Sunday, July 19, 2009

How to Lose Friends and Alienate People: A Memoir, by Toby Young

Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2003, pp. 368.

As those of you who know anything about me might guess, I am an unlikely reader of this sort of book, which I guess is why I had never heard of the book until after seeing the movie.

I don't remember ever picking up an issue of Vanity Fair, even while sitting in a doctor's office, even in that period when I read Variety religiously (thinking I would find some key to the film business in its pages, as of course I didn't); was in fact somewhat confused by Christopher Hitchens' association with the magazine given that he mostly seemed to write about political stuff (if you don't know him, you could do worse than read Alexander Cockburn's take on the man, as well as Hitchens' comeback if you'd like to see his defense, here); and had never even heard of Graydon Carter until after I found out that the movie was based on a true story.*

Indeed, I've never been much for celebrity gossip of this sort. When I saw O.J. Simpson's white Bronco on TV, the first thing that occurred to me, even at that comparatively tender age, was that we would never hear the end of it, and how sick I already was of hearing about it.

Yet, I enjoyed the book.

Granted, apart from being surprised that a few of the incidents from the film were based on things real people were alleged to have said and done (the "seven rooms" speech about which I wrote before included, this apparently having been put into the film almost word for word), the gossip that was probably the book's main selling point business-wise (and likely, for many another reader too) was ho-hum for me.

But Young makes an engaging (and highly quotable) narrator, and his relation of his adventures is frequently laugh-out-loud funny. This is, in part, because he captures quite well a certain position that I think a great many of us not nearly so famous can identify with: of having a bit (or more than a bit) of education and culture and intellectual substance but being drawn to some (or more than some) lowbrow things; of being intensely attracted to that world of fame and riches and status and privilege and celebrity and all the things that go with it when you know very well that you are "supposed" to regard it sardonically as something trivial and beneath you; of feeling like you have your nose pressed up to the glass, especially in a moment of youthful frustration, and thinking that maybe, just maybe you will be able to join the party, but never getting in.

There is a great deal more of interest, not least of it the sociology, specifically the Briton-in-America stuff (and how Britain looks from over here; we too rarely get this sort of thing right in America, as I was reminded while watching my first and last episode of Bones, the execrably written "Yanks in the U.K."); his observations about the sycophantic timidity and outright cowardice of so much American journalism; and especially his thoughts on social class and wealth in these respective countries. He is not often original, but sharp nonetheless.

The distance between Toby and parents who were not merely respected intellectuals but a father whose work in the Labor Party qualifies him to be called "one of the architects of Britain's post-war consensus," also founded "dozens of organizations enriching the lives of tens of millions of people, from the East End of London to the Horn of Africa," and as if all that was not enough, happens to be a "minor immortal" in the world of sociology for his 1958 book, The Rise of the Meritocracy; and a like-minded mother prominent in her own right as editor, television producer, novelist, educator and activist; is also of interest - especially because his feelings about it are so contrary to the zeitgeist of these times, as seen from where I'm sitting now, this one a
generation of cyberpunk anti-heroes, alienated and alone for all the promised connectiveness of their technology, abiding by no rules in its scramble to survive and succeed, and incapable of even imagining a different sort of world.
There is also an element of interest in this book's being a study of failure (not total, not irredeemable, of course, indeed partially redeemed before the last page, but failure all the same). We all too often underestimate failure's interest, which when presented honestly is really greater than the interest of your average account of success. Winners, after all, are not pressed to take a hard look at themselves, or think much about the reality of the world around them. (The worst of them wallow in their exaggerated idea of their own worth - as indeed, many of the insufferable figures in Young's story do - a luxury failures don't have.)

Besides, failures have the virtue of not being invested in the system they're talking about, or grateful to it, and free to burn the bridges they were unable to successfully cross in giving the facts and telling the truth, especially when the truths are of the sort the relevant Establishment would prefer went unspoken (as quite a few of the truths in this book are). This is a story of a man for whom America was not the land of opportunity, but the "land of the unreturned phone call," a reality not just for the newcomer, but many an American as well; of the man who failed to take Manhattan, who tried to make it in that place where if you could make it there you could presumably make it anywhere, and didn't make it.

Of course, this is probably starting to sound unfamiliar to those of you who saw the film but never read the book (there may not be many of you, to judge by the box office receipts - the global gross being $17 million, and the movie's North American take actually less than that of Uwe Boll's Bloodrayne when inflation is factored in - but then I was one until this week), and there's a reason for that: most of the best stuff is left out of the movie.

This was all too predictable, of course, given the changes one should have seen coming from a long way off, like the filmmakers' changing many of the characters' names to protect the not-so-innocent; downplaying the essential crassness of the hero's motivation by adding a touch of tragedy to his childhood (as well as sanitizing the character with regard to his alcoholism, drug use and womanizing, the last more often attempted than successful); turning his romance with Caroline Bondy into a clich├ęd tale of giving up on the glamorous but manipulative, self-centered starlet who captured his fantasies, in favor of the smarter, nicer office girl who for much of the film is the only one willing even to talk to him (and true to romantic comedy convention, spends much of the film giving our hero grief for simply having a male id); marginalizing the themes of politics and class, not least through the change of his parents' occupations and accomplishments (dad's "a philosopher," mom's an actress); and last but not least, having the younger Young learn What Really Matters in Life when he is in room seven, instead of after he's been kicked back out into the street from room one. The film was advertised as a "testosterone-laced The Devil Wears Prada," and while I have only seen bits of the latter film while flipping channels (so that I am in no position to make a proper comparison), it strikes me that turning Young's memoir into that entails not merely the usual compression, combination, exaggeration and sanitization, but an outright reimagining.

* Incidentally, a remark by Christopher Hitchens (in a review of Zachary Leader's bio of Kingsley Amis for The Atlantic, brought to my attention by David Langford's Ansible via the pages of Interzone) inspired this little piece of mine a couple of years ago in Tangent Online.

How to Lose Friends and Alienate People (A Meditation)

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