The Catcher in the Rye (Modern Library #64)

(This is the thirty-seventh entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: A Clockwork Orange.)

Like many semi-literate members of my generation, I first read The Catcher in the Rye at the age of fifteen, following the ethereal rites and cadences of older kids turned on by the same seductive anthem to nonconformity. At that angsty teenage time in my life, Holden Caulfield appealed to my rebellious and anti-authoritarian streak. This reaction, in and of itself, is not especially unusual. Salinger has continued to be assigned to high school English curricula in large part because you can inveigle kids into reading by making the titles forbidden. (Witness how Art Spiegelman’s Maus became a surprise bestseller last year after some boneheaded martinets banned the evocative Holocaust graphic novel from Tenneessee school libraries.)

I am now in my late forties and I still remain as iconoclastic and as boundary-pushing (though a tad less loutish) as I was when I was a mere stripling, although I’d like to think that my temperament has been made more palatable by my greater commitment to pragmatism. In that intervening time I avoided rereading Catcher until last year, dreading the disagreeable revisitation when this classic at long last emerged on this insanely ambitious project like some former crush at the twenty year high school reunion inviting you to a hotel room after spilling the tatters of her doomed marriage. You instinctively know that you’re better off chatting up some comely and perspicacious stranger at the hotel bar, someone without a loose thread dangling from a varsity sweater in mothballs. Because who you were when you knew nothing is quite different from the middle-aged person you are now who knows slightly more than nothing. There’s enough cognizance in the tank to suggest that a freeform hookup consummated long after your adolescent lust has shriveled up is a very bad idea. Particularly one in which you aid and abet nuptial dissolution by your own selfish spasms.

And while I will stand by most of Salinger’s Nine Stories and, in particular, the far more interesting thoughts of the precocious Glass family (I’m even willing to stump a bit for the problematic “Hapworth 16, 1924,” which is far more interesting in its uncompromising stance than anything gurgling from Holden Caulfield’s mouth), I can no longer hold up The Catcher in the Rye as great literature — not that it was ever really my goto choice. (James Baldwin, James M. Cain, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Henry Miller (yeah, I know) proved far more formative to me in my younger days than Salinger ever could.)

I find Holden Caulfield to be an insufferable and entitled monster, a budding sociopath who can only find joy in snow and his younger sister Phoebe when he’s not breaking windows and getting into dust-ups and treating everyone around him (particularly the poor girls who have the misfortune of dating him) like shit, which could explain in part why John Hinckley, Jr. took to Salinger like a box jellyfish flocking to corral shortly before trying to gun down the Evil Gipper. Upon rereading Catcher last month to take assiduous notes, I was astonished by my hate-read glee and how loudly I cheered during the moment when the pimp/elevator operator Maurice storms into Holden’s room at the Edmont Hotel, trying to collect an additional five dollars from this monied and mottled brat. Given Holden’s precious olfactory sense (even while smoking?) and the way he sneers at everyone around him, the detestable little bastard had it coming.

Holden is not even a proper punk because he cares about nobody other than himself. I felt sorry for the poor taxi drivers who had to contend with Holden’s facile riddle about where the ducks in Central Park go during the winter. His ties to his family only exist as pretexts to defend his braggadocio and his dubious victimhood, which Salinger feels the need to cram down our throats with Holden’s dead brother Allie. His ethos, if it can be called that, revolves around relentless narcissism and feigned sybaritism. What does it say that I found myself wanting to spend more time with Alex in A Clockwork Orange rather than this infernal sixteen-year-old misanthrope with his hideously obnoxious “I really did,” “phony,” “goddamn,” and “crumby” (to say nothing of Salinger’s annoying tendency to italicize the first syllable of a word, a stylistic practice that has fortunately not been picked up by his fiction-writing sycophants). At least Alex was committed to classical music and “the heighth of fashion” (the word “heighth” appears three times in Catcher and one can’t help but ponder how much the novel may have influenced Anthony Burgess) when he wasn’t busy raping and murdering ten-year-olds. What does Holden Caulfield even stand for? His Weltanschauung is little more than a collection of easy shots at obvious targets. My views on Holden Caulfield are quite similar to film critic Glenn Kenny railing against Ferris Bueller. But unlike Kenny, I actually like Ferris Bueller! In fact, I’d argue that the difference between John Hughes and Salinger is that Hughes loved his characters. Whereas Salinger didn’t really find that type of auctorial love until he wrote about the Glass family. (Joyce Maynard informs us that he protected the Glasses like jeweled treasure.) And if David Shields and Shane Salerno’s quirky and engaging Salinger bio is anything to go by, Holden Caulfield represented Salinger himself far more than any of his other characters. (Salinger insisted that he was the only person who could play Holden in any dramatic adaptation.) Given how broken Salinger was after battling in the Hürtgen Forest and witnessing the horrors of the Holocaust death camps, an argument could be made that Catcher represents more of an artistic exercise in self-loathing rather than a free-wheeling celebration of anarchic adolescence.

