Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The New Yorker

The large rug

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A few days ago, I was browsing through The Journals of André Gide, 1914-1927 in search of a quotation when my eye was caught by the following passage:

What a wonderful subject for a novel: X. indulges in a tremendous effort of ingenuity, scheming, and duplicity to succeed in an undertaking that he knows to be reprehensible. He is urged on by his temperament, which has its exigences, then by the rule of conduct he has built in order to satisfy them. It takes an extreme and hourly application; he expends more resolve, energy, and patience in this than would be needed to succeed in the best. And when eventually the event is prepared to such a point that he has only to let it take its course, the letdown he experiences allows him to reflect; he then realizes that he has ceased to desire greatly that felicity on which he had counted too much. But it is too late now to back out; he is caught in the mechanism he has built and set in motion and, willy-nilly, he must now follow its impetus to its conclusion.

Reading this over, I naturally thought of Donald Trump, who seems less happy to be in the White House than any other president in recent memory. Before I reveal how the story ends, however, I need to talk about Gide himself, a man of letters who was awarded the Nobel Prize later in life in honor of a career of extraordinary range and productivity. The plot that he outlines here sounds at first like a crime novel, but he may well have had a political context in mind—he wrote this journal entry on May 9, 1918, adding a few days later of the war: “The victory will be due to an invention, to something surprising or other; and not so much to the army as to the scientist and the engineer.”

But there’s also an uncomfortable truth about Gide that we need to confront. In 1999, Anthony Lane of The New Yorker wrote an appreciation of Gide’s work, saying that his “sincerity” was “alarmingly apposite to our own era, when a few insincere words to the press corps are almost enough to unseat a president.” This reads now as merely quaint. But a few pages later, Lane writes: “Gide was true to his inconstancy; he would never relinquish his sweet tooth for young Arabs, or for teenagers of every race.” In the book André and Oscar, Jonathan Fryer, a sympathetic biographer, describes a trip to North Africa that Gide took in his early twenties:

André’s illness did not prevent his going out to sit with [the painter] Paul Laurens, as his friend painted local scenes, or persuaded local children to pose for him. The children fascinated André. Groups of boys would gather outside the hotel where the two friends were staying, out of curiosity or a wish to earn a few coins through some trivial service. André’s attention had been particularly caught by one brown-skinned lad called Ali, who one day suggested that he should carry André’s overcoat and invalid’s rug to the dunes, where André could enjoy some of the weak autumn sun…As soon as they got into the crater, the boy threw his coat and rug to the ground, then flung himself down, stretched out on his back, his arms spread out, all the while laughing. André sat down primly at a distance, well aware of what was on offer, but not quite ready to accept. Ali’s face clouded; his smile disappeared. “Goodbye then,” he said, rising to his feet. But André seized the hand that the boy held out and pulled him to the ground.

I’ll skip over Frye’s description of what happened next on that “invalid’s rug,” but I’m compelled to note that he concludes of what he calls “this restorative treatment”: “André had indeed found himself.”

What are we supposed to think about this? Many of Gide’s admirers have done their best not to think about it at all. Lane, writing two decades ago, mentions it only in passing. (His article, incidentally, is titled “The Man in the Mirror,” a pop culture reference that I sincerely hope wasn’t intentional.) Fryer does what he can in the line of extenuation, in terms that have an uncomfortably familiar ring: “Most of André’s and Paul’s little visitors were on the wrong side of puberty, as moralists these days would view it. Not that André’s pedophilia seems to have taken on any physical dimension. Many of his future sexual partners would range between the ages of fourteen to seventeen, with the initiative coming from the adolescent himself.” This wouldn’t fly today, and even if we try to ignore Gide’s interest in very young children—Fryer compares him to Lewis Carroll—there’s no getting around those teenagers. In André Gide: A Life in the Present, the biographer Alan Sheridan shares the following story, which took place when Gide was in his thirties:

The train journey to Weimar was not without its “petite aventure.” No doubt as the result of his usual systematic inspection of the entire train, Gide found himself in a compartment with two German boys, brothers aged sixteen and fourteen. After falling asleep, Gide woke up to find the younger boy standing near him looking out of the window. Gide got up and stood beside him. Wandering fingers were met with encouragement—the elder brother was still asleep. Under a large rug, matters proceeded, further helped when the train entered a long tunnel.

This wasn’t an isolated incident. And Sheridan’s “matters proceeded,” like Fryer’s “restorative treatment,” feels like another large rug flung over our ability to honestly talk about it.

I’m not an expert on Gide, so I really can’t do anything more at this stage than flag this and move on. But it seems clear that we’re at the early stages of a reckoning that is only now beginning to turn to the figures of the past. Much of the pain of recent revelations comes from the realization that men we admired and saw as intellectual or artistic role models have repeatedly betrayed that trust, and the fact that the person in question is no longer alive shouldn’t exempt him from scrutiny. If anything, it’s only going to get harder from here, since we’re talking in many cases about literary giants whose behavior has been a matter of public record for decades. (Just last week, Orhan Pamuk, another Nobel laureate, mentioned Gide in the New York Times in an essay on the rise of nationalism in the West, but omitted any discussion of his personal life—and if you think that this isn’t relevant, try to imagine doing it now with a consideration of the ideas of, say, Israel Horovitz or Leon Wieseltier.) Here’s the conclusion of Gide’s “wonderful subject for a novel” that I quoted above:

The event that [X.] no longer dominates carries him along and it is almost passively that he witnesses his perdition. Unless he suddenly gets out of it by a sort of cowardice; for there are some who lack the courage to pursue their acts to their conclusion, without moreover being any more virtuous for this reason. On the contrary they come out diminished and with less self-esteem. This is why, everything considered, X. will persevere, but without any further desire, without joy and rather through fidelity. This is the reason why there is often so little happiness in crime—and what is called “repentance” is frequently only the exploitation of this.

