Briefly noted: Mozart in the Jungle — Blair Tindall

Mozart in the Jungle is surprisingly good and an ode to all the sex musicians have, the drugs musicians do (“I watched Janet bent over the desk to snort cocaine through a straw” occurs on page 2), and most notably a cautionary tale about the economics that underlie their industry. In Mozart in the Jungle Tindall succeeds as few do yet still barely succeeds enough to feed herself. The later sections, as she contemplates her own approaching infertility, she turns melancholy, because she knows that while others in her age group have families she has an oboe. Many adventures at age 22 are slogs at 40, and this is something many 22-year-olds know in passing but don’t feel till they’re much older.

Mozart_in_the_jungleTindall’s relative success still feels like failure to her, financially and, often, artistically. Megan McArdle’s recent post on journalism strikes many notes similar to Tindall’s; the two are both writing about glamour industries battered by changing economics and excess supply (facilitated by digital transmission) relative to demand. In Tindall’s case, the number of financially secure oboe players is probably in the single and low double digits. She makes that threshold, but only in an artistically tedious way. For her, the smart thing to do is get out. When she makes decisions as a 20-year-old, she fails to realize that as a 35- or 40-year-old she will want and feel different things.

In school she finds that “my classmates toiled harder over their textbooks than I did over my oboe, yet they didn’t receive the same special attention.” Attention, though, is a dangerous stimulant, and so too are other stimulants, here recalled and made comic by an older mind reviewing a younger event:

Jose took off the same black turtleneck and dashiki he wore every day, the odor of his unwashed body mixing with cheap musk. We kissed, embracing as the climate of Brahams’s G-minor quintet washed over us. Jose peeled away my top gently, caressing my shoulders, nuzzling my neck and pulling back the covers. I could see another woman’s menstrual blood smeared on the bottom sheet, but I let him push me back on the bedding.

It goes… okay. The gap between fantasy and reality recurs through the memoir, to the very end:

A young person who dreamily “wants to go to Juilliard” or “be a concert pianist” should research the reality of those statements. [. . .] I’m one of those part-time musicians now. When I do play music, it is a joy. The reality of performing full-time wasn’t the fantasy I’d imagined as a little girl. What offers me a meaningful life today are the infinite possibilities in our modern world, of which music is only one. Thousands of people have been influenced by the Sierra magazine articles I’ve written about environmental conservation.

Incidentally, that quote also sums my feeling about grad school in the humanities.

Tindall also wistfully sees her Upper West Side neighbors go from libidinously ravenous, providing her a voyeuristic thrill as they have continual passionate sex, to parents, while Tindall plays the oboe and can’t or won’t maintain long-term relationships as her child-bearing years slip away like leaves off a tree in Boston in autumn. The memoir also came out before Tindall stalked her ex-boyfriend, Bill Nye, so there may be more to her story and character than Mozart in the Jungle.

Links: Unmastered: a bad sex memoir, the humanities in life, bikes, housing, happiness, and more

* “Lust Never Sleeps: An academic’s sexual memoir puts the ire in desire;” sample: “Once in a while a book appears that’s so bad you want it to be a satire. If you set out to produce a parody of postfeminist mumbo jumbo, adolescent narcissism, excruciating erotic overshares, pseudopoetry, pretentious academic jargon, and shopworn and unshocking ‘dirty talk,’ you could not do better than Unmastered: A Book on Desire, Most Difficult to Tell.” I bought Katherine Angel’s Unmastered on the strength of an interesting interview and returned it after a few pages of reading and casually flipping through the remainder. I was hoping for something like Bentley’s The Surrender and sadly didn’t get it.

* This Is How to Leak to the Press Today; parts are overwrought: “With the recent revelation that the Department of Justice under the Obama administration secretly obtained phone records for Associated Press journalists — and previous subpoenas by the Bush administration targeting the Washington Post and New York Times — it is clear that whether Democrat or Republican, we now live in a surveillance dystopia beyond Orwell’s Big Brother vision,” but the how-to is accurate.

* “The Humanist Vocation;” I would add that the humanities are extremely important, but the humanities as currently practiced in most university settings are not, and the distinction is a key one for understanding why many people may be turning away from them.

* “Own Your Neighborhood: The real-estate crowdfunding scheme that could revolutionize urban policy by destroying stupid NIMBYism.”

* Alan Jacobs: “Am I a Conservative?” Notice that he does not see the contemporary Republican party as being particularly conservative; his second and third reasons are more interesting than his first.

* The U.S. has become the kind of nation from which you have to seek asylum—that is, the kind of nation you hide from, not go to for protection.

* A Prolonged Depression Is A Poor Affordable Housing Policy.

* The Netherlands is swamped by bikes, which is pretty cool.

* AAA says that the TCO of a car is $9,000 a year.

* The secret to Danish happiness; not all lessons transfer but I take Citi Bike (for which I’ve signed up) and similar efforts as a small step in a positive direction.

Vow: A Memoir of Marriage (and Other Affairs) — Wendy Plump

Vow is about adultery, and two people married to each other who both routinely commit it, and yet the most obvious question isn’t addressed until page 245 of 258:

People have asked me why Bill and I didn’t just have an open marriage. The answer is simple. We didn’t want an open marriage. If an open marriage is the route both spouses choose to go, that is one choice. It’s very cosmopolitan. I know a local couple who tried this for years, and it worked out to some degree. They had a lax attitude toward sleeping around. [. . .] But the idea doesn’t have much appeal to me. If we were able to do it, we would all do it. Almost no one I know could do it.

For a practice that “doesn’t have much appeal to me,” Plump sure did a lot of it; most people who don’t like Pilates don’t keep going to the classes. She effectively had an open marriage without labeling it as such, or getting the benefits, like hot threesomes. Not addressing the open marriage until the end is bizarre. Plumps and her husband appear to like the drama of lies more than the simplicity of truth.

A book like Never the Face (my essay about it is at the link) is about fundamentally more honest people: on its fifth page, David says to the narrator of his wife Maria, “She knows about it, and she’s okay with it.” The paragraph breaks: “What?“, the narrator thinks. Then: “For the next two days, my mind argued with itself.” Even if the narrator can’t conceptualize or accept the possibility of uncommon arrangements, her partner can. That’s what Plump and her husband are missing. Instead they get recriminations, and the problem of simultaneously wanting the other person to be monogamous while they don’t have to be. Cognitive dissonance is a bitch, and so is hypocrisy.

The overall effect yields the strangeness of art, from the level of the sentence to the level of the whole, which is why I feel compelled to write about Vow amid other projects and other purposes.

Still, Vow is spectacularly well written and yet spectacularly frustrating, because the simple, obvious solution to the problems between Plump and her husband is simply off the negotiating table. They don’t even try events like this one, slightly NSFW, described in Time Out New York.

Plump says that “I assume Bill approached the altar with every intention of doing the right thing. Don’t we all? I’m not sure that I did. Even as I took my vows, I was aware of some mocking little voice in my head, particularly when I got to that part about forsaking all others” (120). Then. . . don’t get married? Again, it’s the obvious solution to a book that’s about looking at the obvious and then doing something else.

Consequently, on some level Vow is one long yowl of cognitive dissonance and “I want.” Plump cheats, basically, because she feels like it: “So I was thrown off balance when I first met Tommy and felt an attraction so compelling I no longer cared that I was married” (8). That’s it, and at bottom it’s the reason most cheaters cheat. In Plump’s universe, feelings trump emotion; I’m not sure about the extent we should extrapolate her comments to all women, or all people, but there’s definitely a temptation to do so, though I’m going to refrain.

At one moment Plump writes:

I have tried many times to deconstruct allure. It is the least romantic of tasks, but it is marginally useful, if only to prove a point. When you take attraction apart, when you look back on what developed and how, you find that it is a physical impulse for about eight seconds before it moves on to something bigger. (50)

Many people, mostly guys, have worked to take attraction apart and to learn how to build it up. Neil Strauss is the most famous, but many others, like Roosh, have also field-tested what works in attraction, in allure. Women are now also producing their own material on overt allure. Note that I’m not necessarily endorsing Strauss, Roosh, or the linked Female Pickup Artists, but I am saying that they are attempting, through observation, trial, error, and research, to develop methods for attracting women or men—in other words, “to deconstruct allure.” Chances are that the peculiar alchemy involved in attraction will never be completely standardized, but pretending that there’s no way to “deconstruct allure” is just pointless and incorrect romantic mystification.

Plump says that “Immediately on standing next to Steven I felt a frisson snapping between us. Some neuron in my brain knocked itself loose and began rapping on my awareness, saying, Yo, are you still in there? Pay attention. You’re doing it again.” Chances are good that Steven was doing something, consciously or unconsciously, to make that attraction happen. Maybe he was just really hot. But maybe he’d begun systematically learning about what to do around women. Plenty of guys do.

Why does she sleep with these guys instead of some other guys? She doesn’t really say. What do they do? How do they behave? It’s lost to Plump, who isn’t asking why she likes what she likes: she’s just liking it. It’s the triumph of feeling and the reason so many guys, and some number of women, read The Game.

There’s also a lot of “I” in Vow: a lot of “I loved not only the way I felt with Steven, I loved who he was with me, as well.” There’s not a lot of thinking about what other people are thinking or feeling. That may explain the quality of Plump’s marriage, which demands “we” and “you” as much or more than “I.”