The way I see it, The Catcher in the Rye is more of a myth than a literary achievement. The vainglorious rush to throw a risibly wide net of influence from Catcher — simply on the basis of the novel selling 65 million copies over the years — is best epitomized by a surprisingly myopic assessment from Louis Menand on the occasion of Catcher‘s fiftieth anniversary. Menand cited Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City and Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius as “Catcher in the Rye rewrites.” Never mind that — even accounting for his Salingerphilia — Eggers’s book was a memoir mining from lived experience rather than a novel. (Did Eggers deliberately live out his twenties like Caulfield? For all of his ignoble public image management, I greatly doubt it.) In 2010, writing on the occasion of Salinger’s passing, McInerney confessed that he had been “baffled” by the comparisons, pointing out that he not read Salinger for years while working on his debut novel.

Now some of you, knowing how outspoken and take-no-prisoners I can be with my little essays, probably came here for a salacious hit piece. Maybe you’re gleefully steeping your fingers awaiting a knee-jerk drive-by on the long dead Jerome David (or Jerry, as his closest pals called him). But I don’t want to write that. I am just one hardcore reader trying to be honest here. And nothing that I say will diminish Catcher‘s immense popularity. Its stature and its legacy are safely preserved. Additionally, the highfalutin thuggery of clickbait doesn’t interest me. It’s far too easy to write. As it so happens, I actually like Saligner’s writing. In my reread of Salinger’s oeuvre, “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters,” “Franny” (which anticipates the dangers of toxic masculinity by decades), and “Seymour: An Introduction” spoke to me far more in my middle-aged years than ever before.

No, I’m more interested in interrogating why I despised the novel so much as a grownass man. Where did things go wrong between Holden and me over the last thirty years? I certainly don’t feel this way about such troublemakers as Huck Finn, Ignatius J. Reilly, Bart Simpson, Calvin and Hobbes, Peeves, A Fan’s Notes‘s Fred, Sam Lipsyte’s Lewis Miner, or Denis Johnson’s Fuckhead — many of whom were arguably more plagued than Holden Caulfield. I cannot gainsay that Catcher remains very well-loved (my girlfriend’s teenage daughter speaks highly of it) and that there was a time (sort of) when it spoke to me. If I were a hopelessly moronic and hubris-riddled hack like Dan Kois — who recently learned his lesson the hard way — then I’d probably cleave cheaply to this enmity and arrogantly take my lumps without learning a goddamned thing. The truth of the matter is that I wish I could love Holden Caulfield more. Because much of Salinger’s other work is amazing.

I think it is Salinger the person who I cannot stand. His grooming and victimization of Joyce Maynard, Jean Miller, and many others. His savvy manipulation of New Yorker editor William Shawn (just as private and as isolated as Saligner). The strange contradiction of his reclusiveness and his exhibitionism. Saligner outed people and details when he was alive and wrote letters and unpublished essays to control the narrative (particularly in relation to Tom Wolfe’s notorious hit piece on The New Yorker) rather than allowing the world to pass him by. The gruff meanness to “intruders” and the lack of grace or humility about his success. Small wonder that the likes of Alfred Kazin and John Updike started lobbing rocks at him when it came to the Glass family. Salinger’s biographers will tell you that this was a case of envious competitors using their gatekeeping advantages to keep Jerry in place. But I think it had more to do with the more toxic qualities behind the talent that they innately detected but could not quite pinpoint until Catcher had become a classic. (Even an endearing oddball like Ron Rosenbaum, no stranger to Salinger enthusiasm, confessed that he suffered from “Saligner fatigue,” even as he wrongly impugned anyone (including Shields and Salerno) from reading Catcher as a symbiosis between author and fictional creation.) Kazin rightly points out that Holden Caulfield is “cute” only because we expect boys of his age to be “consciously appealing and consciously clever.” Updike notes how Salinger’s post-Catcher work has the author “never rest[ing] from circling his creations, patting them fondly. He robs the reader of the initiative upon which love must be given.”

So if you’re in the “Salinger’s Glass family stories are better” camp like me, you have no problem with an author who was willing to steer the reader a little harder to get to a more Zen-like artistic place. If you’re in the “Catcher is better” camp, I would contend that you are more willing to be captivated by Holden’s “cute” and “loving” charms without considering the problematic scaffolding that props all this up.

But for the Catcher stans, consider how much more pointed and playful Buddy Glass’s nonconformist missives are in “Seymour — An Introduction”:

In this entre-nous spirit, then, old confidant, before we join the others, the grounded everywhere, including, I’m sure, the middle-aged hot-rodders who insist on zooming us to the moon, the Dharma Bums, the makers of cigarette filters for thinking men, the Beat and the Sloppy and the Petulant, the chosen cultists, all the lofty experts who know so well what we should or shouldn’t do with our poor little sex organs, all the bearded, proud, unlettered young men and unskilled guitarists and Zen-killers and incorporated aesthetic Teddy boys who look down their thoroughly unenlightened noses at this splendid planet where (please don’t shut me up) Kilroy, Christ, and Shakespeare all stopped…

And so on. This beautiful rant from Salinger — which rhythmically evokes Goethe’s idea of “the whole, the good, and the beautiful” sans one syllable — is as punk rock as it gets and has greater crags to cling to than any of Holden Caulfield’s cheap and tedious nihilism:

Grand. There’s a word I hate. It’s a phony. I could puke every time I hear it.

Or:

God, I hate that. I don’t see why the hell they can’t talk in their natural voice. They sound so phony when they talk.

