Trust the Gut

Kerr and Surowiecki

Trust the Gut

Kerr and Surowiecki

Trust the Gut
New books dissected over email.
Jan. 21 1999 3:17 PM

Kerr and Surowiecki

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Dear Jim,

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I'm glad you've brought up Homer. Certainly you can see in Homer many qualities--a directness, an utterly different sense of proportion both compact and vast, a grown-up's approach to human behavior--that don't seem as common as one would like in novels today. I'd just remind you that Homer lived a while ago, rather a longer time ago than writers of the 19th century who were dealing with social dynamics that are now, as you pointed out, totally obsolete. To bring Homeric qualities back to literature is a worthy goal, but maybe a little more complicated than you let on. In fact, I'm not at all sure what it would mean. I'm guessing it would take more than merely leaving blank the places where a conventional novelist would say "Tom was elated" or "Tom felt sad." It would certainly take more than transposing a Paper magazine article about supermodels and various tedious wannabes at a downtown party. (Unless, and I doubt this is true, you believe that celebrities today are so powerful and larger than life that they're the contemporary version of gods.)

You think Brett Easton Ellis shows us arbitrariness approaching a state of grace. I agree he shows us arbitrariness: the arbitrariness of a writer with a numb and obvious soul winning critical predictions that he'll still be read 100 years from now. I should clarify here, because I know: Words like "numb" and "soul" are words you don't like to throw around. I'm not channeling William Bennett, not talking about some authenticity that we used to have but lost, not complaining about how ironic American culture has become and how Ellis is contributing to a corrosive nihilism. I'm talking, as I've done several times this week, about imagination--the courage to enter into and illuminate his subject--which I believe Ellis lacks, and covers up by claiming "surfaces" as his territory.

Now, if I don't hurry I'll run out of space to describe this other thing, this male-female problem that's subtler than a lopped-off nipple. I truly didn't mean to accuse you of insensitivity to women, Jim; far from it, since I know from talking to you in person that you think about these issues quite a bit. But I do feel, more generally, that there's a critical blind spot that gives Ellis a weightier reputation than he deserves. What I'm getting at is that Glamorama struck me as a novel written mostly for an audience of young men.

On what do I base this judgment? The sex scenes, to begin with. Every few pages the hero walks into a room and some woman drops her pants for the gift of his huge, rock-hard rod (the word rock-hard actually appears several times); this seems to me at least as silly and wishfully narcissistic as your average dimestore romance; the masculine spin is that these encounters produce no emotion whatsoever, and then there are scenes of men with men that render the women superfluous. The women themselves can be summed up without too much exaggeration as Matahari, a Bond girl, Medusa, and, I don't know, the Virgin Mary as supermodel.

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The science fiction overtones, the noir overtones, the murky terrorist conspiracy are all well-worn staples of the masculine kitsch tradition I've talked about over the past few days. I'd even go so far as to say Glamorama's brilliant polish--the stylistic bravado, so amazingly out of proportion to the paltry theme and plot--places Ellis in a boy wonder tradition that deserves some skepticism, too.

To this evidence I add the eyerolling of Carolyn See and Michiko Kakutani, who also saw through the kitsch, and--well, not much more than my own humble gut feeling, which I admit is fallible, but I'd rather trust my gut than an academic theory, intriguing in the abstract but much exaggerated, that there's no difference at all between the genders. Glamorama is genre fiction for young white men, Jim, almost as surely as How Stella Got Her Groove Back is genre fiction for black women. And that's natural, that's inevitable, that's really okay. I don't think this tradition should be stamped out or anything. I just think a little more awareness wouldn't hurt.

Oh dear, now I really I am running out of space to tell you that except for Glamorama, I found so much to agree with in your last entry. I think you're right that Americans are sort of addicted to emotions right now as a way of explaining everything under the sun, and this is unhealthy. You call the kind of writing you'd like to see "exterior"; but from your description it sounds pretty much like strong writing that's risky and subtle and doesn't fall back on cliches. This kind of prescription I enthusiastically endorse. You've also made me want to check out several writers on your list (you read so much!), and then I truly hope we can do this again. I for one have had fun, and I feel we have lots left to talk about.

All the best,

Sarah

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SarahKerr reviews books and movies for Slate. James Surowiecki writes "Moneybox" for Slate and is a contributing editor at New York magazine. This week they discuss Jay McInerney's Model Behavior (Knopf; 288 pages; $24) and Bret Easton Ellis' Glamorama (Knopf; 464 pages; $25).