One also wonders why her husband, Bill, can’t or chooses not to understand presumed shifts in his relationship with his wife: “Sex with Bill became unwanted by comparison, through no fault of his. It changes utterly from an act of love and passion to an act of crushing obligation” (41). Perhaps she shouldn’t be married, then? Perhaps he should recognize what’s going on and leave? The obvious questions pile up, and Plump is telling us that she has no answers. Maybe there are none. There are only contradictions. She says that “Through it all, again, I was certain of one thing. I did not want our marriage to end. I was crushed but not finished.” For someone who doesn’t want her marriage to end, Plump behaves in strange ways.

Some niggling intellectual points bother; Plump, for example, must not have read much evolutionary biology: she writes that “They [friends] think I must have been aware that Bill was having an affair, as if suspicion were linked to some primal instinct we all have. I have no idea what imperative suspicion would serve Neanderthals such that it would repeat upward through the species to find its expression in us” (4). Leaving aside the question of mistaking Neanderthals for a major modern human ancestor, I can very easily imagine “what imperative suspicion would serve:” for men, suspicion is one way of ascertaining paternity. If you check a woman’s fidelity, her offspring are more likely to be yours. For women, jealousy is a form of resource guarding: if you want your mate’s resource capacity to be primarily devoted to you, and not to the hussy a few huts over, you want to make sure he’s not knocking her up (The Evolution Biology of Human Female Sexuality discusses these issues and empirical findings around them).

These obviously aren’t absolute, and the anthropological literature is filled with alloparenting, group sex, and other arrangements, but the basic utility of jealousy as an adaptation remains. Plump does note that her husband’s child with another woman “moved us into a whole new circle of deceit, into that tortured fraternity of women and men [ . . .] who are heaved by their loving spouses into the dirtiest of vortices—women who find out their husbands have fathered children elsewhere; men who find out their children are not biologically their own” (31). Right. It’s the “dirtiest of vortices” because of the tremendous resources invested in children. To have someone who is supposed to be investing your children investing in someone else’s is the cruel problem that jealousy is there, in part, to address.

I’m keeping Vow, though it’s the sort I would normally sell.

A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter — William Deresiewicz

I really like and admire A Jane Austen Education, despite agreeing with the younger Deresiewicz who the older one mocks for believing sentiments like this one, about Jane Austen’s Emma: “The story seemed to consist of nothing more than a lot of chitchat among a bunch of commonplace characters in a country village. No grand events, no great issues, and, inexplicably for a writer of romance novels, not even any passion.” Deresiewicz is setting himself up to be knocked down, and yet when I read Emma I, too, was bored by the “chitchat” among the bumpkins.

But Deresiewicz goes on to explain why his younger self was totally wrong, and how he grew as a person through closely reading Jane Austen and applying her novels to his life experience. Though his explanation is persuasive, I still don’t buy it. To me, the characters in Emma are still “a pretty unpromising bunch of people to begin with, and then all they seemed to do was sit around and talk: about who was sick, who had had a card party the night before, who had said what to whom. Mr. Woodhouse’s idea of a big time was taking a stroll around the garden.” I usually call the ceaseless chatter without any action referent “empty status games,” because the games don’t refer to anything outside their immediate social situations (granted, it might also be that I don’t usually excel in them). These sorts of situations are akin to the ones Paul Graham describes in “Why Nerds Are Unpopular:”

I think the important thing about the real world is [that. . . ] it’s very large, and the things you do have real effects. That’s what school, prison, and ladies-who-lunch all lack. The inhabitants of all those worlds are trapped in little bubbles where nothing they do can have more than a local effect. Naturally these societies degenerate into savagery. They have no function for their form to follow.

Jane Austen’s societies obviously don’t generate into savagery—unless they’ve been transformed into Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (“Now with Ultraviolent Zombie Mayhem!”)—but their inhabitants do feel “trapped in little bubbles where nothing they do can have more than a local effect,” which makes them unsatisfying, at least to my temperament. Graham might also not be an ideal person to cite, given how much he admires Austen: “Everyone admires Jane Austen. Add my name to the list. To me she seems the best novelist of all time.” Still, strike me from the list: her style is amazing and her content vapid. Consider this description, also from Deresiewicz:

One whole chapter—Isabella had just brought her family home for Christmas—consisted entirely of aimless talk, as everyone caught up on one another’s news. For more than half a dozen pages, the plot simply came to a halt. But the truth was, for long stretches of the book there really wasn’t much plot to speak of.

Or this: “What could be duller, I thought, than a bunch of long, heavy novels, by women novelists, in stilted language, on trivial subjects?” There are much duller books—Beckett’s trilogy, Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable comes to mind, since those are novels written to make some philosophical statement about the meaninglessness of life or to give English professors a bone to gnaw into scholarly papers—but the point stands. I’m not opposed to “women novelists,” and anyone who is on the grounds of perceived unimportance should try The Secret History and Gone Girl, but “long, heavy novels [. . .] on trivial subjects” are tedious regardless of their author’s gender.

Moreover, I’m not alone: “As it turned out, people had been reacting to Jane Austen exactly as I had for as long as they’d been reading her. The first reviews warned that readers might find her stories ‘trifling,’ with ‘no great variety,’ ‘extremely deficient’ in imagination and ‘entirely devoid of invention,’ with ‘so little narrative’ that it was hard to even describe what they were about.” At some level, as happens with much art, a preference for Austen may come down to temperament, and to what a person believes about what The Novel or a novel should do. I’ve never been able to get into novels that don’t have some kind of narrative drive or energy—both vague terms that I could spend the rest of this essay describing, or, rather, trying to describe—and, like Lev Grossman, I think “Plot makes perverts of us all:”

A good story is a dirty secret that we all share. It’s what makes guilty pleasures so pleasurable, but it’s also what makes them so guilty. A juicy tale reeks of crass commercialism and cheap thrills. We crave such entertainments, but we despise them.

For as long as a century, however, if not longer, literary culture has been bifurcating between high-culture, non-plot types who inhabit universities and book reviews and institutions, and common readers, who like something to happen and maybe some T&A or depraved longings in their fiction, even if the language used for the T&A and depraved longings isn’t very interesting. Most of us are taught that long, tedious books written in stilted language are more valuable than those that do the opposite.

To be sure, I don’t think the people who genuinely love Austen have been academically brainwashed—I think they do authentically love her writing—but I also think the original reviewers and the younger Deresiewicz have a point too, but that point is mostly drowned in school-based settings.

At the time Deresiewicz had his Austen breakthrough, he was seeing a waitress, and they “had little in common and had never progressed beyond the sex. She was gorgeous, bisexual, impulsive, experienced, with a look that knew things and a laugh that didn’t give a damn.” Perhaps this is a function of me being in my 20s, but this arrangement doesn’t sound so bad, and, having dated the equivalent woman, I rather enjoyed those things at the time. Furthermore, I don’t think such relationships are wrong—though I would also say, obviously, that they’re not the only kind of relationships available, or the only kind a person should have over the course of their life. Sometimes people eat fast food; other times they dine in fine restaurants, or at the Cheesecake Factory, or cook for themselves, or cook with another person, or cook simple foods, or complex ones, or have potlucks. I leave it to you to map that metaphor onto sexuality and relationships, but the point about variety in relationships is useful. For Deresiewicz, “Austen taught me a new kind of moral seriousness—taught me what moral seriousness really means. It means taking responsibility for the little world, not the big one. It means taking responsibility for yourself.” But people who are always morally serious can also be dull, just as people who are never morally serious are often unintentionally cruel.

The trick is being able to distinguish the two, and to find a middle way, and to develop some self-awareness, which is hard for many if not most of us. Certainly it was hard for Deresiewicz’s younger self:

If you’re oblivious to other people, chances are pretty good that you’re going to hurt them. I knew now that if I was ever going to have any real friends—or I should say, any real friends with my friends—I’d have to do something about it. I’d have to learn to stop being a defensive, reactive, self-enclosed jerk.

On the other hand, being oblivious to other people sometimes means being very tuned into technical or other problems that need solving—for the best example of this I’ve seen in literature, consider Lawrence Waterhouse in Cryptonomicon, who is shockingly oblivious and essential to the Allied war effort and who extends cryptography. It should also be noted that he’s not intentionally mean to others, and in the novel no one is emotionally hurt by him in an obvious fashion, but the depiction of his thought process as an engineer / mathematician seems pretty accurate. You get moments like this: “In particular, the final steps of the organist’s explanation were like a falcon’s dive through layer after layer of pretense and illusion, thrilling or sickening or confusing depending on what you were. The heavens were riven open. Lawrence glimpsed choirs of angels ranking off into geometrical infinity,” perhaps in exchange for attention to other people. To what extent are dispositions trade-offs? It’s a decent question, I think, but also one I can’t really answer.

Which is the kind of thing that I’m encouraged to do; in one moment, Deresiewicz praises the kind of professor we all hope to have: “When my professor asked a question, it wasn’t because he wanted us to get or guess ‘the’ answer; it was because he hadn’t figured out an answer yet himself, and genuinely wanted to hear what we had to say.” This is what I try to do in the classroom, although I’m guessing this kind of strategy works better for humanities students than for, say, math students, when the answer or answers are well-known, at least up to a fairly high level.

There are also intellectual surprises in A Jane Austen Education, and those surprises made me realize things I didn’t before:

Popular music is one giant shout of desire, one great rallying cry for freedom and pleasure. Pop psychology sends us the same signals, and so does advertising. ‘Trust your feelings,’ we are told. ‘Listen to your heart.’ ‘If it feels good, do it.’