This still seems to shed light on Trump and his enablers—but also on Harvey Weinstein and so many others. And it can’t just be swept under the rug.

The Wrath of Cohn, Part 1

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Not long ago, I was browsing through Peter Manso’s enormous oral biography Mailer: His Life and Times, which has been one of my favorite reads for years, when I came across a passing reference to Norman Mailer’s friendship with the attorney Roy Cohn. Mailer and Cohn couldn’t have been less alike in their politics, but they found each other useful, and they were linked by the late publisher Si Newhouse, who passed away just last month. Cohn doesn’t figure prominently in any of Newhouse’s obituaries, but the two of them first met as teenagers at the Horace Mann School in the Bronx and remained lifelong friends. In the book Newhouse, Thomas Maier explains the Mailer connection:

With Cohn’s help, Norman Mailer was convinced to become a contributor to Newhouse’s Parade magazine and later to sign a lucrative book contract with Random House…Si [had] expressed a desire to sign up Mailer, hoping to add that lustrous name to his publishing house’s stable of well-known authors…Cohn relayed this version of Si’s intentions to Peter Manso, a writer who then was close with Mailer and would later write a biography about him. Si Newhouse wanted Mailer to write a magazine piece about his views on capital punishment, Cohn told Manso…”He’ll pay cash,” Cohn told Manso about the Newhouse offer. “We’ll give him seven thousand dollars for the piece.”

Maier doesn’t mention how the two men happened to know each other, but they had evidently met when Manso was assigned to interview Cohn for Playboy in 1981—which is a detail that I’ll explore further in a moment.

Cohn took obvious pride in serving as a power broker, with what Maier describes as a talent for “making things happen,” and he systematically cultivated his famous contacts. After Mailer wrote the article on capital punishment and another piece on Russia, the two men became friendly, despite what Cohn saw as Mailer’s Soviet sympathies. Maier writes:

“I think Norman was always a little embarrassed about his association with Roy—he didn’t want to be too public with it,” said Peter Fraser, Cohn’s companion during the early 1980s when Roy’s personal life became an open secret. Cohn became involved in other business matters with Mailer. He rented a small cottage for himself and Peter Fraser in Provincetown, Massachusetts. The house was owned by Mailer and was next to a larger house where Mailer’s family stayed during the summer. On some summer evenings, Cohn and Mailer would hold court at a large dinner shared by family and friends.

Manso, who was living with Mailer at the time, goes even further, recounting that Cohn wanted to join their plan to turn the house into a condo, securing an interest-free loan of $300,000 from Si Newhouse for “all of us.” When Manso told Mailer about the deal, the author responded: “It’s about time I had a patron.” This is already pretty good gossip, but it gets better. In 1985, according to Manso, the Mailers attended Cohn’s fifty-ninth birthday party, which had a guest list that included Si Newhouse, Roger Stone—yes, that Roger Stone—and Donald Trump. After Cohn died the following year, the Mailers didn’t go to the memorial service, but a number of other prominent friends did, as Manso relates: “Donald Trump sat in the audience weeping with Cohn’s lover, Peter Fraser, and the ubiquitous Si Newhouse.”

There’s obviously a lot to unpack here, but I want to focus for now on the thread between Newhouse, Cohn, and Trump. Cohn’s mentorship of Trump has been closely scrutinized, including by Peter Manso, who wrote a reminiscence for Politico last year about a party at Cohn’s house in 1981, at which he found himself seated next to “the boyish-faced real estate mogul, habitué of Le Cirque and staple of Page Six.” (In Manso’s account, Trump inquired of him: “Roy says you live on the Cape, and that you’re writing a book about Norman Mailer. Norman’s smart but a little crazy, right?” He then asked Manso whether or not he should do an interview with Playboy, which he eventually did, kicking off what became a long association between him and the magazine.) What’s more surprising is that Newhouse’s friendship with Cohn and its obvious relevance to Trump hasn’t received more attention. Last year, a profile in The New Yorker—which Newhouse still owned at the time—highlighted the publishing magnate’s role in the writing of The Art of the Deal. As the reporter Jane Mayer relates:

The idea of Trump writing an autobiography didn’t originate with either Trump or [ghostwriter Tony Schwartz]. It began with Si Newhouse, the media magnate whose company, Advance Publications, owned Random House at the time, and continues to own Condé Nast, the parent company of this magazine. “It was very definitely, and almost uniquely, Si Newhouse’s idea,” Peter Osnos, who edited the book, recalls. GQ, which Condé Nast also owns, had published a cover story on Trump, and Newhouse noticed that newsstand sales had been unusually strong.

