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The PEN World Voices Festival Opens With a Shout

On the opening night of PEN America’s weeklong World Voices Festival, the Prix Goncourt–decorated Moroccan novelist Leïla Slimani  — whom France’s neoliberal president Emmanuel Macron tasked in November with promoting French language and culture — described to the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik what she saw as the fundamental difference between journalism (a former career of hers) and fiction writing. “For me, literature is completely different,” said Slimani, “a space of absolute freedom, where I can reinvent myself.” She then dictated a quote, which she attributed to Sartre: “A writer is a free man who speaks to free men, and whose only topic is freedom.” That would of course disqualify anyone from being a writer, and even taken in the buoyant spirit in which I believe it was intended, it still could use some scrutiny. Like: How are fiction writers to reconcile this unrestrained creative freedom with their apparent obligation to attend panels where they are inevitably asked for the most part to comment on their political views? Which is just a roundabout way of asking what the act of writing fiction is free from, what that freedom entails, and to what extent it might be transferable to the circumscribed lives we all carry out off the page. The theme of this year’s festival, in which 165 authors from more than 50 countries are participating, is “Resist and Reimagine,” the expectation being that these dozens of panels and readings will illuminate how writers and writing can do that, or fail to. 

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The two short panels and two readings that comprised the festival’s first feature event at Cooper Union on Monday night took different approaches to this challenging, expansive framework, but one of the staunchest refrains was an affirmation of the humanist power of universalized narratives. The Afro-Caribbean Australian writer and poet Maxine Beneba Clarke read an essay by the Kurdish journalist Behrouz Boochani, who has been detained on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island in an immigrant “processing center” for close to five years. Boochani was seeking asylum from Iran in the territory when the Australian government implemented what Amnesty International has called “its illegal ‘offshore processing’ policies” in 2013 — and now he and hundreds of refugees are essentially in exile and incarcerated, since their options are only to remain on the island for an indeterminate amount of time or be deported to their country of origin. Boochani’s essay is a reported meditation on a peaceful protest lead by his fellow refugee prisoners; he ends by extolling the virtues of humanity, love, friendship, and justice, though police of course ultimately quelled the demonstration with brute force. By collectively and compassionately organizing under these community-oriented ideals “in direct opposition to fascism,” Boochani asserts the refugees “never became mere bodies, subject to politics.” Slimani also referred to fiction writing as “a place of universality — you can cross the borders.”  

PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature 2018

Though many of the participants bandied about uplifting messages focused on forging connections and feeling compassion, it was certainly not all that was under discussion. Colson Whitehead’s relentless diversionary tactics were frequently hilarious, rivaled only by Slimani’s joyous harangues of spoiled Parisian women. The topic of the discussion between The Underground Railroad author and Harvard historian Annette Gordon-Reed (a fellow Pulitzer winner) was “How the legacy of slavery reverberates throughout our history,” and Whitehead averred that one of the most surprising aspects of that legacy’s persistence is “how shallowly it’s taught.… I think there were ten minutes on slavery, forty minutes on Abraham Lincoln at my [elementary] school; ten minutes on segregation and forty minutes on Martin Luther King.” He cited a sixtysomething woman who approached him recently to ask if there were ever “cave-ins” on the Underground Railroad. He also made reference to slave patrollers’ “stop and frisk” methods, drawing a parallel to his experience of getting stopped by New York City cops on the Upper East Side when he was sixteen (“If you’re writing about 1850,” he said, “you’re writing about now”).

In response to questions pertaining to his personal legacy, Whitehead was terser. At one point he responded to a question about his potential responsibility to discuss more “uplifting” subjects, saying, “If you want uplifting, go see a clown or something.” He went on, “I guess I could have written about white people from the upper middle class who feel sad sometimes.” When asked whether he ever thought about being something other than a writer, Whitehead mused that he might have been an “ad man,” like Salman Rushdie was, or Don DeLillo.

Find a full schedule of events and tickets at worldvoices.pen.org

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BAH, HUMBUG!

