Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Yakkin' About Comic Sociology With Brendan Flynn

Like most everyone who gets The New Yorker but also has things to do besides reading The New Yorker (kind of), I'm in a happy but more or less constant race to keep up. It keeps coming every week, and with the exception of articles about fashion designers or anything by Adam Gopnik or Talk of the Town pieces about droll things happening at rich peoples' charity auctions -- or Talk of the Town pieces about going for soup with Robert Klein or going sneaker shopping with Cornel West or whatever the last three Talks of the Towns are always about -- I'm generally inclined to read just about everything in each issue. It's tough to keep up, which means that I was delighted to see a book excerpt by David Brooks. One less thing to read, being my thought process.

I mean, I started it. That's what I do. And what I found was something that needed skipping, badly. Something with a sub-Gladwellian concept, a near-unreadable subhed and which began with several grafs of the most deplorably poor stand-up drollery I've ever read, not just in the excellence-machine of the Remnick New Yorker circa now, but in just about anything, anywhere, ever. Even Gopnik had to be like, "dude, there are a lot of bad jokes in this. A reporter's daughter, in fact, read it and said, 'I like dinosaurs.' Can you believe my, I mean, a reporter's daughter? Uncanny!"

Anyway, so I skipped it. But it turns out that doing that was a mistake. Thanks to a prompt from Brendan Flynn, a dear friend with what is apparently an advanced masochistic impulse who read the piece earlier just for mirthless yuks, I read the piece. And man. Oh man this piece. It's hard to know where to start with it, although here's a good place to start: with the glib fatuity of dumping all these words -- an excerpt from a book, naturally -- on the imaginary sociology of an imaginary new elite, which Brooks regards with a mixture of nauesous awe and (self-)disgust and which he never compellingly evokes as anything other than the geeky projections of a cossetted Upper West Side millionaire who cannot and will not give a shit about a single thing that matters. That's a decent place to start.

Anyway, because there will be no Yakkin About Football this week, here is an excerpt of the conversation Brendan and I had about it.

brendan: its so bad it almost must be consumed. read it. the article's sexuality provokes an awkwardness I haven't felt since my 9th grade english teacher essentially recited A&P from memory.
me: Oh no. There's sexuality in it? Any hint of that from Brooks needs to be DEALT WITH. Harshly and swiftly.
brendan: um sort of...he describes the ideal relationship for his fake cultural elites.
me: God, stop making up elites, David Brooks.
brendan: that are maybe taking over society? and maybe are supposed to live in park slope? but he describes their first date at starbucks or something.
me: He can be wrong about anything. Average Americans, obviously, obviously. But apparently also about his own cohort somehow.
brendan: and he uses the term social capital--i think trying to make the point that social capital is what matters for happiness--but isn't using it the way sociologists or political scientists do.
brendan: and there's this: "They got good grades in school, established solid social connections, joined fine companies, medical practices, and law firms. Wealth settled down upon them gradually, like a gentle snow."
me: First: barf. Secondly, no it didn't. Didn’t he deal with these people already, by the way? These are BoBo’s, right? Also, does anyone think people like that are not discussed or analyzed enough? Okay, I’m reading it.
brendan: it is really terrible
me: Having kind of a hard time getting past the subhed, honestly. (“How the new sciences of human nature can help make sense of a life.” – ed.) Also, the first few bars of this High on Fire song that just came on my iTunes made me laugh out loud in the library.
me: It sounds like that Toyota "The Van Beckons" commercial. Just got heavier. Perfect fit with Brooksie, too.
me: Okay, the first two grafs of this piece are absolutely, absolutely appalling. Like worst thing to run in the New Yorker in I don't know how long. Total "white people drive like this" jokes for UWS types.
brendan: it totally is. i couldn't believe it.

me: But also, who does he think he's talking about? These are physicians who go to China and hang out at the Clinton Global Change Initiative? And they live on Garfield and Seventh Avenue in Park Slope. They are The Composure Class, and they go to yoga and they go to Davos and they go to Starbucks. Okay, got it.
me: Wait, they have their own planes?
brendan: that's the composure class, david.
brendan: you know them, right? from all your Aspen institute retreats.
me: Right. But lots of people go to the Aspen Institute retreats. Lots of people who are really representative of important things going on in our culture.
me: Dozens, at least. (Another hilarious High on Fire overlap just happened. If you'd like to replicate it, you can. Do you have the Snakes For The Divine record?)
brendan: i have it
me: Okay, go to the title track. 4:30 seconds in. Then start reading the paragraph that begins, "Occasionally, you meet a young, rising member of this class at the gelato store..." Makes it so much better.
brendan: it totally does.
me: There is… I mean, I’ll finish this, but I have no idea how I’ll finish this.
brendan: Brooks is clearly trying to become a farty version of Friedman... take all these anecdotes and observations and jam them together to create a false reality you pass off as truth to make it ok to be rich and not give a fuck.
me: Like a version of Friedman that's never more than a 20-minute cab ride from home. Noble goal. Good goal, great job making it real.
me: What's amazing, too, is this weird passive-aggressive balancing between comic-caricaturist mode and a real slavering admiration. He's invented a largely imaginary class to which he wants to belong, or be seen to belong. And then he's somehow deploying them as the fucking Rosetta Stone for modern life?
brendan: weird that it's a "new class" based on 1940's gender stereotypes.
brendan: but with sexier lesbians I guess.
me: It’s actually grosser if you accept it as a projection of his own biases and anxieties and whatever than if you accept it as a piece of flawed and trivial pseudo-science. It’s like the most embarrassing fantasy ever, but in The New Yorker and full of awful observational humor.
brendan: from the attached Q&A:
QUESTION FROM ROLAND: To what extent was the piece meant as a joke?
DAVID BROOKS: Probably not as much as you might have taken it. I used to call my style comic sociology, which meant taking serious research and coating it with humor and social observation to make it more fun to read.
In this article and in the book I take this another step by creating characters. I did that to show how the research applies in concrete situations. I also did it to show agency.

brendan: might as well read DAVID BROOKS: Roland I completely made shit up to serve my purpose which as you can tell I'm unsure of.
me: To show agency? You did it to make jokes about gelato, homey. And popular consumer brands and famous think tanks. It’s unreal, it doesn’t let up with the brand-drops. It's like Patrick Bateman ghostwrote it.
me: Wow, this is. Just woof. I mean the impression that comes off is that he's just the most effete UWS creep you've ever met. And one whose understanding of what the world's inhabitants are like comes entirely from reading the Times wedding announcements. And, like, going to Davos.
me: Like an unctuous alien that somehow also went to Dartmouth. Hard to explain.
brendan: well Dartmouth probably has heavy representation at Davos and the times wedding section.
brendan: b/w this and the attention lavished on that tiger mother shit our culture is really bottoming out.
me: Rich people gazing at platinum-plated navels while bridges collapse, etc. Finally, a Book of Revelations, but with riffs on gelato and sedans and "achievement" instead of pale horses and suchlike.
me: I guess I just don't see what's so depressing about it.
me: Wait. I think I'm starting to see it.


  1. I read this in the mag too and noticed a distinct lack of, um -- what's the word -- "science" in it. Oogie. And smug.