Crisis Management

The New York Times is apparently determined to make a man out of me. In January Katie Roiphe chided the post-Boomer generation of writers for being diffident about sex, if not outright scared of it. Now, A.O. Scott laments the wussiness that he believes seems to pervade members of Generation X as they—as I—approach middle age. “How can a generation whose cultural trademark is a refusal to grow up have a midlife crisis?” Scott asks.

Exhibit A in Scott’s argument is Sam Lipsyte‘s The Ask, a very funny novel about modern-day Weltschmerz, but one that says more about particular moment in life than any particular generation. That’s not to deny that Milo, Lipsyte’s schlumpfy anti-hero, is an Xer, or that his concerns and tone don’t have a uniquely Gen X spin to them. The cynicism about a culture that broke up their parents, that argued against corporations, and that handed them a recession as soon as they got out of college—it’s all there. And a degree of shock over what everyday success and attainment might meant to them is there too. Milo notices early on that his doppelgangers stalk the streets of his neighborhood:

A man who looked a bit like me, same eyewear, same order of sneaker, charged past. They were infiltrating, the freaking me’s. The me’s were going to wreck everything, hike rents, demand better salads. The me’s were going to drive me away.

If that’s an X-ish experience, the sense of disorientation captured in those sentences isn’t so specific, which speaks to the creakiest beam in Scott’s essay. “Earlier versions of the crisis were, by and large, reactions against social norms,” he writes. “Members of the Greatest Generation and the one that came right after — the ‘Mad Men’ guys, their wives and secretaries — settled down young into a world where the parameters of career and domesticity seemed fixed, and then proceeded, by the force of their own restlessness, to blow it all up.” But Xers, like every generation, were raised with social norms too, just an inversion of what Boomers were raised with—the new rule was that we were going to have to figure out a lot of this ourselves, because families, corporations, and government had largely proven themselves untrustworthy. The norm was to be entrepreneurial, to the point of investing heavily in crackpot Dot-com Boom projects. To the extent you consider yourself more or less successful by that standard, the more or less susceptible you might be susceptible to a midlife crisis.

Which is to say that there’s no good reason to think that any of the midlife-crisis novels Gen Xers will increasing pump out in the coming years will be much different than the ones that came before them—every generation grow up to clash against the standards they were raised with. After reading Scott’s essay, I couldn’t help but think of The Ask as a kind of cousin to Richard Yates‘ 1961 novel, Revolutionary Road. A grumpy, bitter, alcoholic cousin, to be sure. But the despair that stalks that novel’s hero, Frank Wheeler, has the same wellspring as the one that stalks Milo—the feeling of being stuck in a dead-end job with ridiculous demands, of believing you were destined for bigger and better things. When Frank first takes a gig at his father’s employer, a stand-in for IBM called Knox Business Machines, he does it with a sense of irony that would cheer the heart of anybody who caught Reality Bites when it opened in theaters:

And so it started as a kind of joke. Others might fail to see the humor of it, but it filled Frank Wheeler with a secret, astringent delight as he discharged his lazy duties…. And the best part of the joke was what happened every afternoon at five. Buttoned-up and smiling among the Knox men, nodding goodnight as the elevator set him free, he would take a crosstown bus and a downtown bus to Bethune Street … and there a beautiful, disheveled girl would be waiting, a girl as totally unlike the wife of a Knox man as the apartment was unlike a Knox man’s home.

Milo could relate. And Yates wasn’t unique; a list of novels that capture similar emotions wouldn’t be too hard to put together. (Add to the tally Saul Bellow‘s Henderson the Rain King, Richard Ford‘s The Sportswriter, and James Hynes‘ brilliant new novel, Next.) Midlife crises are an American tradition, and Lipsyte (in that knowing, Gen X way), writes as if he’s aware of it—indeed, perhaps the biggest difference between Yates’ brand of despair and Lipsyte’s isn’t so much generational but authorial. Revolutionary Road is written in the third person, with Yates authoritatively applying fear and anxiety onto his poor characters. In The Ask, written in the first person, Milo takes control of the story, embracing his initial inability to manage things when they go off the rails. I’ve read that book and seen that movie, Milo’s character seems to say. Let me figure it out; I’m a grownup.

Links: Get It Right

I’ve just finished Marlon James‘ second novel, The Book of Night Women, which is every bit as good as Maud Newton says it is. (If you’re in D.C., he reads at Borders L Street on March 3.)

An excellent blog post by Dave Tabler on the contretemps between Sinclair Lewis and William Stidger, the model for Elmer Gantry. (h/t Whet Moser)

Wednesday marked the 100th anniversary of Wallace Stegner‘s birth. The New York TimesTimothy Egan recalls how Stegner was screwed over by the Times.

The film version of Revolutionary Road tanked at the box office, but the book’s doing fine.

Scott Esposito crowdsourced his decision about which John Barth book to read first.

Michael Dirda writes an appreciation of John Updike for the Chronicle of Higher Education. And that’s it: I’m done with John Updike appreciations until the biography comes out.

The Best of the 50s

Over the Christmas weekend the Louisville Courier-Journal ran a nice piece by Scott Timberg about our collective fascination with 50s America. Mad Men and Revolutionary Road are the obvious pegs, but the piece smartly spends more time exploring some of the reasons why that decade is so romanticized today. (Timberg’s main sources on this point are Richard Yates biographer Blake Bailey and Nixonland author Rick Perlstein, but I’d argue the real expert on the matter is Stephanie Coontz, whose book The Way We Never Were is a fascinating debunking of Ozzie & Harriet mythologizing.)

