Reading Note:
Beyond the Pale
18 July 2018

For a long time, I didn’t read fiction in The New Yorker. I felt I had to give it up, because the magazine doesn’t tell you, “This story is an excerpt from the author’s forthcoming novel.” I don’t like serials and installments. I want the whole thing all at once, and I’m willing to wait until it’s all available. 

But I’ve been reading Joseph O’Neill’s stories, two of them I think, and now I’m waiting for his new collection to arrive. This week, there’s a story by Zadie Smith, “Now More Than Ever.” Mostly because I couldn’t think what to do next, after finishing a particularly vacant edition of the Times, I gave it a try. 

Is this the place to say something about my opinion of Zadie Smith? How I love her essays, her fiction not so much? Maybe that’s enough.

“Now More Than Ever” is, appropriately for a story about academia, both ridiculous and horrifying. It is narrated by a professor, presumably at NYU, where faculty members have taken to holding gigantic black arrow signs out of their living-room windows and aiming them at the apartments of colleagues — it’s interesting that arrows and doghouses have similar silhouettes, although Smith doesn’t make this point, and it is not true of the doghouse in Caleb Crain’s story, “Mr Hutchinson,” in the new Harper’s (August 2018). Why point fingers when gigantic black arrows are so much more shaming — not to mention semiotic. (Bear in mind the peculiarity of NYU: it’s the faculty, not the student body, that lives on campus, in adjacent towers. Student housing is strewn across the Village, in perhaps unconscious imitation of the medieval Latin Quarter.) The professor notes that a few arrows are being pointed at her apartment, but at first she shrugs this off.

Does it make any sense to speak of “at first” in connection with this tale? Maybe not. The moral of the story seems to be “the past is now also the present.” The professor learns this — it’s the latest thing, apparently — from a young friend called Scout.

Scout is so involved and active. She is on all platforms, and rarely becomes aware of anything much later than, say, the three-hundredth person. By way of comparison, the earliest I’ve ever been aware of anything was that time I was the ten-million-two-hundred-and-sixth person to see that thing. 

For all its tone of ludicrous, jokey exaggeration, this “comparison” does not strike me as partaking in any way of science fiction, which is why I say yet again unto you, turn it off. Anyway, what the moral of the story means is that your life has to be seamless. There can be no “out of step” problem between who you are now and who you were then. I am not trying too hard to be lucid here; on the contrary, I’m reaching for the para-lucidity of Smith’s laid-back jargon. (What is poké, by the way? Oh, that. Forgot. Wouldn’t be caught dead &c.) The terms of your past must make sense in those of your present. This sounds to me like saying that there can be no growth and no forgiveness, two very bad ideas that I have no trouble associating with the tenured, professional distortion of the humanities. 

There are three episodes in the story, narratives that don’t occur entirely in the professor’s here-and-now. I suppose they constitute evidence pointing to some conclusion, but, as usual, they feel like black arrows aimed at my lack of hermeneutic penetration. The first involves a much-admired businesswoman whose kinky, “problematic” antics with a former boyfriend may bring about her disgrace. The third involves the professor’s correspondence with a high-school student in South Bend in which Donald Trump is conspicuously not named. In between, there’s an extended account of the 1951 film, A Place in the Sun, which the professor and Scout go to see at the Film Forum. What’s it doing here?

A couple of things. (I almost said “coupla.”) It counterposes a quiet maelstrom of moral complication to Scout’s Jacobin rectitude. To no effect: Scout concludes, much to the professor’s chagrin — for she is by now clearly an ageing figure with more past than she can reconcile with the present, no longer able to keep up with all platforms, and almost certain to bear out Scout’s prediction that she will find herself “beyond the pale” — that to feel any sympathy for Montgomery Clift’s character is tantamount to “flippancy and misjudging the current climate.” No, I’ve got that wrong. Flippant misjudgment belongs to the first episode. Sympathy for the guy in A Place in the Sun is “two-faced.” The movie also occasions the professor’s reflections on lynching, which, although extremely tangential (and not really warranted in any way by the presence of a black housemaid in Elizabeth Taylor’s character’s beach house) provide the one nugget of moral value on view in this capriccio on fashionable braininess: 

… although with the mental proviso that suffering has no purpose in reality. To the suffering person suffering is solely suffering. It is only for others, as a symbol, that suffering takes on any meaning or purpose. No one ever got lynched and thought, Well, at least this will lead inexorably to the civil-rights movement. They just shook, suffered, screamed, and died. Pain is the least symbolic thing there is.  

You have to hand it to Trump. His past and his present are seamless. I wish that Zadie Smith could have worked that in somehow. Then “More Now Than Ever” would be perfect. But it’s plenty fun as it is.  

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