The Unexamined Life
By 2052, according to a recent study, more books will be published in a year than readers will exist to buy and enjoy them. That's taking into account books published by print-on-demand companies--digital printing that produces a bound volume in minutes. Experience bears that out. Among people I don't think of as novelists, nonfiction writers or memoirists, very few of them are not busily writing novels, nonfiction books or memoirs. One of the open secrets of literary life is that it's easier to get a book deal for a first novel, or for a work of nonfiction, than it is to get a short story or an article published in a serious magazine. This is because book publishing now revolves less around the book itself than around the marketability of the author--physical appearance; ethnicity, race, religion or sexuality; media or social connections--while serious magazine publishing, for all of its shortcomings, is still about writing. To a large degree, writing a book has become just another form of producing and selling, another project of the entrepreneurial or egotistical American self. That makes most books being published social, not cultural, events. They are the type of calculating, transactional social occasions that authentic cultural events sublimate into clarifying expression. These simulated books should be reported and investigated in the national news sections of newspapers, not reviewed in their culture pages. But American literary criticism, in its blindness to the advent of the simulated book--namely, to the broad context that produces these new modes of expedience--is about twenty years behind American publishing.
And for good reason. To take one recent example, how do you critically approach Oh the Glory of It All, a "book" that is, for one thing, less a book than a very long e-mail? E-mail's conversion of casual conversation into writing--you chat with your fingers rather than try to organize your thoughts into words--is slowly phasing out writing as a formal mode of reflection, to the point that soon we won't expect writing to have irony or different levels of meaning any more than we expect casual conversation to have a meticulously crafted structure. The discipline of arduously thinking your way into words has given way to the indulgence of going on, and on, and on as a substitute for thinking. When Edmund Wilson said that the typewriter had changed American writing, he didn't know the half of it.
What does a critic do with Sean Wilsey's vulnerable, aching, unresolved memoir of growing up rich, empty and unloved amid San Francisco's high society, an account that is more like a spontaneous, unedited private unburdening than a real book meant to be read by other people? Wilsey's father was a wealthy businessman and philanthropist who left Wilsey's mother--a socialite and society columnist--for her best friend, also a glittering hostess, and a very rich woman herself. Wilsey, currently an editor of the literary magazine McSweeney's, writes his memoir in a tone of self-deprecating sincerity that verges on irony but self-consciously resists it; he details his wayward youth, his problems adjusting to his shifting family circumstances and to various social situations, concluding with what he calls his "redemption" at a special school for troubled kids in Italy. Yet the sweet, hapless, beleaguered manner hides a simmering passive-aggressive anger, through whose hidden injuries emerge portraits of Wilsey's father as a narcissistic philanderer, his mother as a narcissistic fantasist with something like a Gandhi complex and his stepmother as a cross between Joan Crawford and Lizzie Borden. Yet the sweetly self-presenting author seems unaware of his passive-aggressive poison--the reader apprehends the toxic vapors behind Wilsey's back, as it were. Oh the Glory of It All seems to have been written by an unreflective person, which is the literary equivalent of being a color-blind painter.
Wilsey does acknowledge his book's undigested quality, unaware that in doing so he's confirming the very charge of being unliterarily wrapped up in himself that he's trying to deflect: "A memoir, at its heart, is written in order to figure out who you are." In fact, a memoir written so that the memoirist can figure himself out is not meant to be read by anyone besides the author, with the exception of people who either love him or have a professional obligation to help him. If you do happen to pick up such a book, you will be eavesdropping, not reading; you will be in the odd position of having to make sense of experiences that the author hasn't made sense of for himself. If you happen to dislike such a book, you will be in the uncomfortable position of passing judgment on the writer, rather than on his creation. You will be delivering an insult, not making a criticism. Who wants to do that?
Somewhere in the middle of his memoir, Wilsey offers this characteristically vague description of his boyhood friend Spencer's family, with whom Sean spends a lot of time when he's in his early teens:
Mr. Perry was forbearing and rarely seen. Mrs. Perry was sick with cancer, bedridden, and sweetly crazy. Spencer's little brother, Scott, had fought off his own bout of cancer with chemo and gone bald when he was eight. It had made him the type of self-possessed kid you just did not worry about ever. Probably because it hurt too much to worry about him.
Now, why is Mrs. Perry "sick with cancer" and "sweetly crazy"? Is she the latter because of the former? If not, how can she be sweetly crazy independent of being so ill with cancer that she cannot leave her bed? If she is sweetly crazy--typically, Wilsey tells us that she is, but doesn't show how she is--it must have something to do with her condition, to the extent that it makes no sense to describe her eccentricity as if it had nothing to do with her condition.
