The Book Club

Authenticity? Soul? Hogwash.

Dear Sarah,

Thinking about how to respond to your terrific letter, I feel the way I do when I’m approaching a giant buffet: I want to respond to everything and all at once. So forgive me if my entry ends up being all over the map.

And so to Mariah Carey. Do you really think Mariah Carey thinks that she doesn’t have an eyedrop of soul? Watch that new clip from “Behind the Music,” where she–for some reason while treading water in a swimming pool–talks about recording songs in an old shed (or barn or something) and laments the fact that you can never capture the emotion of those songs in a record studio. I’m sure she really believes that she feels everything she’s singing about. In fact, I’m sure she believes that she really feels just as much as Aretha Franklin or Billie Holliday did. And who am I (or you) to say she doesn’t?

In any case, I’d say that thinking about art in terms of “soul” or “authenticity” or whatever you want to call it is just wrong. What the artist feels is not important to me, and assuming that it is important makes art a question of vying interiorities. That’s a question that I think is both unanswerable and uninteresting. And actually, I think it’s just as uninteresting when applied to real life as it is when applied to art. In that sense, I think privileging depth is a mistake not just when it comes to art, but when it comes to people, too.

What would that really mean? It would mean giving up the idea that what’s most important, most definitive, about ourselves is what we really feel down deep inside, and believing instead that it’s all the other stuff–our education, our clothes, the books on our shelves, our families, our class background, the rhythms of our speech, the way we act–that makes us interesting (or uninteresting). In other words, the stuff that Tom Wolfe, at his best, captures so well and that Ellis, at his best, makes so vivid and so funny.

If the conflict is between depth and surface, then, I’m putting on the side of “surface” everything that’s exterior to the Romantic/Freudian “soul,” and saying that that’s what should matter. (Actually, I think it’s what does matter, but the culture we’re in won’t let us admit it.) In any case, I don’t think this is, as you suggest, a “universal” problem. Certainly it’s not a problem at all in Western literature from Homer through Milton, and I don’t think it’s a problem at all in Chinese or Japanese literature until the 20th century. Without doing a Virginia Woolf-style dating exercise, I think it’d be hard to find a reasonably “modern” character until Shakespeare, and even in the 19th century there was a serious debate about interiority. Read The Education of Henry Adams, and there’s not a trace of self-excavation. And it’s Wilde, after all, who said, “Only very shallow people don’t judge a book by its cover.” I assume he meant it.

That’s why I wasn’t really thinking about Victor as a modern-day Isabel (though I’m glad you thought it was ingenious of me), so much as I was thinking of Ellis as a modern-day Madame Merle. Although it is true Victor wants to be a modern-day Isabel. He’s just not smart enough–all the way through, people keep talking about how dumb he is–and, ironically and unfortunately, doesn’t feel enough to be her.

In that sense, you’re right when you see Victor as the heir to the affectless heroes of California noir, and right also to point to this as a problem. Rejecting the modern idea of depth is not the same as being cold or affectless. But occasionally–perhaps, as you say, more than occasionally–Ellis seems to confuse the two (as James does in Portrait of a Lady, for that matter). I love those affectless heroes. But their whole vibe only makes sense in the context of this incredibly conventional masculine distance v. feminine emotionality scheme, and that scheme itself is beyond tiresome.

Glamorama does misstep, then, whenever it makes the equation between an attention to surface and nihilism. And maybe it’s true that down deep Ellis really believes that, as Walter Kirn puts it in his (faintly positive) review of the book in New York, “empty souls make for cruel societies” and that, in true Dostoevskyan fashion, “If nothing is true, everything is permitted.” I think both of those ideas are crazy. (Nothing has ever been true in that ontological sense, and people have had functioning societies for five thousand years. Why would that change now?) But I think Glamorama does something important–and does it dazzlingly well–in drawing our attention away from the interior and toward the surface.

As for imagination, I don’t want to discard it. I do love Ishiguro, and I’m a big fan of The Unconsoled, although I don’t think we need that many more deconstructions of the ego. What I love about it is the way it shows how it’s impossible to make internal sense in the midst of external nonsense. But when it comes to Ellis, maybe it would be nice for him to write about a different world, but there are a lot of other people who could write about those worlds, so why shouldn’t he write about the one he knows best and clearly loves/hates?

Damn. I didn’t even get to the sex and violence. Oh well. Next time.