Who will tell you stories then?
A friend of mine in Hollywood once built a twenty-foot waterfall in his backyard to ward off his dire premonitions, which were bound up with his bad marriage and a terrible case of the shakes. He became convinced that something awful would happen.
In the morning, he would take up his position at a picnic table outside his house in the Hollywood Hills and supervise the work of a team of Mexican laborers from beneath the shade of a folding table umbrella. At the end of the day, he dragged out a fat roll of bills from his pocket and paid the men who lugged and cemented large stones according to his plan, which he wrote out by hand on a legal pad and changed with the position of the sun in the sky, or the day of the week, or some other less explicable factor. His wad of cash diminished over time, until one night three men broke into his house and pressed a gun to his head and took the rest.
My friend decided that the best response to this shocking turn of events was to keep quiet, and so the stones sat in a pile in his backyard along with the remaining bags of cement. A week later, after he failed to call the police, the men showed up for work and finished the job. It pays sometimes to keep your mouth shut.
When I was younger, I used to meet people at dog tracks and pot farms and other such places and do my best to describe them from the inside out. What we had in common was that we were all in on the same joke about the gap between stories and life, which is a name for a chaos that unfolds according to no given set of narrative conventions. To make sense of the unstable lives of these characters, I imagined them as figments of a much bigger story that could only be gestured at, a big novel whose quasi-religious valences would strike me with great force in the middle of the night as I slept in my one-room apartment in the West Village with my head right next to the oven. The fear to which my idea of some larger metanarrative applied was less about the tracklessness of existence than about what might happen to the particular space we shared, which was the imagined place where writers talked to readers. An onslaught of data-driven technologies coming out of California was replacing the imaginative work writers did with algorithmic outcomes, which would guide a reader’s choices and feelings based on the choices of large numbers of other people who had also interacted with the machines according to pathways laid down by the algorithms. As felt life was mediated and altered in this way, the vast encyclopedia of literary feelings and techniques that had once acted as a kind of thickening agent for writers and readers alike would become progressively obsolete, and reality would come to feel thinned out. Self-censorship would become the rule, even among those who retained the impulse to think and feel beneath a smothering blanket of anticipation and categorization whose only true aim was to keep any stray sunbeams of disorienting newness or weirdness from shining in through anyone’s window.
Everything is connected to everything else, in ways we are not yet clever enough to name.Tweet
While the questions of whose reality this is and who benefits from a culture that prefers thinness to thickness are too big for me to pretend to answer, even back then I knew exactly what the devaluation of literary awareness meant for me: I would miss my friends, my readers, whom I had invented all those lonely nights. The hippie librarian in Idaho who during the ’60s and ’70s had lived in the Bay Area, where she was a friend to several minor poets and painters and dabbled in drugs; and her husband, a sculptor, who made large works out of metal and fell silent for weeks at a time—what would happen to these good people if I ever lost touch with them? Worse, what would happen to me?
Anticipating losing someone close to you is like anticipating your own death, which can only be imagined as partial. If they die, some parts of me — perhaps even the defining parts of me — would die, too. Sometimes, the gray filaments of dread this thought produces coalesce into a hovering cloud, as in Charlie Brown comics, or tighten up into a murky black ball that lodges in the center of my chest. When the sidewalk starts to go diagonal and the weird angles of my existence make it difficult to accomplish simple tasks like stirring creamers into my coffee, I check myself into the local ER, where the price of admission is a collection of symptoms that mimic those of a heart attack and an insurance card that comes courtesy of a prestigious university with branches in Abu Dhabi and China. Once admitted, I am given a paper gown that opens in the back and a bed whose accompanying beep-beep-beep reminds me of a jammed-open elevator door. Strapped down to the next bed over, a swollen psychotic bellows like a bull. Baffled by his predicament, he breathes heavily in and out until one of the attendants creeps close enough to administer a tranquilizer. Teams of medical professionals maneuver computers on wheels around the beds in a gorgeous mechanical ballet that I score in my head to “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” Every fifteen minutes or so, the blood-pressure cuff inflates around my arm with a hiss and produces a pleasurable feeling of constriction. Gathering information from sweaty bodies, machines record the ease with which people freak out, adding greater numerical precision to the theory that nearly all human wounds are self-inflicted.
It is a fact that the things I imagined when I was 24 years old, alone, and high are now foundational parts of the lived experience of nearly everyone on the planet. A new race of humans has migrated up into the clouds, where they can only be spoken about in myths and fables. Everyone knows their names and how much their stock options are worth, but no one can speak a word about them, because their lawyers are too smart and too expensive. The government routinely taps your phone and reads your email, which used to be grounds for public scandal. When the President of the United States is moved to communicate directly with the yokels below him, he talks to a YouTube celebrity who is famous for sitting in a bathtub full of Froot Loops. Everything is connected to everything else, in ways we are not yet clever enough to name.
