I didn’t do much over the break, content to lie on the couch, play with my dog, and hang out with good friends. But I did read three books: Zadie Smith’s Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays, Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, and Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. I also managed to see James Cameron’s new movie, Avatar.
Anthony Bourdain’s book Kitchen Confidential was published in 2000, at the beginning of this decade, and the changes it precipitated or anticipated in the restaurant world are tough to underestimate. The idea of celebrity chefs (of which Bourdain is now one) back then was unheard of, and the Food Network was in its relatively unwatched infancy. Most people know of this book even in small part simply because Bourdain was the first to publicize the minute day-to-day of most restaurants–the maxim you hear today bandied around about never ordering fish on Monday is due to this book. But Bourdain’s book, like any good book, is more than one small revelation. Part of what was inspiring about this book is the way he details the work that goes into cooking–mostly unseen and underappreciated, for the love of a craft. I’ve written about how this sort of work ethic and process in cuisine is uncannily similar to architecture (an expanded article was published recently in the magazine Blueprint Asia). Bourdain, in particular, does an extremely good job of bringing the reader into the world of a chef. Bourdain says he’s a New Yorker first and foremost, (though in the epilogue he says he now spends most of his time in Southeast Asia), and brings to his writing and cooking a brash, assertive, and unapologetic sensibility that I find in inspiring and unique to New York. Bourdain and New York are, in a way, just so punk (punk being the definition that Geoff Manaugh took me to task for–the comments in his post are especially juicy).
Malcolm Gladwell‘s most recent book (Outliers) has only received tepid praise from critics. This, I feel, may be due to the fact that his first couple of collections of nonfiction have sold wildly, the title of one of them became solidly incorporated into contemporary lexicon (the phrase tipping point, a feat only the most important books have done–think Catch-22). I guess at this point, most reviewers are, out of a variety of reasons, wont to spend most of their time pointing out various shortcomings Gladwell may have in his method or his conclusions. They decry the seeming ease and simplicity of his conclusions in the face the daunting amount of information he sorts through. But this criticism is no matter. It is like looking at a Cezanne and pointing out all the things in the world he didn’t paint. Outliers may be one of Gladwell’s most interesting books, and his primary gift is still intact and developing; and that is his ability to tell a story and write the most beautiful, fluid, and elegant paragraphs in support of that story. He tells immensely entertaining stories that weave together an incredibly wide spectrum of information (in particular I liked the story of Asians and how their purported affinity to math was linked to the irrigation patterns of rice). This is why Gladwell can write about mustard and extrapolate it to read like a insight into life and the nature of free will itself, and why other writers like Chuck Klosterman can write about American football and make it seem like an elegant illustration of both systems information, cultural proclivities, and statistical analysis. This is the power of writing and there are few who do it as well as Gladwell, Klosterman, and Bourdain. You can write about anything–food, sports, irrigation patterns, white teeth–and if it’s done well, then it feels as if the whole world is contained within. In fact, if there’s one fault in Gladwell’s writing, it’s that he’s gotten a little cocky (“I’m going to write about mustard and you’re going to like it!”).
Zadie Smith reminds me a lot of Jonathan Franzen, another ambitious novelist and essayist, because both of them fully believe in the idea of the novel. This makes them relatively rare. It’s an idea of a novel that is very different from J. K. Rowling, Stephanie Meyer, Michael Crichton, Don Delillo, or any number of contempary writers. It’s very different from writers even like David Foster Wallace. In fact, they remind me much more of writers like Nabokov (b. 1899 d. 1977)–not in terms of talent, necessarily, but in terms of their congruent goals. With D. F. Wallace, at least, you got the sense that he realized the transitional period that the idea of the novel was in and was either trying to fight his way out of it or invent a new form for it. There was a tension in his novels that you also got in his short-form pieces. You see, the weird thing is, Zadie Smith, just like Jonathan Franzen, is able to convey her ideas and ambitions much more eloquently, forcefully, and succinctly in essay format. Yet this very fact may paradoxically undermine all of their ambitions. For their ambitions are resolutely tied to the idea of long-form writing, i.e., the novel.
I’m not going to get into it any further, because I am out of my depth in this arena. But I’m going to use the novel to bring up the idea of artifice. Perhaps the ambitions of Smith and Franzen were wrought through the medium of the novel, a media that depends on a sort of universal cultural artifice that no longer exists. This is why it is much easier to read and understand them when they are writing about these same ideas through the relatively artifice-less medium of the short story or essay. In a sense, Bourdain represents this also. Bourdain was writing at a time when the idea of fine dining meant curtseying at a Francophilic-maision of unapproachable refinement. But Bourdain broke that down. Which is why chefs like David Chang (an upstart Korean prick with a East Village noodle bar who won 2 Michelin stars) today are important, because he brought that kitchen full of tattoos and Led Zeppelin out into the open, dispensing with the artifice of fine dining (linens, career wait staff, chairs with backs), and gave us ambitious, erudite food without the artifice. It’s also why it’s so easy to see Bourdain traipsing around the world, capable of enjoying both a dinner at Per Se as well as on a street corner in Vietnam. The cultural structures that support the difference between “fine dining” and “street food” are less valid today, as well as those same structures that support the difference between a “Novel” and “writing.” If there’s one thing I think this previous decade stood out for, it was the failure of artifices. It started with the failure of our democratic electoral principles (Bush v. Gore), followed shortly by an attack on a pure symbol of global commerce (WTC), the fallibility of our financial institutions (Enron, Madoff, Lehman), and ended with the most unassailable athletic and performative character in the world being, well, assailed (Tiger Woods). Really, the 00′s were about the failure of artifice.
I also watched Avatar over the break, but I actually feel there’s very little to say about this movie. The technology is wonderful, and James Cameron is a force to be reckoned with. It’s a bit of a shame that the story of Avatar is basically Dances With Wolves all over again, since there are lingering colonialist assumptions running through the entire film, like the slight char of burnt garlic in an otherwise good dish. I wish he had kept to a simpler story and themes, along the lines of his best films, Terminator (fight the robot from the future!) and Titanic (love is good, even if you’re from different socioeconomic classes, and especially if you’re on a sinking ship!). But the less said about Avatar the better, I feel–nobody likes arguing about colonialism anymore, and quite frankly, colonialism is still being unabashedly practiced today by those who do or don’t know better (or don’t care). There’s an okay article published in Gawker.com about this, if you really must. My best advice is to go see Avatar in 3d, and 3d only, wear the silly glasses, forgive the silly story, and be entranced by the beauty of a world so vividly imagined and depicted it makes you wonder at which point in the future all media will be subsumed by the kind that Cameron is developing, where it’s all artifice once again.