It’s time for the last installment in My Year of Excellent Essayists.
If you’ve been reading here for a year now (and how lucky I am if you have), you’ll remember that it was my thoughts on Adam Gopnik that inspired this project. I started 2009 bemoaning the fact that after years of reading essayists, I hadn’t developed a real sense of which were my favorites and why. I’d read, but I hadn’t studied.
But I had this to say about Gopnik (to understand one reference in this passage, you need to know that earlier in the post I shared one of my Great Talents: to remember nearly every commercial jingle of the 1970’s):
“Well, I did study one essayist. A few years back I became smitten with the work of Adam Gopnik. I read his books with a green highlighter in my hand. I striped his books, you could say. I wrote down lines I liked in my journal, and went so far as to write down why those lines worked, and why they spoke to me.
And guess what? I can tell you a thing or two about Adam Gopnik’s writing. I can tell you that he writes like the valedictorian in your high school class–with smarts that force you to reread sentences, and occasionally make you want to tell him to stop showing off. He writes with a poet’s ear; sometimes his lines sashay and sing. And what I may love most: beneath his considerable brain beats a heart as sappy as a 70’s Kodak commercial (the ones that featured Paul Anka singing “The Times of Your Life.” And yes, I can sing it.) Gopnik wants to impress you with his smarts, but he also wants to knead your heart just a little–and he’ll do it, unfailingly, in the last lines of his last paragraph.”
I spent December rereading particular sections from two of Gopnik’s books: his Christmas journals from Paris to the Moon, and the Thanksgiving essays from Through the Children’s Gate. My rereading only reinforced what I wrote about him above (although I’m not sure I ever wanted him to stop showing off).
Since these particular essays were Gopnik’s reminiscences of his previous year, they often contain many disparate bits; a single essay might cover French fax machines, French pomposity, Christmas trees, Halloween, the carousel in the Luxembourg Gardens, French lunches, fact checkers, rude Americans in Paris, French subtitles, arrogance and courtesy in French commerce, infuriation at the Musée d’Orsay, and a pinball machine at the back of a café. Yet Gopnik manages, somehow, to gather all these bits into a single cohesive mass, and it’s deft and beautiful, like you’re watching a master baker form croissants. The fax machine errors become an analogy for pomposity; the wrapping of an éclair a symbol for pomposity’s opposite. Everything comes together in the essay’s last lines, as I mentioned above, and the result is more stunning than any French pastry.
a few lines to love:
On his second attempt at buying Christmas tree lights. The first time he discovered that French lights come in round garlands, not long strings.
“The trouble now was that the new white lights I got were white lights that were all twinkling ones. I saw the word clignotant on the box, and I knew that it meant blinking, but somehow I didn’t associate the word blinking with the concept “These lights blink off and on.” It was the same thing with the garlands, come to think of it. It said guirlande right on the box, and I knew perfectly well what guirlande meant; but I am not yet able to make the transposition from what things say to what they mean. I saw the word guirlande on the box, but I didn’t quite believe it. In New York I believe everything I read, even if it appears in the New York Post. In France I am always prepared to give words the benefit of a poetic doubt. I see the word guirlande and shrug and think that maybe garland is just the French seasonal Christmas light-specific idiom for a string. The box says, “They blink,” and I think they don’t.”
Gopnik is always fascinated by the odd little idiosyncrasies in daily life, whether in France or at home in New York City. And he always seems happy to portray himself as hapless. To humorous effect.
After taking his son, Luke, who is three (I think), to see a puppet show of The Three Pigs in the Luxembourg Gardens, the two take a late-night stroll with the stroller:
“Luke, all the while was keeping up a running, troubled commentary on Les Tres Petits Cochons. “Why there were two wolves?” he would spring up, sleepy, from his pousette, to demand. (Actually, there was just one, but he would appear, with sinister effect, on either side of the proscenium.) “Why he wants to eat the pigs?” “Why that man knock him?” “Why that crocodile bite?” Why, why, why…the question the pigs ask the wolf, that the wolf asks the hunter, that the hunter asks God–and the answer, as it comes at midnight, after all the other, patient parental answers (“Well, you see, wolves generally like to eat pigs, though that’s just in the story.” “Well, hunters, a long time ago, would go hunting for wolves with guns when they were a danger to people”), the final exhausted midnight-in-the-lamplight answer, wheeling the pousette down the Quai Voltaire, is the only answer there is, the Bible’s answer to Job: because that’s the way the puppet master chose to do it, because that’s the way the guy who works the puppets chose to have it done.”
Here’s yet another example of an essayist using a long, complicated line to convey a long, complicated situation. Any parent remembers the whys of a three-year-old, and Gopnik reminds us how those whys go on and on, and even intersperses his (ultimately ineffective) explanations right in the middle of that long line, to complicate it even further. I especially admire how he gets across his that’s just how it is! point at the end: not once, but in two different ways. It gives his “final exhausted midnight-in-the-lamplight answer” the desperate impact it requires. Saying it twice shows how exasperated he is. It also adds to the rhythm of the line.
On Luke at four, noticing his father’s French:
“He recognizes that his parents, his father particularly, speaks with an Accent, and this brings onto him exactly the shame that my grandfather must have felt when his Yiddish-speaking father arrived to talk to his teachers at a Philadelphia public school. I try to have solid, parental discussions with his teachers, but as I do, I realize, uneasily, that in his eyes I am the alter kocker, the comic immigrant.