One of the nicest holiday traditions in town, What the Dickens? A Christmas Carol Marathon brings together a talented group of writers, editors, and performers for a day-long reading of the Charles Dickens classic at Housing Works Bookstore Café. The event begins at noon with Christmas caroling from members of the New York City Master Chorale; the reading goes from 1 to 4:30. Grab a hot chocolate or a glass of wine from the café and enjoy the tale as told by readers including Adam Gopnik, Lev Grossman, Téa Obreht, Fiona Maazel, Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, Lorin Stein, Emma Straub, Lynne Tillman, and surprise guests. Not done with your Christmas shopping? All books in the store will be 10 percent off.

Sat., Dec. 14, 1 p.m., 2013

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WHAT GPS CAN’T DO

If you could draw your own map of Manhattan to include spots of your most interesting memories, what would you include? Becky Cooper handed out hundreds of blank maps to New Yorkers of all stripes and asked them to fill out the maps and send them back to her. Her new book, Mapping Manhattan: A Love (and Sometimes Hate) Story in Maps by 75 New Yorkers, visually traces the memories, from 228th Street to Battery Park, of average Joes and well-known locals and celebrities (including Yoko Ono, David Chang, and Philippe Petit). Along with New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik and a trio of panelists, Cooper invites participants to make their own map and share in the process of anchoring their pasts, all while sipping—what else?—a Manhattan.

Thu., May 16, 7 p.m., 2013

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For the Love of Lit: Our Five Best Book Events This Week

I Like Your Glasses: Literary Speed Dating
Housing Works Bookstore
Tonight, 7pm, $10
Your skepticism is justified. People with the rock-solid attention spans and copious alone time required to really bunker down to some hardcore reading tend to be the very same who run for the stacks when faced with the comparative brevity and binge socializing of speed dates. But no more. Because here, sustaining a thimble-sized bloodbath of paper cuts after flipping through Infinite Jest‘s 388 extra-textual footnotes and vacationing at Walden Pond for two consecutive spring breaks doesn’t make you weird or reclusive, no, but rather the stud. Dan Wilbur, author of How Not to Read teams up with seasoned hostess Jo Firestone to present this get together by CoverSpy. Daters are encouraged to bring a favorite book–there’s no better wingman.

 

Lars Iyer + McKenzie Wark
Book Court
Thursday, 7pm, free
With his fictional debut Spurious in 2011, and it’s sequel Dogma out last year, Lars Iyer became the kind of critic-adored cult hit that Melville House seems so good at smuggling into Brooklyn. Tonight he will read from Exodus, the final installment in this trilogy about two out-of-work intellectuals who feel utterly betrayed by culture. The protagonists bicker and bitch their way to enlightenment (Iyer has cited Don Quixote and Sancho Panza–that other pair of literary frenemies–as inspiration), while pondering Kierkegaard, pantslessness, and many a well-dropped insult. Media theorist McKenzie Wark mediates, and sponsor Full Stop will provide gin and wine.

Jack Kerouac’s Bilingualism: A Panel Discussion with Joyce Johnson
Barnard College
Monday, 6pm, free
Rev-up your Ford flatbed and hold on to those freedom fries, because we’ve got news for you. Jack Kerouac, possibly the most American of all Americans to ever traverse the highway system, originally began writing On the Road in French! Sacré that bleu. Author and Brooklyn native Joyce Johnson, who briefly dated Kerouac in the ’50s (after Allen Ginsberg set them up), will talk with French professor Hassan Melehy about the lead Beat’s cultural and linguistic Francophilia.

Paul Muldoon + Timothy Donnelly
McNally Jackson
Tuesday, 7pm, free
Pulitzer-embossed Paul Muldoon returns to give us The Word on the Street. His newest work is an exploration of the muddled term “lyric” and its original meaning as a poetic form, striking at the point where any given smattering of stanzas moves from poem to song. Themes include Charlton Heston, cellulite, pole dancing, and Jersey peaches, with a good chunk of the works coming straight from the set list of Muldoon’s rock band Wayside Shrines. He will discuss genre-hopping with fellow bard Timothy Donnelly, author of The Cloud Corporation.