Cohn’s name isn’t mentioned here at all. Yet it’s hard to believe that he didn’t have anything to do with what turned out, in the end, to be a far more significant literary deal than the one that he had pulled off a few years earlier by luring Mailer to Random House.

For a connection that exists in plain sight, this angle remains strikingly unexplored. The only reference to it that I can find online is a tantalizing quote from Thomas Maier himself, who said last month in an interview with Bloomberg: “Newhouse’s fondness for Trump, the link with Roy Cohn and the way in which the Newhouse publications promoted Trump over the last twenty years really helped make him a nationally known figure and is one of the great unknown stories of the Trump rise to power.” I can’t help but agree, and while it’s tempting to suspect that Newhouse’s influence kept the story from being fully investigated during his lifetime, it’s also possible that the subsidiary players remained genuinely unaware of it. Mailer’s case provides an instructive parallel. After describing Mailer’s big contract with Random House and how his first novel with Newhouse, Tough Guys Don’t Dance, was excerpted in the resurgent Vanity Fair, Maier writes:

None of the Newhouse editors, however, were aware of Si’s guiding hand or the help of Roy Cohn in securing Norman Mailer’s services. “Upon reading the manuscript it was my idea, purely my idea, to buy it for Vanity Fair,” insisted Leo Lerman, then Vanity Fair’s editor, in describing how he decided to run excerpts of Tough Guys after talking with Mailer’s Random House editor, Jason Epstein.

Cohn was content to remain in the shadows, and he had reason to take satisfaction in the service that he had rendered to his friend and new neighbor. Mailer had suffered from money problems for decades, and the deal with Newhouse offered him an important source of stability, as his editor Jason Epstein observed: “I sensed that what Norman really wanted was to clear the decks and have nothing to worry about financially for the rest of his life.” Trump was at the beginning, not the end, of his career, and what Cohn and Newhouse had to offer him was rather different, but no less precious—and the consequences would be immense. I’ll be talking more about this tomorrow.

Luther on the couch

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Five hundred years ago this month, Martin Luther introduced the world to the Ninety-Five Theses. As far as anniversaries go, this is about as big as it gets, but if you find it hard to work up much excitement about it, it might be because Luther himself isn’t read much these days, at least not in English. (He’s notably absent from my beloved set of Great Books of the Western World, which finds room for two gigantic volumes of Thomas Aquinas but nothing from the Protestant Reformation.) As a result, Luther can seem remote to us, when in fact he’s one of the most scandalously vivid of all historical figures. In a recent article in The New Yorker, Joan Acocella refers in passing to his Anfechtungen, or trials, which she lists as “cold sweats, nausea, constipation, crushing headaches, ringing in his ears, together with depression, anxiety, and a general feeling that, as he put it, the angel of Satan was beating him with his fists.” Constipation appears here as just one affliction among many, but there are readings of Luther that place his time in the bathroom—a part of all of our lives that goes largely uncovered by biographers—at the center of his career. In Life Against Death, the classicist Norman O. Brown quotes Luther’s own account of a key moment in his religious awakening:

Once when in this tower I was meditating on those words, “the just lives by faith,” “justice of God,” I soon had the thought whether we ought to live justified by faith, and God’s justice ought to be the salvation of every believer, and soon my soul was revived. Therefore it is God’s justice which justifies us and saves us. And these words became a sweeter message for me. This knowledge the Holy Spirit gave me on the privy in the tower.

This is one of the most extraordinary paragraphs ever written, and you can glimpse much of twentieth century literature in its transition to that last, unforgettable sentence. If it isn’t as familiar as it should be, it’s mostly because Luther’s defenders tried to minimize it, his detractors read too much into it, and psychoanalysts seized eagerly on it in ways that have started to seem embarrassing. In the years when the psychoanalytic interpretation of history—not to be confused with other forms of psychohistory—was briefly in vogue, Luther became the case study of choice, in part because he afforded so much material to Freudians. Luther was unusually candid about the bathroom, and excremental images fill his work and conversation. As Brown puts it: “Such historical facts are hard to come by…and historical science should make the most of them.” You could make a strong case that Luther’s openness on the subject encouraged critics to give it an excessive amount of emphasis, just because it’s easier to do this sort of reading on him than on pretty much anybody else. But it’s also hard to claim that these images weren’t somehow central to Luther’s vision. As Brown writes:

Luther records that in one encounter, when Lutheran doctrines had not sufficed to rout the Devil, he had routed him “mit einem Furz”…Other anal weapons employed by Luther in his fight with the Devil—my language here is more refined than Luther’s—are injunctions to “lick (or kiss) my posteriors” or to “defecate in his pants and hang them round his neck,” and threats to “defecate in his face” or to “throw him into my anus, where he belongs.”

And Acocella approvingly quotes Luther’s famous metaphor as he felt death approaching: “I am like a ripe shit, and the world is a gigantic asshole. We will both probably let go of each other soon.”