Perhaps machines will soon be smart enough. Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit are the new publishers of everything in a space where they make the rules that govern the attention of readers. Avoiding the costs associated with traditional publishing, they hoover up the crumbs of revenue available for publishing demonetized content, which is a by-product of their operations. News gathering as such is done only by those who can afford to bear the costs of such efforts in a revenue-free environment, including governments, political parties, and crackpot billionaires. Meanwhile, major story lines are shaped by criminals who operate above and below the radar of the corporate press, for whom they display wholesale contempt. In order to understand these people, you have to be invited into their homes, which requires signing documents and crossing certain lines.
Since I remain a reporter of sorts, working now for the movies and television, I am happy to keep you informed of these developments. But what truth is it exactly that I am supposed to write, and where, and how, and why? What happens if I wind up in a strange emergency room where the machines make unfamiliar beeping sounds and I suffer an actual heart attack? Who will tell you stories then? Checking my phone, I learn that it is possible to earn unique Frisbees by completing bonus levels and that people are more willing to help others if there is the smell of fresh bread in the air. So, in the plainest language I can muster, I am asking you to help me.
Standing near me on the playground in Brooklyn Heights is a woman in a knee-length red skirt with a gold-embroidered hem, her big boobs staring out through the cotton ribbing of her black AC/DC tank top. Her name is Rhonda, and she is a force of nature with whom I am acquainted from around the hood. At her side in black-framed glasses and an army jacket is a hipster, holding a Roland Barthes paperback. His bookmark shows him to be making slow but steady progress toward the aim of denying that the world is solid, when in fact the world is solid all the way through.
It is easy for me to make fun of these people. But they are parents, and parents are people I respect: they did something irrational and now they have skin in the game. The pair in front of me have been temporizing for the past hour and a half while pursuing their toddler around the Adam Yauch memorial playground. They bicker and argue, because the brute fact of having a child compels you to invest yourself in the future—another story in a dizzying universe of stories —at the same time as it calls into question all the stories that anyone ever told you.
I turn my attention to the girl beside me, whom I will call Yuki, because her actual name will only get us both in trouble and bears no relation to the truth she holds. She told me once that her most vivid childhood memories of her father were of a handsome man with black hair, a strong jaw, and blacked-out eyes, an image not unlike the surveillance photos released to me by the FBI after I requested my father’s file, which consisted of no fewer than 1,123 pages of wiretaps, surveillance reports, and testimony from fellow chemists eager to eliminate a competitor from the Bay Area’s roiling illegal-psychedelics market.
The FBI blackout effect in the case of Yuki’s father was produced by an equally autocratic and thorough censor — her mother, who sought a divorce when Yuki was 5. The five photos of Yuki’s father that remained after she attacked the family photo albums with nail scissors all showed him wearing sunglasses, which in symbolic terms represented the median of her mother’s desire for Yuki to remember her father and a darker, somewhat modulated impulse to stab him in the heart. He is a real person, the Shogun, whose name can be found in the financial pages of major newspapers, although with less regularity now than twenty or thirty years ago.
Facts are usually slotted into story lines that move in linear ways that fail to capture objective reality, which is Pynchonesque.Tweet
The Shogun’s Japanese partner in crime, Ghosty, the subject of today’s discussion, had rounded shoulders and smoked cigarettes. “He was my father’s age, spooky,” Yuki told me when I asked what she remembered about him. It was by sharing and investigating these memories that the Shogun’s daughter and I discovered that we had some ancient family history in common. Ghosty’s wife was even more of a mystery than Ghosty. Walking three to five steps behind him at all times, she was a shadow of a shadow, Mrs. Ghosty. But the fact that she made such a lasting impression on everyone who encountered her suggests it would be wrong to describe her as forgettable.
The subject of his ex-partner, when raised by his half-breed daughter from his third marriage, appeared to both alarm and interest the Shogun. “He had a very strange way of picking words,” he remembered, “even in Japanese.” Outside his ventures in the coin-operated-machine business, he said, Ghosty’s mind was focused with autonomic precision on the concept of the Future Man — an idea that blended his vision of life-forms arising spontaneously from the integrated networks on which humanity would soon come to depend with theories about the adjustments in species-wide psychology that the integration of the machine-beings into human societies would require.