And if everything is pointing you in one direction, it might be time to ask what lies in the other. Literature seems to ask this question. Pop music, as Deresiewicz points out, doesn’t. In Deresiewicz’s rendition, Austen herself was reacting against her time, which is to be commended:

Austen lived in the great age of trash fiction: the gothic novel, the sentimental novel, the bodice ripper—crumbling castles, creaking doors, and secret passageways; heavenly maidens and dark seducers, piercing shrieks and floods of tears, wild rides and breathless escapes; shipwrecks, deathbeds, abductions, avowals; poverty, misery, rape, and incest.

In other words, she lived in “the great age” of all the good stuff, though I would argue that the good stuff is still with us if we know where to look—I’m pretty sure Game of Thrones has every element in the Deresiewicz list.

Some weird stylistic quirks recur in the book, like the habit of “Austen was showing me” or “Austen was saying”-style constructions (“I could grow up and finding happiness, Austen was letting me know, but only if I was willing to give up something very important” or “Austen taught me a new kind of moral seriousness—taught me what moral seriousness really means” or “Austen understood that kids are going to make mistakes, and she also understood that making mistakes is not the end of the world”). But the overall effectiveness is tremendous, and not only because I might be a major component of Deresiewicz’s target audience: self-absorbed people who secretly think they have the answers other people lack.

Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly — Anthony Bourdain

Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly is as good as a lot of people say it is, which is pretty uncommon. It moves quickly and cleverly: as a young man, Bourdain observes an older cook’s hands, which “looked like the claws of some monstrous science-fiction crustacean, knobby and calloused under wounds old and new.” Notice that word, “crustacean,” and how well it fits, especially since the kitchen is making seafood. The memoir is filled with evocative and expressive moments like that. I’m tempted to start listing them. But that would spoil the surprising pleasure they offer on the page.

There’s a moment when Bourdain points out one of the problems with writing about something as sensual as food, since you can never taste the food through words:

. . . the events described are somehow diminished in the telling. A perfect bowl of bouillabaisse, that first, all-important oyster, plucked from the Bassin d’Arcachon, both are made cheaper, less distinct in my memory, once I’ve written about them.

But the problem of something becoming “somehow diminishing in the telling” or “cheaper, less distinct in my memory” are perils not only of the food writer, although he might be particularly sensitive to them, but to the writer of almost any genre. Tactile sensations like food, sex, water, and the like might be especially susceptible, but even our descriptions of our thoughts are probably different once we’ve “written about them.” But writing about them is the only effective way we have of communicating them to others. And Bourdain is very, very good at that communication. I never thought I cared about what it was like to work in a kitchen, or about the tribulations of the chef. I didn’t realize just how dramatic being a chief could be. Now I understand, and am slightly closer to understanding the fascination with cooking TV shows. I say “closer,” however because I’d still rather be in the kitchen with knife and spatula at hand than watching someone else in the kitchen, much as I’d rather be on the field with a soccer ball at my feet than playing the FIFA soccer video game.

I come out of Kitchen Confidential with a sense that I’ve read a religious story, in which the wayward one day finds God. Except most of us moderns don’t really find God, but we find something abstract to serve, and that something is greater than ourselves. For Bourdain it’s food, despite the many problems that come with it. For others it might be art, science, math, business, the ideal of the family. The things you can choose to admire proliferate. But most of us only choose one or maybe two things. Or the thing chooses us.

You have to love the thing, as Bourdain does cooking, but you can’t love it only for itself. I’ve read the unfortunate prose of plenty of people who say they love “writing” but don’t love it enough to learn basic grammar, expand their vocabularies, or think about the reader more than themselves (Bourdain holds chefs who cook attractive dishes that don’t taste very good in low regard, which is approximately how I feel about people who publish essays in novel format). Love might be necessary if you’re going to go to the distance, but a lot of people have this silly, romantic idea that love is all about the moment, dying for each other, crashing emotional waves, love-at-first-sight, tussles-in-the-bedroom.

And it is about that—we learn about Bourdain’s apprenticeship—but the part is relatively small: a lot of love is about persevering during the tedious, boring parts of life, learning one’s craft, and learning how to get along with others. People who cook because they think they love to cook, without having considered that cooking professionally might mean doing it six to seven days a week for years on end, haven’t realized that no, maybe love isn’t enough. Here’s Michael Idov in “Bitter Brew: I opened a charming neighborhood coffee shop. Then it destroyed my life,” which every aspiring coffee artist should read:

Looking back, we (incredibly) should have heeded the advice of bad-boy chef Anthony Bourdain, who wrote our epitaph in Kitchen Confidential: “The most dangerous species of owner … is the one who gets into the business for love.”

Advice like this by its nature goes unheeded because most people probably can’t project themselves imaginatively into the mind of the advice giver. The advice is “diminished in the telling,” since we don’t have the sensory information and deep background that went into the person giving the advice. We’re bad at thinking about what doing something over and over for months or years at a time is like. We’ll probably never be good at it, but that’s not going to stop us from giving and taking it.

I like to cook and cook for myself and friends with what I imagine to be reasonable skill. If, for some unknown reason, Bourdain showed up at my apartment for dinner, I think I could make something he’d find passable, especially because he likes food you can eat better than food that’s designed to show off the chef’s smarts. But I probably don’t love cooking enough to do it as a pro. I don’t like it enough to put forth my best effort when I’m not in the mood. Maybe I once thought I liked cooking enough, because who hasn’t imagined themselves as a chef somewhere as they grease their pan with olive oil, knowing that an hour later perfect penne a la vodka and tender green beans with garlic will be served? We’ve all probably briefly imagined ourselves giving Nobel and Oscar acceptance speeches too.

But the gap between current skills and the social admiration can only be bridged by the long honing of skill that requires incredibly internal and psychological fortitude (or, possibly, dumb luck and not having anywhere else to go). Even if we do keep trying, the plaudits may never come. I know of Bourdain not because of his work as a chef, but because he’s so skilled a writer that I’ve seen him mentioned often enough to read his book. Which I will now recommend that you do too, because it’s fabulous. He probably could’ve amped up the sex part, though he does say that he doesn’t want the reader “to think that everything up to this point was about fornication, free booze, and ready access to drugs.” But for Bourdain it is, more than anything else, about the food. I think it would be extraordinarily difficult to fake his level of enthusiasm for food. And when you have an enthusiasm that you probably can’t fake, you’ve probably also got a shot at being the best.

I also wrote about Bourdain in “So you wanna be a writer: What Anthony Bourdain can tell you even when he’s not talking about writing.” I like that he views cooking as a craft. “Craft” sounds intellectually honest, as opposed to an art that can fall prey to pretension, and even though all arts require some level of craftsmanship. He raises cooking to an art form without overdramatizing it.

Never the Face: A Story of Desire — Ariel Sands

Never the Face starts with the narrator recalling a dream. Or, rather, the dream seeks here, and she “found myself hurtling back across the years, back to a spring morning in California when I was—

This implies she isn’t awake while she’s writing. Notice too how she’s abrogated responsibility for her actions: she “found [herself] hurtling back across the years,” instead of going there willingly. She doesn’t make the choice, implying that she’s metaphorically asleep, waiting for someone to wake her again because she can’t awaken on her own. Dreams run throughout the novel (although this novel feels more like a memoir, given its intimacy and tone). On its penultimate page, the narrator is “Afraid that those fabulous, shimmering dreams he had dreamt for me—for us—were about to shatter.” She’s right, since dreams can’t last forever outside of science fiction. Even at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the characters must leave Titania’s forest. The same is true of Never the Face, but maintaining the dream isn’t the responsibility of the protagonist—notice how David, the “he” of this love story, is the one who “had dreamt for me—for us.” He does this through sexual bondage. The details are interesting but essential; read the book if you want them. Read this post if you want some of them and some idea of what they might mean.

The narrator says that she had dreams about David, and not about anything else. Still, there’s hesitation: “a dream was one thing. Did I want the reality? Assuming that it was real?” Judging by the 200 pages to follow, we can guess the answer is yes. She feels more real when she’s told what to do. When they begin having sex, David instructs the narrator to open herself. She does. He speaks to her like an animal:

‘Good girl. Now, what do you say?’
I said nothing.
‘You say, “Please fuck your bitch.” ‘
With the involition of someone in a dream, I heard my voice saying, ‘Please fuck your bitch.’

David “accepted the invitation.” The narrator is giving up agency, which gives the encounter its power. We have an effectively infinite array of choices. To have them removed is taboo, and in violating the taboo she feels pleasure. She is both dreaming and awake. Later, the narrator says that she “climbed into bed and surrendered myself to dark dreams, dreams I didn’t like to acknowledge even to myself. I am chained up, spread-eagled. But my lover is ignoring me. Another woman kneels in front of him, and he is fondling her breasts, he is about to—” We don’t know what. The “dark dreams” end, and the narrator “pulled my mind back.” It’s too much, which is strange, given what her fantasy life is like. She says, “I felt as if I was cradling a bomb that at any moment might explode and blow my head off. I pulled the blankets tight around my body.” Maybe she’s missing a sense of danger, and while some might fill that sense of danger with climbing mountains, she fills it with sex. One is socially valorized, the other socially castigated. The sentences the narrator ends with an em-dash represents those places even she feels she can’t go, the places where she needs to break off.

Those points of breaking off leave things to the imagination. At one point, David tells the narrator to “Tell me your fantasies.” She resists, momentarily, but that resistance feels perfunctory, like all or almost all of her descriptions of resistance. She says that she “took a deep breath, snuck up to my place of dark dreams, and opened the door. I am tied up, legs spread. Men, I cannot see their faces—” She says aloud that that she fantasizes about “Rape. Especially gang rape. That’s probably my most common fantasy.” Another metaphor appears here, this time about opening doors instead of sleeping / wakening. Such metaphors point to understanding, growth, development, knowledge, whatever word you want to choose. Of becoming by being.