In retrospect, it’s easy to find something comical in Freudian readings of Luther: “Today, psychoanalytic interpretations tend to be tittered at by Luther biographers,” Acocella writes. But perhaps we shouldn’t discourage Freudians from going after the one historical figure whom they might understand better than anybody else. In Life Against Death, after linking Luther’s fascination with excrement with his feelings toward money, usury, and the devil, Brown claims him as one of his own: “Lutheranism can be explicated not only as theology but also as psychoanalysis. Luther, like a psychoanalyst, penetrates beneath the surface of life and finds a hidden reality; religion, like psychoanalysis, must say that things are not what they seem to be.” You could even argue that a psychoanalyst in the first half of the last century would have been uniquely equipped to understand the Reformation from the inside. As Janet Malcolm writes so memorably in Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession:

Soon after the Big Bang of Freud’s major discoveries…the historian of psychoanalysis notes a fork in the road. One path leads outward into the general culture, widening to become the grand boulevard of psychoanalytic influence—the multilane superhighway of psychoanalytic thought’s incursions into psychiatry, social philosophy, anthropology, law, literature, education, and child-rearing. The other is the narrow, inward-turning path of psychoanalytic therapy: a hidden, almost secret byway travelled by few (the analysts and their patients), edged by decrepit mansions with drawn shades (the training institutes and the analytic societies), marked with inscrutable road signs (the scientific papers).

This dual dynamic, which had been enacted within living memory, recalled the Reformation itself, which took Luther’s secret struggle and turned it into a movement that could overthrow kings and empires, with the two tracks running in parallel. And their affinities go even deeper. Luther, like Freud, marked a divide in mankind’s understanding of itself, and their fans and followers don’t shy away from grandiose statements. Acocella quotes a recent biography by Eric Metaxas, Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World: “The quintessentially modern idea of the individual was as unthinkable before Luther as is color in a world of black and white. And the more recent ideas of pluralism, religious liberty, self-government, and liberty all entered history through the door that Luther opened.” You could make the same claim—with a different list of values—for Freud. And even their enemies speak of them in analogous terms. In Freud for Historians, Peter Gay writes:

Inevitably, those most hostile to psychoanalysis have been those most alarmed at psychohistory. To them, it is nothing less than a disfiguring, perhaps incurable epidemic that has invaded their craft. The “reckless psychologizing of the “woolly-minded men and women who call themselves psychohistorians,” Kenneth S. Lynn wrote in 1978, has grown into “a cancer that is metastasizing through the whole body of the historical profession.”

The language here is startlingly similar to what Acocella says of Luther’s legacy: “The Reformation wasn’t led, exactly; it just spread, metastasized.” Freud’s revolution may be over, while Luther’s, in some strange way, is just beginning. And if we want to understand one, we can still learn a lot from the other.

The back matter

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“Annotation may seem a mindless and mechanical task,” Louis Menand wrote a few years ago in The New Yorker. “In fact, it calls both for superb fine-motor skills and for adherence to the most exiguous formal demands.” Like most other aspects of writing, it can be all these things at once: mindless and an exercise of meticulous skill, mechanical and formally challenging. I’ve been working on the notes for Astounding for the last week and a half, and although I was initially dreading it, the task has turned out to be weirdly absorbing, in the way that any activity that requires repetitive motion but also continuous mild engagement can amount to a kind of hypnotism. The current draft has about two thousand notes, and I’m roughly three quarters of the way through. So far, the process has been relatively painless, although I’ve naturally tended to postpone the tricker ones for later, which means that I’ll end up with a big stack of problem cases to work through at the end. (My plan is to focus on notes exclusively for two weeks, then address the leftovers at odd moments until the book is due in December.) In the meantime, I’m spending hours every day organizing notes, which feels like a temporary career change. They live in their own Word file, like an independent work in themselves, and the fact that they’ll be bundled together as endnotes, rather than footnotes, encourages me to see them as a kind of bonus volume attached to the first, like a vestigial twin that clings to the book like a withered but still vigorous version of its larger sibling.

When you spend weeks at a time on your notes, you end up with strong opinions about how they should be presented. I don’t like numbered endnotes, mostly because the numeric superscripts disrupt the text, and it can frustrating to match them up with the back matter when you’re looking for one in particular. (When I read Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise, I found myself distracted by his determination to provide a numbered footnote for seemingly every factual statement, from the date of the Industrial Revolution to the source of the phrase “nothing new under the sun,” and that’s just the first couple of pages. Part of the art of notation is knowing what information you can leave out, and no two writers will come to exactly the same conclusions.) I prefer the keyword system, in which notes are linked to their referent in the body of the book by the page number and a snippet of text. This can lead to a telegraphic, even poetic summary of the contents when you run your eye down the left margin of the page, as in the section of my book about L. Ron Hubbard in the early sixties: “Of course Scientology,” “If President Kennedy did grant me an audience,” “Things go well,” “[Hubbard] chases able people away,” “intellectual garbage,” “Some of [Hubbard’s] claims,” “It is carefully arranged,” “very space opera.” They don’t thrust themselves on your attention until you need them, but when you do, they’re right there. These days, it’s increasingly common for the notes to be provided online, and I can’t guarantee that mine won’t be. But I hope that they’ll take their proper place at the end, where they’ll live unnoticed until readers realize that their book includes the original bonus feature.