Mrs. Ghosty did not trust Ghosty, and no one else did, either, with the exception of my paternal grandfather, who also worked in the coin-operated-machine business. He met Ghosty only twice. Their first meeting was when Ghosty arrived at his home in Montclair, New Jersey, a solemn Japanese man in a black suit, white shirt, and black tie, with a regulation camera around his neck announcing the touristic innocence of his intentions. He was staying at the Hilton, he said, and with no further preamble he asked my grandfather to ship two containers full of coin-operated amusements to Osaka. He marked the arrival of the machines two weeks later with a poem about the leaves on the trees outside my grandfather’s house, which touched my grandfather greatly: after a few days of study at the Montclair Public Library, he took the leaves in Ghosty’s poem to refer to the money they would make together. He also inferred that Ghosty had suffered greatly during the war in which his native country was bombed flat. Whenever Ghosty’s orders would arrive, he would fill the containers and ship them off to whatever address he was given in the confidence that payment would arrive sooner or later, which was how business was done.
My grandfather saw Ghosty again in Milan, in 1966, at the Hotel Gallo, accompanied by his partner, Oguri — a handsome swindler who imported bingo machines by declaring them to be pinball machines. The three major entertainment companies in Japan at the time were all owned by Jews, who served as the shoguns of the officers’ clubs throughout Southeast Asia, cutting deals with Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines and other kindred spirits. The oldest and most successful of these partnerships was formed between Marty Bromley of Sega and General Douglas MacArthur, a connection that in some typically obscure and at least semicrooked way led Ghosty to work for Sega as a mechanic after the war.
It was around this time that my father’s adventures in the Bay Area acid scene bequeathed us a new life in Brazil, where he oversaw the operation of coin-operated machines that were owned, through various subterfuges, by my grandfather’s coin-operated-machine company. In lieu of Little League games, Kool-Aid, and Pringles in a ranch house in suburban New Jersey, I grew up playing football (“soccer”) barefoot on the beach. I enjoyed the crunchy-sweet pleasures of Globo-brand manioc-flour biscuits, advertised on the package by a rubber-limbed man in a black suit and black hat who was typically pictured in front of global landmarks like the Eiffel Tower. There was something about this figure at once gentle and sinister, a combination in which I happily specialize.
My role in the family business these days includes some notable adventures, which help clue me in to correspondences that I might otherwise miss. I am trusted to perform tasks related to a gambling business, some part of which is helpfully disguised as a money-losing technology venture with a Brazilian cell-phone company that is owned in part by a man named Nissim, an Israeli of Moroccan extraction who once worked at the nuclear facility in Dimona, which must be the worst-kept big secret of all time. It was Nissim who introduced me to Yuki, the youngest child of the Shogun’s third marriage. She sees her father an average of two or three times per annum.
Until recently, Yuki told me, she had been working for a man named Wilson Chalmers, who ran what she freely describes as a cult. While there were no syringes filled with toxic Flavor Aid or survival kits with orange jumpsuits, white sneakers, and blankets on Chalmers’s bot farm outside Vancouver, the arrangements she described were undeniably spooky: assigned corporate roommates, Hare Krishna–level salaries (supplemented, in theory, by stock options, which can be cashed in at some future date), a company-run credit union where paychecks are automatically deposited, and an ironclad nondisclosure agreement, which makes speaking with any greater precision about any of these arrangements legally unadvisable, even at this level of abstraction. Chalmers made videos explaining his entirely subjective vision of human needs and behavior, which he expected his data-processing ant-workers to watch regularly during their training; you can look them up on Google, if you are clever. Yuki assumed a managerial rank overseeing high-level programming in C after scoring well on the company’s proprietary empathic-perception test, the initials of which, she pointed out to me that afternoon, were the same as the world’s most popular brand of pee-stick pregnancy test — EPT.
In his old age, Yuki’s father had taken to the enthusiastic funding of projects that lacked any direct connection to the manufacture and programming of coin-operated gambling machines. While it was true that none of his side ventures made a significant dent in his glittering hoard, they consumed a significant portion of the energy that he had once devoted to business. His involvement with Chalmers was by no means the craziest of these ventures; he also funded the DNA testing of a group of lower-caste natives of India who claimed direct matrilineal descent from the lost Jewish tribe of Menashe. He paid for the rabbinical education of the young men of the tribe and sent their families to settlements in the West Bank, where their reproductive habits might provide a demographic break on the Palestinian Arabs. The excess of weirdness with which the Shogun was now surrounded made itself felt businesswise in an unwholesome aura that attached itself to his name. It probably cost his shareholders money, though none of them ever dared to complain.
It didn’t hurt Yuki’s rise that her father was one of the major sponsors of Chalmers’s operations, only some of which were legible to the Irish and Canadian expat programmers who attended free yoga classes and watched self-improvement videos. Chalmers was a weirdo, she agreed, but it was fascinating to see him up close. In person, she said, he had a remarkable ability to incrementally relocate — a conversation, a mood, the basis for your perceptions of reality. First, you were standing here, and then you were standing over there, which seemed as good a description as any of what literature might still aspire to do. The fact that Yuki was destined to become my girlfriend was apparent to both of us by our second cup of coffee.
