Thursday, March 06, 2008

Vanity, ignorance, or loneliness

"OMG! You're a Janet Malcolm fan? I'm a Janet Malcolm fan! We're going to be BFFs!"

I'm not saying that I've ever uttered this exact sentence, but pretty close. I have several BFF-ships based around--or at least supported by--a mutual adoration for The Silent Woman and The Journalist and the Murderer. When I saw that she was reviewing the Gossip Girl books for the New Yorker, I was delighted to find her reveling in the deliciously out-there teen serial novels. Malcolm has a perfect ear to pick out the great passages in the Gossip Girl books. She gets great mileage out of this episode:
Ensconced at the Plaza, Blair calls Nate and tells him to “get your ass over here right now.” Nate agrees, but, because he is with friends getting stoned, he quickly forgets about the call. Blair waits and waits. She calls Nate and gets no reply. (He has wandered off to the Battery to sail his father’s boat to Bermuda and left his cell phone behind.) Blair is wearing black silk La Perla underwear and has ordered champagne and caviar on toast points. She eats a toast point, then another, and calls her father, Harold Waldorf, in the South of France, “where he’d been living since he and Eleanor split up over his gayness almost two years ago.” It is late at night in France, and “Blair could picture him perfectly, naked except for a pair of royal blue silk boxer shorts, his sleeping lover—François or Eduard or whatever his name was—snoring softly beside him.”

Malcolm makes clear in her review that she believes the CW television show bis a pale imitation of the literary bitchery in the serial novels. I get as much campy fun as I possibly can out of the television show: when there were new episodes, I'd dress up as Blair and try to convince my friends to dress up as Serena and Vanessa. This weekly costume party (of one--they usually begged out) led to such conversations as:

A.: (in a red satin brocade '50s sheath dress with matching short-sleeved jacket) Ta-da!
M.: That is (pause) a great dress for you to wear inside your apartment.
A.: It's pretty short, I guess.
M.: It's a little '80s.
A.: Fifties! The trends, they resurface... (tries to sit down) O-ho! It's a little tight to sit down in, too. It's just made for someone six inches shorter. I'll have to sit very still.

Back to Malcolm: she's such a great choice for the review because I can easily imagine Blair Waldorf uttering this famous first paragraph of The Journalist and the Murderer (bolded B. for Blair):
Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse. Like the credulous widow who wakes up one day to find the charming young man and all her savings gone, so the consenting subject of a piece of nonfiction writing learns--when the article or book appears--his hard lesson. Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments. The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and 'the public's right to know'; the least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living.

xoxo, gossip girl!

(Blair, one of those hard lessons would appear to be: don't do burlesque in front of the slimy Chuck Bass and then sleep with him in the back of his limo... as he will then sneeringly compare you to his father's ruined horses and call you a whore while he is wearing the most fabulous salmon-and-black houndstooth sweater cardigan ever made. Seriously, Starbury wore its blazer cousin last night.)

Indeed, Blair would probably identify more with the next paragraph in Malcolm's book: for she loves being the subject of conversation on the Gossip Girl blog network but wants the treachery to work on a one-way street:
The catastrophe suffered by the subject is no simple matter of an unflattering likeness or a misrepresentation of his views; what pains him, what rankles and sometimes drives him to extremes of vengefulness is the deception that has been practiced on him. On reading the article or book in question, he has to face the fact that the journalist--who seemed so friendly and sympathetic, so keen to understand him fully, so remarkably attuned to his vision of things--never had the slightest intention of collaborating with him on his story but always intended to write a story of his own. The disparity between what seems to be the intention of an interview as it is taking place and what it actually turns out to have been in aid of always comes as a shock to the subject.

Again, one could say the same thing about doing burlesque.

In those paragraphs--which I have heard from friends are photocopied and stapled up in a slightly self-serious way in many interns' offices at various newsweeklies, etc.--Malcolm is saying something that took Joan Didion only a sentence to say: "Writers are always selling someone out." Part of me wants to see Didion do Gossip Girl because she has a great eye for those details that Cecily von Ziegesar picks out and Malcolm repeats. Here, I'm going to pick out a couple of sentences and see if it'll work. I'll open up Play It As It Lays to a random chapter...
"I want a very large steak," she said to Les Goodwin in a restaurant on Melrose at eight o'clock that night. "And before the very large steak I want three drinks. And after the steak I want to g o somewhere with very loud music."
"Like where."
"I don't know where. You ought to know where. You know a lot of places with loud music."
"What's the matter with you."
"I am just very very tired of listening to you."

Too obvious? Run River is even easier:
...at one of Francie's parties last year, when Ryder Channing had announced belligerently that he owed money to five of the ten men in the room, it had occurred to Lily that she had been to bed with seven, and in four cases could not remember exactly when or where. They were all, now, one error in taste. Although she had not been to a river party in June, she could remember what had happened after that one with the distorted clarity that hung about the whole of June: it had not been the first party she had deserted for a hotel room, but it had been the first party she had deserted for a room at the Senator, which she had thought of, still, as her father's hotel. Her father had liked the Senator bar, and several times when she was small he had taken her there for lemonade with grenadine.

Fast-forward a few years with Blair--certainly not boring, dimwitted Serena--as she takes a job working on a campaign and got mixed up in Latin American politics? From my absolute favorite Didion novel, The Last Thing He Wanted:
Elena's apparently impenetrable performances in the various roles assigned her were achieved (I see now) only with considerable effort and at considerable cost. All that reinvention, all those fast walks and clean starts, all that had cost something. It had cost something to grow up watching her father come and go and do his deals without ever noticing what it was he dealt. Father's Occupation: Investor. It had cost something to talk to Melissa Simon on Westlake Career Day when all her attention was focused on the beam. ... It had cost something to remember the Fourth of July her father's friend brought fireworks up from the border and to confine the picture to the fat little sizzler rockets she had not liked and the sparklers that made fireflies in the hot desert twilight.
To limit what she heard to half a margarita and I'm already flying, who needs the goombahs, we got our own show right here.
To keep the name of her father's friend just outside the frame of what she remembered.

Now I see why I love Gossip Girl so much: I watch it through the lens of Joan Didion. That and the clothes.

Labels: , , , ,

Blogger GS on Thu Mar 06, 11:19:00 PM:
I recently read "In the Freud Archives" - it was amazing.
 
Blogger Ben on Sun Mar 09, 04:00:00 PM:
I agree -- "In the Freud Archives" is one of the greatest bang-for-the-buck (measured in amazingness per hour spent reading/watching/doing) things ever! It's like a two-hour master class in the history of psychoanalysis, the nature of megalomania, and the intensity of struggles for power in obscure corners.