The Silliest Man in New York
Wolcott reviews Adam Gopnik's latest book in TNR. Wolcott isn't Marvin Mudrick, but he remembers him fondly.
Gopnik's writing about art in the New Yorker in the 1990s had an almost emetic effect on the boyfriend I was living with at the time. Each week the New Yorker would arrive, I'd devour it almost from cover to cover, and S. would browse it, and when he came across the latest bit of Gopnik he would break out swearing. He would read each Gopnik piece, I suppose with the same sort of curiosity that makes you open that plastic container that's been in the back of the fridge for three months. And the effect, as I say, was similar. S., for one thing, was an artist who had grown up in New York when it was a place where artists really lived and worked. His parents were both artists, and many of their friends were as well. S. went to Dalton when it was still a school for artists' kids, and he grew up, well, among some of the people that Gopnik wrote about. S. didn't live in New York any more, he lived in Southern California, but he still had a sort of proprietary air about these subjects, the way you would feel about your childhood memories.
My reaction was less extreme. I just found that I didn't want to believe a word Gopnik wrote. His facts were, of course, all right; it was his prose, his tone, his designs on the reader The effect of his prose on me was like shaking hands with someone who has an extremely wet and clammy handshake. You just want your hand back, asap. I would get through a Gopnik piece, just barely, and feel I had been slightly cheated out of something. What I was cheated out of was the experience of whatever Gopnik was talking about. Obviously if I read an article about painting I don't necessarily feel cheated out of the experiece of seeing the painting. When I read Robert Hughes, for example, I get motivated to go see paintings or see them again because in some way he is really offering the experience to the reader, generously. Even when I don't agree with his judgments I can feel that at least he isn't getting in the way, just giving me something to think about when I do go and look.
Gopnik's writing has the completely opposite effect. He manages somehow to distill experience down to pure vanity, A sort of whimsical gushy breathless arch sentimental earnest and deeply solipsistic vanity: it is epidemic to the higher reaches of the magazine business, and it's part of the New Yorker brand, gently satirized in its mascot, Eustace Tilley (the fellow with the top hat and the pince-nez). But it is now epidemic as a sort of stance, a pose, an entitlement of the arriviste. It is the pose you assume when you have achieved a comfortable niche in the mountain of radioactive poo: "OK you are now allowed to be interesting. But you will be interesting in just this exact same way as all the rest of us."
My brief exposure to this sort of thing in the real world made me feel depressed. But it seems to make Gopnik euphoric. It's like he has persuaded himself that he was born a New Yorker New Yorker, that fictional creature.
A careerist with delicate antennae, he wants to be encouraged, petted, praised, promoted, and congratulated. (In Gone: The Last Days of The New Yorker, Renata Adler memorably encapsulated his modus operandi: "I had learned over the course of conversations with Mr. Gopnik that his questions were not questions, or even quite soundings. Their purpose was to maneuver you into advising him to do what he would, in any case, walk over corpses to do.")
And you should read Renata Adler's book on the New Yorker.