The notion that endnotes can take on a life of their own is one that novelists from Nabokov to David Foster Wallace have brilliantly exploited. When reading Wallace’s Infinite Jest, the first thing that strikes most readers, aside from its sheer size, is its back matter, which takes up close to a hundred pages of closely printed notes at the end of the book. Most of us probably wish that the notes were a little more accessible, as did Dave Eggers, who observes of his first experience reading it: “It was frustrating that the footnotes were at the end of the book, rather than at the bottom of the page.” Yet this wasn’t an accident. As D.T. Max recounts in his fascinating profile of Wallace:

In Bloomington, Wallace struggled with the size of his book. He hit upon the idea of endnotes to shorten it. In April, 1994, he presented the idea to [editor Michael] Pietsch…He explained that endnotes “allow…me to make the primary-text an easier read while at once 1) allowing a discursive, authorial intrusive style w/o Finneganizing the story, 2) mimic the information-flood and data-triage I expect’d be an even bigger part of US life 15 years hence. 3) have a lot more technical/medical verisimilitude 4) allow/make the reader go literally physically ‘back and forth’ in a way that perhaps cutely mimics some of the story’s thematic concerns…5) feel emotionally like I’m satisfying your request for compression of text without sacrificing enormous amounts of stuff.” He also said, “I pray this is nothing like hypertext, but it seems to be interesting and the best way to get the exfoliating curve-line plot I wanted.” Pietsch countered with an offer of footnotes, which readers would find less cumbersome, but eventually agreed.

What’s particularly interesting here is that the endnotes physically shrink the size of Infinite Jest—simply because they’re set in smaller type—while also increasing how long it takes the diligent reader to finish it. Notes allow a writer to play games not just with space, but with time. (This is true even of the most boring kind of scholarly note, which amounts to a form of postponement, allowing readers to engage with it at their leisure, or even never.) In a more recent piece in The New Yorker, Nathan Heller offers a defense of notes in their proper place at the end of the book:

Many readers, and perhaps some publishers, seem to view endnotes, indexes, and the like as gratuitous dressing—the literary equivalent of purple kale leaves at the edges of the crudités platter. You put them there to round out and dignify the main text, but they’re too raw to digest, and often stiff. That’s partly true…Still, the back matter is not simply a garnish. Indexes open a text up. Notes are often integral to meaning, and, occasionally, they’re beautiful, too.

An index turns the book into an object that can be read across multiple dimensions, while notes are a set of tendrils that bind the text to the world, in Robert Frost’s words, “by countless silken ties of love and thought.” As Heller writes of his youthful job at an academic press: “My first responsibility there was proofreading the back matter of books…The tasks were modest, but those of us who carried them out felt that we were doing holy work. We were taking something intricate and powerful and giving it a final polish. I still believe in that refinement.” And so should we.

The men who sold the moonshot

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When you ask Google whether we should build houses on the ocean, it gives you a bunch of results like these. If you ask Google X, the subsidiary within the company responsible for investigating “moonshot” projects like self-driving cars and space elevators, the answer that you get is rather different, as Derek Thompson reports in the cover story for this month’s issue of The Atlantic:

Like a think-tank panel with the instincts of an improv troupe, the group sprang into an interrogative frenzy. “What are the specific economic benefits of increasing housing supply?” the liquid-crystals guy asked. “Isn’t the real problem that transportation infrastructure is so expensive?” the balloon scientist said. “How sure are we that living in densely built cities makes us happier?” the extradimensional physicist wondered. Over the course of an hour, the conversation turned to the ergonomics of Tokyo’s high-speed trains and then to Americans’ cultural preference for suburbs. Members of the team discussed commonsense solutions to urban density, such as more money for transit, and eccentric ideas, such as acoustic technology to make apartments soundproof and self-driving housing units that could park on top of one another in a city center. At one point, teleportation enjoyed a brief hearing.

Thompson writes a little later: “I’d expected the team at X to sketch some floating houses on a whiteboard, or discuss ways to connect an ocean suburb to a city center, or just inform me that the idea was terrible. I was wrong. The table never once mentioned the words floating or ocean. My pitch merely inspired an inquiry into the purpose of housing and the shortfalls of U.S. infrastructure. It was my first lesson in radical creativity. Moonshots don’t begin with brainstorming clever answers. They start with the hard work of finding the right questions.”

I don’t know why Thompson decided to ask about “oceanic residences,” but I read this section of the article with particular interest, because about two years ago, I spent a month thinking about the subject intensively for my novella “The Proving Ground.” As I’ve described elsewhere, I knew early on in the process that it was going to be a story about the construction of a seastead in the Marshall Islands, which was pretty specific. There was plenty of background material available, ranging from general treatments of the idea in books like The Millennial Project by Marshall T. Savage—which had been sitting unread on my shelf for years—to detailed proposals for seasteads in the real world. The obvious source was The Seasteading Institute, a libertarian pipe dream funded by Peter Thiel that generated a lot of useful plans along the way, as long as you saw it as the legwork for a science fiction story, rather than as a project on which you were planning to actually spend fifty billion dollars. The difference between most of these proposals and the brainstorming session that Thompson describes is that they start with a floating city and then look for reasons to justify it. Seasteading is a solution in search of a problem. In other words, it’s science fiction, which often starts with a premise or setting that seems like it would lead to an exciting story and then searches for the necessary rationalizations. (The more invisible the process, the better.) And this can lead us to troubling places. As I’ve noted before, Thiel blames many of this country’s problems on “a failure of imagination,” and his nostalgia for vintage science fiction is rooted in a longing for the grand gestures that it embodied: the flying car, the seastead, the space colony. As he famously said six years ago to The New Yorker: “The anthology of the top twenty-five sci-fi stories in 1970 was, like, ‘Me and my friend the robot went for a walk on the moon,’ and in 2008 it was, like, ‘The galaxy is run by a fundamentalist Islamic confederacy, and there are people who are hunting planets and killing them for fun.'”

