The Breakfast Table

The Curse of the Time Dividers

Dear Katie—

Wow, I had no idea how great it would feel to actually read the morning papers, instead of skimming through my daily pile in about 15 minutes at my own breakfast table—my lap, aboard the 6:58 commuter train out of Garrison. A day without Times guilt!

Times guilt—it’s exactly like New Yorker guilt, except that the Times never gives you a break by publishing a double-issue and taking a day off—plagues almost everyone, but it can be excruciating for those of us who work here: I tend to shuffle around all day with my head hung because I never made it to that 1,800-word dispatch out of The Hague. Thank god the Times still has smoking lounges (are there many of these left, outside of airports?). That’s where I disappear, too many times a day, to catch up with pieces I missed on the train. Mike Bloomberg’s evil plot to raise cigarettes to $7 a pack has me spooked, though: Those are going to be some expensive mopping up sessions.

Before I move on to today’s papers—I’ll get there, I promise—let me reassure my bosses that the reason I plow through the papers so maniacally is that I need to move on to my real morning’s reading: novels. Part of my job at the Book Review is to work my way through eight to 10 soon-to-be-released novels a week and decide which ones are worth talking about. This morning I didn’t get to any of them (another thing to feel guilty about), but I did glance at two I’d brought along. They both looked pretty interesting—or, at least, the flap copy didn’t promise they’d be “lyrical” or “poignant” (words to watch out for) or drum up comparisons to García Márquez or Cormac McCarthy (comparisons that make me want to flee). The problem with these two books were that both were written by—ugh—time dividers. You know what time dividers are: Those writers who are driven to tell us, under their brooding Marion Ettlinger jacket photos and beneath a list of their accomplishments, that they divide their time between, say, Santa Fe, N.M., and Aix-en-Provence. Since when, Katie, did dust jackets become a place to advertise the location of your summer house? Can we nip this trend in the bud? Or at least convince Barnes & Noble to come up with a new section for them—Mysteries, Sci-Fi, Literature, Time Dividers? I’ll write a letter if you will.

I’ll also write a letter in support of poor Chang-rae Lee (bonus: He’s no time divider!) who took an out-of-left-field beating in David Kirkpatrick otherwise very funny piece this morning about some ad-hoc committee’s fumbling search for one novel that all of New York can read, like a homework assignment, and bond over. Nevermind that it’s a terrible idea—books selected by committees for their mass appeal and inability to offend are always a sad sight, and this committee seems more dithering and PC than most. But in the space of 1,500 words or so, Lee’s two excellent books were dragged behind a pickup truck. His first novel, Native Speaker, was deemed “not engaging enough” (among many other things), and his more recent and ambitious novel, A Gesture Life, was called “too remote, too racy and too controversial.” Then Harold Bloom all but compared Native Speaker to Chicken McNuggets! Ouch. I have a hunch that this thing could become its own mini Franzen versus Oprah—Chang-rae Lee versus Central Park West.

I had to laugh when I saw that one of the early contenders for this “prize” was Don DeLillo’s Underworld. Wouldn’t it be great to see 8 million people lugging that doorstop around? There’s a lot to like about Underworld (I think), but still: All non-essential businesses would have to close down while New York dealt with its collective migraine. You published a first novel last year, Katie. Isn’t there even a slight New York angle you can push and get in on this fun?

I’ve gone on way too long. Let me close—if we’re not all too tired of this subject—with Skategate. (Is that what we’re calling it? Doesn’t Slate usually have a contest to decide these things?) I’ve got to say that I wasn’t exactly shocked to read this morning that the French judge, Marie Reine Le Gougne, denies that she ever made any shady deals to hose the Canadians. The reports of her earlier tearful breakdown—”You don’t understand. You don’t understand. We’re under an awful lot of pressure. My federations, my president Didier, I had to put the Russians first”—struck me as being the kind of lines you only hear in Perry Mason. I did actually watch the Canadian-Russian showdown last week, which is somewhat surprising—I hate ice skating. I don’t hate it because the outfits and haircuts remind me of a particularly wussy Duran Duran video (which they do), but because I can’t bear the tension—the idea that four years of training can be obliterated by one very public screw-up. That sort of performance anxiety is kinda what made me want to write—no one sees what you’ve done until (you hope) you’ve got it almost the way you want it. Maybe you feel the same way. Which leads me to ask: What the hell were we thinking when we agreed to let Slate publish our e-mail?