The narrator notes that she doesn’t “really want to be raped,” and David says, “I know you don’t, Kitten. No one does. It’s the idea that’s powerful. Giving up control.” It’s not just giving up control, however, but giving it up to the right person; in their book Why Women Have Sex, David Buss and Cindy Meston describe some of the research around rape and say that “In erotic rape fantasies, the male is typically attractive, dominant, and overcome with sexual desire for the woman […] the fantasy typically contains no realistic violence.” Those are all traits the narrator sees in David. In addition, you don’t fully need fantasy to become reality; you need enough fantasy to alter your reality. It’s hard to imagine the narrator going back to the Bobbies of the world after she’s been with a David.

Bobby was the narrator’s former lover. While the narrator is speaking with a friend, she says:

A memory from years before came into my head. I am naked. Bobby is whispering, “I’m going to kiss you all over.” He begins kissing my neck, my shoulders, my ears. I know I am supposed to find this sexy, romantic. But while my body is lying there being kissed (now he’s at the small of my back, now at the back of my knees), my mind is thinking about calculus problems, and whether anyone might have taken my clothes out of the dryer.

Note the contrast between what the narrator is “supposed” to feel and what she actually feels. That conflict generates the narrator’s erotic tension; so does the way she wants to live in the radical present. David achieves that through pain. Bobby doesn’t: he lets her mind think “about calculus problems,” instead of jerking her mind into the now, away from the daily grind and towards the moment. She wants to live in the present tense, which is incredibly hard for some people. The narrator understands this to some extent: she says thinks it difficult “To generate a feeling of safe danger.” She’s looking for an oxymoron, and someone who can deliver it is special. She is “Exploring places you don’t normally go, scary places, with someone you trust. It’s very controlled.” The places are slightly physical but mostly mental; they’re about making the mind and body fuse. It helps that David has the traits of a romantic hero: he is self-assured, powerful, knowledgeable. She thinks, “I wonder if he’s good at [going down on women]. He’s good at everything else” (Emphasis in original). Being skilled and competent is attractive; he’s also conveniently rich, a man who “was on the waiting list” for a country club with “a joining fee of $70,000.” Maybe she thinks it easier to trust someone rich.

Regardless, his competence lets her trust. David tells her that what they’re doing “is about surrender, giving up control. It has nothing to do with liking pain or wanting to be hurt.” That’s specious: if it had nothing to do with pain, pain wouldn’t be the mechanism used to achieve the end David perceives as surrender. He would use some other mechanism. You can’t separate ends from means no matter how much you might want to. You don’t beat someone without that beating being somewhat about beating. In this case, the beating also serves as contrast, with poor Bobby being the punching bag. Midway through the novel, the narrator says:

I thought of Bobby, how he always fell asleep after he came. For a moment, I conjured him, sprawled on top of me as if I was part of the bed. He could sometimes manage sex twice a day. But David—

He’s superhuman. No: Superman. I’m fucking Superman!

Or, rather, she makes him into Superman. One wonders if Bobby could’ve been molded in the same way. Still, Bobby’s kisses are quite different than sex with David. When David comes in, he “twisted my hand in my hair, forced my face upward, and kissed me. The kiss was rough, violent.” He leaves, and the narrator’s body reacts in a way that will grow predictable but still perturbs her on some level: “Trying to ignore how aroused I was, I turned back to my books.” She can’t control the way her body feels, which is part of what she likes. It’s part of her divided mind. David has a theory about this: “Pain quiets your mind and opens you to pleasure.” Under this theory, pain is a borderland between normal existence and extraordinary existence. The question remains: how do we get to extraordinary existence? How can we travel there through experience? He says: “It’s that when you cry, I know I’ve got you. I know you’re completely present, a body reacting and responding. You’re not thinking about anything, or worrying: you’re just there.” It’s so hard to live in the present, especially among a certain segmented of the highly educated, highly repressed, highly skilled part of the population. It takes an effort to live in the specious present. You wouldn’t want to live there all the time, but for a while, it can be extraordinarily powerful because we do so so infrequently. Habit becomes stultifying: we need to break from it, at least if we’re unusually open to new experiences. This passage, a conversation between the narrator and her friend Sally, captures the idea:

“Well. I don’t know what your experience has been—do you find that sex with most guys is more or less the same?” I said.
“Yes,” she said, rolling her eyes slightly. “Yes.” She laughed. “Some of them like to carry you about more than others. But that’s about it.”
“This was different. Totally different.”

Difference can be scary; it also can’t be fully explained. Sally wants explanation; the narrator can’t fully give it. She prevaricates, because what else can she do? It’s a bodily experience unlike almost any other. The narrator knows how it would be judged, and she’s internalized her friends’ reactions; at one moment, she says, “I thought of what Sally would say if I told her, ‘You wore his wife’s skirt? To a restaurant? Are you insane?’ ” But that’s the point: to transgress. You aren’t supposed to have affairs, even with the wife’s blessing; you aren’t supposed to be a masochist, even if you are; if you do those two things, you definitely aren’t supposed to wear the wife’s skirt. The question starts to become, where are the lines? If you don’t have any, you become scary. Dangerous. The sort of person who might steal someone else’s mate, who is threatening the foundations of social order. Hence you have to be labeled as “insane.” The idea is hardy a new one: Hester Prynne gets her famous Scarlet Letter for transgression. She’s achieved the state David Axelrod describes in his article “Laws of Life:”

‘Internalization’ is the word psychologists use to describe the compliance with norms out of feelings of right and wrong. A norm is internalized if violating it is psychologically painful even when the consequences are otherwise beneficial. Thus, cheating on an exam might result in persistent guilt even if it were not punished and did succeed in raising the student’s grade […] if everyone [strongly] internalized a norm […], there would be no incentive to defect and the norm would remain stable.

Families and societies work hard to achieve exactly this effect, especially in educating the impressionable young, and they sometimes succeed. Still, it is rare for a norm to be so thoroughly internalized that no one in a group is tempted to defect.

Violation is psychologically painful but also satisfying. In Never the Face, the narrator’s main manifestation of guilt comes from the writing of the novel, and we can’t help but think that guilt is awfully minor. She doesn’t look into where that guilt comes from, but the usual suspects are out there: society, other women, religion, schools. In “Sexual Economics: Sex as Female Resource for Social Exchange in Heterosexual Interactions,” Roy Baumeister and Kathleen Vohs posit that in many societies women are responsible for restricting female sexual agency. They might be right. But Ariel Sands isn’t asking those questions, even though they arise in my mind. Dan Savage said that “When it comes to human sexuality [. . .] deviation from imaginary and tyrannical ‘norms’ is the norm.” He’s probably right. Books like Never the Face make you think “probably” might not be strong enough.

The narrator says that “Those desires, those dark desires that lurked in the shadows of my mind—most of the time I tried to hide them, even from myself. I had never let myself speak of them.” She hasn’t, and relatively few others have. David has a theory, that at her “core,” the narrator is “Someone who wants to surrender, to be taken.” She “started to protest” but doesn’t. What is there to be said? This novel also arouses the fear that, if these “dark desires” lurk in the mind, others might too. What happens if they are awakened? What might we find there? The worst answer might be “nothing.”

While David leaves, the narrator “stood on the sidewalk, thighs and buttocks smarting, my body alive with desire.” If it’s alive with desire, is it dead the rest of the time? Or asleep? If so, then she should be glad: we like being woken up. It disturbs us to be asleep, to be unaware; that’s why so many stories deal with entering an unknown and previously unperceived world. In “The Unreal Thing: What’s wrong with the Matrix?“, Adam Gopnik writes that, in The Matrix, “reality is a fiction, programmed into the heads of sleeping millions by evil computers.” In this book, we get the sense that reality is, if not a fiction, then at least a tedious drag, programmed into the heads of sleeping millions by social convention that binds us without our knowing it. Notice how Gopnik, too, resorts to the language of slumber to convey his point. He goes on to point out the idea’s history:

The basic conceit of “The Matrix”—the notion that the material world is a malevolent delusion, designed by the forces of evil with the purpose of keeping people in a state of slavery, has a history. It is most famous as the belief for which the medieval Christian sect known as the Cathars fought and died, and in great numbers, too. The Cathars were sure that the material world was a phantasm created by Satan, and that Jesus of Nazareth—their Neo—had shown mankind a way beyond that matrix by standing outside it and seeing through it. The Cathars were fighting a losing battle, but the interesting thing was that they were fighting at all. It is not unusual to take up a sword and die for a belief. It is unusual to take up a sword to die for the belief that swords do not exist.

The idea of “what you see is what you get” probably goes back even further: hence the idea of what we might now term magical thinking among many pre-agrarian hunter-gatherers, who so often believe that spirits control and animate the world. Or contemporary people who send mental notes conventionally referred to as prayer, to a fellow who goes by various names but sits (if we imagine him being corporeal) in a cloud, seeing everything and noting down a demerit every time you masturbate. Whether you’r the narrator of Never the Face, Neo in The Matrix, a hunter-gatherer tribesperson, or a modern monotheist, you don’t want your everyday existence to be all there is. You want something more, but how do you get there? Through kinky sex, appeals to the spirits, gathering in a group of people and reciting chants / songs? Given the choice, I know which one I’d choose, but the similarity of the goal—transcendence, extra-normal power—makes me wonder what could connect all these practices, especially given how practitioners often dislike those using other methods. The highly kinky and heavily religious do not appear to have much overlap.