Google X isn’t immune to this tendency—Google Glass was, if anything, a solution in search of a problem—and some degree of science-fictional thinking is probably inherent to any such enterprise. In his article, Thompson doesn’t mention science fiction by name, but the whole division is clearly reminiscent of and inspired by the genre, down to the term “moonshot” and that mysterious letter at the end of its name. (Company lore claims that the “X” was chosen as “a purposeful placeholder,” but it’s hard not to think that it was motivated by the same impulse that gave us Dimension X, X Minus 1, Rocketship X-M, and even The X-Files.) In fact, an earlier article for The Atlantic looked at this connection in depth, and its conclusions weren’t altogether positive. Three years ago, in the same publication, Robinson Meyer quoted a passage from an article in Fast Company about the kinds of projects favored by Google X, but he drew a more ambivalent conclusion:

A lot of people might read that [description] and think: Wow, cool, Google is trying to make the future! But “science fiction” provides but a tiny porthole onto the vast strangeness of the future. When we imagine a “science fiction”-like future, I think we tend to picture completed worlds, flying cars, the shiny, floating towers of midcentury dreams. We tend, in other words, to imagine future technological systems as readymade, holistic products that people will choose to adopt, rather than as the assembled work of countless different actors, which they’ve always really been. The futurist Scott Smith calls these “flat-pack futures,” and they infect “science fictional” thinking.

He added: “I fear—especially when we talk about “science fiction”—that we miss the layeredness of the world, that many people worked to build it…Flying through space is awesome, but if technological advocates want not only to make their advances but to hold onto them, we have better learn the virtues of incrementalism.” (The contrast between Meyer’s skepticism and Thompson’s more positive take feels like a matter of access—it’s easier to criticize Google X’s assumptions when it’s being profiled by a rival magazine.)

But Meyer makes a good point, and science fiction’s mixed record at dealing with incrementalism is a natural consequence of its origins in popular fiction. A story demands a protagonist, which encourages writers to see scientific progress in terms of heroic figures. The early fiction of John W. Campbell returns monotonously to the same basic plot, in which a lone genius discovers atomic power and uses it to build a spaceship, drawing on the limitless resources of a wealthy and generous benefactor. As Isaac Asimov noted in his essay “Big, Big, Big”:

The thing about John Campbell is that he liked things big. He liked big men with big ideas working out big applications of their big theories. And he liked it fast. His big men built big weapons within days; weapons that were, moreover, without serious shortcomings, or at least, with no shortcomings that could not be corrected as follows: “Hmm, something’s wrong—oh, I see—of course.” Then, in two hours, something would be jerry-built to fix the jerry-built device.

This works well enough in pulp adventure, but after science fiction began to take itself seriously as prophecy, it fossilized into the notion that all problems can be approached as provinces of engineering and solved by geniuses working alone or in small groups. Elon Musk has been compared to Tony Stark, but he’s really the modern incarnation of a figure as old as The Skylark of Space, and the adulation that he still inspires shades into beliefs that are even less innocuous—like the idea that our politics should be entrusted to similarly big men. Writing of Google X’s Rapid Evaluation team, Thompson uses terms that would have made Campbell salivate: “You might say it’s Rapid Eval’s job to apply a kind of future-perfect analysis to every potential project: If this idea succeeds, what will have been the challenges? If it fails, what will have been the reasons?” Science fiction likes to believe that it’s better than average at this kind of forecasting. But it’s just as likely that it’s worse.

Written by nevalalee

October 11, 2017 at 9:02 am

The man with the plan

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This month marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the release of Reservoir Dogs, a film that I loved as much as just about every other budding cinephile who came of age in the nineties. Tom Shone has a nice writeup on its legacy in The New Yorker, and while I don’t agree with every point that he makes—he dismisses Kill Bill, which is a movie that means so much to me that I named my own daughter after Beatrix Kiddo—he has insights that can’t be ignored: “Quentin [Tarantino] became his worst reviews, rather in the manner of a boy who, falsely accused of something, decides that he might as well do the thing for which he has already been punished.” And there’s one paragraph that strikes me as wonderfully perceptive:

So many great filmmakers have made their debuts with heist films—from Woody Allen’s Take the Money and Run to Michael Mann’s Thief to Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket to Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects—that it’s tempting to see the genre almost as an allegory for the filmmaking process. The model it offers first-time filmmakers is thus as much economic as aesthetic—a reaffirmation of the tenant that Jean-Luc Godard attributed to D. W. Griffith: “All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun.” A man assembles a gang for the implementation of a plan that is months in the rehearsal and whose execution rests on a cunning facsimile of midmorning reality going undetected. But the plan meets bumpy reality, requiring feats of improvisation and quick thinking if the gang is to make off with its loot—and the filmmaker is to avoid going to movie jail.

