Addled Brains

With its abundant evidence of Adler's frazzled grasp of the real and of Shawn's cruel enabling antics, (he strings Adler along at the magazine for nearly three decades), you'd think Gone would be of interest only to shrinks. But the witless reception of Adler's book as a serious work of hard-hitting criticism indicates the real loonies are wandering free outside the giggle academy.

An effusive Michael Wolff — no doubt encouraged to have found a writer more bilious and pathological than himself — makes passing note of the "weird crypticness" of Adler's prose stylings, but marvels that, don't you know, this is New Yorker writing. Even the 13-year bout of silence between Gone and Adler's previous book bespeaks, in Wolff's view, "a very New Yorker way of writing (or not writing), to burn with the greatest intensity and then to stop." Even not to publish, and yet somehow to imbibe the ambience bestowed on you by the magazine, Wolff insists, still meant "you were a New Yorker writer, perhaps even more so. You were a member of the most elite club of writers in America." In other words, the politics of literary reputation bloats, in the refined and delicate precincts of New Yorker–dom, into a gruesome hybrid of corporate welfare and alumni preference: You become even more distinguished, nay, "most elite," by virtue of doing not a lick of work. Perhaps Adler is only crazy like a fox. Still, it's not the sort of precedent one would want to see extended, say, to airline mechanics.

But for a truly psychotic appreciation, look to Arthur Lubow's recent profile of Adler in the New York Times Magazine. Lubow goes Wolff one better by not merely embracing silence as writing but divining entire snatches of high-literary dialog in the spaces between Adler's clipped yet gnomic utterances. He finds conversation with her "widely allusive and monumentally vague, in which pronouns lack antecedents and witticisms are anticipated and responded to without there being any need to utter them into the common air." And this telepathic repartee is not merely just very New Yorker, it seems: "I felt like I had wandered into a late novel by Henry James. 'It can't be' she would say. 'I think you're right. It can't be. And yet. No, it can't be.'"

And yet. You can't help feeling, amid such patent idiocy, a bit of sympathy for Adler. Like Mr. Shawn, Messrs Wolff and Lubow seem hellbent on encasing Adler in the hermetic embrace of The New Yorker's elastic yet suffocating mythos.

In Lubow's hands, this procedure becomes downright creepy. He seems transfixed with her less as a writer than as an object: a collectible period piece dating from the age when literary giants strode down the center of West 43rd Street like the Nephilim. He dotes for uncomfortable stretches on Adler's singular "photogenic" appearance ("her large, dark, challenging eyes meeting the viewer in a gaze both intimate and aloof"). With dead earnestness, he claims to find, in Adler's social calendar, evidence of her "legendary" status (in addition to dinners with Brooke Astor and a reading group "that includes Astor and Anne Bass, Annette de la Renta and Drue Heinz," she "is friendly with Henry Kissinger").

It's worth noting that people this connected are the reason bloody revolutions happen. But to stick with our original theme, let's trace the Adler phenomenon back to the decline of a magazine. The New Yorker's emergence from its hermit's cave — like the supposed rise of "negative campaigning" — is one of those self-defining problems: We never ask ourselves whether it's actually a bad thing. If The New Yorker was ever the greatest magazine in the world (Not a foregone conclusion: We still lean toward either Dynamite or International Journal of Machine Tools and Manufacture), this status had less to do with Shawn's rarefied fussing over commas or the self-infatuated layabouts at the Round Table than with the fact that the magazine appealed to, and was read by, mainstream Americans. During World War II, there were even special compact printings of The New Yorker for readers in the service (the defenders of Bastogne were later able to recognize German infiltrators by their habit of leaving the office door open during conversation). Today's mooning over this holy grail of literary journalism, by contrast, is a sign of fossilization, not sophistication.

Thus, when you actually read Gone and encounter nonempirical reveries like Wolff's and Lubow's, you come to realize that Shawn's New Yorker succumbed to just this kind of lifeless fetishization, rather than any swashbuckling indignities visited upon it by Si, Tina, or Adam and Co. The life of Renata Adler, in its own irritating, crabbed, and privileged way, bears poignant testimony to the devastating effects of confusing clubbiness with culture. Rather than using Gone as an occasion to mourn the passing of this stifling social contract, we should ask why we ever suffered it to be, um, Here, in just this way, in the first place.

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Holly Martins

Terry Colon