It’s striking to see, reading the article, how crucial books were in exposing and perhaps changing they way mainstream Americans behaved back then, and I’m hard-pressed to argue that they have the same impact today. Has Susan Faludi done as much as The Feminine Mystique? Does anything by Michael Pollan have enough force to change policy the way Silent Spring did? Why didn’t a book like, say, David Simon and Edward Burns’ The Corner shine a spotlight on urban poverty the way The Other America did?

Timberg’s story also introduces me to a book I badly need to be acquainted with. In arguing that the “’50s were crucial years for American fiction, with important work from Saul Bellow, Vladimir Nabokov and Flannery O’Connor as well as the outlaw energies of the Beats and Norman Mailer,” Timberg calls on Morris Dickstein, author of Leopards in the Temple: The Transformation of American Fiction 1945-1970. Arguing that we have a “selective cultural memory” about that decade, he tells Timberg:

“Even more than the 1960s, this is a period too often reduced to stereotypes,” he writes, “and its culture has been seen by some literary scholars and art historians as little more than a reflex of the Cold War, repressive, patriotic, and militantly small-minded. … The postwar period, especially the 1950s, has been simplified into everything the ’60s generation rebelled against.”

Links: Playing Catch-up

Was Cincinnati’s “King of the Bootleggers” the model for Jay Gatsby?

Speaking of F. Scott Fitzgerald and drinking, the resort where he attempted to dry out is open to visitors.

J.D. Salinger turns 90 this week.

There are still a couple of days left in National Buy a Book by a Black Author and Give It to Somebody Not Black Month.

David Robson makes a nice case for Revolutionary Road, but the essay mainly served to remind me of the fine piece that J.R. Jones wrote for the Chicago Reader in 2003 about his relationship with Richard Yates in his later years. Jones’ piece is a lengthy, nicely turned study of what made Yates such an appealing personality, in spite of his much-documented prickliness and compulsions:

Yates went on living…staying in Tuscaloosa after his semester in the Strode House [as a writer-in-residence at the University of Alabama] was up–rent was cheap, and the writing department would pay him a small stipend to read student manuscripts. Whenever I talked to him about his situation he told me he had to make 66 and get on social security. He moved into a spartan two-room apartment near campus, on Alaca Place, and Dan Childress, a writing student who took care of Yates in innumerable ways, helped him buy a used car.
We students were glad to see him stay. He was precise and honest in his responses to our work, and he seemed to take us seriously as writers. He also understood one thing even some of our spouses didn’t–the time demands of the work, the need for long stretches of silence and solitude. “I think it probably is the hardest and loneliest profession in the world,” he told the Transatlantic Review in 1972, “this crazy, obsessive business of trying to be a good writer. None of us ever knows how much time he has left, or how well he’ll be able to use that time, or whether, even if he does use his time well, his work will ever withstand and survive the terrible, inexorable indifference of time itself.” Surely he envied us our time as much as we envied him his talent.

Links: McInerney, Gessen, Mailer, and Other Fights

Michael Kinsley makes a case for Jay McInerney‘s Bright Lights, Big City, which seems odd.

Jonathan Yardley makes a case for Keith Gessen‘s All the Sad Young Literary Men, which seems even more odd.

Meanwhile, the journal that Gessen edits, n+1, is getting into some kind of slapfight with Nextbook.

Novelist Stephen Elliott (who I wrote about way back when) is busily blogging at

Not one of [Richard] Yates‘ books ever sold more than 12,000 copies. The author suffered a lifetime in near-poverty writing skillfully honest fiction that many magazines deemed too harsh and cruel to publish. He collected one rejection slip after another, and tortured himself over such critiques as his ‘mean-spirited view of things,’ from the New Yorker, whose fiction editor Roger Angell finally told the writer to give up and stop submitting, because he’d never get in.”

“Seven False Starts About the Death of [David Foster] Wallace”

The closing of Newsweek‘s excellent profile of Barney Rosset mentions Maidstone (not “Maidenhead”), a film perhaps best-known for spawning an on-set fight between Rip Torn and writer-director Norman Mailer. Let’s go to the tape (the fun starts about 90 seconds in):

Yates’ Fighting Words

In the New York Sun, Benjamin Lytal revisits Richard YatesRevolutionary Road—a fairly unprovocative work about suburbia today, now that Little Children can be a bestseller (a movie version will come out at the end of the year), but tough to wrestle with in 1961:

Yates isn’t interested in expressing tenderness. His characters are doomed, and he leaves it at that. One of his many rejection letters from the New Yorker complained of his “mean-spirited view of things.” Yates was never published there, while “Precious John,” as Yates called Updike, found ample space.

Sunday Miscellany

The Guardian makes an argument for Richard Yates‘ membership in the American canon.

Marcus Sakey‘s second novel, At the City’s Edge, is next on my to-read pile. (I’m probably sublimating some Chicago homesickness in reaching for that before Beautiful Children, but Sakey’s debut was a smart thriller, and I’m curious to see what he’s done the second time around.) The Chicago Tribune has a glowing review; the Toledo Blade has an interview.

More homesickness: Chinua Achebe, living on the campus of Bard College and missing his native Nigeria, discusses Things Fall Apart on its 50th anniversary.