And while you could nitpick the details of this argument—Singer’s debut was actually Public Access, a movie that nobody, including me, has seen—it gets at something fundamental about the art of film, which lies at the intersection of an industrial process and a crime. I’ve spoken elsewhere about how Inception, my favorite movie of the last decade, maps the members of its mind heist neatly onto the crew of a motion picture: Cobb is the director, Saito the producer, Ariadne the set designer, Eames the actor, and Arthur is, I don’t know, the line producer, while Fischer, the mark, is a surrogate for the audience itself. (For what it’s worth, Christopher Nolan has stated that any such allegory was unconscious, although he seems to have embraced it after the fact.) Most of the directors whom Shone names are what we’d call auteur figures, and aside from Singer, all of them wear a writer’s hat, which can obscure the extent to which they depend on collaboration. Yet in their best work, it’s hard to imagine Singer without Christopher McQuarrie, Tarantino without editor Sally Menke, or Wes Anderson without Owen Wilson, not to mention the art directors, cinematographers, and other skilled craftsmen required to finish even the most idiosyncratic and personal movie. Just as every novel is secretly about the process of its own creation, every movie is inevitably about making movies, which is the life that its creators know most intimately. One of the most exhilarating things that a movie can do is give us a sense of the huddle between artists, which is central to the appeal of The Red Shoes, but also Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation, in which Tom Cruise told McQuarrie that he wanted to make a film about what it was like for the two of them to make a film.

But there’s also an element of criminality, which might be even more crucial. I’m not the first person to point out that there’s something illicit in the act of watching images of other people’s lives projected onto a screen in a darkened theater—David Thomson, our greatest film critic, has built his career on variations on that one central insight. And it shouldn’t surprise us if the filmmaking process itself takes on aspects of something done in the shadows, in defiance of permits, labor regulations, and the orderly progression of traffic. (Werner Herzog famously advised aspiring directors to carry bolt cutters everywhere: “If you want to do a film, steal a camera, steal raw stock, sneak into a lab and do it!”) If your goal is to tell a story about putting together a team for a complicated project, it could be about the Ballet Lermontov or the defense of a Japanese village, and the result might be even greater. But it would lack the air of illegality on which the medium thrives, both in its dreamlife and in its practical reality. From the beginning, Tarantino seems to have sensed this. He’s become so famous for reviving the careers of neglected figures for the sake of the auras that they provide—John Travolta, Pam Grier, Robert Forster, Keith Carradine—that it’s practically become his trademark, and we often forget that he did it for the first time in Reservoir Dogs. Lawrence Tierney, the star of Dillinger and Born to Kill, had been such a menacing presence both onscreen and off that that he was effectively banned from Hollywood after the forties, and he remained a terrifying presence even in old age. He terrorized the cast of Seinfield during his guest appearance as Elaine’s father, and one of my favorite commentary tracks from The Simpsons consists of the staff reminiscing nervously about how much he scared them during the recording of “Marge Be Not Proud.”

Yet Tarantino still cast him as Joe Cabot, the man who sets up the heist, and Tierney rewarded him with a brilliant performance. Behind the scenes, it went more or less as you might expect, as Tarantino recalled much later:

Tierney was a complete lunatic by that time—he just needed to be sedated. We had decided to shoot his scenes first, so my first week of directing was talking with this fucking lunatic. He was personally challenging to every aspect of filmmaking. By the end of the week everybody on set hated Tierney—it wasn’t just me. And in the last twenty minutes of the first week we had a blowout and got into a fist fight. I fired him, and the whole crew burst into applause.

But the most revealing thing about the whole incident is that an untested director like Tarantino felt capable of taking on Tierney at all. You could argue that he already had an inkling of what he might become, but I’d prefer to think that he both needed and wanted someone like this to symbolize the last piece of the picture. Joe Cabot is the man with the plan, and he’s also the man with the money. (In the original script, Joe says into the phone: “Sid, stop, you’re embarrassing me. I don’t need to be told what I already know. When you have bad months, you do what every businessman in the world does, I don’t care if he’s Donald Trump or Irving the tailor. Ya ride it out.”) It’s tempting to associate him with the producer, but he’s more like a studio head, a position that has often drawn men whose bullying and manipulation is tolerated as long as they can make movies. When he wrote the screenplay, Tarantino had probably never met such a creature in person, but he must have had some sense of what was in store, and Reservoir Dogs was picked up for distribution by a man who fit the profile perfectly—and who never left Tarantino’s side ever again. His name was Harvey Weinstein.