Proust in 24 Hours: with Adam Gopnik and Anka Muhlstein
192 Books
Tuesday, 7pm, free
Swann’s Way, the first volume of Marcel Proust’s seven-part novel, was turned down by every major editor in France before he caved and coughed up the cash to publish it himself in 1913. Now, one hundred years later, we’re glad he did, because 192 Books is celebrating the novel’s centennial with a marathon reading that will sweep well into tomorrow. New Yorker essayist Adam Gopnik will take a break from hanging around the set of Charlie Rose to introduce the event with Anka Muhlstein, author of Monsieur Proust’s Library. Champagne and madeleines will be on hand to help induce some involuntary memories of your own.

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Adam Gopnik Casts His Gaze on Abe Lincoln and Charles Darwin

In Angels and Ages: A Short Book About Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life, Adam Gopnik calls Charles Darwin a “pointillist” because he made grand theory out of tiny details, a method with which I suspect Gopnik identifies.

In his New Yorker essays on large events and great men’s lives (Shakespeare, John Stuart Mill, the Terror), Gopnik works from minutiae: Leonardo Da Vinci’s chickens, James Whistler’s pancake breakfasts, Audubon’s “Clouseau” accent, and so forth. This whisks some of the scholarly cobwebs from his subjects and sometimes yields real insights, though it more reliably makes easy reading in the space between Talk of the Town and the film reviews.

In his introduction to Angels and Ages, Gopnik suggests he will take a similarly small-bore approach with Lincoln and Darwin, too, using anecdotes to answer the question that, he says, “scholarship, strangely, can pose but can’t in its nature help much to resolve”—that is, “What were they like?” But a book-length study (which is new for Gopnik—aside from a children’s book, he has mainly published commentary and collections of essays, including the bestselling Paris to the Moon) asks more of him and us than does the short form. The ideas have to get bigger, and the minutiae have to accumulate in their favor. Otherwise, it’s just an oversize magazine article—as we may already suspect of Angels and Ages going in, since it was drawn from a 2007 Gopnik New Yorker essay on Lincoln’s deathbed scene.

Gopnik hedges from the start: Of course, his two subjects were different men in different circumstances—Darwin born to wealth and comfort, Lincoln to poverty and ambition; Darwin increasingly atheistic, Lincoln (at least in public) increasingly not so, etc. But by the ends of their lives, Gopnik says, “the shape of history had changed.” Gopnik sees another commonality: They expanded the roles of science and democracy so that they encompassed one another, and the resulting “marriage of science and democratic politics represents for us liberal civilization, the twinned note of our time.”

This is tantalizing, but steers Gopnik away from the biographical fine work that is his specialty. For much of the book, he is obliged to concentrate on the words and ideas of the two men rather than on their personalities. He’s game to take his pointillist approach to their intellects, too, but the artful disintegration and reconstruction of big ideas, as opposed to big men and movements, seem to require a different skill set than Gopnik possesses.

Gopnik’s Lincoln is, more or less, that of legend. He could cite “both Petroleum Nasby and Shakespeare as references”; “he knew how to make people like him.” Lincoln’s environment is shown to affect his style, but his reasoning seems impervious to influence. Northern speakers engage in “alliterative, orotund eloquence,” and Southerners tend toward ferocious scriptural certainty, but for Lincoln, “the language of legal argument was the true language of liberal eloquence”—”the broad highway of reason,” as opposed to the “snaking one of special pleading.” Gopnik describes this as if Lincoln’s style of argument were his own invention. But certainly in his Blackstone, Lincoln noticed there was a place called Parliament where men had argued right and law for centuries. He may have noticed it occasionally in county courthouses, too.

Darwin also gets special credit for being reasonable. Gopnik praises Darwin’s devotion to the “principle of charity,” that is, “that a counterargument to your own should first be summarized in its strongest form.” Gopnik says this principle “is almost never practiced” outside of Darwin’s work, which may come as a shock to many readers. Don’t classical dialogues fulfill this principle? Maybe Gopnik finds their authors less sincere than Darwin, whom he says “not only posits the counterclaims; he inhabits them. He moves beyond sympathetic summary to empathetic argument.” (As opposed to The Consolation of Philosophy?) Darwin’s even-handedness Gopnik regards as a decisive break: “Reporting an objection or contrary argument fully and accurately” is, “since Darwin the touchstone, the guarantee of what we call seriousness.” Had Darwin never written, would our scholars and scientists today avoid reporting objections and answering arguments?

