The New Yorker

I spent most of my reading time reading back issues of The New Yorker, accumulating on my Nook Color since January. I found a few gems:

  • a Jonathan Franzen piece (2/13/2012 – 2/20/2012) on Edith Wharton’s “Big 3” novels,
  • a Jonah Lehrer essay (3/5/2012) on the mathematics of altruism,
  • an Adam Gopnik discussion (4/3/2012) of the philosophy of Albert Camus.
  • Ken Auletta (4/30/2012) on how Stanford University resembles a tech incubator more than a school.

I read Franzen’s The Corrections; I never thought much of it. He represents the best of the worst kind of modern fiction, confusing the ubiquity of the mundane with significant insight into a common human condition. I think Franzen wasted his talents; it accounts for something to have developed five unique personalities, each one an asshole, but each in his or her own way. His piece on Edith Wharton brings a sensitivity to literary nuance, a deep reading, and historical context to an overview of her works and their significance. In short, I really liked his essay; it felt like I learned something.*

Franzen makes a connection among Wharton’s great novels, The House of Mirth, The Custom of the Country, and The Age of Innocence, drawing attention to how Wharton maintains our interest in the novels is that she draws upon our capacity for sympathy. Ironically, Wharton herself, and, her protagonists, as Franzen reads it, are not sympathetic characters.

When asked, I cite Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon and The Age of Innocence as my favorite novels. The former is somewhat stereotypical for a person of my background: I am a scientist, I like mathematical modeling and games, I enjoy programming, I actually like reading and writing about science and math, and I greatly admire feats of mega and micro-engineering.

Usually, I relegate things emotional to the sphere of other – that is, our Weltanschauung (philosophical, mystical, and religious perceptions and so-called human truths), to my mind, clearly belong in the realm of non-science, opinion, and meaning. As I had written, I believe this not to be a slight; it’s just that how we engage with empirical, materialistic Truth is every bit, and perhaps more important, than what that Truth may be. That I think so highly of The Age of Innocence is due to the fact that its theme, with a big pay off near the end, exemplifies the very best of this fuzzy, but rich and vibrant, realm.

I would not have characterized The Age of Innocence as a work that draws on our capacity to identify; the plot is simply of love requited but unconsummated. I can see how the reader might be drawn in, rooting for the eventual uniting of Newland Archer and Ellen Olenski. Regardless of how one might see Archer, I argue that he is the prototype of Don Draper of Mad Men. Archer is dissatisfied with his life and although he does not transgress the oath of marriage, he has, in an emotional sense, already left his wife for another woman. Don Draper is simply the apotheosis of this; a man who indulges in his every desire. Archer is a percursor of this, very much embedded in the social forms of his time. His emotional conflict can be viewed as tragic or shameless.

What I find most compelling about The Age of Innocence, and it is the thought and feeling that comes back to me time and time again, despite having read it many years ago, is that in the end, we find out that Archer’s wife, May, knew and even appreciates him for having stood by her and building a life together. In other words, she understood his sacrifice. Her reaction is rather traditional – and fantastical in our modern world – that she is so forgiving and actually thanks him for what can only be described as the only proper course of action.

No, the thing that I find unforgettable is that Archer’s wife knew. She understood him as much as one human being can of another. She sympathized with her husband, knew him fully and deeply. To be fair, I think that she might have appreciated that Archer did not cause a scandal or rupture her standing in their community – she is fully a creature of Gilded Age high-society. That is a recurrent theme in Wharton’s novels; the rich have customs and formalities that must be attended to. Her protagonists all try to enter that society or to make a life within it. Regardless, in essence, May’s understanding captures fully what novels should do for us; it gives us an opportunity to appreciate the mind and soul of another.

I remember feeling rather ambivalent about the novel until that scene. Part of it is because Archer’s behavior is atrocious. If he did not have the courage to buck against the pressure of making an approved match for his peer group, it can only be seen as cowardly for him to become an adulterer.  That is, he would be having it both ways; conforming to the customs and also satisfying his desires. Seeing the novel as a romance (between Archer and the Countess) seems to pervert that very ideal.

Instead, the would-be adulterers remained platonic – barely, and only after May decided she needed to defend her hearth. There is something to be said about not committing a physical sin and executing the oath one takes. It thus surprised me to find that the ending was so cathartic; I felt relieved and elated that May realized all of this. I hate to say it, but I did think that it would have been a waste if all this remained in Archer’s and Olenski’s heads. Having May realize helped the novel transcend its tawdriness. It became a tale of sacrifice, such as passed for it in New York high society.

*My reaction to it reminds me of another writer, whose fiction I did not care for: Margaret Atwood. I had written, about The Handmaid’s Tale:

I didn’t have a problem with this book, and then I did. The language is stilted, simplistic, and monosyllabic in this book, and at first, I thought that was great. The protagonist is a woman who is kept down, and the main tool is the withdrawal of education. I had actually thought the language reflected the mind of the handmaid. Then I thumbed through another Atwood book and to my chagrin, she wrote in that same stilted voice, and I revised my feelings for this book.

I had neglected to mention that I felt her tale to be overwrought, excessive, and without nuance. It is as if her talents were better spent on expository works and not novels. My opinion received some validation when I encountered her essay in Seeing Further, a retrospective and appreciation of the Royal Society. Her essay had the same quality as Franzen’s; erudite, nuanced, funny, and sharp. After this essay, I wound up reading Oryx and Crake. Despite the obvious nature of the cautionary tale against abuse of science and the concentration of power, I felt that the ending was haunting and the prose lively. 

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