One thing that sets The Matrix apart from the innumerable comic book movies in which good guys and bad guys try to kick each other’s asses is the underlying idea that reality might not exist (Gopnik says the sequel “is, unlike the first film, a conventional comic-book movie, in places a campy conventional comic-book movie”). One thing that sets Never the Face apart from the innumerable books of erotica that describe, in detail, how things feel is the discomforting sense that maybe we never really will awaken from everyday life without the assistance of some activities described in the book; I shy away from using the book’s direct language—do I feel I haven’t earned it? Gopnik says that “the idea that the world we live in isn’t real is one that speaks right now to a general condition,” and I would posit that Sands feels the same way, or that her narrator does. But for her, the fake world is fake because it has been stripped of sensuality, of tactile sensations, of intensity; those feelings have been denuded by Big Macs, large personal spaces, telephones, and a social sense that forbids discussing erotic life for fear of any number of things, including political correctness. We don’t want to acknowledge what we might want if we really freed our minds.

It’s notoriously hard to look past our cultural and biological conditioning, even when part of our cultural conditioning is to recursively question our cultural conditioning. But we try anyway, because a certain number of us don’t like not being to think something that we could possibly think. To return to Gopnik, “In a long article on the first “Matrix” film, the Princeton philosopher James Pryor posed the question “What’s so bad about living in the Matrix?,” and, after sorting through some possible answers, he concluded that the real problem probably has to do with freedom, or the lack of it.” The “freedom” answer, however, still smells to me of cultural conditioning, but I buy it. Plus, it seems like cultures that value “freedom” appear to be better, on average, at getting along with their neighbors and not murdering their neighbors.*

And I buy the value of Never the Face not just for the dirty bits, but also because it seems like we should be free to want to be hit if we want to be hit, regardless of the important political and social convictions we might justifiably hold in other aspects of our lives. As Paul Graham says in his essay “What You Can’t Say,” “To do good work you need a brain that can go anywhere. And you especially need a brain that’s in the habit of going where it’s not supposed to.”** Freedom applies to sexual freedom too, and being able to explore your desires so long as those desires don’t hurt others.

For the narrator, sex and the activities around it let her live in the now. She says, “As usual after a savage beating, I was in a daze. My mind had gone blank; the internal monologue was silent. I as just there, in the now, without thought.” With Bobby, she thought about calculus; with him, she thinks nothing, which might be the greatest challenge for intellectuals. You wouldn’t want to go blank all the time, but for the moment it’s thrillingly, astonishingly different. In the novel’s rhetoric, it wakes her up, as discussed above.

Being awake lets the narrator see and feel things she wouldn’t otherwise. She sees the essential. She feels it. David says that beating someone is “Way more intimate than fucking. [. . .] Because it strips away pretense and self-consciousness, it reduces you to your essence.” The sex and bondage the narrator experiences isn’t, under this reading, about sex and bondage; they’re about understanding yourself and the world around you. The same thing that sports books say sports are about and that art books say art is about. The difference is that sports and art are valorized by society, while sexual exploration isn’t and probably never will be. It’s not just about the sex, either; as David explains in a perhaps self-serving way, the bondage “takes trust [. . .] You don’t need to trust someone to fuck them. But to put yourself in someone else’s power, to make yourself that vulnerable—that takes trust. [. . .] That’s why it brings such closeness.”

Is he right? The question is beside the point: he’s right in the narrator’s eyes. If he wasn’t, she wouldn’t stay with him. She wouldn’t want their relationship to continue when he breaks it off to stay with his wife, who knows about his relationship with the narrator. She encourages it. But the novel ultimately implies that such an arrangement can’t last. Society must be paid its dues. Plus, one challenge is simple: where does it end? Towards the novel’s end, the narrator says that David “had set upon me with if possible, a new level of ferocity.” Eventually, the logical conclusion becomes death, which I doubt the narrator wants. Neither does David. But you have to reach some maximum this side of the underworld.

Normally, I wouldn’t include spoilers in an essay about a book, but in this case “what happens” is besides the point, and the narrative tension doesn’t really exist. The book isn’t about what happens, but how and why it does. The answer is ultimately pre-verbal, like the reason for the adventure that propels Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. We can use language to approximate the feelings invoked by experience, but in this case the approximation is wider than most art. That, I think, is what feels so subversive: Never the Face suggests that you will never understand without trying it for yourself. If you do try for yourself, you will be indulging a set of possible desires that social life tells you you shouldn’t have, and if you do have them, they should be repressed, and if they can’t be repressed, they at least shouldn’t be spoken, and if they are spoken, they at least shouldn’t be written and distributed, and if you write and distribute them, you at least shouldn’t let others read it. The layers of taboo violation go deep.

She says that she had dreams about David, not about anything else. Still, there’s hesitation: “a dream was one thing. Did I want the reality? Assuming that it was real?” Judging by the 200 pages to follow, we can guess the answer is yes.

* Neal Stephenson discusses how our culture propagates itself visually in “In the Beginning was the Command Line,” which should be required reading for people who want to know how things work.

** Graham, later: “If you can think things so outside the box that they’d make people’s hair stand on end, you’ll have no trouble with the small trips outside the box that people call innovative.”

Nine and a Half Weeks: A Memoir of a Love Affair — Elizabeth Mcneill

Most novels (and memoirs) leave you with a sense of distance, a sense of being at a comfortable remove. Nine and a Half Weeks doesn’t: it’s too graphic, too immediate, too flat. One sees this effect in the first sentences, without any preamble as to who these people are and how they came to be: “The first time we were in bed together he held my hands pinned down above my head. I liked it. I liked him. He was moody in a way that struck me as romantic; he was funny, bright, interesting to talk to; and he gave me pleasure.” One senses quickening thoughts and pulses in those short sentences, and even in the long one, where semicolons could be periods, and the last descriptor—”he gave me pleasure”—is the really important one. You don’t get the very ironic tone of a book like Alain de Botton’s On Love, letting us see that love is irrational but really understandably so. Alain, the narrator of On Love is basically a needy, endearing, neurotic weakling; his self-consciousness contrasts so much with the man in Nine and a Half Weeks that they’re practically different species.

There are clever phrases in the memoir, as when the narrator says of her lover, “His face turns attractive when he talks;” I like the strange word choice, as if the head is physically turning, or as if he has two, or multiple, faces. A few moments are archaic—the man describes a friend or rival coming over as “This dope” (emphasis in original), which hasn’t been currently slang in decades and stands out in a book that otherwise stands out for not being part of any particular time. The prose holds up, and the narrator has an eye for tedious rituals, as when she tells of a “statistical tale,” where the contrast of statistics and narrative stands out:

In the middle of the statistical tale he’s requested from me—brothers and sisters and parents and grandparents, hometown, schools, jobs—I stop and close my eyes . . . please, I think, inarticulate even in my own mind, unable to turn to him and make the first move, please . . .

There’s a pervasive fear of dullness running through the memoir. The narrator notes that she and her lover looked like “An attractive, well-educated couple in New York City, average, middle-class, civilized.” That contrasts with what came before and will come after. Or does it? The memoir teases us by making us wonder if the the narrator isn’t so unusual as public discourse would make her out to be. I think the story’s flatness, the unwillingness to engage in direct commentary on what’s happening, points us in this direction, as when the narrator says, “I am standing, nearly on tiptoes, across the room from him, my arms raised above my head. My hands are tied to the hook on the wall on which his one large painting hangs during the day.” She’s hung like a painting and enjoys it. There is no further morality or analysis. Sixty Minutes plays in the background, a reminder of the middle America the narrator feels like she’s leaving behind even when she imagines it as a foil to her own actions.

Images repeat through the memoir. Scarves reappear. The words “like” and “love” are reconfigured like body parts. One senses Nabokovian echoes in the prose that one distantly hears on the first read but can’t make out. The narrator also feels her internal sense of self discombobulating, like a washing machine that shakes itself apart from within. She knows this is happening and imagines the reactions of otherwise course, until she writes of her experience.

We don’t know what the narrator wants beyond the obvious: sexual satisfaction. That she might only want the obvious might be the most frightening thing of all. What if everything else she has—a job, presumed communal respect, literary and political opinions—don’t matter very much? What if your real self isn’t those frontal cortex developments, but something deeper, more primal? I find posing the questions unsettling. The answers implied by Nine and a Half Weeks are more so. The patina of everyday experience conceals so much, especially in the realm of inchoate desire that social life is designed to channel. What happens when the channeling breaks? What happens when we want it to break? I’m reminded of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, which also features the discarding of the mind in pursuit of a mental state or feeling very unlike the one most of us presumably inhabit most of the time—the mental state worried about how much money we have, what other people think about us, whether we’ll get the job / life partner / degree / accommodates of our dreams.

The narrator likes the man’s dominance above all other traits, which derive from that dominance. He says of a friend or rival, “he’s got no guts whatsoever.” Note what she likes in the contrast he offers by comparison. He shows mastery by reading Gide in French and Kafka in German, both implying continental expertise and sexuality. Some moments are obvious, as when the narrator reads with “his thick pen solid and comfortable in my hand.” One doesn’t need to be Freud to imagine that the pen is not just a pen. In the same scene, the narrator says, “I write the letter (‘. . . met this man a few days ago, nice start, very different from Gerry, who’s more than happy with Harriett these day, you remember her . . .’)” (sic). The dig at her ex-boyfriend is subtle but present: he isn’t dominant, won’t tie her up, and presumably has settled with a lesser woman.