Yuki is emotionally valuable to me because of her inborn tolerance for spookiness. I share her story — as well as my stories about Ghosty and my grandfather, Chalmers, Nissim, Yuki, and the Shogun — to give a sense of what algorithmic thin description must always fail to capture. These stories are confusing because of the laws that make them that way: I met Yuki in Brazil on a beach, where we were introduced by Nissim, who is an associate of my uncle, whose name can’t be mentioned here because he is a real person. While the business interests that Nissim and my uncle share are legal, they necessarily involve connections to other businesses that occupy what law-enforcement types call a “gray area.” Proceed any further along these lines and you will find yourself in Edward Snowden territory, living in an airport hotel in Hong Kong. The networks to which I am gesturing have at least some roots in a milieu that was once heavily criminal, and which was connected then, as it is today, to the nerve centers of American life by tangled chains of happenstance and personal acquaintance.
There is plenty to be learned by uncovering the nakedness of one’s literary parents.Tweet
Without understanding the nature of these connections, which requires deep immersion on the basis of trust and is essential to any rational explanation of events, it is impossible to understand why things are the way they are or why they happen the way they do. Some obvious examples are: the ways that music was distributed in America; the garment business, which gave rise to the movie business and to the cities of Las Vegas and Miami Beach; the gambling business, which gave rise to the casino business, which gave rise to the video-game business, which gave rise to some parts of the digital-entertainment complex. Where the food you eat at sporting events comes from (a company in Buffalo). How labor unions and political parties operate, and how the spoils are divided. Why the payday-loan business is the object of special Congressional legislation. Et cetera.
Every one of these arrangements, past and present, general and specific, has legal implications for someone. Which is why the available facts are usually slotted into story lines that move in linear ways that fail to capture objective reality, which is Pynchonesque. I believe in the reality of people and forces whose existence lawyers and editorialists elide and deny because I have seen them at work, and having seen them at work, I know what a proper description would sound like. The best metaphor I can come up with on short notice is that we are looking at the same bronze statue in the center of town, but from different angles. The angle from which we tell stories shapes our subjective perception of everything else: news headlines, a leaf, a girl.
I would like to set aside the old cliché that rich girls like Yuki are more screwed-up than girls of modest means who read the same books and attend the same schools. Having cleaned the toilets of both kinds of girls during my undergraduate years, I can testify that rich girls are no less equipped for happiness and sadness than their less fortunate classmates. What matters most of all, for anyone, female, male, black, white, cisgender, or otherwise, are family circumstances, which make them the bearers of unique truths.
Who needs a voice to tell you not to feel crazy, and not to feel sad, and not to feel lonely, and to never, ever say the word fuck?Tweet
Yuki’s unhappiness can be traced not to the existence of a trust fund, established by her wealthy father and hedged by carefully thought-out restrictions that made it inaccessible to her before the age of reason, which her father’s lawyers located at 35, but to the fact that she was the second child of the third wife of a man who is now in his eighties, and who lives in a highly reified and ever-shifting world constructed out of paper by lawyers and accountants, in fulfillment of no fixed plan.
In the context of her own family, Yuki was vanishingly insignificant. I am also vanishingly insignificant, which might make us a perfect match. Even within her distant suburb of the Shogun’s empire, she was overshadowed by her older half brother, Akiva, who is their mother’s first child and is racially Japanese, despite being adopted by the Shogun and circumcised at the late age of five. Instead of taking up her assigned minor role in the family drama, Yuki became a reader, which is a name for a type of person I like — bad skin, allergies, dirty mind, life as text.
Having read our way through the works of Thomas Pynchon and Theodore Dreiser, our effort these days centers on John Updike, whose stories and casual criticism came to represent the literary-intellectual excellence of the New Yorker, a magazine to which we both at one time or another enthusiastically subscribed. In his novels, Updike chronicled the hurricane decades of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s as they rolled through the small towns of his childhood: a landscape he continued to inhabit as the towns turned into suburbs, and working-class inhabitants became middle-aged dabblers in casual sex, divorce, and other inventions of the years after astronauts planted America’s flag on the moon.
Updike’s claim to being the Tolstoy of the Americans, Yuki insists, rests on his Rabbit trilogy—Rabbit, Run, Rabbit Redux, and Rabbit Is Rich—which he turned into a quartet with the late and irrelevant addition of Rabbit at Rest. The critical rap on these books is that they lack the requisite Nabokovian menace, while Updike’s larger body of novels, stories, essays, and reviews lacks any overarching moral or social purpose aside from the display of his own unearthly facility on the line level. In his later years, Updike’s gifts for New Yorker–ish snap and pop began to fail him; he churned out novels in which the sentences sagged and a purposeful through line seemed to elude him. Recognizing in his later works a “failure to make final sense” — a phrase he used in “The Writer in Winter,” one of the later essays included in a posthumous grab bag titled Higher Gossip—Updike spent his final years revisiting his preoccupations with Kierkegaard’s chilly existentialism and the palsy-walsy game of golf.