Gopnik is on surer ground analyzing his subjects’ writing styles. His close reads of Lincoln’s speeches are sharp, and he does even better examining “Darwin’s gift as a ‘natural novelist'” and “sly choice of words,” as in the description of our simian ancestor as ” ‘the hairy quadruped’ (unnecessary for the point but necessary to make the image maximally disturbing). . . .” When Gopnik links Darwin’s childlike interest in pure observation with scenes from his cheerful family life, he achieves the kind of vigor that we recognize from his essays.

Other connections, alas, are more forced. Gopnik makes much of the fact that “like Darwin, Lincoln knew death through the passing of a favorite eleven-year-old child.” This is allegedly important because the finality of death they faced also plagues us—or at least Gopnik, requiring that worrisome third title topic and final section, “Modern Life.” After the God-killing theories of Darwin and the mass-killing Civil War, Gopnik says, “We can’t look up to know how to act. But we can’t look back, either.” Therefore, we are compelled to go forward—into modern liberal progressivism. Suddenly, Gopnik, heretofore approving of Lincoln and Darwin’s “heretical thoughts,” worries that we may take them too far—to the “callow triumphalism” of unnamed radical biologists and the horrors of Marxism. He counsels that we include in our progressivism, despite Lincoln and Darwin’s presumed atheism, religion (“a life without Christmas would be a life without stars”), though of the reasonable sort found in Unitarian kindergartens. The legacy of Lincoln and Darwin, with their “profound knowledge of the common experience of death,” turns out to match closely the general attitudes of a typical New Yorker subscriber.

Angels and Ages is similarly confused, though seldom as badly, in many places. But readers may not mind it much, because Gopnik’s style remains lucid even when his thoughts aren’t; when his struggles with his own thesis grow wearisome, he digs up one of his details and pans out some quality prose. This is pleasing even when otherwise unproductive and, for some of us, makes the book worthwhile, even if we get from it only a brilliant array of dots instead of a Seurat.

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Tuesday

[FESTIVAL]

THE WRITE STUFF

170 writers from 51 countries in just six days

Tirelessly working in defense of writers and freedom of expression around the world, the PEN American Center (which is currently campaigning for the release of over three dozen writers in Chinese prisons before the start of the Olympic Games) returns with its fourth annual PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature. Bringing together an impressive lineup of writers—including A.M. Homes, Ian McEwan, Rick Moody, Annie Proulx, and Salman Rushdie—the week-long literary extravaganza promises a fascinating program of talks, panels, readings, short films, and performances on this year’s theme: “Public Lives/Private Lives.” Highlights include tonight’s discussion, “Crisis Darfur,” with Mia Farrow and journalist Bernard-Henri Lévy, and May 4’s lecture by Umberto Eco, “On the Advantages of Fiction for Life and Death,” which will be followed by a conversation with New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik. Starts today, through May 4, check pen.org for schedule, venues, and ticket information ANGELA ASHMAN

[DANCE]

FOREVER YOUNG

The next generation hits the stage

Where would the dance world be without its next generation of brilliant dancers bidding fair to be the next Baryshnikov, Nijinsky, or Pavlova? The 1-2-3 Festival takes three of the city’s top ballet companies and hands over the stage to their junior troupes. Tonight, the fanciful youths of Ailey II, ABT II, and Taylor 2 demonstrate why they’re the next constellation of fiery talents to watch out for as they perform various repertoire works. And the opening-night gala offers a chance to see all three companies doing what they do best. At 7:30, through May 11, Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Avenue, 212-242-0800, $38–$50 KEISHA FRANKLIN