He demonstrates great knowledge too: “[. . .] whatever else he may do [in] it, this man clearly does read his original-language books in bed; why would anyone want to miss out on one of the most satisfying pleasures available? All he’d need is a better bulb, a few more pillows, and a reading lamp. . . .” The room sounds sad and denuded, but it doesn’t matter much, even if the narrator is right about beds, which are good for more than just sleeping and that other thing. He offers commands, as when the narrator says:

He guides my hands between my legs and says, ‘I’d like to watch you make yourself come.’

He is sitting idly, comfortably, one leg crossed over the other, the creases sharp in the freshly cleaned suit. I do not try to move my hands. He waits. ‘You don’t understand.’ My voice cracks. ‘I never . . .’ He is silent. ‘I’ve never done that in front of anybody. It embarrasses me.’ “

She does, of course. That it embarrasses her is part of the point. What embarrasses her in the moment becomes the fodder for memoir, even under a pseudonym, long after. She likes giving power to him, which she does by letting him watch her masturbate. She also does by repeating how much she loves him, but I don’t think he ever says it back. It’s like he doesn’t need to, and by withholding the confirmation of his love he creates a neurotic fear in her. Only at one moment does he crack, when “All at once he is a decade my junior, a very young man asking me to have a drink with him, expecting to be refused.” But that doesn’t last long. Little does in this memoir, including their relationship, whose duration is given away by the title. But the narrator learns a lot in a short period. She says, “If you’ve never screamed, out of control, you can’t imagine how it feels. Now I know how it feels, it’s like coming.” She never goes the Biblical or mythological root and thinks there are things we shouldn’t know. For her, all knowledge is knowledge.

You can see that McNeill’s memoir doesn’t sit well with current ideals of equality and mutual respect in all fields. As Laura Kipnis says in “Off Limits: Should students be allowed to hook up with professors?” for, “Feminism has taught us to recognize the power dynamics in these kinds of relationships, and this has evolved into a dominant paradigm, the new propriety.” Feminism has taught us to recognize power dynamics, but it should also teach us to recognize points of view. The narrator gets this; she thinks the man’s room is “too plain to be called plain. It’s austere, if you want to be charitable, or chic, if you want to be snide, or boring, if you want to be honest. It is not, in any event, a room you’d call cozy” {McNeill “Love”@9}. So the narrator is aware of angles, points of view, possibilities. I’ve been told I use “or” a lot in my own writing. It’s a useful word for people who perceive many ways of describing things, and here it betrays an openness to experience that the memoir exploits. She has a strong theory of mind that weakens as she awakens to herself.

I should point out that I call the narrator “the narrator” as opposed to “McNeill” or something more conventional because she feels like a fictional person more than a real person (which is strange, given how many fictional characters seem real, but that’s a topic for another time). Elizabeth McNeill is itself a pseudonym. We don’t know who the real author is. The man is never given a name—he’s only given traits, like his penchant for Brooks Brothers and sadomasochism (sometimes, especially when it comes to belts, simultaneously). So I don’t entirely know what to call them, or what to call their madness, if it is indeed madness. Can we find pleasure in madness? The narrator’s point is that many of these normally distinct categories eventually blur. I think that’s one of Tartt’s points in The Secret History too. There is more to be written about the book—its strange tenses, leaping from past to present to future, to what extent we should indulge in or avoid attempting to apply universal lessons—but this gives flavor of it and why its merits still show.

Big Sex Little Death — Susie Bright's Memoir

Big Sex Little Death is weirdly boring. I say “weirdly” because you’d expect a book about sexual awakening, development, politics, and exploration to be more exciting; this Slate article on Bright and being wrong convinced me to buy the book. Skip it: read the reviews instead.

Big Sex Little Death has some clever lines and individual section, but as a whole the memoir feels prosaic. There’s an obligatory section on birth, parents, sides of the family, unlikely anecdotes; we find that “My mom didn’t drink” and that “My grandpa was a butcher and ran a chicken ranch,” which is eminently respectable in a memoir and somewhat tedious too. There’s a conventionally slightly broken childhood—isn’t it a requirement that people writing memoirs focus on childhood?—that leads to an adulthood that should hold the reason we’re reading the memoir. It does explain that, sort of, and tells a story about economic sexual censorship that I didn’t realize existed as late as the 1980s. Then again, looking at Amazon and Apple’s policies towards sexually frank books, maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. I also hasn’t realized that Bright’s women-run erotica magazine, On Our Backs, even existed.

In disentangling herself from the financial pit that On Our Backs turns out to be, Bright finds the only thing rarer than a hooker with a heart gold: a lawyer with a heart of gold, whom she has say, “Ms. Bright, I’m going to take care of this for you,” without making her pay. Reviews of memoirs often want to engage the question of how much is “true,” and I can believe the whole thing except perhaps for the exchange on page 310. Gun threats, underage and unwise sex, cruelty: all believable. Kind lawyers: less so.

There’s not a lot about the intellectual development that led Bright to work on On Our Backs, or that led her not just to get a lot of action but to write about getting a lot of action. Maybe it’s impossible, or nearly impossible, to describe what leads to intellectual engagement: “I read a lot, liked it, thought about it, and transformed thought in my mind” isn’t very satisfying. And it’s not easy to make actions symbolize intellectual development. If someone knows a good example of such changes shown effectively in literature, I’d love to hear them (one exception: The Adventures of Augie March. Bildungsromans might be as close as we get).

Once Bright gets past the parent bits, she describes how, as a teenager, she starts having sex with socialist, many of them older than her; she says that “lucky for me, some of them were really, really good in bed—and since everyone was down with women’s liberation and nonmonogamy, that made things extra good for me.” This continues:

I was in no one’s debt; I was no one’s property. What little I thought about school anymore involved feeling bad about how scared everyone was: scared of having sex, scared of leaving their gilded cage, scared of dreaming about anything that hadn’t been premeditated by their parents.

And they still are. It’s one of the moments in the book that translates across generations and feels right, since so many parents still treat their children as property. Elsewhere, Bright has finely observed moments, though they sometimes go slightly awry:

People always imagine there is something happening in Los Angeles because of the celebrities. They think that because they see a movie star buy a bag of marshmallows, it must be an event. They think wiping their ass with the same toilet paper that a movie star’s maid wiped her ass with is an accomplishment. This is a company town, and Hollywood is just as crushing as a Carnegie Steel mill. The vast majority of Angelenos have so much nothing in their lives that ‘celebrity nothing’ makes them feel like they have something.

This is almost true: people do imagine something is happening in L.A. But the next sentence is choppy, with all the “t” sounds and the repeated use of the word “they:” “They think that because they see. . .” Still, Bright understands the vacuousness of celebrity worship, but she’s wrong when she says L.A. is “a company town.” There are at least five major movie studios, compared to a single Carnegie Steel mill, and L.A.’s economy is much vaster and more diverse than Pittsburgh’s ever was. That’s part of the reason it was able to thrive; as Edward Glaeser describes in Triumph of the City, cities with diverse economic bases tend to thrive. L.A. is one, even if the movie studios—notice the plural—are very visible.

During that time in L.A., Bright says, “I could not take one more minute of trying to convince the people of Los Angeles that a workers’ revolution and a complete overhaul of society were a tiny bit more exciting than getting a bit role in a Burger King commercial.” I’d like to know what exactly a “workers’ revolution and a complete overhaul of society” means. Revolutions don’t have a great track record, since they tend to include a lot of mindless bloodshed and power struggles. The “workers’ revolution” in Russia that led to the Soviet Union might be the single bloodiest event in human history, according to Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands. These demands aren’t a coherent political platform; they’re teenage angst writ large and the result of a mind that would be much assisted by taking some economics classics. I’ll take the Burger King commercial and maybe a faster CPU next year, thanks.

So her politic-politics might not be great, but her sexual politics and stories sometimes make more sense. Bright says that women making porn was shocking in the 1970s and 1980s. Apparently, however, women making porn for women is still news, and people are still going, “This is still news?!” I don’t see an end to this cycle. In the personal ream, Bright’s memoir could be titled, “Getting Some Ass From Unusual Places,” since relatively few people have gotten it from such diverse places: a union organizing camp; from college dropouts after she dropped out of high school; from lesbians; from men; and probably people in between. An appropriate subtitle might be, “And Then Thinking About It Afterwards,” Like Karen Owen, Bright has taken quite a survey of her escapes; unlike Owen, Bright isn’t alienated from herself or desires. She’s also more explicitly political, which can be both annoyingly polemical and deeper. Most people don’t think of their lives in overtly political terms, even when it might help them too, and it makes someone who does unusual.

That might be the biggest difference between Bright and many other writers about and havers of sex: she doesn’t regret what she’s done, has actualized her experience, and has never particularly bought into the sex-is-bad paradigm that, although weaker than it once was, still dominates culture for many people. We like everything leading up to sex—sexiness, attractiveness, revealing clothes, preening, buying expensive objects—but we still judge the people who move from signaling to action, despite or because of our own desires for action.

Bright imagines that, after the sexual revolution,

Women wouldn’t be catty. No one would bother to be jealous. Who would have the time? Sex would be friendly and kind and fun. You’d get to see what everyone was like in bed. You’d learn things in bed, and that would be the whole point. Romances would seem like candy cigarettes. You could have all the sex and friendship you wanted for free. Exclusivity would be for bores and babies.

I’m all for it. Alas, the pragmatist or realist in me sees this as so unlikely that I want to label it idealist in the worst sense of the word. Bright knows as much, however, and the eyes of experience looking backward demonstrates that she knows precisely how unlikely this is.

