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At the Strangers’ Gate: Arrivals in New York by Adam Gopnik – review

Category: Beer Humor
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The New Yorker writers stylish memoir, via Hagen-Dazs, Nietzsche and craft beer, is generous in wit and wisdom

Anyone who worries that artificial intelligence might some day outpace the faulty circuitry inside human heads should be cheered by the existence of Adam Gopnik. His brain has nothing to fear from electronic competition. It is an organ housed in a body, kindled by the appetites and affections of the flesh; it operates friskily, risking vast generalities that it clinches with neat, nimble aphorisms. At public events, Gopnik has a loyal but ageing audience; his son, he tells us, “never feels comfortable coming to a reading of mine without a defibrillator”. The precaution is unnecessary: a talk by Gopnik fibrillates furiously enough to revive the most tottery senior citizen.

As his contributions to the New Yorker testify, Gopnik can write brilliantly about almost anything. His new book is nominally a memoir of his first years in Manhattan, where he arrived from Montreal early in the venal 1980s, but its reminiscences are the pretext for a series of dizzy riffs – on art and the artisanal, connecting conceptualism with microbrews; on art and commerce, treating Jeff Koons and his stainless steel bunny as products of “late commodity capitalism”; or on the need to combine elitism in art with egalitarianism in politics, a juggling act that Gopnik manages with deft aplomb.

Along the way there are essays on fashion as evidence for Nietzsche’s philosophy of the eternal return, on the hidden economic logic in the layout of department stores, on the semiotics of Häagen-Dazs ice-cream with its “meaningless pseudo-Danish name”, and on the symbiotic relation between the Sony Walkman and Nike sneakers, which together made the flat-footed Gopnik feel that he was striding, “Hermes-like”, on cushioned and musically resonant air during his weekend treks to SoHo art galleries. When Gopnik remarks that he “wrote about liberal civilisation and my children, sometimes conflating the two”, the last phrase is more than a showy paradox: what could better embody the benign chaos of the liberalism that is now under threat from Trump than a pair of squalling, hungrily aspirational kids?

Gopnik craftily presents his conquest of New York, or of the New Yorker, as a series of happy accidents. He jokes that his gift of the gab, first exercised in off-the-cuff lectures at the Museum of Modern Art, was inherited from “various lost uncles” who “worked as boardwalk pitchmen in Atlantic City”, where they enticed housewives to try novelties like spray starch, and he tells a story – which I assume, for his sake, is fictitious – about glibly improvising a keynote speech to an art-history conference at a few hours’ notice, then making a swift exit with a pocketed cheque.

Adam
‘A sleek stylist’: Adam Gopnik. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

When the dandified mask slips, Gopnik is frank about the force that propelled him out of a roach-infested cellar and remade him as the very epitome of intellectual urbanity: “ours”, he says, “was the last ambitious generation”. Can it be true that the young no longer have faith in the “old equations of ambition and energy and success”? Perhaps that creed has been replaced by the new equations of celebrity and notoriety and self-destruction, which fuel careers as explosively ephemeral as those of terrorists wearing suicide vests.

Despite his fluency, Gopnik claims to find writing a sad and lonely business. Much of his book is addressed adoringly to his wife, Martha, who, mostly asleep while he tosses in insomniac misery beside her, does not respond to his endearments: are all writers unrequited lovers? Gopnik envies visual artists, who work with graphic, tactile materials – marks on canvas, or stone or metal that can be pummelled or bent into shape – whereas writers “start with nothing, staring into the abyss of language”, and assemble patterns made of words that are “never in themselves beautiful”. Painters and sculptors at least produce objects to be hung on walls or positioned in gardens. Writers, however, are condemned to silence, unless their words are “turned to speech in another head”.

It’s an odd, self-disabling theory, perhaps a consequence of his indoctrination at the New Yorker. The magazine expects its contributors to cultivate a certain tone of voice, relaxed but with a brittle edge that will cut through the chatter at cocktail parties or around dinner tables. Gopnik has perfected the manner, though he wonders with a twinge of guilt whether he should stop being the town’s best talker and go back to staring mutely into the abyss. Listening to the voices of others relieves the pressure: his book makes room for monologues delivered by a series of eccentric acquaintances – a gruff Brooklyn salesman obsessed with Van Gogh, a neighbour who relates an insane saga about the previous occupant of Gopnik’s loft, an exterminator who philosophises while massacring rats in the basement.

These garrulous surrogates rescue Gopnik from solitude, and also help him outgrow the contrariness of the art critic. He summarises his writing life as “a struggle to move from contention to inclusion”, from academic bickering to telling stories about “lives lived”; the argumentative conjunction “but” has been replaced, he hopes, by a looser, more inviting “and”, which enables him to construct sentences whose generous openness “embodies a liberal view of life”. A sentence, he suggests, need not be a penal term: it can set you free instead of imprisoning you. Performed by him, such verbal flourishes are both witty and wise. Gopnik is a sleek stylist, and a high-minded, big-hearted moralist into the bargain.

 At the Strangers’ Gate by Adam Gopnik is published by Quercus (£20). To order a copy for £17 go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

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