Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Review: The Sound of No Hands Clapping: A Memoir, by Toby Young

Cambridge, MA: De Capo Press, 2006, pp. 274.

Toby Young's second memoir (the first of course being How to Lose Friends and Alienate People) starts off after Toby's first book has got into print. It happens to catch the eye of a Hollywood producer who offers him a crack at adapting a biography about a self-destructive '70s-era record producer into a screenplay for a movie he wants to make. (The producer, identified to the reader only as the anonymous "Mr. Hollywood," is operating on the theory that if Toby succeeded in making himself seem likable in How to Lose Friends, then he ought to be able to do the same with the life story of the man in the biography.) Meanwhile a different set of producers comes around to talk about making his first book into a movie. Once again, he's in America going after the Big Time, albeit on the West coast rather than the East.

It would be a mistake to approach this book as Toby's Big Hollywood Adventure, however. No Hands Clapping is really a chronicle of his life after the events of the previous book, with his screenwriting experiences just the connecting thread running through the narrative. Along with the work's comparative looseness, it doesn't help that the freshness of the reader's first encounter with him is gone, or that he's lost some of his edge.

Toby still has ambitions, but the fire's not as hot as when he hopped across the Atlantic to work for Graydon Carter. The tensions and conflicts that did so much to make his first book interesting to me--the contrast between his intelligence and education and his starstruck hunger for glamour, his frustrated lust for the good life, the clash between his rather shallow goals and his parents' accomplishments and values--are far less evident here, having largely run their course the last time around. Toby's settling down at the end of the last book is a significant part of that, and as might be guessed, his life as a whipped (but mostly content) boyfriend, husband and father coping with domestic and mid-life crises is rather less entertaining than his earlier laddishness. He's still quite good at "losing friends and alienating people," but it starts to feel like a role he's enjoying.

The result is that this all seems more like an anticlimax to the history that made him an "icon of defeat" rather than a fully satisfactory follow-up. Still, I found chunks of the book almost as funny as How to Lose Friends, and while perhaps less insightful than the previous volume of his memoirs, it is still peppered with memorable observations by Young and the other "characters" in his story. Many of the best relate to his newfound domesticity, and as might be expected, also to the unbelievably bloated, shambling workings of what he learns to call "The Business" of film and television (admittedly, an even more overexposed subject than the glossy, Conde Nast-style magazine). One of my favorites among those he relates is the way it takes only thirty seconds for the aspirants who make it to stardom to move from the view that it's all a "crapshoot" to believing that it's "talent" and talent alone that put them at the top of the heap--a reminder that, contrary to the conventional wisdom of a society which chooses to see economic history as nothing but Horatio Alger stories and Edisonades, one's level of success tends to be inversely correlated with their understanding of how the System they inhabit really works.

However, the most provocative aspect of the book is unintended, namely what it suggests about our rhetoric of failure. Toby had chances of a kind others can scarcely dream of, thanks to his father's prominence, his familial and personal connections, and some astonishing strokes of luck, like those phone calls which started his adventures in both New York and Hollywood. (You can't be "fired from virtually every paper on Fleet Street" without being hired by them first, after all.)

By contrast, most of those who chase dreams of stardom and come to think of themselves as failure because they fail to attain them never had anything like those chances. Instead they waited for breaks that never came, their failure definable in negative terms as a lack of success that frequently is more reflective of the way the odds work against anyone, and the closed-off character of the businesses they try to enter, rather than their having been given a proper chance and blown it, as Young did again and again. This made his failures genuine failures in a way that theirs were not, while ironically putting him in a position to make a business out of telling the story of his woes that has given him something not unlike the stardom he sought in the first place, a far cozier and rosier position than is enjoyed by most of those who would call themselves "successful."

Alas, I suspect few readers will really appreciate that distinction, without which this story would not have been possible.

Two Book Reviews (George Friedman's Next 100 Years, Toby Young's How to Lose Friends and Alienate People: A Memoir)
How to Lose Friends and Alienate People (A Meditation)

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