And did Scott's "bout" with cancer and his loss of hair really make him "self-possessed"? Who is this "you" who never worried about Scott? It can't be anyone in his family, who all must be terrified that at any moment in the future of this very young boy, the cancer will begin again, and terrified also that with mother and son both sick with cancer, everyone else in the family is genetically vulnerable to the disease. The bit about it hurting "too much to worry about" would seem like a conscientious corrective to the previous sentence if it weren't so patently insincere: You still don't know who's doing or not doing the worrying. Anyway, if you have a son or brother who nearly died of cancer, you can't help but worry about him, whether worrying "hurts" or not.
You have to keep reminding yourself that Wilsey is a person venting rather than a writer writing, and that Oh the Glory of It All is a prolonged private outpouring rather than a book. If you don't remember this, you'll end up putting the book aside upon reaching the second page, where Wilsey relates that his superrich father pleased his gold-digging mother because "he helped her want things she did not know to want." But was there anything worth having that Wilsey's mother, portrayed by him as a calculating social climber who married his father for his money, "did not know to want"? You feel the urge to protest that a serious book should have the basics of psychological insight, especially about the author's own life. Instead, you have to be patient because, like an unreflective person and not like a writer, Wilsey is in the process of finding out who he is. He is writing a memoir without self-understanding, as well as without insight into other people.
Reviewers of Wilsey's book have noted that his portrayals of his parents and stepmother are crude, one-dimensional and cartoonlike. Wilsey doesn't seem to care about making sense of them as complicated, interesting people: "But how can I explain Dede? She's my evil stepmother. She's an unbelievable cliché." However, people are not clichés, and declaring that they are doesn't make it so. I don't want to be unkind to Sean Wilsey. Nobody does. That's the critic's problem with simulated books, in a nutshell. At one point, Wilsey tells us that his similarly superprivileged stepbrothers "liked the Police. I had not heard of the Police. My favorite song was the theme song from the Royal Viking Star cruise liner." This is charming and funny--one of the book's few comical moments--but Wilsey is being sincere. He often seems to be writing with an open heart, and out of an open wound. If only a fraction of the stories he relates are true--he tells us that Dede routinely berated him for being a "faggot" when he was a boy--you will want to give him a hug.
This seeming vulnerability is perhaps why the reviewers who complained about Wilsey's one-dimensional portraits nevertheless pronounced Oh the Glory of It All a formidable literary work. These critics are taking Wilsey personally because he presents himself personally. And on the surface, much like reality television, there doesn't seem to be anything artful or "written" about Wilsey's seemingly frank, natural, spontaneously produced book at all:
Todd [Wilsey's stepbrother] had a picture of Dede in her debutante days up on the wall in his nongray room. She was beautiful in this photo; but, more importantly, she looked doable. This was a whack-off pic if there ever was one! She was showing a lot of cleavage, and she looked liked she wanted it. I always thought, Dude, why do you have a whack-off pic of your mom up on the wall above your bed? And then I'd get turned on from standing there looking at it and run upstairs to whack off.
For all its naturalness, there is something jarring about that passage. It's not just that a 35-year-old man is squandering the opportunity to publicly evoke his past by expressing himself in such a puerile way. The breezy, colloquial tone is, after all, the book's trust-me, nonartificial quality. What jolts you is that Wilsey graphically describes his physical attraction to Dede throughout the book because he seems to think--or he's been told--that this revelation has the capacity to shock. Yet it is neither unusual nor abnormal for a 14-year-old boy to be sexually drawn to his stepmother in some confused way. What's surprising, if not shocking, is that Wilsey never tries to "figure out" what it means for him to be sexually aroused by an emotionally abusive stepmother; he never tries to identify the quality in his character that might have given rise to such an impulse. There is something phony about authentically recounting experiences that you don't even take the trouble to understand.
And so the more you read, the more you wonder about the authenticity of Wilsey's apparent candor. For one thing, Wilsey re-creates precise dialogue--quotation marks and all--that he claims to have heard as a very young boy, not to mention precise descriptions of what he says he was feeling at exact moments at the time. This is an excerpt from an extended dinner-table conversation at his parents' house before they're divorced that he claims to have overheard. He was 4:
MOM: How do you feel you have changed?
&&&MAN'S VOICE: I was a Marxist. I had rejected spiritual values. But then... I saw the design in nature and I was convinced there was a Creator.... It was a bad time for me. I wanted to go home to the United States. Friends of mine got into power and I thought they would help me but they didn't.
This miraculously recollected conversation goes on for several hundred words. A year later, at the age of 5, Wilsey recalls a moment with his future stepmother:
"Come with me, Sean," she said. "I've got a surprise for you."
&&&I wondered how she had gotten into our house. But it didn't matter. She was Mom's best friend. I went downstairs, got in her car, and we drove to the supermarket. She took me to the candy aisle.
&&&"Let's pretend it's Halloween," Dede said. "And we can have as much candy as we want."
&&&I was tentative.
He remembers that at a precise moment, when he was 5 years old, he was tentative. I didn't know that 5-year-olds could even be tentative. (I thought they just had trouble making up their minds.)