The knock on Updike as a crafty purveyor of provincial schlock finds ample support in the leavings of his dotage, which Yuki and I eagerly peruse together on the nights we are not trying to piece together the Ghosty myth. There is a goof from the AARP magazine in which a nameless head of state visits a factory that makes footballs, and other freelance exercises whose dour humorlessness culminates in something titled “Humor in Fiction” — a thankless chore from the outset, wherein the distinguished author quotes Sigmund Freud, Henri Bergson, et al on the subject of jokes. Updike tries to make hay out of Albert Einstein, the planet Mars (“the dead planet is not so dead after all”), and dinosaurs, a lifelong fascination that he more memorably explored elsewhere (“How weird might a human body look to them? That thin and featherless skin, that dish-flat face, that flaccid erectitude, those feeble, clawless five digits at the end of each limb, that ghastly utter lack of a tail—ugh,” he writes in “Extreme Dinosaurs,” a piece he published in National Geographic).
There is plenty to be learned by uncovering the nakedness of one’s literary parents. Here is Updike confessing his middlebrow dislike for “Sixties literary trickiness,” a dislike that kept him, unlike his great competitor Philip Roth, from losing himself in a purely imaginative universe; in “Problems,” and a few other stories, he flirted with metafictional gimmicks before hurrying back to shore. He was annoyed by feminists, and by black people; he was therefore doubly annoyed by Toni Morrison’s “noble and necessary fictional project of exposing the infamies of slavery and the hardships of being African-American,” which resulted, in Morrison’s novel A Mercy, in a vision “both turgid and static,” a critical estimation that Updike believed to be both necessary and daring.
A taste for weirdness is essential. How else is it possible to describe the ways the world gets tilted on its axis or the effects of specific angles on the human heart?Tweet
The literary fellowship that Updike cherished most was that of Nabokov, the noble-born Russian-American-Swiss lepidopterist, who would have hated Twitter and, even more so, Facebook. Updike shared Nabokov’s fascinations, a device he used repeatedly to goose comparisons between himself and his idol, in the democratic obverse. He loved precocious children, but he turned away from them early on in his stories as though his own memories of childhood were too humiliating and painful to be borne. He lacked the heart to represent children as cruel, which they are. Updike also shared Nabokov’s love of excellence, a quality that he stubbornly withheld from his characters, who were condemned, throughout the plan of his serial fictions, to stand as representative American men and women, with thoughts and feelings that represented the socio-emotional experience of the aggregate.
Updike was PC before PC properly existed. But he couldn’t bear to kill off his characters, as Nabokov did, a habit that Updike enviously ascribes here to “the lepidopterist’s habit of killing what it loves.” The stifled generosity beneath the surface coldness of Updike’s characters is the most emotionally affecting note in his fiction. Nabokov’s compassion for his characters is both powerful and deeply inscrutable; it creates the unearthly tautness beneath his godlike sense of play.
The exceptions to the pedestrian quality of Updike’s criticism trespass on his most fertile fictional territory: sex, and the faint but terrifying nimbus that suggests that ordinary people and objects are imbued with the divine. His essay on Blake, which combines sex, the divine, and Updike’s devotion to the line, in visual art as in prose, wrestles with the unruly and irrational. “As befits an engraver, Blake lived in his lines,” he writes before homing in on his revulsion for Blake’s bodies, which display “the peculiar flayed nakedness of anatomical illustrations.” The incorporation of the irrational into style discomfits him; it should be disabling, but it isn’t. “Gesture, in Blake, links the seen and unseen,” he writes. His conclusion merges poetry and reason and startling original imagery in the same way his fiction does: “Blake saw angels too easily; he skywrites with bodies; they form a species of handwriting, spelling out messages to which we have lost, often, the code.”
In America, Updike wrote, in his introduction to the collected Rabbit Angstrom novels, “the slot between the fantastic and the drab seems too narrow.” He was right there. As Mailer raged and Roth giddily experimented, Updike fled to England, where he spent the high period of the ’60s at the British Museum, reading about the life of James Buchanan, a President who embodied the voice of “careful, fussy reasonableness” that failed to stop the Civil War, in which more than 620,000 Americans died.