I wish there was more connective tissue between Bright’s experiences and better writing when she describes them. She knows the problems memoirs tend to have:

At the onset of my memoir, I thought I would bring myself up to date on the autobiography racket. I researched the current bestsellers among women authors who had contemplated their life’s journey. The results were so dispiriting: diet books. The weighty befores and afters. You look up men’s memoirs and find some guy climbing a mountain with his bare teeth—the parallel view for women are the mountains of cookies they rejected or succumbed to.

I think she gives men’s memoirs too much credit, since so many of them are equally inane and poorly written. And there are probably reasonably interesting memoirs written by women out there, but I think the bigger problem is “reasonably interesting memoirs” in general. Alas: I’m not sure Big Sex Little Death is one.

You can read more about Bright in this interview. Consider it and the other links in lieu of the book itself.

Fool Me Once: Hustlers, Hookers, Headliners, and How NOT to Get Screwed in Vegas — Rick Lax

The only person being fooled in Las Vegas is the one who willfully wants to be fooled. That’s not quite the lesson, to the extent there is one, of Rick Lax’s Fool Me Once, but it’s an obvious moral to take from a book about moving to Vegas after law school and being something like a flaneur observing the scene (if there are other things going on, like work, they’re not part of the story). Vegas only works on you to the extent you let it, and for all of Las Vegas’ marketing and sexual innuendo, the city is really built on getting you to believe that it’s okay or even wise for you to lie to yourself about things you should know. You know, for example, that hookers still charge; the house always wins in gambling; you can run all you want and still not leave yourself behind.

Fool Me Once describes this dynamic. The chapters are vignettes with recurring themes: The hot roommate Oxana appears; a non-relationship with a girl named Zella culminates in a three-night hookup between her other shags, much like that one weekend you had in college; being a magician appears, disappears, and reappears; quasi life lessons come from a hooker named Kiana. The major weakness of Fool Me Once is its lack of a main narrative thread, since one section has little to do with another. This doesn’t make individual moments weaker, but one does start to wonder whether the book is going in any particular direction. Although I don’t wish to spoil the end, the answer is probably obvious. Still, parts are clever and the book is pretty funny: “My fellow law school graduates went off to Europe to ‘find themselves,’ ” and an asterisk says “I’m pretty sure this is code for do drugs.”

Elsewhere, a few sentences capture what hot clubs are like, or aspire to be like, and why they’re so irritating unless you’re “Girls Only,” which I never am: “JET had four separate lines: one for nobodies, one for people on the list, one for ‘Girls Only,’ and one for VIPs. The lines snaked and weaved and did everything else lines could do except move forward.” Better to realize this and understand the system than complain about it. Later, we find that “Men can’t comprehend that when it comes to monitoring professional sporting teams, I don’t have the attention span of a Buddhist monk on Ritalin.” I like the juxtaposition of images even more than I like the idea of someone who doesn’t care much about sports, since I don’t either. I reference “You Will Suffer Humiliation When The Sports Team From My Area Defeats The Sports Team From Your Area” from The Onion when the topic arises, since becoming rapturously involved in a group of large men I’ve never met, joined contractually together only by larger salaries to chase a ball doesn’t appeal to me. I understand that sports voyeurism functions as a form of social bonding and displaced primeval small group formation, but that doesn’t make sports any more tedious to watch (as opposed to playing, which I like).

Here’s a sample of one moment from our friendly hooker, Kiana, who says, “Vegas will be good for you. [. . .] It teaches you how the world works. But until you figure things out for yourself, here’s a general rule: If you think somebody you’re interested in is sleeping with somebody else, they are.” Statements about “how the world [supposedly] works” usually say more about the people making the statement than they do about the world. The world works differently for many of us, depending on what we show we value, and for hookers who probably see a lot of married men coming through town on business, the world probably looks quite different than it does for many, but not all, of the rest of us.

Such supposed wisdom is cheap: everyone thinks they know how the world works, but no one actually does, with the possible exception of physicists, who as a group probably don’t spend huge amounts of time gaming clubs in Vegas. A chapter is titled “How I’d Gone from Studying for the Illinois Bar Exam to Cavorting with Las Vegas Prostitutes and Con Men in Such a Short Period of Time.” The answer is pretty obvious: he flew or drove, which doesn’t take very long from anywhere in the lower 48. Neither prostitutes nor con men are hard to find, as long as they think you have money.

Lax has an eye for status distinctions and how they’re constructed, although he doesn’t talk about the subject as much as he might. For example, he tells us in a footnote, “Strippers pride themselves on not sleeping with guys for money; call girls pride themselves on not getting naked before large groups of men.” I believe it: people are very good at deluding themselves into thinking they can put someone nominally “below” them, even if the “below” in this case relies on female sexual fears. Going on Lax’s interest in deception (which becomes more nominal as the book goes on), I would guess the call girls are being more honest in the service they provide.

Lax mentions the Las Vegas motto of “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas:”

[. . .] the ‘What happens’ ad campaign’s implication is crystal clear: If you come to Las Vegas and gamble away your children’s college fund and cheat on your wife with, say, two prostitutes you meet at the Palms food court [sic], the city’s tourism board will credit your bank account and fly you home in a time machine so you can un-cheat on your wife and preserve the sanctity of your marriage. That message hits home with a lot of people; every year 40 million visit Las Vegas, and do their best to hang on to their money in the process.

Does it still counts as “deception” if we know we’re going to be deceived? As the way I put it implies, the answer is “no.” Maybe Vegas helps us let out the person we want to be, but more likely it encourages a slightly different mindset than one might have otherwise (more on that later). Still, even as Vegas flouts its supposed difference, Fool Me Once punctures the bravado. There is a certain amount of ordinariness, despite how Vegas is supposed to be ludicrous; Lax dates a girl and says:

Zella seemed to really like me, but judging from what she told me about her ex-boyfriends, she also seemed to have really bad taste in men. I was careful not to discuss her most recent ex or the breakup [. . . ] We talked a lot about her and Austin [Zella’s boss at a club]. About what a strange, demanding guy he was. And the more she told me about him, the more worried I got.

I don’t think I’ve ever met a girl who said she has great taste in men; all of them seem “to have really bad taste in men.” Almost all of us who date have a “most recent ex” or breakup. Very few people love their bosses, primarily because in many circumstances bosses have interests that are antithetical to the employees: bosses need or want more work out of employees and employees need or want more money out of bosses. Many of us tell similar stories because the incentives we face cause the stories to turn out like Zella’s. Women often find indifferent bad boys who exhibit social proof and have game attractive for short-term flings but find them exasperating in longer relationships, then announce their “bad taste in men” as if that’s a surprise—when it’s actually a conflict between short- and long-term desires. This dynamic appears to be common throughout the dating world; maybe Vegas amps it somewhat, but the problem again remains built into relationships.

Lax describes some of the ways deception works and how people lie to each other. But lying is partially a function of repeated interactions with people over time, and William Flesch’s excellent book Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction describes some of the ways deception, the punishment of deception, and signaling work in narrative—and in life. One of the most successful strategies that game theory describes is called “tit-for-tat,” which means that you react to others primarily based on how they present to you. I suspect that most of the world actually plays variations on the tit-for-tat game: if you are mostly honest with others, they will mostly be honest with you. If you are mostly dishonest with others, and looking for dishonesty in others, you will mostly find it, and the optimal way to avoid dishonesty is to punish those who defect from the honesty game by refusing to interact with them. This is probably the most evolutionarily stable strategy (ESS), and it ensures that authentic knowledge of real dishonesty means that most people will refuse interaction with the dishonest.

Furthermore, the “costly signals” in Flesch’s book and evolutionary biology in general are those that are hardest to fake because they’re expensive, or costly. The canonical example is the peacock’s tail, which can only be as large and beautiful as it is if the bird itself is very healthy and has excess calories to burn. An example closer to Fool Me Once might be the much reviled “bottle service:” most guys can’t really afford $500 for a $30 bottle of booze, so buying bottles is a more honest signal of wealth than, say, claiming to be wealthy.

Still, if you combine costly signaling with one-off transactions (especially those of a sexual nature), you begin to get Las Vegas. As Lax implicitly points out, tit-for-tat strategies don’t apply if you consciously seek out dishonesty, which is basically the purpose of Las Vegas: cultivated dishonesty in which you know that most people are lying to you in some form, which in turn enables you to lie to most people without normal consequences if you lie to someone who is basically operating on a normal tit-for-tat level. I think this is basically why I found Vegas more boring than not: in order to exit the market for dishonesty, I had to leave the city. I think I understood this dynamic intellectually before I went, but it’s one thing to understand it intellectually and it’s another to have it spangling you everywhere you look.

Lax notes this tendency, although he doesn’t wrap it in the language of game theory and evolutionary biology, as I do:

The city is filled with fakers, from celebrity impersonators to magicians. From casino hosts who tell high rollers that they’d ‘be happy to’ oblige their most obnoxious, demeaning requests to gambling addicts who tell their spouses they don’t have gambling problems. From strippers who, for a price, will shed their clothes and pretend that everything you say is charming and hilarious to escorts who, for a price, will pretend that everything you say is charming and hilarious and then shed their clothes and then sleep with you.

No wonder so many people hate Las Vegas.

I went to Las Vegas for the first time a few weeks ago (my brother got a lot of mileage out of telling people that I’m 27 and visiting Vegas for the first time; most responded with mock astonishment; I shrugged). If Vegas is “filled with fakers,” so is everywhere else: perhaps it has more magicians, strippers, and hookers per capita than elsewhere, but the essence of being one of those things (as well as being a novelist) remains. The major difference is that in Las Vegas, faking is institutionally encouraged in the form of casinos. But you can find gambling anywhere, if you want to seek it out. One could view going to Vegas as a form of seeking it out. And it’s never been hard to find people who will “pretend” sexual interest in you “for a price,” but something about travel makes people more willing to lie to others or themselves about what they’re doing and why. Self-deception and its cousin hypocrisy are so common that they begin to seem like part of that elusive animal, human nature, which so many commentators and philosophers chase but so few manage to shoot, let alone bring down.

