In modern America, the heyday of the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, also known as the WASP, is some decades behind us. But in American literature, WASPs continue to fascinate -- perhaps because the publishing industry is one of their last redoubts.
Wealthy Manhattan publishers, editors and literary agents still apparently revel in magical summers spent on the Cape or the Hamptons rubbing shoulders with bankers, Harvard and Yale Law School alums and nouveau riche hedge fund managers. And they remain eager to publish novels about super-wealthy people much like themselves spending magical summers on the Cape or the Hamptons, rubbing shoulders with bankers, Harvard and Yale Law School alums and nouveau riche hedge fund managers.
Two recent examples:
In Maggie Shipstead's Seating Arrangements, we are in familiar territory observing the shenanigans surrounding a three-day wedding weekend in an island off the Massachusetts coast. The cast includes a pregnant bride, randy bridesmaids, oversexed groomsmen, aging parents with their middle-aged angst, the bride's sister on the rebound from an unsuccessful romance and so on.
The characters have names like Mopsy, Oaksie, and one woman who goes through life with the name Fee Fenn. The main protagonist, the father of the bride, Winn Van Meter, has two daughters but wishes he had sons who could follow his footsteps to Harvard and membership of the exclusive Ophidian Club. A Connecticut-domiciled, New York banker, Winn is obsessed with obtaining membership of exclusive clubs and frustrated by his failure to win acceptance in the island's Pequod Golf Club
Winn's wife, Biddy, is a pale, insubstantial character and Winn is busy lusting after one of the bridesmaids, Agatha, who seems to welcome the advances of this 59-year-old man, unlikely though that might appear. The weekend will engulf Winn in memories, prompt him to take some ill-advised actions and ultimately grant him a measure of surly acceptance.
We will witness copulations and attempted copulations, visit the shady past of some of Winn's forebears, view him as an unpleasant young man and even review some of the debates of the Vietnam War era, as seen from the viewpoint of the New England elite.
In Charles Dubow's about-to-be published novel Indiscretion. we meet three characters locked in a love triangle and a creepy narrator who lurks behind the scenes offering us his own self-serving commentary.
The publisher is marketing this book as "The Great Gatsby meets Fifty Shades of Grey but in truth it's not nearly as good as the first and not nearly as bad as the second.
We first see the young and lovely Claire on a train from New York City to spend a summer weekend in the Hamptons with her boyfriend, the obnoxious English hedge fund manager Clive. They are invited to a party hosted by Harry Winslow, an author who has just won the National Book Award, and his beautiful wife Maddy. Claire is entranced by the couple and their delicate son Johnny. She also meets Walter Gervais, a neighbor and the narrator of the book. Walter is a successful New York banker who inherited a lot of money and made a lot more. A confirmed bachelor, he likes to hang out at the Yale Club in Manhattan or study the portraits of his many ancestors hanging on the walls of his ancestral summer retreat in Southampton.
The Winslows bring Claire into their circle. She quickly dumps Clive and spends almost every weekend of an enchanted summer with them, enjoying great conversation, wonderful food, lazy days on the beach and evenings under the stars. For Claire, it is a foothold into a life she desires for herself. She falls in love, or thinks she does, with Harry -- but of course he is locked in a 20-year perfect marriage with Maddy.
The summer ends and the Winslows depart for a sabbatical in Rome. But Harry has to come back to New York for a few days and bumps into Claire. The two fall into bed together in a torrid coupling scene. They continue their affair (described in detail by the author in pages that will no doubt boost sales no end and attract the attention of Hollywood) through snatched days in Paris and Barcelona. But of course, it is only a matter of time until they are discovered. And then, it all comes crashing down.
While reading this book, it took me a while to grasp that it is not in fact chiefly about Harry and Maddy and Claire, whose story is in fact pretty mundane -- one we've read a thousand times before. The true subject, who emerges slowly, is Walter Gervais, the laughably WASPy narrator. Walter has been in love with Maddy since childhood but she is not interested in him as a lover, only as a friend -- or more accurately, a kind of hanger-on one can rely on for favors and help when needed. Walter presents himself as an altruistic presence in the lives of Harry and Maddy -- but it becomes clear he is more like a kind of peeping Tom living vicariously through them. Seen in this light, the explicit sex scenes in the book become truly nasty. Narrated by a frustrated and jealous man, they are actually nothing more than the masturbatory fantasies of a drone. Perhaps Walter stands for all WASPs -- he remains wealthy and powerful but has lost the energy to do anything.
He's an observer, there all the time, like a shadow. Unable to form other relationships, his is an empty existence. He gets joy from being close to Maddy -- even if he can never have her. Their one sexual encounter, a drunken fumble, is an embarrassment neither of them ever refers to again. In the end, Walter gets his way. He "possesses" Maddy -- or the empty shell of Maddy -- but their relationship is passionless and sad. This book is a portrait of a life not lived by a person who has not the courage to live fully and instead sucks sustenance from the lives of others.
I found this book fairly enjoyable without ever being blown away but it did raise the question of why aspiring novelists find so much fascination in the lives of their fellow writers, agents and publishers who form the New York literary elite, or should I say literary mafia?
Are they more interesting than the rest of us ordinary folk just because they can drop five hundred dollars on a bottle of wine and five thousand on a dress? I was definitely engaged by this book -- but ultimately also a bit repelled. It's like an episode from that great old show, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. Walter is a voyeur who turns us, the readers, into fellow voyeurs. He gets off on the lives of others -- and so do we.
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