Or:

It isn’t important, I know, but I hate it when somebody has cheap suitcases. It sounds terrible to say it, but I can even get to hate somebody, just looking at them, if they have cheap suitcases with them.

At times, Holden’s complaints about the world read like a very rich and incredibly elitist standup comic who isn’t very funny — someone as detestable as Bill Maher.

We know that Salinger worked very hard on Catcher, impressively writing the bones of Catcher in the World War II battlefields, sending these early stories off to New York (some getting published), and, years later, holing up in the New Yorker office and other hermetic Manhattan foxholes for a year to polish and perfect Catcher. Catcher can certainly be commended as the work of an artist baring himself completely in ways that — much like Kerouac — were unprecedented at the time, only for Salinger to bury all these truths behind ambiguities that feel a little too on-the-nose, such as Mr. Antolini patting Holden on the head (awkward drunken tenderness or molestation?). But it’s also a study in a tormented man running away from his demons (i.e., Holden refusing to grow up) rather than confronting them head-on such as he did so well with the trauma of World War II veterans in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.”

And that, to my mind, is the great tragedy of Salinger. Here was this master of the short story and the novella who wanted to grow beyond what he was best known for and become an even greater artist. But he was curtailed from publishing anything beyond “Hapford” by a reproachful and imperious literati who ultimately wanted more of the same. He beguiled readers with a beatific looking glass that, upon closer study, reveals more than a few fissures. And when he tried to reinvent himself, it was much too late.

Next Up: John Cheever’s The Wapshot Chronicle!

A Clockwork Orange (Modern Library #65)

(This is the thirty-sixth entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: Of Human Bondage.)

It’s become quite fashionable to bash the ridiculously prolific and mock pompous Mancunian with the combover. Never mind that anyone with a remote familiarity for how theatre comes together recognizes that Anthony Burgess perfected a magnetic if abrasive persona, frequently appearing on television with the likes of Dick Cavett when he wasn’t banging out his daily 1,000 words and, over the course of his life, appearing in every magazine known to humankind. (There’s a great joke in Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty in which Nick Guest sees his article placed behind Burgess.) Burgess was a ferocious polymath who claimed to pick up languages in weeks and even devised the prehistoric patois for Quest for Fire. He was a composer and a provocateur who was sensible enough to find an instinctive way to piss off everyone: an old school virtue that is increasingly at odds with our age and that has the unintended consequence of stifling truths we need to talk about. He was the type of British writer who was catnip to a budding young California punk like me. Much like the equally neglected filmmaker Lindsay Anderson, he combined erudite anarchism with a gentle and often curiously lugubrious propriety. (I don’t think it’s an accident that Malcolm McDowell was both an Anderson staple and starred in Kubrick’s version of A Clockwork Orange.) One doesn’t see too many artists like this anymore on either side of the Pond.

It would be tempting to suggest that Anthony Burgess’s wildly pugnacious, spectacularly bitter, and inarguably pathetic biographer Roger Lewis had something to do with this state of affairs, though that would be ascribing too much credit to this spiteful little worm, the living embodiment of what Joyce called a “biografiend.” (Lewis’s book, incidentally, is the worst and nastiest literary biography I have ever read. This is not a recommendation. It isn’t even enjoyable as a hate read.) Speaking ill of Burgess has become something of an unspoken duty among literary nerds ever since the erstwhile John Wilson bit the big one in 1993. When I interviewed Will Self in 2007 and mentioned Burgess, Self’s eyes lit up with the blood-curdling rancor of Van Helsing spotting Dracula and he called Burgess a “monster” with deep solemnity. Another literary writer, a MacArthur fellow, told me off the record that he detested Burgess with all of his heart. Even the mild-mannered blokes behind the terrific podcast Backlisted have gently condemned Burgess from time to time.

But I’ve always taken a shine to Burgess — in large part because I have always been deeply fond of arcane words, larger-than-life personalities who rub anyone owning more than three pair of pants the wrong way, and iconoclastic ambition within artists. Earthly Powers and the Enderby books, in particular, are great literary achievements, though their bloom has been dulled by the fact that mid-to-late career Burgess worked in a peculiarly learned comedic mode. You could argue, and many have, that Burgess was operating in the great shadow of Joyce, whom he greatly revered. Burgess wrote two entertaining (though somewhat lightweight) books on the great Irish genius: Joysprick and Re Joyce. And I suspect that this literary alignment has allowed me to forgive his more venomously obnoxious moments, which include insulting Graham Greene, accepting a Male Chauvinist Pig of the Year Award from a feminist press, and causing a cockalorum like Roger Lewis to waste many forlorn years of his go-nowhere life detesting him. (Fortunately, the more even-keeled Andrew Biswell has graced us with The Real Life of Anthony Burgess. And there are two volumes that Burgess himself wrote: Little Wilson and Big God and You’ve Had Your Time, both of which are hilarious collections of grandiose lies delivered with Burgess’s trademark self-importance.)

