American Sucker

Denby's Dostoevskian Descent
Critics and readers discuss books over e-mail.
Feb. 18 2004 12:15 PM

American Sucker

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Dear Andy,

I too live on the Upper West Side and know Denby and his former wife Cathleen Schine—a wonderful novelist—a little bit. I found his description of the local literary bourgeoisie unbelievably depressing—all those "family men," the envy, the complacency. Who wants to go to brunches where people just talk about, as Denby puts it, real estate, vacations, their children, their children's schools, and the subtext is all about competition in the tiny piranha-bowl of high-end magazine journalism? (But come to think of it, I haven't been to many brunches like that. I mean, who talks about their vacation? There is no subject on earth more tiresome. I don't even like to talk about my own vacations!) I think I am still living mentally on the Upper West Side of 25 years ago. You know, with the leftists and the old Jews who looked like my grandparents and a Cuban-Chinese restaurant on every block. I liked that neighborhood a lot, so I pretend it still exists.

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I think you and I disagree about the value of memoirs. (And here I should mention that The New Yorker recently published an autobiographical essay of mine that was rather personal. Denby and I have even been written about as some kind of lamentable mini-trend: middle-aged intellectuals going stir-crazy in our oh-so-over neighborhood.) For me, the interest of autobiography depends very little on the real-world importance of the writer or on the world-historical significance of what he or she reveals. It's all about the writing, the sensibility, the ability of the writer to make of his or her life and character and historical moment a story that resonates with other experiences and adds to our sense of life. I've read memoirs that in outline would seem completely mundane—My Suburban Childhood; My Awful Marriage; My Crazy Family—but on the page, they charm, they disturb, they make you think about all the strange things people get up to. So why not: My Financial Follies? The test is in the telling, not the subject.

About that telling. Perhaps because it was not such a familiar story to me, I was not as exasperated as you by Denby's amateurism and naiveté, which, after all, he acknowledges and bemoans on practically every page. To me he just seemed temporarily out of his mind—divorce can do that, especially when it's the other person's idea. The divorce-injury plot merges with a major theme of modern literature: the masculine quest for Real Life, intense experience, the sublime, some way to assert one's manly self against the routinization and predictability and repressive domestications of urban life. Another man might have decided to take up mountain climbing, or tootsies, or Scotch. He might have bought that Audi A6. Denby's investing is more respectable and adult, it has that "family man" real-estate rationale, but as Frayster "Schadenfreude" points out, it's irrational and addictive, essentially a form of gambling—Denby even talks about his "winnings" rather than his "earnings."

Well, fine. A lot of great literature has come out of cards or the track. I enjoyed the Dostoevskian side of Denby's plunge into techmania—the feverish hopes against hopes, the intermittent awareness that his control of the game is only an illusion, the gauntlet thrown down to Fate, the magical thinking, the paralysis in the face of onrushing doom. That all felt very real to me. The trouble is, Denby makes the compulsive gambler's mistake of thinking that the game is somehow about him and about what he wants and deserves. So when he loses his money he's furious. He's like someone who thinks he has a system for beating the house and when it doesn't work blames the croupier—the analysts, advisers, gurus, and entrepreneurs who all, it turns out, make enormous sums of money whether or not Denby's investments do. How could dashing, impetuous Sam Waksal invite Denby to his candlelit soirees, make Denby admire him, and be, in addition to whatever else he might be, a con artist? How could charming Henry Blodget push stocks that, unbeknownst to the public, were connected with banking deals that brought him millions? My question is: How come this rapacity, this dishonesty, this every-man-for-himselfness that is such a well-known feature of capitalism came as a surprise to Denby? The Great Books are pretty clear about it. Never mind Marx (or The Sopranos), what about Trollope's The Way We Live Now, or Balzac, who famously wrote, "Behind every great fortune lies a crime"?

Balzac was a conservative, by the way.

Looking forward to your thoughts, Andy.

Cheers,
Katha

Katha Pollitt is a columnist for the Nation and a poet and essayist. Andy Serwer is an editor at large at Fortune and a contributor to CNN's American Morning.

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