Writing with scissors

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Over the last few years, one of my great pleasures has been reading the articles on writing that John McPhee has been contributing on an annual basis to The New Yorker. I’ve written here about my reactions to McPhee’s advice on using the dictionary, on “greening” or cutting a piece by an arbitrary length, on structure, on frames of reference. Now his full book on the subject is here, Draft No. 4, and it’s arriving in my life at an opportune time. I’m wrapping up a draft of my own book, with two months to go before deadline, and I have a daunting set of tasks ahead of me—responding to editorial comments, preparing the notes and bibliography, wrestling the whole thing down to size. McPhee’s reasonable voice is a balm at such times, although he never minimizes the difficulty of the process itself, which he calls “masochistic, mind-fracturing self-enslaved labor,” even as he speaks of the writer’s “animal sense of being hunted.” And when you read Sam Anderson’s wonderful profile on McPhee in this week’s issue of The New York Times Magazine, it’s like listening to an old soldier who has been in combat so many times that everything that he says carries the weight of long experience. (Reading it, I was reminded a little of the film editor Walter Murch, whom McPhee resembles in certain ways—they look sort of alike, they’re both obsessed with structure, and they both seem to know everything. I was curious to see whether anyone else had made this connection, so I did a search for their names together on Google. Of the first five results, three were links from this blog.)

Anderson’s article offers us the portrait of a man who, at eighty-six, has done a better job than just about anyone else of organizing his own brain: “Each of those years seems to be filed away inside of him, loaded with information, ready to access.” I would have been equally pleased to learn that McPhee was as privately untidy as his writing is intricately patterned, but it makes sense that his interest in problems of structure—to which he returns endlessly—would manifest itself in his life and conversation. He’s interested in structure in the same way that the rest of us are interested in the lives of our own children. I never tire of hearing how writers deal with structural issues, and I find passages like the following almost pornographically fascinating:

The process is hellacious. McPhee gathers every single scrap of reporting on a given project—every interview, description, stray thought and research tidbit—and types all of it into his computer. He studies that data and comes up with organizing categories: themes, set pieces, characters and so on. Each category is assigned a code. To find the structure of a piece, McPhee makes an index card for each of his codes, sets them on a large table and arranges and rearranges the cards until the sequence seems right. Then he works back through his mass of assembled data, labeling each piece with the relevant code. On the computer, a program called “Structur” arranges these scraps into organized batches, and McPhee then works sequentially, batch by batch, converting all of it into prose. (In the old days, McPhee would manually type out his notes, photocopy them, cut up everything with scissors, and sort it all into coded envelopes. His first computer, he says, was “a five-thousand-dollar pair of scissors.”)

Anderson writes: “[McPhee] is one of the world’s few remaining users of a program called Kedit, which he writes about, at great length, in Draft No. 4.” The phrase “at great length” excites me tremendously—I’m at a point in my life where I’d rather hear about a writer’s favorite software program than his or her inspirational  thoughts on creativity—and McPhee’s process doesn’t sound too far removed from the one that I’ve worked out for myself. As I read it, though, I found myself thinking in passing of what might be lost when you move from scissors to a computer. (Scissors appear in the toolboxes of many of the writers and artists I admire. In The Elements of Style, E.B. White advises: “Quite often the writer will discover, on examining the completed work, that there are serious flaws in the arrangement of the material, calling for transpositions. When this is the case, he can save himself much labor and time by using scissors on his manuscript, cutting it to pieces and fitting the pieces together in a better order.” In The Silent Clowns, Walter Kerr describes the narrative challenges of filmmaking in the early fifties and concludes: “The problem was solved, more or less, with a scissors.” And Paul Klee once wrote in his diary: “What I don’t like, I cut away with the scissors.”) But McPhee isn’t sentimental about the tools themselves. In Anderson’s profile, the New Yorker editor David Remnick, who took McPhee’s class at Princeton, recalls: “You were in the room with a craftsman of the art, rather than a scholar or critic—to the point where I remember him passing around the weird mechanical pencils he used to use.” Yet there’s no question in my mind that McPhee would drop that one brand of pencil if he found one that he thought was objectively better. As soon as he had Kedit, he got rid of the scissors. When you’re trying to rethink structure from the ground up, you don’t have much time for nostalgia.

And when McPhee explains the rationale behind his methods, you can hear the pragmatism of fifty years of hard experience:

If this sounds mechanical, its effect was absolutely the reverse. If the contents of the seventh folder were before me, the contents of twenty-nine other folders were out of sight. Every organizational aspect was behind me. The procedure eliminated nearly all distraction and concentrated only the material I had to deal with in a given day or week. It painted me into a corner, yes, but in doing so it freed me to write.

This amounts to an elaboration of what I’ve elsewhere called my favorite piece of writing advice, which David Mamet offers in Some Freaks:

As a writer, I’ve tried to train myself to go one achievable step at a time: to say, for example, “Today I don’t have to be particularly inventive, all I have to be is careful, and make up an outline of the actual physical things the character does in Act One.” And then, the following day to say, “Today I don’t have to be careful. I already have this careful, literal outline, and I all have to do is be a little bit inventive,” et cetera, et cetera.

Mamet might as well have come out of the same box as Walter Murch and McPhee, which implies that I have a definite type when it comes to looking for advice. And what they all have in common, besides the glasses and beard, is the air of having labored at a craft for decades, survived, and returned to tell the tale. Of the three, McPhee’s career may be the most enviable of all, if only because he spent it in Princeton, not Hollywood. It’s nice to be able to structure an essay. The tricky part is structuring a life.

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