Reading: Vanity, Humanity, Urbanity

Reading The Vanity Fair Diaries, by Tina Brown; The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, by Denis Johnson; and Neon In Daylight, by Hermione Hoby, which are reads number 4, 5, and 6 for 2018 and that makes for four new releases and only two from my backlog/older books resolution; so, next up I have James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room on top of the pile, waiting to go.

The Vanity Fair Diaries: 1983-1992, Tina Brown, Hardcover, 436pp, November 2017, Henry Holt and Company

I’m not quite sure how or why, but one day in my mailbox this showed up, a gift from Henry Holt and Company. I felt all aflush with self-importance, briefly deluding myself I’d achieved Literati status, recognized as an influencer, someone who mattered, a small-pond version of the very sort of person Vanity Fair has always covered.

I was quickly disabused of said delusion when the other thing in the mailbox was a notice of a fine being charged for falling below the minimum balance in my bank account. And so it goes for most of us, on the one hand imagining that at any moment one’s fame-ship will come in, while on the other hand daily coping with the drudging monotony of keeping one’s head above water, which dichotomous struggle perhaps explains the appeal of Vanity Fair.

When Tina Brown was called from London to rescue the quickly sinking revival of the magazine which heyday had ended in the mid-1930s, there was much snark and snipe in the vicious world of New York media. But Brown had her finger on the pulse of the Zeitgeist and her focus on the beautiful and the aspirational, with some Hollywood and international royalty, scandal, and hard news thrown into the mix, created a publishing behemoth, raking in subscribers, ad revenue, great writers and photographers, and exclusives throughout the age of Reagan and the wretched excess of selfish me-firstness that resulted in the collapse of markets and bubbles, which somehow managed to give birth to the atmosphere that’s landed this country with a bigoted, ignorant white supremacist fascist in the White House and his like-minded, equally venal and avaricious, jackbooted cronies and racist, moronic followers supporting his nefarious, treasonous destruction of what once was America.

Ironically, the latest version of Vanity Fair has done all it could to take down 45, while, arguably, this magazine was part of creating the slimy milieu which gave birth to him; he was much covered in the 80s version. A problem here being this conundrum: Was Tina Brown’s contribution her uncanny ability to spot trends, or, did she help to manufacture them — the fads, the people, the behaviors — by determining them worthy of coverage and assaulting us with them?

I leave those questions for sociologists in the future — on the off-chance we have a future — and suggest to you that whether or not you’ll enjoy the book has to do with where you were and what you were doing from 1983-1992 and how you feel about it now. When Vanity Fair re-booted in the 1980s I was living with my aunt with whom I shared a Dorothy Parker/Algonquin Round Table obsession; we imagined the new Vanity Fair heralded a renaissance of witty, literate writing and a more sophisticated cultural discourse. Alas, this was not to be. So, for me, reading these diaries and remembering the covers and articles of which Tina Brown writes, brought on a melancholy, because not only did shallow grasping stay in vogue, but, too, it was the decade when AIDS got its terrible claws into the country and exposed just how bigoted and hateful a country, its government, and many of its people could be.

And look, now, we haven’t learned a thing, have we?

The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, Denis Johnson, Hardcover, 207pp, January 2018, Random House

I confess that I have never read Jesus’ Son or anything else Denis Johnson has written, but I know he has a cult of devoted — obsessive, even — fans. I get that and were I at a different place in my life, or, were the world in  better shape than it is, the relentless hopelessness and sorrow that serve as foundation to all these stories might not have made them almost unbearable for me.

That said; I wish I could achieve one iota of the beautiful artistry conveyed in every of Denis Johnson’s words, choices, silences, and ideas. His use of language is breathtaking in its ability to convey worlds in so few words, and lives in so few pages, and I would go on, but there are far more skilled reviewers of books and writers who have gone at some length concerning the glory of Denis Johnson’s writing, and this slim and posthumous volume in particular, and so I leave you to them and their wisdom.

For me, the sad, bleak, hopelessness of these dark worlds was too much, too heavy to make worth it the admittedly brilliant writing. That’s personal, so to speak further to it is unfair to Denis Johnson and anyone considering reading this volume — which could serve as master class in the art of short story writing.

Neon In Daylight, Hermione Hoby, Paperback, 288pp, January 2018, Catapult

Three things you know if you follow my book discussions/blog: 1) I have chosen a simple life which means I live on an income level below poverty and so buy books only with my closely guarded gift card collection and only those by authors I know I love and must have, or, that I cannot otherwise get and feel I MUST read: such was the case with Neon In Daylight, which was not available through the library.

2) Another thing you’d know were you a follower of mine is that I am obsessive about my adoration for Joan Didion, and, too, Renata Adler’s novels. So, when a blurb compared Neon In Daylight‘s author, Hermione Hoby, to those two writers, I was further encouraged to use my gift cards for purchase.

3) And, one more thing you’d know if you followed me, I have developed a healthy distrust for blurbs — but, there are some exceptions; Blurbs by Writers I Admire and Trust. So, when Ann Patchett blurbs a book, comparing it to The Great Gatsby and Bright Lights, Big City, I listen.

In addition to all that, it also had going for it that it took place in New York City, which usually is enough to reel me in, and it was an Indie Next pick.

Maybe my expectations were too high.

New York, 2012, Kate has arrived in Manhattan, from England, where waits for her return a boyfriend she is mostly sure she means to leave behind permanently. She becomes involved with wasted, alcoholic, used-to-be writer, Bill, and meets cute the hedonist, hipster, free-spirit-near-nut-job, Inez, who turns out to be Bill’s daughter.

For me, the voices were just slightly off; the ennui wasn’t eviscerating in the way Joan Didion can make emptiness feel with its diamond sharp edges cutting through all the distractions meant to hold our attention, those actions in which we indulge to keep us from noticing the vacancies in the middle of our lives and hearts, but, rather, in Neon In Daylight, the ennui came across more as apathetic tedium, the characters rather tiresome whiners. It was more pose than actual life-experience and felt put-on, played at.

That said, the writing was in many places marvelous. But, right now, for me, reading about vapid urbanites completely self-absorbed in their dissatisfaction with their privilege is not something in which I am interested. And New York wasn’t so much a character as it was an idea we were left to fill in.

I think this the work of a promising author whose first effort comes close to something but doesn’t — just for me, now — quite make it over the finish line of having spent gift card money on it.

************

And there it is, 2018’s books 4 through 6, all new. I have already finished reading numbers 7 and 8, both back-list, and will be posting about those as soon as I can get to it. Busy life right now; it’s all I can do to squeeze in time to read, let alone write about reading. So, on that note, here I am, going.

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