Yet Updike was also able to see the divine spark that illuminated the lives of ordinary Americans, with their lawn mowers and gas stations and hamburger stands. He saw signs of grace in their absurd attempts, pace Rabbit Angstrom, to know their black countrymen by reading the works of Frederick Douglass. His formula in the Rabbit books was taken from an uncompleted thought by Pascal, “the motions of Grace, the hardness of heart; external circumstances,” to which Updike added the old-fashioned belief that America has a heart of gold, no matter how plain the evidence of its deeds. By writing about small moments in ordinary American lives from recognizable angles, with careful devotion to color and line, he was, in a way, performing an act of religious devotion that he shared with his readers, according to the faith that “realism even in its darkest aspect formed an homage to the God of creation, and a gesture of trust in Him.” There is nothing original about this credo, other than the fact that he believed it with the fervor of a saint. I believe it, too.
And yet it is no longer appropriate to write as Updike did — as a journalist, as an essayist, or as a critic. His literary-descriptive style is an artifact of a time and place to which the idea of making sense was important, the alternative being the fresh and immediate fear of annihilation, or concentration camps. But the idea of making sense is the product of time-bound assumptions about the nature of reality that writers and readers can no longer believe in, because they no longer jibe with the evidence of our heavily mediated subjective perceptions. Updike failed to make final sense not because he was a bad writer, but because the sell-by date on masterful realism had expired.
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion, Updike’s contemporary and counterpart, famously wrote in her preface to The White Album. “We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.” What Didion criticized and mocked, even as she lived it and wrote it, has been reinterpreted all wrong — as a suggestion rather than an apology for self-delusion — and has thus enabled another kind of bad writing: dogmatic personal journalism, in which reporting is the product of a predetermined narrative. In 2006, a collection of Didion’s prose was published under the title, We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live, which is as good a proof as any of how tightly this faulty reading has been cemented in the minds of readers who lack any way of knowing better, since their misreading is true to their mediated experience.
Gesturing toward an objective world of facts is a matter of style, another way to convey perception, which is another way of expressing emotion. In the place where Norman Mailer put male egomania, David Foster Wallace put his feelings of vulnerability and isolation, which is why I loved his work. His writing was a photo-negative update of Mailer’s, in which something outside was made brilliantly real through language and balanced against something inside. Neither Mailer nor Wallace was comfortable with anything like the pervasive fakery required by the house voice of the New Yorker. The magazine’s way of seeing, which directed attention to the surface of things, arranged in the acknowledged proper order, was the exact opposite of what they were after. Who needs a voice to tell you not to feel crazy, and not to feel sad, and not to feel lonely, and to never, ever say the word fuck or even think about fucking anyone, including your girlfriend, boyfriend, husband, or wife, of whatever gender, without worrying about what the community might think, especially when the community is a digital phantom? What a ridiculous way to live, or write.
A taste for weirdness is essential. How else is it possible to describe the ways the world gets tilted on its axis or the effects of specific angles on the human heart? The people to listen to are the crackpots and lonely girls, the lone gunmen and truck drivers, Edward Snowden and Julian the lemur from the movie Madagascar, and all the other individuals whose ambitions exceed their credentials, who are still violently upset by the fact of their parents’ divorce. They can tell you more about the present, how the world works and how it doesn’t, than the magazines can. Or, often, than fiction can. Both Mailer and Wallace were at their best when they dared to write directly about reality. The writing they sold as “fiction” lacked the drama and tension that is inherent in trying to reconcile the impossible — to describe what it feels like to feel confused and alone, or to be hungry for food and sex, or whatever it was that they were hungry for. To feel these things through language is to know that there is no such thing as fiction, as opposed to nonfiction. There is only writing and not-writing, either one of which may rise to become literature, which is an expression of the ambition to say something rather than nothing.
One of the last times I traveled to Miami with Myron, my frequent traveling companion, who told me to call him uncle when I was 5, he introduced me to an old man named Baruch Marzel, who had been an important figure in his line of business. Once a physically imposing figure, Marzel had gradually shrunk into his expensive clothes and now appeared to prefer his Italian cashmere sweaters two sizes too big. One night, as we sat drinking wine on the dock of his mansion, he delivered himself of a little speech.
Even when they are 60 or 70 years old, they still sound like small children, wondering at the universe, baffled by the role that they’re expected to play.Tweet
“The idea that people follow rational self-interest will lead in most cases to total disaster,” he told us. “Everyday, you see people throw self-interest to the wind on the flimsiest, paper-thin pretexts — their fortunes, wives, children, business, in pursuit of a turn of the wheel, or the most petty emotions of anger, spite, malice, ego. Anything can do the trick. The wrong expression on someone’s face, the color of someone’s shirt — nothing is trivial enough to turn a normal person into a beast, and in our world especially. And once the process starts, no one remembers how it happened or why. People are strangers to each other in this world. Most of all they are strangers to themselves. They wouldn’t recognize their self-interest if it popped up in front of them on the street corner and bit them on the nose.
“I knew your father, z’l, and I know you,” Marzel told Myron. “He died at your age, maybe a year younger. So I’ve known you now longer than I knew him. I am 84 years old, according to the date on my birth certificate, and I thank God every day that I am still alive.”
