposed to be mine, especially since I could not escape the cabin. So I stormed off in shame and beat my fists into a metal sign until my knuckles were red and raw. And since it was a very small community, the commotion caused by my machine gun-like flailing had the cabin owner calling the police. I recall hiding behind a tree as the police car’s bright searchlight flooded its blinding circle onto the dark waters of the tranquil creek that lined the ragtag cluster of cabins, in search of the violent perpetrator apparently at large. My sister and her now husband found me and escorted me back to the cabin, holding me, knowing why I needed to sob and why I couldn’t. I couldn’t cry. Because who knew what this would do to my mother?
I spent my twenty-first birthday in Reno and had a lot of fun.
It’s hardly an accident that I first started smoking on my twenty-second birthday. I did so out of boredom, walking the streets of San Francisco by myself and feigning adulthood. There was a part of me cultivating a leisurely form of self-destruction that would grow and bite me in the ass years later. When Kurt Vonnegut replied to interviewers that he was committing suicide by cigarette, I knew what he meant.
I tried to win my birthday back over the years, but couldn’t. You couldn’t beat the house.
There was the time in which I asked twenty people (no expectations, no gifts necessary; in fact, I’m happy to buy you a drink like they do in Britain!) to meet in a bar on my birthday. Nobody showed.
Today, I do not smoke. Or I try not to.
My self-pity grew over the years. I felt terrible and birthdays were a big part of this. But there was also a burgeoning desire to rid myself of the pain. I wanted to feel good about myself without shame. Could this actually happen?
A few days before my forty-first birthday, which is today, I suffered the worst insomnia I had experienced in three years. Couldn’t sleep. Had to cancel a date with a very kind woman.
This is all greatly ridiculous. Because I’ll feel perfectly myself once my birthday has passed.
In the past, people have tried to step in and give me a good birthday. They didn’t know how. I was always a terrible member of the thinktank masterminding the plans. I didn’t want to feel sorry for myself in the way that my mother had, but I can’t say that there haven’t been birthdays where I worked my way to the end of the bottle and utterly despised myself.
I don’t want to hate myself anymore. And I don’t want to inflict any of this on anyone.
Friends, knowing my hangups, have understandable worries about even mentioning my birthday. They saunter around the subject like a trepidatious sous chef walking on eggshells in a chaotic kitchen.
Friends also point to my resilience, which they claim is unmatched by anyone else they know. And they know people who are far more accomplished than me.
I have no problem hanging out with my friends any other time of the year. But I have always felt deeply ashamed at doing anything good for myself on the day that it counts.
Is that terrible? It certainly feels that way.
So I am saying something now, risking ridicule from the rubberneckers who still want me dead because they have invented some wrong idea of me that is considerably less distorted and monstrous than the false and bestial image I spent many years perfecting. Because now, more than any other year, I know that my life is worth something.
It is very hard for me to say all this. It has taken me more than four decades to get here. My existence is worth celebrating. I love being alive. I have a great deal to be thankful for. I am neither washed up nor finished. I’m just getting started. I’m working on many magnificent projects right now and am supremely indebted to some exuberant Scotsmen who were gracious enough to help me get back on the horse. And to anyone who has been kind to me during the past year, I cannot possibly convey how much your generosity has meant to me.
For those who have had to endure my birthday blues over the years, please know that I am more contrite than you can ever know. But I want to be honest now.
In his wry and endlessly thoughtful book, Faking It, which is a fantastic volume if you’re interested in the bottomless pit of hypocrisy and self-illusion, the marvelous thinker William Ian Miller observes:
Be careful what you pretend to be. Toughness, or a certain hardness, is a very useful trait to have, but the person who undertakes a pose of hardness or flippancy to protect what he fears is his core vulnerable sweetness may end with his sweetness shrunk to invisibility or inaccessible behind the ramparts, though he maintains the belief that his toughness is only a pose.
For a very long time, I have feigned being hard or insouciant about this birthday business, pretending that it is “just another day.” What I have feared (aside from becoming my mother, who I both am and am not) is capitulating to the pose that my birthday does not matter rather than being candid about the reality that I, like countless others, carry a modest vanity one day each year that I am deeply abashed about. That my forty-first birthday will be the first in more than a decade in which I will not share a bed with anyone speaks volumes about how I have gone out of my way to smother the act of being myself by projecting some version of my intimate core onto others willing to be intimate with me. I trace the beginnings of this to the blonde bombshell who smiled at me on my seventeenth birthday as we went to see Hot Shots! at a movie theater long closed. It is a sick and dishonest practice, but then I had the worst possible example growing up.
So here is what I am doing. Tonight I will be having a marvelously low-key dinner. Alone. I will be eating a slice of chocolate cake. Alone. And I am going to have a great goddam time doing this. Because if I can’t respect myself, then how can I expect anything from other people? I cannot leech on geniality in the way that my mother did.
It could take me many years before I can invite other people to celebrate my birthday. But the one thing I can do, starting this year, is to stop wielding my birthday around like a loaded gun. If I don’t commit myself to a happy time, then I’ll never have it. Of course, any birthday wishes from others are very welcome. There’s no sense in denying this anymore. But I will not retreat to any couch.
The first step in solving a problem is admitting that you have one. There is no pat remedy and I’d be kidding myself if I really believed that what I’m doing this year will flense my soul entirely of this predicament. But it’s a new year. I’ve just had my eyes checked and I have a new pair of glasses. This is the longest I’ve stared into the mirror. I am liking more of what I see. He is worth celebrating. And if he expects to give lavishly and effortlessly to others, as is his incurable habit, then he must give to himself first.