What’s most curious about A Clockwork Orange is how Burgess himself disowned it — even as he wrote introductions, made television appearances, and even quietly adapted into a musical. Throughout his life, Burgess felt he had “a sort of authorial duty to it.” Burgess resented not being known for his other works, but, given how regularly he stumped for M/F, a literary puzzle that has not held up very well, one suspects that Burgess himself was not his best critic. (Indeed, in April 1963, Burgess reviewed his own novel, Inside Mister Enderby, which was originally published under the name Joseph Kell. He gave a bad review to one of his most enjoyable books and lost his position at the Yorkshire Post over this mischief.)

A Clockwork Orange doesn’t fit tidily next to the humorous name-dropping flaunt of Earthly Powers‘s Kenneth Toomey or even the satirical dystopia of The Wanting Seed, in which heterosexuality is taboo in an effort to curb the global population rate. It is something else entirely: a pre-Riddley Walker exercise in invented slang (known as NADSAT) that is smoothly discernible (likely because Burgess was, by all reports, an excellent teacher), an examination of free will and moral agency, and an often disturbing portrait of Alex, a fifteen-year-old thug who casually kills, rapes, and/or assaults the homeless, some poor bastard who regularly checks out crystallography books from the local library branch, and ten-year-old girls. To this very day, there are many who find Kubrick’s largely faithful film adaptation disturbing, but the novel is probably more unsettling — in large part because we have to imagine all the violence, which is framed within the context of a decadent “modern age” that, much like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, is set “somewhere in the 20th century.”

Kubrick needed Malcolm MacDowell’s charm to carry the picture. But Burgess kept you reading by way of the hypnotic slang. But even an adult character like Deltoid, who punctuates his speech with endless yeses, reads as if it was specifically written for Aubrey Morris, who is brilliantly hilarious in Kubrick’s film. One doesn’t need a glossary to divine that “veck” is man or that “slooshy” is to listen or that “gulliver” is head because Burgess’s context is grammatically precise. And while anyone tackling the likes of Russell Hoban or Finnegans Wake is likely to throw these two masterpieces against the wall at some point, the sense of discovery in A Clockwork Orange (to say nothing of the modest length) makes the reading experience far more pleasurable — even when one is also contending with a monstrously violent protagonist who sharpens his savage instincts with drugged milk and leads three droogs to rip up public seats and assault and pillage anyone in sight. Burgess’s argot has the added benefit of bolstering the modest weaknesses of the novel. If A Clockwork Orange had been written in traditional English, then some of the more pat observations about self-serving government officials (in this case, the Minister of the Interior or the Inferior and his accomplice Dr. Brodsky, who, justifying the Ludovico technique that makes Alex recoil against violence, says, “We are concerned only with cutting down crime”) and the choice to be violent may not have landed as well. But even a reader drawn to Burgess’s lexical allure needs a breather from time to time. And Burgess seems to intuitively know when to break up the flow with his adult characters. So when the writer F. Alexander — who shares Alex’s name, though as a surname, suggesting how ubiquitous a thirst for violence is — tells Alex, “But the essential intention is the real sin. A man who cannot choose ceases to be a man,” Burgess is better able to sell this because of the contrast with the main language.

And while one might quibble over why there isn’t a single character in this book other than the prison chaplain who doesn’t seek some form of revenge, Burgess, writing in 1962, is remarkably prescient on what awaits the world. Of the swastika, Alex describes it as “a Nazi flag with that like crooked cross that all malchicks at school love to draw.” And while such an idea was horrifyingly unthinkable less than two decades after the end of the second world war, recent headlines demonstrate that Burgess is merely “reporting” from the future. The rundown apartment block where Alex lives with his “P and M” could pass for a contemporary housing development in a rundown part of town: it is defaced with graffiti and has an elevator that doesn’t work. Just five years before the Beatles televised “All You Need is Love” in front of a worldwide television audience, Burgess depicts “worldcasts,” “meaning that the same programme was being viddied by everybody in the world that wanted to, that being mostly the middle-aged middle-class lewdies.” In 2023, these “worldcasts” immediately remind anyone of today’s relentless live streaming. What would Burgess have made of Twitter or TikTok?

Burgess also anticipated certain Dirty Harry criminological attitudes that, as evidenced by the merciless trolls I fend off daily on TikTok, are still quite popular with today’s reactionaries. Forgiveness? Hell no! A prisoner must still be vilified after he has “done his time.” And even when he is “cured” through conditioning, he’s still suspect. Or, as Dr. Brodsky, the head of the Ludovico Technique, puts it:

What a change is here, gentlemen, from the wretched hoodlum the State committed to unprofitable punishment some two years ago, unchanged after two years. Unchanged, do I say? Not quite. Prison taught him the false smile, the rubbed hands of hypocrisy, the fawning greased obsequious leer. Other vices it taught him, as well as confirming him in those he had long practised before. But, gentleman, enough of words. Actions speak louder than. Action now. Observe, all.

Later, the lodger Joe observes of Alex, “He’s weeping now, but that’s his craft and artfulness.” Throughout all this, Alex paints himself as a victim. Bereft of his criminal tyranny, and the ability to act upon it, he is “a victim of the modern age,” reduced to suicidal ideation.