Here is the 12-year-old Sean in Moscow in the early 1980s, as part of a group of children transported around the world by his mother, who through her social connections had turned herself into a highly visible advocate of world peace and nuclear disarmament. Sean is standing in the office of a Soviet official named Ruben, who is speaking informally to Wilsey's group:
Ruben was talking about the Soviet Union's many allies.... He said, "I'd like to reemphasize that all of those people regardless of their faith or race or color or nationality are absolutely equal in their rights. And I am not merely talking of...equality of peoples in the Soviet Union. For it is a genuine and true equality in everything and every sphere of life."
Strangely, not a single reviewer has wondered about Wilsey's superhuman powers of recall. Critics could at least have used the occasion to reflect on the question of truth in memoir. This is not, after all, Speak, Memory or The Words, memoirs in which poetic imaginations create their own truth, mere facts be damned. Oh the Glory of It All doesn't ask to be read on poetic terms, so isn't it fair to ask if the facts are accurate?
Although Wilsey blames his parents for his shortcomings--"they destroyed my childhood"--and refuses to accept that their complicated, messy lives are the inevitable lot of being an adult--"there was something childlike about Mom and Dad"--it's hard to resist feeling that he's displaying the same sense of entitlement and lofty indifference to reality that he claims characterized their treatment of him. Such is Wilsey's self-absorption that he doesn't tell us he has two full brothers and two half-sisters until the memoir's final pages, and then says nothing about his relationship to them. This makes it especially hard to credit his avowal that he and his siblings calmly accepted Dede's announcement that she had cut them out of their share of their father's fortune. (Wilsey insists that he would have given the money to charity.) No litigation on the part of any of the siblings? Even for the sake of charity? Call me cynical, but I just don't believe it. Yet all the other reviewers apparently did, because no one bothered to question Wilsey's Prince Myshkin-like account of his and his siblings' reaction to the news. Were the critics afraid that raising the subject of money in a review of a book about superwealthy people would somehow be considered... ill-bred? The country has become so money- and status-obsessed that talking about money and status has become almost taboo.
Wilsey says two things that betray both his self-deception and his peculiar re-enactment of what he has presented as his parents' coarseness and materialism. The first occurs in a description of his mother's alluring physical appearance: "Beauty is like money from God." The second is about his father's "social prominence to which I owe my existence." Holden Caulfield, where art thou?!! Beauty may be the apple of money's eye, but it is nothing like money. It is the one quality on which money has no purchase; that is why money so hotly pursues all things beautiful. As the young Wilsey might have said: Duh! And if Wilsey wrote this book in order to better "figure out" who he is and concludes, without so much as the slightest irony, that he owes his very existence--not his status and opportunities in the world, but his existence--to his father's social prominence, he is a long way from self-knowledge. Especially given that his entire memoir is devoted to showing his father's uncaring, unloving, soul-deforming effect on him.
But, then, nonrich people keep getting reminded by reality that the stories they tell themselves aren't true. The rich have a better shot at making up narratives that they can believe in unencumbered by the facts. At least, that's the type of denial Wilsey says his wealthy parents are swaddled in. As for Wilsey himself, he tells us in a concluding chapter titled "Redemption" that the special school for troubled rich kids in Italy transformed him from "a wounded sarcastic wiseass, a self-serving liar, and a sneak" into "A Beautiful Man of Honesty and Integrity." Later, he says,
Kids are trusting and wise and I cannot think of a less useful combination to be born with. The wisdom lets children know who they are. And then the trust lets everyone else take that knowledge away.
He follows that breathtaking fantasy about life some pages further on, right at the end of the book, with this beautiful hallucination about his parents' and stepmother's influence: "If the three of them hadn't been so consistently themselves, it might have turned out otherwise." The neat happy ending of a redemptive transformation: wise, trusting children and cruel betraying adults, people who are knowable, predictable, "consistently themselves," just like comic book figures--forgive my own coarse materialism, but you need a lot of money to sustain these illusions about life into nearly middle age. Only in the current overheated publishing climate could someone offer a memoir so devoid of self-understanding, a tale that presents wealth and privilege as an affliction--wealth as the new poverty; privilege as the new disadvantage--and soars onto the bestseller list with the blessings of respected critics.
And there is something eerily familiar about all of this. A rich kid who owes his existence to his rich, influential daddy; who blames everyone but himself for his mistakes; who charms everyone into forgetting his flaws by winkingly acknowledging his flaws; who has fabricated and follows a fantasy-narrative about his life; who appears to promulgate naked deceits and self-deceits that, astonishingly, seem to strengthen his credibility. Wilsey for president! No, I'm not comparing the injured (but isn't everyone?) San Francisco heir to the injuring Washington scion. But if we really want to step outside the status quo and get to the bottom of what's happening in this country, maybe we should start paying attention to the culture in a different way. We might want to start thinking about our nominally liberal culture-makers and culture-appraisers--and just about everyone in the arts is "liberal"...aren't they?--with the same skepticism and scrutiny that we apply to politics. Everything really is connected, in one way or another.