Depression fear: How BUtterfield 8 explains the moment we're in.

Scrutinizing culture.
Sept. 1 2011 7:23 PM

The Novel That Explains the Moment We're In

BUtterfield 8 and the fear of a new Depression.

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And of course instead of going on the walking tour I ended up staying home, staying up late, and finishing the book.

The book starts off like a house on fire. O'Hara has perfected a technique (useful in evading censorship) that uses implication, imputation, indirection, euphemism, and innuendo to evoke sex and sexuality. We begin with our damaged flapper heroine, Gloria Wandrous, waking up in a strange bed in a luxe Park Avenue apartment with a dress torn down the middle and the owner (and tearer) off to meet his wife and family (back from Hyannisport) at their suburban county club.

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Seeing as she has nothing decent to wear, Gloria appropriates the wife's mink coat and exits the building wearing that and nothing (much) beneath it.

It reminds you at the outset of an R- (or maybe X-) rated version of Trollope's The Eustace Diamonds (dare I say, "dirty Trollope"?), but evolves into something more like Trollope's The Way We Live Now, as we follow Gloria into a demimonde of bohemians, speakeasies, agitated gaiety shot through with denial—an evasive anxiety about living on the lip of the volcano and the impending collapse of any stable values (whether monetary, sexual, or legal). She's pursued around town (such is the plot) by the dress-ripper, Weston Liggett, a Yale oarsman and out-of-towner who's just outside the inner circle of blue-blood privilege, a proper member of society who finds himself unable to resist the temptation to undermine its professed propriety in the absence of any universally accepted moral authority—and the irresistible pull of Gloria's sexuality. In the aftermath of the crash, what's recently been called erotic capital trumps traditional capital, though neither comes to a good end.

It's a world where the distinctions between the proper and improper are still known but not necessarily respected and where the establishments with the strictest rules of behavior are the illegal speakeasies run by gangsters, O'Hara captures the bewilderment that the new transgressiveness causes for someone like Liggett—who wants, more than anything, some standards of authority to cling to, the better to validate his position in society.

"O'Hara understood better than any other American writer how class can both reveal and shape character," Lebowitz writes, "how profound the superficial can be, and how clothes can truly make the man. Fitzgerald usually gets the credit for this but Fitzgerald gives too much credit to cash."

And, indeed, as the novel staggers like a woozy bathtub-gin drunk from Park Avenue down to bohemian Village haunts and back up to the midtown speakeasy secret palaces, as Liggett seeks Gloria and Gloria seeks to evade the consequences of her sexual allure, we get a Hieronymus Bosch-like pageant of the disrupted strata of dissolute New York society dissolving boundaries of behavior. And beneath it all: the fear.

One of the manifestations of the crumbling of boundaries and standards is not just in sexual licentiousness but in the license in the language, the language of sexual description. In 1935, when O'Hara wrote the novel, "there were things better left unsaid," Lebowitz writes. (There still are, but today they get said anyway.) "There were unspoken passions and unwritten rules." She writes about the way the crucial, human element in sexuality is "perception—that which gives human sexuality its affect, that special little twist." What a great way of putting it, one I'm sure O'Hara would love: that special little twist.

One of the great things about O'Hara is that—in the days when the Hayes Office compelled Hollywood to suppress sexuality on film, leading to a wealth of witty innuendo, when Lady Chatterley's Lover was suppressed in print—O'Hara was a master of the subtle artfulness of sexual euphemisms. The indirection with which he conveyed those "special little twists" is delectable. You linger over them on the page and think, "is that what's he's saying? What, exactly, is he talking about when some gent in a speakeasy marvels, about Gloria, that "an American girl would do that!" What's that? The fact that one has to search one's imagination for the various acts that could be encompassed in his shock and awe gives whatever that is a "special little twist" it wouldn't have otherwise. It's always going to be something beyond one's imagination. It was an age in which everyone—including the novelist—was playing at getting around the rules.

I can't resist noting, because I haven't seen it mentioned elsewhere, an amazing anticipation of a scene in Lolita that it's hard to believe Nabokov did not read. In a flashback we see 12-year-old Gloria molested by a "friend of the family." Perhaps an unnecessary "explanation"—O'Hara gives us the boundary-crossing that condemns her to a life of having her boundaries crossed.