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THE WRITE STUFF

Tirelessly working in defense of writers and freedom of expression around the world, the PEN American Center (which is currently campaigning for the release of over three dozen writers in Chinese prisons before the start of the Olympic Games) returns with its fourth annual PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature. Bringing together an impressive lineup of writers—including A.M. Homes, Ian McEwan, Rick Moody, Annie Proulx, and Salman Rushdie—the week-long literary extravaganza promises a fascinating program of talks, panels, readings, short films, and performances on this year’s theme: “Public Lives/Private Lives.” Highlights include tonight’s discussion, “Crisis Darfur,” with Mia Farrow and journalist Bernard-Henri Lévy, and May 4’s lecture by Umberto Eco, “On the Advantages of Fiction for Life and Death,” which will be followed by a conversation with New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik.

April 29-May 4, 2008

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The Current Cinema

The success of Adaptation, based on Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief, has turned other unlikely books by New Yorker writers into hot properties. The only question now is, which exciting work of literary nonfiction will screen-writer Charlie Kaufman tackle next? —Variety


ADAM GOPNIK’S Paris to the Moon

Open on: Baby in crib.

Voice-over: “When our son, Luke Auden, was born, we knew that we would have to go to Paris soon, or we wouldn’t go at all.” Beret placed on baby’s head.

Soundtrack: Django Reinhardt.

Cut to: Eiffel Tower.

Cut to: Jean Baudrillard.

Cut to: Luxembourg Gardens.

Cut to: Les Deux Magots. Adam (Steve Buscemi) nibbles pain au chocolat, scribbles in notebook.

Voice-over: “Here in the City of Light, I look for the large in the small, the macro in the micro, the figure in the carpet, and if some big truths pass by, I hope some significant small ones get caught.”

Cut to: Adam inhaling salutary aroma of pommes frites.

Slow pan: Left Bank.

Soundtrack: Jacques Dutronc, “Et moi, et moi, et moi.”


ANTHONY LANE’S Nobody’s Perfect: Selected Writings From The New Yorker, DAVID DENBY’S Great Books: My Adventures With Homer, Rousseau, Woolf, and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World, and NICHOLSON BAKER’S The Size of Thoughts: Essays and Other Lumber and Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper

Open on: Clip of Y Tu Mamá También, Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna and Maribel Verdú, disrobing in climactic three-way.

Cut to: Anthony (David Hyde Pierce) typing, smiling slightly upon having thought up bon mot for this week’s review, which we hear in voice-over: “There are many kinds of core, hardcore, softcore, etc.”

Cut to: Gael and Diego and Anthony, disrobing in climactic three-way.

Cut to: computer monitor, cursor blinking.

Cut to: Anthony exiting hardcore Austrian porn booth. Bumps into woman, dashes out of store.

Reaction shot: It’s Isabelle Huppert!

Soundtrack: Einstürwhatever Neubauten (whatever).

Cut to: David Denby (Viggo Mortensen) putting finishing touches on review for The Piano Teacher, which he has written using a quill pen.

Soundtrack: Vivaldi.

Single 97-minute tracking shot: David placing beautifully calligraphed finished copy on his editor’s desk, then cabbing it uptown to Columbia. In taxi we hear this voice-over: “When I turned 40, I thought it would be interesting to go back to school and immerse myself in the so-called canon. Were the classics still ‘relevant’? Should there be such a thing as a ‘Core Curriculum’?” After attending a brilliant lecture on Montesquieu, he chatters to a classmate (Anna Paquin) about how he’s looking forward to reading Persian Letters. But upon reaching Butler Library’s second floor, he discovers there is no card catalog, only row upon row of computer terminals. In a rage, he hurls insults at the librarians (Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung), who call security. At the precinct, he is allowed a single phone call.

