"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 1 February 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.


Addled Brains

Literary controversy has always tended toward the flyspecked. Barring the occasional dust-up over McCarthy-era betrayals or a j'accuse gesture from a Gallic lettrist, the stuff that propels the smart set's battles wouldn't sustain the limpest Spelling subplot. Remember the fur that flew between Wilson and Nabokov over the best way to translate Eugene Onegin? The great Danny Santiago Famous All Over Town flap, maybe? No? Well, how about hot-off-the-presses conniptions over the news that a famous story by Raymond Carver bears a striking resemblance to a not-so-famous story by D. H. Lawrence?

Now that we have your interest, we can remind you, as nearly every other media outlet has been doing lo these many weeks, that for true through-the-microscope literary intrigue, nothing rivals The New Yorker. Ever since the august weekly passed into the sweaty arriviste hands of Si Newhouse in 1987, there has been a brisk cottage industry in reminiscences and tidy jeremiads contrasting the magazine's storied past and its cheap-seats present. Bellyaching about the decline of The New Yorker (recent specimens of the magazine's dumbed-down, starfucking, anything-for-headlines meretriciousness include a narrative about slavery in Mauritania and a historic collection of letters from American veterans) is the snoboisie's equivalent of complaining that today's kids don't seem to care about anything. The more people hear it, the more they want to hear it.

Many of the leading themes of "The New Yorker That Was Mine" genre have now been conveniently distilled into the pages of Renata Adler's Gone: The Last Days of The New Yorker, a feverishly ballyhooed assault on many noble New Yorker eminences, now obsessively buzzed over in the cluttered terrarium that is the New York media world. Gone teems with solemn journalistic prescriptions and high corporate-cum-editorial intrigue, but mainly, it serves to remind you how unwholesome, gnat-straining, and sanity-threatening it is to fetishize a magazine as your all-purpose culture arbiter and reason for being. As you're marched yet again through all the ritual observances of the curious cult of William Shawn — the palace intrigue, the petty feuds and cat fights, the great "succession" question — you again appreciate how The New Yorker bred many a curdled writer and paranoid kulturatchik.

But still, none of this quite prepares you for Renata Adler. The jittery parabola of Adler's unhinged way in the world is a horror tale for anybody accustomed to thinking that the workplace is where you do, well, work. For Adler, the newsroom is reserved for Byzantine slights (editor Robert Gottlieb stands accused of leaving his office door open during a conversation) and first-time-freelancer gripes about getting rewritten (Adler daydreams about attacking printers who are pressing nonapproved versions of her work). This self-absorption extends to actual sources and stories. Witness her personal relationship with G. Gordon Liddy. "My mother's house," Adler writes, "... was in Danbury, Connecticut. Mr. Liddy was in the Danbury federal penitentiary. When he was caught in the Watergate burglary, Mr. Liddy burned the cash. Burning cash is an extremely powerful image. Cash is burned, for instance, in the fireplace in The Brothers Karamazov. Mr. Liddy, alone among the burglars, had stayed silent. I took it into my head that Mr. Liddy's silence was a sign, not just of loyalty, or stoicism, but that he knew a lot."

The strong, silent money-burner! And so close to mom! Of course he would know a lot! But might he also be breeding ... clones? On a book tour with the felon, she pauses to reflect that "he was devoted to his wife and his four children — each of them interesting, not one of them in any sense a clone of the others."

The woozy, free-associativeness of Gone compels the reader to reflect along the following lines: Did Adler suspect that the Liddy children had, at one point, been clones? That all children begin life as replicants? Or, for that matter, that I, perhaps, might be one?

There's scarcely a page in the trippy expanse of Gone that doesn't call forth a similar vision of our narrator as a jumpy, suggestible soul. And her own accounts of her dealings with the magazine's fabled editorial staff, from Shawn on down, indicate that those around her were keenly aware of these skittish qualities in their crack writer. In the unself-conscious tone that can be achieved only by a true nut, Adler recounts the travails of her many rejected New Yorker pieces and her spurned bids for advancement at the magazine. In every episode, Shawn conveys a halfhearted enthusiasm for a piece: It arrives, he sets about preparing it for publication, and then ruefully breaks the news to Adler with the same words every time — "It's very unfortunate." He then proceeds to explain how other editors — always "they" in Adler's noirish reminiscence — have staged an "uprising," have detected thinly veiled caricatures of real people in her work, have deemed her an unsuitable candidate for the magazine's fiction editorship. And nearly every time, Adler provides the same, increasingly-desperate-sounding epilog: "I returned to writing fiction."

Even readers conditioned to seeing this sort of baroquely indirect, passive-aggressive behavior from the William Shawns of the world can grasp the painfully simple dynamic here: He is trying to get rid of a nuisance, an erratic contributor with a penchant for the harebrained. In one instance, Shawn goes so far as to remit a US$1,500 check to Adler — for a piece she'd written for The New York Times Book Review. "A surprising man," Adler notes, "to send one check for a piece in another publication. On the other hand, in that period of scheduling and unscheduling pieces and stories, it was the only check I received from him."

What "other hand"? the reader silently implores. He wants you to write for other publications! If this leaves any ambiguity as to Shawn's canny rope-a-dope strategy of assign and retreat in all matters Adlerian, consider this editorial set piece. Returning from a sabbatical composing speeches for Senate Judiciary Chairman Peter Rodino over the course of the Watergate scandal (the climax of which she still somehow manages to date at the end of the Ford administration, in 1976), Adler seems altogether intoxicated on government investigative procedure. She begins crusading to add to the magazine an entire department — no, make that two departments — devoted to combing through the oceanic reams of documents and reports issued by the federal government. The idea is to free up reporters from their abject reliance on mere reporting from interviews. In a typically haughty, hallucinatory outburst, Adler dismisses even double-sourced reporting as nothing more than "gossip from two, possibly lying, possibly agreeing by prearrangement, and thus amounting really to a single source and an accomplice, almost certainly self-interested living 'sources.'" (One can only speculate how rampant cloning would compound this baroque and twilit "source" intrigue.)

And yes, again, Shawn initially approves of the proposal, but in that faux-innocent way of his suggests, "Before we establish a department, why don't you try writing just one piece?" By now we can see the rest of the story as clearly as if Shawn had turned toward the camera and spelled it out in a stage whisper: "It became sort of a joke. I interviewed the heads of the G.S.A. and the G.A.O. My house filled with documents from agencies. Working on my own, I found it hopeless. We were stuck right there. I went back to writing fiction."



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