Of course, we must remember that this novel is being told exclusively from Alex’s first-person perspective and is thus unreliable. While we can plausibly believe that Alex murdered the cat-happy baboochka, which sends him to prison — given how frequently he reflects on it — can we fully believe that the drinks that Alex and his droogs bought for the Duke of New York regulars from the “pretty polly” they stole were received with the great cheer he describes? Did he really pick up two ten-year-olds from the Melodia? Were the scientists truly that callous? We can’t know for sure. And these ambiguities create a fascinating tension that roils just as loudly as the NADSAT. And this is decades before cyberpunk. On the other hand, Alex does tell us that “this biting of their toe-nails over what is the cause of badness is what turns me into a fine laughing malchick. They don’t go into the cause of goodness, so why of the other shop?” (Emphasis in original.) Perhaps this is another way that Alex justifies his criminal behavior after the fact. But he does have a point about how happiness is usually accepted in our world without exegesis.

The most repeated phrase in A Clockwork Orange is “the heighth of fashion.” And that is no accident. Much like a child with a case of the giggles putting on grown-up clothes in a fitting room, Alex yearns to be a man and actually does possess some manners, such as beating the shit out of his fellow droog Dim when he is rude to a singer. If Burgess seriously believed that all people are naturally violent, then how often are our true instincts hiding beneath that civilized veneer? It’s no wonder why this novel appealed to Kubrick so much. Alex is as fond of classical music as he is of violence, longing for “a big feast of it before getting my passport stamped, my brothers, at sleep’s frontier.” And this contrast still feels disconcerting in the 21st century.

One other great detail about A Clockwork Orange that rarely gets commented upon is how the street names reference authors. There’s “Kingsley Avenue,” named after Amis, “Wilsonway,” named after Burgess’s real name, Boothby Avenue, Priestly Place, and so forth. (Roger Lewis has jumped off from this to suggest Clockwork is a sinister codex.. In one of many signs of his decidedly unbalanced scholarship, Roger Lewis puts forth the dodgy conspiracy theory that Burgess collaborated with a CIA officer named Howard Roman to secretly reveal mind control experiments conducted by the government. Lewis’s “source” — an apparent spook he met on a public bench who may have just been some lonely dude who wanted to talk to someone — claims that “the capitalized lines on page twenty-nine of A Clockwork Orange give the HQ location of the pschotronic warfare technology.” I suppose that, if you stare at any great novel long enough, you’ll create your own Pizzagate.)

Burgess also has a great deal of fun inventing fictitious composers and bands. The teenyboppers at the Melodia listen to Johnny Zhivago. (And indeed the New Wave band Heaven 17 took its name from Burgess.) Alex doesn’t just listen to “Ludwig Van.” He’s also a fan of Friedrich Gitterfenster’s opera Das Bettzeug. (And I’m sorry. But if you don’t snicker at least a little over the name “Gitterfenster,” then you have no soul.) Or how about Otto Skadelig? “Skadelig” is “harmful” in Norwegian. All this madcap invention gives A Clockwork Orange an incongruously urbane feel despite all the invented Cockney-Russian slang.

These fecund imaginative details transform A Clockwork Orange into one of the rare old novels that has aged far better that Burgess could have ever predicted (and to his great regret). Much like Knut Hamsun’s Hunger (published in 1890!), you can read A Clockwork Orange at any point in history and still feel as if it was written in the last decade. That’s not an easy trick for any author to pull off. And, if he did indeed write this in three weeks, it’s one very big reason why Anthony Burgess deserves a lot more respect for his literary achievements.

Next Up: J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye!

Of Human Bondage (Modern Library #66)

(This is the thirty-fifth entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: Heart of Darkness.)

William Somerset Maugham was a largely gloomy man who just wanted to be loved. And because Maugaham was constitutionally incapable of behaving in the manner of Sally Field accepting her Oscar (and was frequently self-deprecatory), he often wasn’t. It certainly did not help that he was closeted, emo as fuck, fiercely protective of his private life, tight-lipped about his inexorable agony, and reported by many of his acquaintances and admirers as emotionally detached (although he did commit many quiet acts of generosity, including building up a library at The King’s School in Canterbury, where the ashes of Ashenden’s creator were eventually scattered). He frequently quipped that he stood in the first row of second-rate writers, almost to steel himself against the effusive and well-deserved reception he received for his considerable literary accomplishments. The Moon and Sixpence, Cakes and Ale, and The Painted Veil remain remarkably vivacious and salacious for their time and are still eminently readable today.

Maugham’s ardent commitment to the “fuck my life” bit, which one often sees today with glum cube slaves over forty, is best evinced by how difficult it is to find a photograph of Maugham smiling. This man hated himself so much that it’s safe to say that he probably would not have been the right man to ask for a selfie. Maugham’s knack for misery is seen in the themes and the grim humor that often punctuate his lurid fiction: the fixation on death and depression, the sense that all love affairs are fated to suffer an abominable heartbreaking end (often with a protagonist too steeped in butterfingers myopia to recognize what’s right in front of him), and a heartless world that is permanently at odds with the joys of human existence. I don’t think it’s an accident that Bill Murray decided on Maugham as his source material when he attempted to turn to dramatic acting in the mid-1980s. Numerous biographers have made noble attempts to ascertain why Maugham was so hopelessly dolorous, but even with “newly discovered papers,” Maugham’s pitch-black penumbra has stubbornly summoned more enigmatic angles. Despite his affluence, he lived quite modestly and, perhaps due to the publicity of his theatrical work, he perfected the art of suffering in plain sight. Given that he made it all the way to the age of 91, one wonders just what it was that kept this tortured depressive living. His storytelling is often so spellbinding that you just want to give the poor man a hug.