He rings “Nick” Baker (Bob Balaban): “Nick, it’s me—Double D. This is fucked. They trashed every single one of those wooden, spindled beauties.” “That’s wrong—I mean, sure, every card has supposedly been typed into the system, but what about human error? Even at the rate of two mistakes per 1000 cards, that’s 5 million mistakes for a collection that size. It’s inexcusable. Put the chief on.” Nick stammeringly unpacks his argument against computerized cataloging, digresses on nail-clipper design, and ends with his cri de coeur—that libraries stop pulping “unread” books and return to their mission: preserving knowledge. The conversation is broadcast via loudspeaker all over campus, and indeed via the Web all over the world; when it’s over, the student body erupts into gale-force applause, followed by similar outbreaks in France (Adam Gopnik looks up from his desk), Montana (Ian Frazier hears a commotion from the general direction of the nearest midsized town), Mexico (Alma Guillermoprieto puts down her tequila shot and rushes to the window).

Replacing the receiver, Nick contemplates the fate of the printed word. He looks at his own books, there on the middle shelf. The phone rings: “It’s Anthony. Lane.” “Tone?” “Yeah. It’s Tone.” “Hey, babe. I was wondering when you would call.” The two stay up till dawn, reading aloud from Baker’s third novel, Vox.

Soundtrack: New Edition, “Mr. Telephone Man.”



Read more meta-coverage


J. Hoberman’s review of
Adaptation

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That ‘New Yorker’ Feeling

Like every institution, The New Yorker has its detractors. Nonetheless, and especially in the case of its famed profilers, The New Yorker’s as close to a common value as we have at the intersection of American letters and journalism. This is not lost on the publishing industry, which sometimes seems to balance the middle of its lists on the multiplex output of New Yorker-associated writers.

New Yorker writers, after all, tend to be thoughtful, articulate, equally wary of the easily zeitgeisty and problematically abstruse. More important, they perform the crucial task facing every lifestyle magazine (make no mistake, or just look at the ads—The New Yorker is a lifestyle magazine par excellence). They help the readers feel the way they would like to feel about their lives. The New Yorker offers much that’s worthwhile; it sells That New Yorker Feeling.

That New Yorker Feeling is one of double consciousness, perhaps best emblematized by the priggish aristocrat who lords over the mag. We are put off by his arrant snobbery: We work for a living, you and I. Nonetheless we should like some access to the world at his disposal, and know we have the taste and discretion—but also the liberal vision—to make the most of it.

This state of mind is the natural condition of the bourgeoisie, that French invention on par with deconstruction and the guillotine. One might say The New Yorker is itself a Gallic invention. The Revolution delivered a standing army of the middle class, but even Napoleon had his Waterloo, and the next thing you know, the survivors are standing around wondering what to read. Hence the inevitability of Paris to the Moon (Random House, 338 pp., $24.95), staff writer Adam Gopnik’s return to his employer’s locus classicus for five years in the ville famously dubbed “the capital of the 19th century.”

If Gopnik does not take New York with him, he certainly packs That New Yorker Feeling. His is a Paris determined by double consciousness, an overlay of oppressive, stately ancien régime, and the vivid daily life lived beneath it: Here is the prig; here are the good times to be had playing in his gardens. Against every state monolith, there is “the most beautiful commonplace civilization there has ever been: cafés, brasseries, parks, lemon on trays, dappled light on bourgeois boulevards . . . ”

Gopnik spots these beckoning goods, and the bureaucracy that would claim and limit their luster, at every turn: apartment hunting, at the park’s puppet theater, in the midst of haute couture shows. He doesn’t find them in the banlieue rouge, the suburbs ringing the beautiful museum city with displaced workers. Perhaps this is because he doesn’t go there.

Nor must he. This is not comprehensive sociology; it’s an account of a life he’d always wanted and then got, and got to write about. And Gopnik is a terrific writer. At one moment he can bon motify dueling tours by Jürgen Habermas and Bill Gates: “the German philosopher who tells you that you need only connect and the American businessman who will sell you the software to let you do it.” In another piece, bemused by a river walk, he nails the romantic interior monologue of the expat: “You feel as if you’ve escaped your ghosts if only because, being you, they’re transfixed looking at the lights in the trees on the other bank, too, which they haven’t seen before, either.”

