At the Stranger’s Gate: Arrivals in New York
Alfred A. Knopf
272 pp; $26.95
Almost forty years on, the eighties in New York seem momentous in the larger life of the world, too. Forty years is the natural gestation time of nostalgia, the interval it takes for a past period to become a lost time, and, sometimes, a golden age. There’s a simple reason to explain why. Everybody’s shocking first intimation of the setting sun – which takes about forty years to happen – inspires a look back at the sun rising, and its imagined light makes everything from then look golden. Though pop culture is most often performed by the young, the directors and programmers and gatekeepers – the suits who control and create the conditions, who make the calls and choose the players – are, and always have been, largely forty-somethings. The four-decade interval brings us back roughly to a point when they were becoming aware of themselves. Forty years ago is the potently fascinating time when we were just arriving, when our parents were youthful and in love, the Edenic period preceding the fallen state recorded in our actual memories.
Yet the eighties, though once again a set subject, still bear more disapproval than it seems quite fair to load on any past time. Their light shines in retrospect more brassy yellow than truly gold and generous. The time gets summed up in a phrase no one actually said: Greed is good. Greed was, perhaps, more unapologetic at the time than it had ever been before. It was not so much that we experienced capitalism with the gloves off as capitalism without guilt, or, to put it another way, without a conscience. A lot of people got rich and had no shame about it, along the way remaking the city in their image.
Still, the truth is that no period or place belongs to the neat summaries of popular history. Moods don’t change so readily; lives aren’t lived in such neatly determined packages. We live as much in defiance of the popular themes as in thrall to them. The headlines are of no help when we’re making up our own epitaphs. When I think of the eighties I can recall one or two shimmering nights when rich men did rule, but I recall more mornings when having a pair of sneakers and a Walkman seemed to mark one most as a lover of his time. History and experience still are measured out on separate cutting boards. We know that, exactly, by how badly they fit each other. When we put on our period clothes, so to speak, the pants puddle and the waist tugs and the jacket won’t quite button up. The adjustments that have to be made are the proof of how off the measurements are in memory.
Still, something did change then. Not human nature, perhaps, something more like the national character. In the eighties in New York all the bounds of money began to loosen. At the same time, most of the certainties that rich people once had about sex and life and marriage and roles that people played came to an end. Most notions of equality dissolved, but so did most notions of gentility. The tandem effect is still baffling to a lot of people, who thought it had all along been the gentility perpetuating the inequalities, instead of the other way round. In 1961, Lenny Bruce was arrested and martyred for saying “cocksucker” in a nightclub in California. By the time Ronald Reagan was President, anyone could say “cocksucker” in any nightclub in California; or, rather, by the time you could say “cocksucker” in any nightclub in California, Ronald Reagan was President. Sorting out the contradictions – or at least living within them tolerably – is part of the work of getting the era.
Why, in a city ruled by brutal materialism, did things seem increasingly unreal? One answer was that the buying and selling had become so abstract that only unreal signs could represent them. Money had always meant a lot. Now some thought that money meant everything, that only money had weight in the world. Others thought that now money meant everything. Not just that everything had been pushed aside for the pursuit of money but that even what remained as art or music had no way of getting itself expressed except through money – or some fluid that represented it. Money had pushed every other value aside. Money had made itself into art.
I had the sense of another divide taking shape, one harder to see but just as important. The world was getting blowsier and bigger and harder to capture; the counter-life was taking place in smaller and smaller rooms. It took place in stranger and stranger subcultures, in more bizarre and eccentric existences, lived more marginally than before. This made for a kind of broken disjunction between public life and private experience.
Within that divide, we were still an ambitious generation. Ambition seemed admirable and also plausible, in a way that it no longer quite does to many. We accepted an astonishing amount of absurdity in our living conditions and appetites – our Girls tiny apartments – in pursuit of our ambitions, but on the whole we expected them to be realized. Today the young live less absurd lives, but have more chastened ambitions. Adequacy seems, bitterly, enough. Watching Lena Dunham’s series about twenty-somethings in Brooklyn now, I am startled to see the protagonist, Hannah, getting exactly the same job at the same men’s magazine that I had gotten in 1983. But where we saw such jobs – absurdly, but even so – as an obvious step on the ladder to writerly fame, Hannah feels trapped and miserable. The people in the cubicles around hers also seem trapped. There’s more room to breathe, but less room to maneuver. We tolerated woeful inadequacy in sure and certain hope, as the Anglican prayer for the dead would have it, of eventual deliverance. When I go to the homes of the twenty-somethings now, I sense that they live on higher floors, but have lower ceilings.
Adam Gopnik will present At The Strangers’ Gate in Toronto at the Hot Docs Cinema on Sept. 26 and at the Kingston Writers Festival on Sept. 27
Excerpted from At the Strangers’ Gate by Adam Gopnik. Copyright © 2017 Adam Gopnik.
Published by Alfred A. Knopf Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.