“So many people hate Las Vegas” because hate is one way we punish defectors: by castigating them in vile terms, we try to convince others to stay away and activate our own repulsion system. Hate is a very expensive emotion: I went to Vegas, and although the above makes it obvious that I don’t love the place, I don’t hate it either, perhaps because I understand why it exists and that it fills a need. Lax gets some of that too: he says “I don’t hate deception and deceivers, though. In fact, in a strange way I’m drawn to them.” I’m drawn to them too, but more as an object of study and interest than anything else. Maybe the above criticism of Vegas stems in part from the fact that I’m not a particularly skilled deceiver, and whatever skills I possess are poorly suited for the Vegas / club / bar environment, where I’ve tended to do reasonably okay but not fabulously well. But if others privilege an environment where I don’t thrive, I probably should “hate” that environment as a way of discouraging others from entering it. But I would rather understand things than hate them, and I might lie to myself by saying that I understand why people fake things.

In the clubs, I think most people are dishonest, and their skill at dancing is consistently low, but there’s basically no penalty for it or reward for skilled dancing. In contrast, at salsa clubs or ballroom events, the penalty for low dancing skill and an unwillingness is a dearth of partners. The only major exception is, as in Vegas clubs, very attractive girls, who will still find partners who are often skilled dancers. A lot of the girls in Vegas weren’t good dancers. I’m not an especially good dancer, but at least I’ve learned enough to do more than grind, which was great as a 15-year-old at youth group but becomes somewhat tedious more than a decade later.

There’s this whole Vegas mythos that’s been encouraged by gangsters, writers, and corporations; the “What happens” campaign is an example. By writing this post and reading Fool Me Once, I’m partially reinforcing the mythos even as I pretend to reveal what’s beneath.

Despite all that, if someone asked me to go back again, I would.

The reason Lax gives for becoming interested in deception isn’t especially convincing: a girl he’s dating falls for a con man who offers her a dubious paralegal job that obviously doesn’t exist and probably is a setup to acquire sex. After this experience, Lax says that “my innate fear multiplied” and that “I’m terrified of being conned and I don’t want to be taken advantage of [. . . .]” But the circumstance that ignites this fear is so preposterously obvious that Lax, like the reader, knows it’s a setup. This is a bit like saying I never want to fly commercial airlines again because my buddy’s homemade hang glider resulted in injury: the difference in magnitude and kind between source and reaction are so large as to make the comparison spurious. Like Las Vegas. Like many other things, if you care to look for them. Lax addresses the issue:

I don’t think I was being overly paranoid. If you stop and think about how much deception there is in the world—in business, in advertising, in media, in politics, in romance—I think you’ll agree that my fear was justified.

I don’t agree: there is a certain amount of “deception” in the world, which one can find without looking very hard (it’s probably an ESS to lightly deceive), but deception is often enough a product of people trying to shade things rather than people trying to con you outright, as happens to the girl chasing the phony paralegal job. There’s a difference in kind between her experience and someone in a law firm implying the firm is more important than it is in order to motivate employees. The passage quoted above might be implausible, but it functions as an excuse to start the book with some kind of purpose, and though that purpose is lost, it still brings up a useful point: If we’re this worried about deception, we should react by not reading Fool Me Once, which contains this disclaimer in the front matter:

While the events described in this book are essentially true, I changed the names and identifying characteristics of certain individuals. In other cases, I used character composites. I also reconstructed dialogue and altered details of certain events, including their timing and location.

“Essentially true” might be another way of saying “not true.” “Character composites,” “reconstructed dialogue,” “altered details”—these are all synonyms for “made up.” If you stop and think about how much deception there is in the world of writing, I think you’ll agree that my fear of being taken by a lying author is justified. If we apply Lax’s standards of paranoia to his own work, the logical reaction is to stop reading it and read fiction, which we at least know is “made up”—unless, of course, it uses copious detail from “real life” to make its point, in which case I guess we can’t trust it, either. The argument about fiction’s relationship with reality goes very far back, to at least Don Quixote if not earlier (see Ortega y Gasset’s Meditations On Quixote for more on that subject; for the novel in general, various theorists have discussed this, including Watt in The Rise of the Novel and others who write about the enchantment of Romance).

The basic problem is that radical skepticism leads one to think in paradoxes, like there is no truth, including this statement, which therefore invalidates itself. It leads one to question all epistemology, and it leads one towards Descartes’ seventeenth century formulation; as Tom Sorell describes it in Descartes: A Very Short Introduction, “In the First Meditation Descartes makes himself doubt that he has an idea of any really existing thing. He rejects as false all his beliefs about material objects, even his faith in the reality of simple material natures.” But that point of view leaves us essentially nowhere: it’s like philosophers who sit around, decide there is no such thing as reality, and then go to lunch. That strain of thinking led towards pragmatism, which argues that what really matters is what ideas cause us to do differently.

Most of us have a reasonably pragmatic relationship to the truth: we know that Lax’s girlfriend is being conned, as does Lax, as should his girlfriend (unless she is willfully deceiving herself, which might otherwise be called stupidity—and the optimal way to deal with people we think stupid is often to exit the market, so to speak, with them). We also know that doubting the the truth of anything is “being overly paranoid,” which is why Lax has to tell us that he “thinks [we’ll] agree” that his fear is justified. We won’t, and claiming we will points to the fear we won’t. A professor once told me (or was it to an entire class? Memory is awfully faulty) that anytime a student writes something is “obviously” or “clearly” true, he looks more closely at the proposition being argued, because something marked as obvious isn’t, otherwise it wouldn’t need to be marked. Show me what you fear and I’ll show you what you lack, as the cliche goes. Or something like that.

Fortunately, this pragmatic philosophy also means that I’m inclined to accept Lax’s caveat: the events probably are essentially true, unless he’s pulling a James Frey or really lying to us. But I have no way to tell, and if I find out he is, I’ll put a disclaimer at the top of this post saying that he’s a liar and that you shouldn’t read his book. In short, I’ll punish him for the transgression, which I would find a significant one. But unless the lie is really egregious, I’ll let him go because he can point to the disclaimer that says he might be lying to me, but only in minor ways—much like pretty much anyone in a serious relationship is accepting that their partner has probably fudged at least a little in their past, putting an orange filter over the bright white stage lights of life. Whether we decide something is a serious transgression or minor quibble is mostly a matter of pragmatism, and it varies by person. Lax argues he’s not being overly paranoid, but I think he is—and I think you’ll agree with me, based on this post, or based on reading his book yourself.

Keith Richards’ Life and what the world used to look like

I skimmed Keith Richards’ memoir Life, which might be of interest to virulent Rolling Stones fans and people interested in how to live despite ingesting massive quantities of poisonous substances in search of altered states (answer: luck). Although most of the memoir is forgettable, this passage stands out because it describes a kind of insanity that feels completely foreign and bizarre to me:

It was 1975, a time of brutality and confrontation. Open season on the Stones had been declared since our last tour, the tour of ’72, known as the STP. The State Department had noted riots (true), civil disobedience (also true), illicit sex (whatever that is), and violence across the United States. All the fault of us, mere minstrels. We had been inciting youth to rebellion, we were corrupting America, and they had ruled never to let us travel in the United States again. It had become, in the time of Nixon, a serious political matter. He had personally deployed his dogs and dirty tricks against John Lennon, who he thought might cost him an election. We, in turn, they told our lawyer officially, were the most dangerous rock-and-roll band in the world.

Must be gratifying to be the most dangerous rock band in the world. It’s also astonishing to imagine that a rock-and-roll band could marshall this kind of attention; these days, the youth who were rebelling in the 1970s have grown up and assumed the reins of power, such that rock-and-roll has grown up with them, becoming rock-and-roll instead of rock ‘n’ roll.

Now it’s no longer subversive, so we have to turn our attention to other topics, like rap, but even that doesn’t inspire so much fear as Richards says the Stones did; rap is regularly reviewed in the New Yorker. Today, nothing is worse than being square. Almost anything goes. 1975 looks bizarre from the perspective of someone born after it: what was all the fuss about? The real question is what subjects generate all the fuss today that will be the same way in the future. I could generate a list of them but choose not to, per Paul Graham’s “What You Can’t Say,” but I bet regular readers could imagine a few things that might end up on the list.

There are other moments of bizarre provincialism too:

When I was growing up, the idea of leaving England was pretty much remote. My dad did it once, but that was in the army to go to Normandy and get his leg blown off. The idea was totally impossible. You just read about other countries and looked at them on TV, and in National Geographic, the black chicks with their tits hanging out and their long necks. But you never expected to see it. Scraping up the money to get out of England would have been way beyond my capabilities.

Although many people today no doubt feel the same, the rise of deregulated air service makes leaving virtually any industrialized country within the reach of a large proportion of the population. Not everyone, to be sure, but it’s much more normal now than it once was. Many fewer find the idea “totally impossible.” It’s easy, at least for me, to forget what the past was like. I think we all have a tendency to assume that the present is “normal,” along with whatever our situation is, and the past different. Then I read about someone who “never expected to see” a foreign country and remember that the time and place I live in is very different from those others have lived in. Such moments are the most revealing part of Life. The book made it on the New York Times bestseller list. Prediction: a large number of copies hit the used book market within six months. If you want to read the book, wait and snag a used copy cheap, or get it from the library.

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