Every time I pick up a copy of The New Yorker, I think of the week after September 11, when the magazine issued its famous mournful cover, with the two towers en ombre chinoise in the sky. I think about this issue not because it contained anything very cutting or honest or true from the high-minded voices of the journalistic elite. Aside from the notable exception of Susan Sontag's take on events -- particularly her disgust with the "unanimity of the sanctimonious, reality-concealing rhetoric spouted by American officials and media commentators" -- the feeling across its pages was that the slaughter of the 3,000 people in Lower Manhattan was as much a cultural-literary event as a homicidal one.
There were a number of these classy meditations on the sorrows of that day. One of the best-known of The New Yorker's intellects, Adam Gopnik, the quintessential highbrow, wrote the following in an essay called "The City and the Pillars: Taking a Long Walk Home": "[P]eople in Europe say 'America Attacked' and people in America say 'New York Attacked' and people in New York think, Downtown attacked."
"'Downtown attacked?'" I said, putting down the magazine, puzzled. "What's he talking about?"
"Fucking stupid asshole snobbery is what it is," yelled my friend Charles. It was his subscription I was reading. "Stupid New Yorker. I'm cancelling. How could they publish that rot!"
I continued reading.
"Oh ho, Charles! Listen up! It says here that all that asbestos and burnt concrete and burnt people actually smelled like smoked mozzarella. Smoked mozza-friggin'-rella! Of course that's what it smelled like! With a side of arugula. With some fresh pepper."
Gopnik, a regular voice at The New Yorker, known for his "Paris Journal," really did write that "The smell... blew uptown on Wednesday night, and is not entirely horrible from a reasonable distance -- almost like the smell of smoked mozzarella, a smell of the bubble time." Terrifying -- the smell could blow Uptown, too. Actually, I smelled something different in Gopnik's piece: the stink of a bubble brain fried in all the havoc. Gopnik the flaneur and fop, who is accustomed to the richesse of wistful Paris afternoons and high culture ephemera and the mozzarella of the bubble economy, just couldn't wrap his head around the sheer simple terror and inhuman enormity of the event. So he turned inward, and on the inside was empty gesturing, a gilded-prose armor of eloquence hiding empty thoughts.
Of all the things that could have been written that day, of all the stories, Gopnik -- and by extension, The New Yorker -- chose to tell us the minute and mostly meaningless details of a writer's peregrinations from Uptown down. "The city has never been so clearly, so surreally, sectioned as it became on Wednesday and Thursday," Gopnik wrote. He was talking about the police barricades, the security perimeters at Canal St. and Houston St. and 14th St.; these were meant to symbolize... something... presumably, the dividing lines between people who when they smell fire say "Holy Mother of Fuck, that smells like fire" (Downtowners?) and the people who smell fire and compare it to expensive Italian cuisine (Uptowners?). Certainly, there was no "surreal sectioning" in Brooklyn, where I lived at the time, not among the people I knew and could see in my streets: everyone that day looked west, to the plume; everyone who could, walked west to the river to see it. And they were unified in being very afraid.
But in the weird Gopnik/New Yorker huis-clos, the worldview began and ended at Central Park, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, "Madison" and "Lexington" (no "Aves." needed; we're talking about concepts here, not streets) and perhaps one or two no doubt outrageously expensive restaurants in Greenwich Village. As Downtown burned, Gopnik enthused in loving and delicate descriptors that there was "golden" light on the trees in Central Park, lovely birds in the Park, and that there were people on Lexington hoarding at the Gristede's. The hoarders had Haagen-Daz ice cream and butter and steaks... in "Armageddon baskets." We see him spying on Giorgio Armani near the museum. "Giorgio Armani?" Gopnik wrote, apparently breathless over the sighting, and then devoted a whole graph to the haute-couturier, who was babbling about "cinema" to an entourage of "beautiful Italian boys and girls in tight white t-shirts."
Gopnik the "reporter" couldn't even bother to make it south of Canal to Ground Zero. Screw that. Better to keep a "reasonable distance" from the smoke. He was too busy observing posters on Madison about the Wayne Thiebaud show at the Whitney Museum, a show about "cakes," which for Gopnik signals "the impotence of our abundance -- the impotence of our abundance!" He says it twice, with exclamation points, in love with the phrase -- in love with it! We see him in a restaurant in the Village, talking to sous-chefs who told him, "We're going to try and do dinner today." Washington Square is "beautiful again," he noted, because there was no one in it, especially not any of those rotten punks who usually hang there; dirty humanity had fled, and now "the Village seem[ed] like a village," ready to welcome Prince Gopnik. Gopnik orders a meal in "the familiar dialogue," which he finds "reassuring":
"And a green salad with that?" his waiter asked.
"You mean a side salad?" corrected Gopnik.
I thought for a moment that this was farce. I hoped it was. I put the piece down. I drank some beer.What was Gopnik's point in taking us on this windy "walk home" while 3,000 people were grinding to dust?
Explains Gopnik: "Whole companies, tiny civilizations, an entire Zip code vanished," he wrote, "[y]et those of us outside that world, hovering in midtown, were connected to the people dying in the towers only by New York's uniquely straight lines of sight -- you looked right down Fifth Ave. and saw that strange, still neat package of white smoke." This was almost obscene in its elegant callousness (and made more so by the writer's perverse self-regard), and it was also full of lies. The smoke was not neat; it was dirty and villainous-looking.
That Gopnik was actually framing the disaster as such -- Downtown vs. Uptown -- suggests a moral and social myopia of gargantuan proportions. That The New Yorker didn't fire Gopnik immediately after he filed his "dispatch" -- and has yet to fire Gopnik in retrospect -- said something about the magazine too, about the whole cultural elite of New York, the masturbatory navel-gazing, the trivial obsessing over cultural signifiers. In year after year as one of the magazine's chief voices, Gopnik represents this tendency par excellence -- everything silly, vain, vacuous and precious and falsely-plumed and preeningly, vily proud about the cultural elite. Was this The New Yorker, then, showing its true colors in the smoke of crisis? That they allowed senile literary lion John Updike to weigh in on the devastation the way he did was equally disturbing. Updike wrote: "[The tower] fell straight down like an elevator, with a tinkling shiver... ." How pretty, how prancing, how everything was so writerly and delicate and glowing on Sept. 11 -- if you believed the prigs at The New Yorker, for whom the towers "tinkled" when they fell.
Yeah, the whole day was tinkling. Like when I was digging up a leg volunteering on the first night of the search and rescue -- the leg tinkled. And the smell of the dead and the rot -- was it prosciutto from Dean & DeLuca? Was it maggotty capon? I still can't place that smell, get the right metaphor, the mot juste.
The only proper way to dispose of the Sept. 24 issue of The New Yorker, I finally decided, was to burn the thing. Charles thought it unseemly and would not let me do it. "Eat shit, Ketcham. There's too much smoke in the air already."
A sample of Chris Ketcham's unforgettable 9/11 poetry can be seen on WordRunner.com.
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