He turned to me in the darkness, as if moved by the idea of leaving something behind to instruct the youth. “The attempt to make order out of disorder and chaos, tohu va vohu, is the essence of every human life,” he told me directly. “But stories are never the truth. The truth is chaos. We tell ourselves stories in which there is a beginning, a middle, and an end, and heroes and villains, and then eventually we get lost in the stories, and we believe all kinds of lies. The biggest lie is that life proceeds in some orderly fashion, that there is order instead of chaos. We can’t help it. That’s how we’re made. But it’s important not to believe in stories too much, because they aren’t true.”
In Brooklyn, I go regularly to the gym and engage in the whacked-out conversations that older men have in locker rooms in the middle of the day. Even when they are 60 or 70 years old, they still sound like small children, wondering at the universe, baffled by the role that they’re expected to play. In these conversations, childlike awe is mixed with late-adult lust and conspiracy theories. Is there really any such place as hell? Does George’s 35-year-old girlfriend really suck his cock every morning before breakfast? Black men, white men, their minds are all teeming with ideas and theories, no matter how long they have been living on this planet. They all talk crazy talk.
It was after one of my afternoons at the gym that I came home to find Yuki’s half brother Akiva resting on our couch. A sky crash had wiped out half of New York, an event that took place in his schizoid universe, and required him to take shelter in his sister’s apartment and reset his circuits. The event in question had apparently originated with the death of his neighbor, an elderly recording technician who occupied a studio apartment in the East Village and kept a yellowing collection of print editions of the New York Times, some dating as far back as 1965.
Akiva was skinny, malnourished, unshaven, yet entirely normal 85 percent of the time, and scarily perceptive 10 percent of the time. The other 5 percent of the time he was simply nuts. Some part of what he said was in fact verifiable: years ago an original master pressing of an early version of the Velvet Underground’s first record had turned up in the Chelsea flea market, in a bin of unlabeled vinyl. There were more songs out there, Akiva insisted — unreleased originals, which the engineer, an elderly Holocaust survivor named Jerry with a number tattooed on his arm, had recorded in the early days of the Velvet Underground. Which is why Lou Reed’s goons had entered the old man’s apartment and smothered the old Jew, a witness of the horrors of the Kovno ghetto and a survivor of no fewer than five Nazi death camps, with his pillow.
With copyright lawyers representing the musician’s estate now hot on his trail, Akiva was glad to take shelter in our apartment for a few days. But he couldn’t stay longer, he warned us, without putting us in mortal danger. When Yuki came home, we sat down together and wrote an email to her mother, detailing her son’s mental state.
In the letter, we divided Akiva’s departures from normal discourse into two categories. First, there were moments when he spoke in a more general way of the connectedness of all life and all beings. There were also moments where Akiva would try to apply his general sense of connectedness to specific situations in his own life. In those moments, I wrote, I could feel a heightened level of anxiety in which his brain was trying to force tight, very literal connections, and then looping back around on itself. A friend whose life was exactly the same as the character’s in the movie 500 Days of Summer, a hit with millennials, therefore must have been directly involved in the making of the movie, which would explain why he had disappeared three months ago.
The “facts” that Akiva had conveyed about me in his emailed communications, I added, were not facts at all: I am not from Pelham, New York; I have never met Tim Geithner and I am not related to his old thesis adviser at Brown. Yet each of these statements was weirdly appropriate, I continued, if you were to loosen the degree of connection one notch. What Akiva probably meant, I wrote, was that I am “like” someone from the same place as him, and also “like” someone who is connected to important people like a former secretary of the Treasury, and also “like” a younger relative of his old mentor. Not being a clinician, I added, I don’t know how to analyze the seriousness of the failure to omit the word like, or to predict how long that condition might last. I was struck, though, by how accurate his descriptions were, once the verb was modified.
Akiva lay on the couch as I cleaned out the accumulation of weird crap that collects at the bottom of my knapsack, the frequent flyer’s equivalent of pocket lint — candy wrappers, crumpled receipts from which the heat-printed ink has mostly vanished. I handed him a pen, which he examined before pronouncing a verdict. “It’s a dollar-twenty-nine pen,” he said, with a satisfied sigh. “It’s gel.”
What happens, of course, isn’t that the news disappears, but that it fails to adequately describe the inherent contradictions and dialectical movements of reality.Tweet
On our third day together, I told Akiva about Rio, the city to which my father fled and where I was born. Rio is the most beautiful city in the world, with the best beaches, the worst crime, and the world’s most beautiful women. It’s as if the people of Queens, the Bronx, upper Manhattan, and Brooklyn had got their shit together, despite the suffocating corruption and reckless disregard for human life that such an arrangement might entail. Having mastered the nuclear-power cycle and conquered the vastness of the Amazon, the people of Brazil are ready for new and bigger challenges.
