Even The Nicer Moments Are a Little Intolerable
February 13, 2020 1:30 PM   Subscribe

The appeal is undeniable: a simple story of coming out of the shadow of a Great Man. Yet I don’t think that’s the process either of these books is really describing. There’s nothing straightforward in finding independence by way of dating a famous man. There are also tangled questions of agency and desire, of what’s in it for anyone who attaches herself to a celebrity. Infinite Jerk by Laura Marsh [The New Republic]

Ostensibly a review of Adrienne Miller's new memoir, In the Land of Men, Marsh also weaves in Lisa Halliday's Asymmetry, and takes a sharp look at the literary world, fame & relationships with famous, christ-what-an-asshole men.

More on Miller's book:
Sexism and Genius Collide ‘In the Land of Men’ [NYT]
'Land of Men' is literary junkie's dream come true [ABCgo]

More on Lisa Halliday's book:
Why “Asymmetry” Has Become a Literary Phenomenon [The New Yorker]
The Enthusiast: How Lisa Halliday ‘got' Philip Roth – and me [The Globe and Mail]
posted by chavenet (6 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Oh, thanks for posting this. I read it with great interest, but as an Asymmetry stan, I'd like to offer an alternative reading of Alice. Ezra Blazer isn't a Great Man. He's quite an ordinary man — fragile, flesh — propped up by a sexist system, as Alice learns in her time down his rabbit hole, and it's via her act of creation that we know her. Telling us more facts about her, like, preferences is irrelevant. Even as she's dismissed in the brief third section, we have her work to savor, solid in our memories. Notice we see no excerpts from his work.
posted by purpleclover at 6:33 PM on February 13 [3 favorites]

He portrays himself as juvenile and helpless, a savant so incapable of caring for himself that an old woman prepares and delivers his meals each week. When he walks his dogs, named Drone and Cancer, they pee outside, and he pees with them

Jesus fuck. How positively enraging - can you imagine if someone like Anne Tyler - who has more ability in her little finger than the hollow pyrotechnics of Wallace - behaved like this??

There’s another context for these books, which is the decline of the publishing industry and the shrinking demand for literary fiction.

I totally support the author's broader point about the collapse of print magazines - indeed I lived through it myself as a freelancer in the early 2000s and it frigging sucked - but, I'm not so sure about the the decline of the publishing industry, so much as one particular formulation of it. And likewise, shrinking demand for middlebrow, mass market literary fiction.

Mass media touchstones are now GOT and Avengers, absolutely. But this transformation took place, I would argue, much much earlier than the 2000s. I think this point has been muddled by talking about Roth, Mailer et al in the article - they absolutely were the Benioff's and Weis' of their day, in the sixties and part of the seventies. By the time of Wallace's ascension, celebrity writers were already a dying breed. Indeed, Wallace's popularity demonstrates it - he was certainly a big man on campus; Roth and Mailer were big men on tv and news.
posted by smoke at 7:21 PM on February 13 [5 favorites]

When he walks his dogs, named Drone and Cancer

First off, I think that everyone who dates men should get some kind of packet in which there's an article about how to identify self-impressed people, and "he named his dogs Drone and Cancer to freak the mundanes" should be the title of a substantial section.

Wallace is just revealed as a worse and worse person the more you know about him. But also a very nineties person. There were a lot of good things about the nineties - I myself enjoyed them quite a lot quite a lot of the time - but most of the counterculture and trendy culture was really really misogynist, even the stuff that was understood as feminist at the time. The eighties put us so deep in the hole of bigotry and misogyny that although I think a lot of people were trying to climb out, our efforts were still pretty terrible. Like, a lot of these guys who stand out as awful bro-y misogynist creeps now actually seemed better than average at the time. (Not Wallace, but a lot of them.)

I'm also baffled by why people consider Wallace a "difficult" writer. He's "difficult" in the sense that he writes at great length and in great detail, but so do a lot of people. He's "difficult" like maybe people find Dickens or Fielding difficult, in that you need to get used to the rhythm of his sentences, but that's about it. Wallace is the very definition of middlebrow. Before his absolutely appalling personal behavior became well-known, in fact, I used to like that about him - he was middlebrow and basically accessible without being utterly trite and empty.

And likewise, shrinking demand for middlebrow, mass market literary fiction.

At least around here, middlebrow literary fiction is doing very nicely - we have several successful newish bookstores (that is, old enough to have proved that they're making it) which are nothing but middlebrow, on-trend books - you go in and every single book is carefully curated, you would get the same middle of the road Netflix-level golden-age-of-TV enjoyment out of reading any book in the place and there's nothing published before about 2012. It's very depressing - if you want a book that is being heavily discussed on, eg, LitHub and that "everyone" is reading, they will undoubtedly have it. If you want, say, a particular Virginia Woolf novel, or even the trendy middlebrow fiction of 2015, they won't.
posted by Frowner at 6:28 AM on February 14 [10 favorites]

re: "drone and cancer" as a red flag. it sounds like a gotcha moment, and I'm not doubting the rest of the documented misogyny, but:

Considering he was widely written about......and dozens and dozens of people & visitors mentioned the details of his interactions with dogs including the dog's names, it's worth noting that he called his dogs "The Drone and Jeeves after the club and author respectively" (and others called, amongst other names: roger)......There's no mention of "cancer" anywhere in the descriptions of the dogs......
posted by lalochezia at 7:47 AM on February 14 [2 favorites]

He establishes a code of silence around their conversations, which he calls “dead man’s talk” (this includes a confession that he took out a hit on someone).

Um. That's a heck of a parenthetical to throw in there with absolutely no follow-up.
posted by Atom Eyes at 11:37 AM on February 14 [6 favorites]

Jeeves didn't write those books. If he had, they'd've been even more wildly successful.
posted by Don Pepino at 12:16 PM on February 14 [3 favorites]

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