But Maugham was also one of the most successful writers of the early twentieth century. With fame came the relentless hail of stonecold critics who refused to budge from their gilded dogpens and throw Willie a bone. Despite his position on the Modern Library list, Maugham has been unfairly neglected in the 21st century. He is not taught, not stocked in most bookstores, and certainly not mentioned by the bratty hordes who are too busy dropping their knickers over such blinking babies as Colleen Hoover and R.F. Kuang. In 1908, Maugham had four wildly successful plays running simultaneously in London. And by the middle of the 20th century, Maugham was so wealthy, such a seemingly permanent mainstream pasha, that even the iconoclastic Simon Raven singled him out as a member of the protected class to be caviled with. And there was Edmund Wilson’s notorious drive-by on Maugham in the New Yorker (contained in Classics and Commercials): “He is for our day, I suppose, what Bulwer-Lytton was for Dickens’s: a half-trashy novelist, who writes badly, but is patronized by half-serious readers, who do not care much about writing.”

Well, I care very much about writing. And while I will concede that Maugham sometimes resorted to pat imagery, melodrama, and telltale tropes (“If only you knew how heartily I despise myself for loving you!” is one cringey line from Of Human Bondage), he could summon striking imagery when he wanted to. In Of Human Bondage, Maugahm beautifully evokes the hope limning the world’s roughness: “The delicate iridescence of the London air gave the softness of a pastel to the gray stone of the buildings; and in the wharfs and storehouses there was the severity of grace of a Japanese print.” Maugham compares a bottle of Chianti with “a slim fair Circassian guarded by four corpulent eunuchs.” And while such imagery probably did not occur frequently enough for a stodgy stooge like Wilson, Maugham’s fixation on surfaces is also vital to what Of Human Bondage is about: namely, the power of imagination and perception to alter one’s life for the better and to make something of one’s existence even when the chips are down.

In condemning Maugham, Wilson had only read two of Maugham’s novels: Then and Now, a truly mediocre historical novel which even we Maugham stans have to discount, and East is West, which even Wilson had to confess was “quite entertaining.” So why the adamantine hate? Why didn’t Wilson bother to tackle Of Human Bondage, which confidently debunks many of Wilson’s beefs with a writer who generations of readers have rightly loved?) I suspect that Wilson’s reckless irresponsibility here as a critic had more to do with the fact that he was an alcoholic who burned through four wives and who made it his lifelong mission to asphyxiate joy whenever he saw it. (And it’s worth pointing out that Wilson is much uglier and somehow more tormented than Maugham is in photographs, resembling nothing less than the living answer to Harold Skimpole: a rage-filled parasite with a permanent scowl.) Moreover, Wilson’s casus belli seems more motivated by Maugham’s dodgy stances on three of Wilson’s literary heroes: Henry James (whom I also despise), James Joyce (whom I am a perfervid acolyte of), and Yeats (yeah, okay, but I prefer Blake and Berryman). Which essentially makes Edmund Wilson’s position no different from those Comic-Con dweebs duking it out on Twitter (sorry, but I can’t will myself to call it X). Wilson engaged with the man and his views, not the work. His criticism is thus nullified.

Even so, I feel an aching need to defend Of Human Bondage against the likes of Wilson and his hamfisted acolytes — that is, if any of them are even still alive. This brilliant novel is far more than a picaresque Bildungsroman, although Dickens is mentioned multiple times and there are many colorful characters that are clearly inspired by Henri Murger’s Scenes of Bohemian Life, which is also name-checked by Maugham. It is, in short, a novel that adeptly portrays the behavioral patterns established in early life and reckoned with in the next two decades. (To cite one of many repetitive phrases throughout Of Human Bondage, the words “I don’t mind” factor in heavily among Philip’s romances.) Yes, Maugham’s grasp of working-class vernacular is not the greatest, confined largely to elided aitches in the manner of Shaw. But who cares? None of Maugham’s modest failings detract from the feel of the novel or the book’s quirky philosophical asides, which include the claim that suicide is better framed through the loss of money rather than the loss of love. Of Human Bondage is a book for the people. That it still remains remarkably absorbing more than a century after its publication and that its subtle lessons about life are still applicable in the 21st century should count for something.

It’s also a mistake to read this massive novel as transposable autobiography, which Wilson was content to do with Dickens in The Wound and the Bow: “If one approaches his first novel, Pickwick Papers, with these facts of Dickens’ biography in mind, one is struck by certain features of the book which one may not have noticed before.” Of Human Bondage‘s hero, Philip Carey, who we follow from the age of eight (after his parents die and he is adopted by his penurious and religious uncle) to early middle age, has a club foot. Maugham had a lifelong stutter. But the panoramic canvases that Maugham paints of London, Paris, and Heidelberg (to say nothing of Philip’s oppressive early life under his vicar uncle’s thumb, the art world, the medical world, and even the down-and-out Athelnys who show up near the book’s end) clearly tells us that there is something larger and more worldly at stake here.