‘Zo, how the boy does?” he hears me saying in effect. “He is good boy, no? He is feeling out the homeworks, isn’t he?’ I can see his small frame shudder, just perceptibly, at his father’s words.”
I like the drawn-out analogy here, the imagined scene. Zo, how the boy does? perfectly gets across just how cringe-worthy Gopnik’s French must seem to his son. It’s that haplessness, once again.
The first line of Through the Children’s Gate:
“In the fall of 2000, just back from Paris, with the sounds of its streets still singing in my ears and the codes to its courtyards still lining my pockets, I went downtown and met a man who was making a map of New York.”
I love the rhythm and the sounds of this sentence. All the s words–sounds, streets, singing, ears–then the hard c sounds–codes, courtyards, pockets–and then all those m’s–met, man, making, map. Read it out loud; isn’t it lovely? The poetry lures you right into the book.
From the Thanksgiving essay written after 9/11:
“Children don’t mind if their parents are worried; they expect it–parents are there to worry. But they notice at once if their parents are afraid, for that is what parents are never to be.”
Gopnik does this often–he boils down his observations into a universal statement. His phrasing makes it read like an aphorism. And there’s that wonderful rhythm once again.
After agreeing that Luke and his friend could have a two-night sleepover, but without any screen time:
“Once before, they had used a no-screen weekend imaginatively, to hold a fire sale of old Yu-Gi-Oh! cards. They both have outgrown the game in the past year and now view their beautiful old Rackhamish cards with disdain and the kind of disbelief about their enthusiasms of seven months ago that we have for pictures of ourselves in decades past–the haircut! those clothes! Childhood is just like life, only ten times faster.”
There’s that aphoristic statement at the end. And the exclamatory asides–the haircut! the clothes! Very Gopnikish. I took a particular delight in watching Luke and his friends, over the years and through the essays, become obsessed with almost exactly the same games that H and his buddies went through over the years, although H’s gang favored Pokemon over Yu-Gi-Oh! There were baseball cards, and Major League Baseball Showdown cards and eventually the Lord of the Rings game with painted figures. Gopnik writes this about Yu-Gi-Oh!, but it really applies to any of them:
“The game, when you play it, has mind-numbingly elaborate rules, but you never seem to play it. The goal is to collect the cards and plan to play it someday.”
Precisely. Ha! It baffled me with H and his friends, and it’s baffling me again with Mr. T and his, with their Pokemon collections. West Coast boys and East Coast boys–it’s all the same! Gopnik describes the Lord of the Rings game, which involves the painstaking construction of miniature plastic figures, which are then primed and painted in eye-crossing detail.
“The game combines, so far as I can see, the joys of being a Malaysian child laborer in a small-goods sweatshop with the excitement of double-entry bookkeeping.”
Maybe this is only funny if you’ve had a boy that has played this particular game. In which case I’m sure you are nodding and snorting in agreement.
And this, in an essay on worrying over Luke spending too much time on computers and video games:
“Considering the maze of screens and cards and pages, I ended up at last with a bitter, semi-Marxist conclusion: It is not that we want them free of screens, really. It is that we want them to be screen producers rather than screen consumers. We say that we don’t want them enslaved to screens, but what we really want is for them to enslave other people to them. We want them to be Steve Jobs or Steven Spielberg–feudal screen lords rather than mere screen peasants, screen serfs. We do not mind if they play games, so long as they grow up to write software. We will leave them alone for a weekend to write their screenplay, even if they have to huddle over a screen to do it.”
Adam Gopnik, how did you get inside my brain? This is my bitter, semi-Marxist conclusion exactly. (And please explain, if I think like you, why, oh why, can’t I write like you?)
And one more, just because it kills me. This is from the last Thanksgiving essay, when Luke is eleven, and Gopnik asks every day after school, at 3:15, how school was, even though he knows he’ll get only “the high-shouldered shrug of the exasperated” in return. But then, every day at 3:30, Luke sends him an IM, filling in his father on all he hadn’t acknowledged.
“I understood what he was doing. To submit to the parental three-fifteen is to surrender autonomy; to send complete messages from your own computer is to seize control of the means of communication, allowing you to declare both autonomy and your essential goodwill. He was doing what children have to do: He was making me, his strongest tie, into a weaker tie, and then strengthening the tie again, but on his own terms. He is getting ready to go. He is putting his first shirt in the bottom of his eventual suitcase.”
Ah, that last line. Even more poignant when your kid is seventeen, and the suitcase is half-filled.
It was especially interesting to read these essays in succession, to watch Luke grow from a boy in a stroller to a boy with a shirt in his suitcase. Childhood is just like life, only ten times faster. I just love that Adam Gopnik.
So, what’s next?
Will I begin Another Year of Excellent Essayists? Will I finally get to Virginia Woolf? Will I find time to read some–any, a short story, a page, something please–fiction? Will I take a new direction and embark upon My Year of Excellent Egg Dishes?
Come on back for my next post when I’ll get all mawkish and misty-eyed about what this project has meant to me, and yammer on about what I’ll do in 2010.