That Manhattanite and his ghost, part of and apart from the glittering vista, stand for each doubling, as if we needed reminders. At the Musée d’Orsay he discovers that “Paris is marked by a permanent battle between French civilization . . . and French official culture.” We are not shocked by this revelation. Nor are we surprised when he clarifies, “By French civilization I mean the small shops”—the very escutcheon of the middle class. The book, sweetly and deftly written, turns out to be a story neither of Paris nor New York but of the bourgeoisie, observed in as close as we can get to their natural habitat. It is a distillate of That New Yorker Feeling. Sure, it’s a bit of a fantasy world, where the waiters dream only of perfecting their craft of serving you, but it’s a beautifully rendered fantasy. Gopnik’s ironic misfortune is that his sharp prose promises an equally piercing vision, which never quite materializes.

Susan Orlean suffers no such misfortune. The New Yorker staff writer and author of The Orchid Thief doesn’t produce a lot of expectations with her prose. Over the course of some 20 profiles collected in The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup (Random House, 295 pp., $24.95), she leans heavily on detailing nice rooms, and noticing her subjects’ favored expressions. Her own lexical hobbyhorse is significant and its variations. The typical 10-year-old she profiles has “significant foot speed”; his fave video game has “not an insignificant amount of popularity” and this is “not an insignificant thing.” Well, if you can’t generate the effect for your readers, the least you can do is mention it often.

Orlean is at her best when she backs away and gets her subjects to do the talking, as in the compilation of Talk of the Town entries filed under “Short People.” She doesn’t muddy the waters much with, say, ideas or interesting phrases of her own: a style that finds itself in fashion these days, accessible but not trashy. Supplemented by her insistent descriptions of whatever room we’re in, the result is a seeming empiricism, with Empire furnishings. It’s a Feeling we could get used to.

A paradoxical effect of this pass at objectivity is how urgently we must care about the subjects just to make it through. I enjoyed “The Maui Surfer Girls,” but I suspect this is because I like girls and surfers and feel fine about Maui; it’s not because the waxy last paragraph includes the phrase “to look at this wild water and think, I will glide on top of those waves.” A competent interviewer, Orlean can’t actually write—unless writing is knowing the names of curtain styles, and ending piece after piece by spinning into significant lyric reveries.

The New Gilded Age (Random House, 432 pp., $26.95), collected by New Yorker editor in chief David Remnick, anthologizes profiles from the bubble economy. Roughly half (more, of course) are dedicated to Super-Haves, with occasional hints they might not be so great. The remainder look at a skewed list of Have-Nots: a broke novelist, a South Bronx mom, and several New Yorker writers busily profiling how they themselves are not millionaires, except for the one who in fact seems to be.

Ah, That New Yorker Feeling: leering at the luscious matériel of the world, while frenziedly sublimating our cupidity into an ironic knowing-better. We’ll never be Donald Trump or Bill Gates, but in return we’ll never be such knobs or dorks. We are the middle class; we are above these guys exactly because we are below them.

Even as plutocrats are piquantly skewered, the engine driving them is ennobled. Ayn Rand appears and reappears as the good angel of the New Economy, lurking behind Internet gaga and Alan Greenspan’s fiscal erotikon, insistently framing capitalism as an ethical-spiritual system. That’s one way to go, I suppose; the version where it’s a gritty, deadly clash between the powerful and the excluded seems so Last Millennium, doesn’t it?

In our sour spring this book itself seems already antique and a bit puzzling. Was there really a time when we cared enough about techno-zealot George Gilder to read (or, good heavens, write) 10,000 words about him? Was it only last year? Even with the gilding off the lily, several essays sparkle. For every banality (“Shoes have always had meaning” determines Michael Specter, mad for Manolo Blahnik), we get Joan Didion heroically rendering Martha Stewart a plausible topic for human thought. If there is only one tough critique—Nicholas Lemann’s formalist skewering of management consultants—then only once do we encounter an essay featuring the incisive lede “It is March 17th, and my friend Brooke Astor . . . ”

That last, by Brendan Gill, seems like nothing so much as a mistake, in which the aristocrat appears not as an object of contempt and longing but simply as a pal. Or perhaps that’s a version of the dream, the old dream, where we are all of us gilded in égalité and lucre, here in the last great days of our town, the capital of the 20th century.