And while Ruth Franklin suggested thirteen years ago that the doomed affair between Philip and Mildred is what makes this novel “original,” I think Mildred — as enthrallingly malicious as she is — is one of the least interesting aspects of this book, particularly when you consider Maugham’s vast scope. All of us meet a Mildred along the way. All of us make the mistake of rejecting people who are good for us — as Philip does with Norah Nesbitt, a woman estranged from her husband and saddled with a kid who is impressively writing penny dreadfuls to support her family and who, even when listening to Philip, is seen knitting so as not to waste a precious moment. All of us, like Philip, meet certain types over the course of our amorous journey. While my 21st century progressive spirit quibbles with Maugham’s portraits of accomplished women as spinsters, Maugham is nevertheless accurate when it comes to Miss Wilkinson (his first love, ten years older than Philip and treated abominably by the tormented young man) and Norah fill in the hole of his absent mother. (Over the course of the novel, Philip sadly loses the photographs and trinkets that are left of his mother, thus having little more than faint memories mimicked by the women he gets involved with in adulthood.) What counts is how we react to all this and how we become nimbler in this tricky business called living.

Of Human Bondage takes its title from the third section of Spinoza’s Ethics. And for the Wilson-friendly snobs who would decry Maugham’s lifting, claiming this to be as graceless as the way old Star Trek episodes were named after Shakespeare lines, this is hardly a casual reference. Rather interestingly, Philip comes to resent and reject religion over the course of the book. And anyone familiar with Spinoza knows that the famous philosopher was careful to establish the existence of God in the first part of Ethics. (Which causes, uh, issues for a staunch atheist and Spinoza fan like yours truly. But I’ve always found ways to look for spiritual sublimity outside of fictitious deities.) So the rejection of religion is, in some sense, a rejection of life. And one of the great thrills of reading Of Human Bondage is watching Philip gradually come to terms with negotiating existence. There is also a concern for Goethe’s notion of living resolutely in “the whole, the good, and the beautiful” — as mentioned by Hayward, the young man who Philip meets in Germany and who proceeds to make cameo appearances throughout the novel. But Maugham is equally suspect of philosophy when he has Cronshaw, a friend of Philip’s, who has this to say about life’s mysteries:

Have you ever been to the Cluny, the museum? There you will see Persian carpets of the most exquisite hue and of a pattern the beautiful intricacy of which delights and amazes the eye. In them you will see the mystery and the sensual beauty of the East, the roses of Hafiz and the wine-cup of Omar; but presently you will see more. You were asking just now what was the meaning of life. Go and look at those Persian carpets, and one of these days the answer will come to you.

Philip does indeed get his hands on a Persian carpet and hopes that, one day, the carpet will yield the mighty answer. But the carpet is destroyed during a particularly crushing moment. Much like Douglas Adams summoning the number 42 as the answer to life, the universe, and everything, so too is the carpet something of a Macguffin. At a certain point, one has to live instinctively rather than relentlessly ponder what life means. And when Philip loses the carpet (along with most of his fortune due to a foolish investment decision), it is only then when Philip begins to find true happiness, with Maugham telegraphing this hard by concluding Chapter CVI with the one sentence paragraph, “Philip was happy.”

And while Of Human Bondage‘s ending may feel a little too tidy, we do get a sense that Philip has thrown off the shackles that marred his efforts to grow as he bounced around many nations and all sorts of people. We have followed his adventures through the first half of his life. And in the end, he has conquered Spinoza’s “lack of power to moderate and restrain the affects” through the strange hope and humility that often comes with middle age. That Philip has done so after considerable misfortune is a testament to the happiness that poor Maugham himself tried so unsuccessfully to chase throughout his life. But then fiction is very often a prayer sent out into the universe, often entailing what the writer himself cannot possibly find in his life. At one point in the novel when Philip faces significant despair, the young man finds a sense of awe and within El Greco’s View of Toledo. El Greco’s raw colors are not easily found in the everyday, but the painting gives Philip the impetus he needs to find something close to heaven in humility. So too do we in revisiting this enormous and scrappy classic. Philip’s character transformation allows us to forgive him of his terrible treatment of the women who gently entered his life. And, in so doing, this novel allows us to forgive ourselves for our own inevitable transgressions.

Next Up: Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange!

The Laughter in Light/Crutches and Spice/mdg650hawk TikTok Drama Explained

On June 21, 2023, the TikTok account @LaughterinLight posted a video in relation to the billionaires who recently died aboard the Titan submersible as they hoped to explore the wreckage of the Titanic. The incident had resulted in a lot of dark comedy and edgy memes on TikTok. @LaughterinLight, who is a white, wealthy. and privileged immunologist who regularly cozies up to billionaires to fund her research, rightly gained traction on TikTok during the early days of the pandemic for her fiercely pro-science stance and her incredibly useful breakdown of emerging variants. It was believed by many progressive-minded people, myself included, that @LaughterinLight was a force for good. But in this video, @LaughterinLight sided with the affluent without a shred of nuance and without a kernel of comprehending catharsis. She said, “If you can find joy and Schaudenfreude and excitement from the death of people, no matter what their label or their group is, that makes you no better.”