I also told him about the day that I decided to leave Rio, in hopes that hearing about the weirdness of my own upbringing might help him feel less lonely and paranoid. I was 17 years old and sitting on the beach in Leblon. Helicopters were flying low, and rich fat people were walking through the surf holding hands. A rich girl in a tiny bikini with a perfect brown 20-year-old body held a little golden French bulldog on a silver chain, which instantly became the envy of every male on the beach. The leader of the pack was a boy named Helion, who would order our days by selling us drugs, in return for which we appreciated his tanned, fit body and listened to his afternoon rants about acai berries and the future of space travel. As he spoke, I watched a white airplane soar up to the empty sky, and then a thin-winged black-and-white bird fly through the space between the airplane and the water.
I walked with my friend Alexandra by the ocean, and admired her dyed blond boy hair and gorgeous gray cashmere V-neck sweater with Darth Vader’s face implausibly woven on the front, which I assumed made it “fashion.” The beach was empty except for abandoned coconuts with white plastic straws poking up. When I got home, the tables, chairs, and large mirror that hung above the couch in our living room were broken. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that my father’s absence from this scene was an especially bad sign. I spent the night at Alexandra’s house. The next day I boarded a plane to New York, where I should have been living the entire time, if not for the accidents of the personal and family history that had brought me together with his sister.
Akiva received this information with the hollow eyes of a sports fan whose team has just lost the game in the final seconds. We are, all of us, I explained to him, the living products of the slot-machine business. It doesn’t take any particular insight into our world to understand that ours is a business in decline, and that everyone in it is therefore cursed. Behind his eyes, I knew that a different story continued to unfold. Every few hours, another section of the sky dome cracks open, and translucent shards rain down on the asphalt. Every few hours, another Brooklyn neighborhood goes off the grid — East New York, Fort Greene, Midwood, Sheepshead Bay. Connections to vital sources of water and power fizz out, until all that remains in those sectors are hipsters in black leather jackets, pursued by feral dogs and birds of prey.
By 2012, old-media companies were trading at pennies on the dollar relative to their valuations even a decade earlier. Readers had the right to consume as much demonetized content as they wanted for free, with no reciprocal obligation to publishers, editors, and authors, who, having peacocked and swanned their way around town for long enough, were surprised to find that they were no longer truly the publishers, editors, or authors of anything. “We imagined ourselves as a venture-capital-backed start-up in Silicon Valley whose mission was to attack and disrupt The Atlantic,” Justin B. Smith, then the president of the Atlantic Media Company and now the head of Bloomberg Media Group, explained to the New York Times that year. “In essence, we brainstormed the question, ‘What would we do if the goal was to aggressively cannibalize ourselves?’” By then, not one of the great general-interest magazines could even pretend to make a profit. The product itself had been demonetized, and despite their best efforts, none of the geniuses involved could figure out how to make money from a product — writing — that they had declared to be worthless. Companies like Facebook, Google, and Twitter now trade at hundreds or thousands of times what they were worth ten or fifteen years ago.
Because a typeface is the visual shorthand for many decades of hard work by hundreds of brilliant people, it is easy to credit only a slight blurring around the edges, even in the case of a newspaper like the Times, which has closed nearly every one of its once-legendary foreign bureaus and replaced hundreds of reporters, including more than a dozen Pulitzer Prize winners, with “audience engagement” specialists and other cubicle-farm types whose major reporting tools are Google and Twitter and who could just as easily be posting for Vice. What happens, of course, isn’t that the news disappears, but that it fails to adequately describe the inherent contradictions and dialectical movements of reality. The difference is not between the old New York Times reporters and the new-age bloggers who file updates from their desks in the familiar Times font, but between those people and the people at Google and Facebook, who have little interest in what news is fit to print. A set of social functions — communicating public ideas and information — has been transferred from one set of companies, operating under one set of rules, to another much wealthier and much less geographically rooted or socially responsible set of companies, operating under a new legal code of conduct that fortifies ignorance and encourages theft.
The curse of our business is in my blood, and in Yuki’s blood. When the Temple was burned to the ground for the second time, it was never rebuilt. That was when the Jews became the People of the Book. When I brought my latest big idea up to Yuki, late one night, she pointed to the couch, where her brother lay smelling of stale cigarette smoke. Next to Akiva was a long cardboard box, which I opened. Inside were particleboard slabs of different sizes and a single clear plastic bag filled with dozens of screws and joints. Taped to one of the boards was an Allen wrench. Putting together an Ikea dresser, Yuki explained, is a kind of prophylactic IQ test that determines whether you are fit to have children. In the absence of sensible instructions, I ripped open the bag, spilled the pieces out on the floor, and got to work.