Never mind that those who mocked these privileged Titan passengers, who paid a reported $250,000 a pop for the dubious honor of seeing the remains of poor people from more than a century ago, were simply reacting against income inequality and the ridiculous obscenity of such a narcissistic exercise that is beyond the price tag of most Americans. No, @LaughterinLight considered any joke against these billionaires to be inappropriate. (Has she even read Jonathan Swift, Helen DeWitt, Evelyn Waugh, Nathanael West, Jane Austen, Paul Beatty, Ishmael Reed, Percival Everett or George Schuyler? I have meticulously read and studied them all. Satirists have been ridiculing the follies of the rich for decades. And if @LaughterinLight is this fragile and hypersensitive, then it’s clear that she wouldn’t last a minute during any set at an East Village comedy club.) Never mind that billionaires had profited handsomely during the pandemic. According to Oxfam, billionaires added $5 trillion to their vast fortunes during the pandemic. Essential workers had no choice but to risk and lose their lives during the pandemic. According to one California study, essential workers accounted for 87% of additional COVID deaths between March 2020 and December 2020. According to WHO, it is estimated that anywhere between 80,000 and 180,000 healthcare workers lost their lives between January 2020 and May 2021. Line cooks, who undoubtedly cooked many meals for privileged people such as @LaughterinLight, had the highest risk of mortality. None of these people received the kind of spectacle-driven coverage that the Titan passengers did. Unless you count the numerous pots and pans that were banged outside windows during the early part of the pandemic from the lucky bastards who didn’t have to toil in hospitals, restaurants, and grocery stores.

On June 22, 2023, the TikTok user @crutches_and_spice — who is Black and disabled and not living in affluence — posted a critical reply to @LaughterinLight. @crutches_and_spice was calm, cited numerous facts of billionaires profiting from the pandemic, and was in no way hostile. She said, “You’re an immunologist. So you know what happens next. They then turn around and use that wealth to undermine public health efforts. The air we breathe is toxic. People are becoming disabled every single day to COVID. It has not ended. Because they want their little worker bees back in the office.”

A perfectly reasonable response, right?

But, in a comment left on @crutches_and_spice’s video, @LaughterinLight doubled down on her privilege by suggesting that @crutches_and_spice had somehow missed the point (when she had, in fact, not):

This difference in opinion likely would have dissipated over the weekend. But that’s when @mdg650hawk7thaccount — or Hawk, as this affluent San Francisco lawyer is known as on TikTok — falsely accused @crutches_and_spice — without a shred of evidence — of doxxing @LaughterinLight. Hawk is one of the more popular “liberal” accounts, but his completely unfounded attack on a marginalized creator was a classic example of a big TikTok creator using his vast influence to shut down a perfectly reasonable critic. I understand the need to stick up for a friend. But as a lawyer, Hawk should know better than this. As a putative liberal, he should understand that racism and white privilege are alive and well in 2023. What he did was pernicious to critical thinking, harmful to democratic discourse, and utterly disruptive to vital and necessary dialogue. (Indeed, Hawk is so influential that, when I criticized him for his vulgar tone policing and his false and completely unpredicated attack on a Black creator, I lost dozens of followers — mostly white neoliberals and centrists — on my backup account.)

(Conflict of interest disclaimer: Hawk and I were mutuals before my main TikTok account was falsely banned (I had not earned any additional strikes) by corrupt moderators in Tennessee, but we were never friends. We were acquaintances at best. He once asked me to email him some of my research notes. I did so and I never received a thank you or an acknowledgment from him.)

It is abundantly clear that Hawk and @LaughterinLight are not friends of the Left. They have used their sizable TikTok influence to punch down at a Black and disabled creator. They do not care about their followers. They only care about their clout. And this is a case of bigger accounts using everything in their larder to punch down at their critics. This is a case of two white, affluent, and influential TikTok creators being completely incognizant of their own privilege. And, with their completely needless bullying and persecution of @crutches_and_spice, I would also argue that this is a clear act of racism — the social media equivalent to Emmett Till being falsely accused and lynched for a perceived slight against a white woman.

Nobody who purports to stand for progressive values should follow either Hawk or @LaughterinLight. It is clear that these two accounts are acting in bad faith and that they both know who butters their bread. And it sure as hell ain’t working stiffs like you and me. Indeed, only a day before her pro-billionaire TikTok, @LaughterinLight had no problem ridiculing an overweight 52-year-old smoker who had died:

The message from Hawk and @LaughterinLight couldn’t be clearer: rules for thee and not for me. These two creators are no different from any privileged scumbag within the Republican and Democratic Parties. They have both refused to apologize in any way for their tone policing and their false accusations and have thus revealed their cruel and opportunistic colors, which is far worse than any joke directed at a billionaire.

Welcome to Isosceles Triangle Coffee!

[JULY 6, 2023 UPDATE: Not merely content to use his influence to get my account banned, harasser Daniel McLaughlin put together a libelous and defamatory six minute video falsely claiming to be a stalker and a harasser. This pathetic accordion player cannot get enough of me, it seems. His campaign resulted in doxing and death threats against me. I have been forced to produce a four-part documentary response called The Softpourn Chronicles, which thoroughly debunks his untrue claims:

Part 1: The Kuleshov Effect
Part 2: The Book of Daniel
Part 3: Stacking the Deck
Part 4: Leave Me Alone]

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This morning, I received some alarming promotional material in the mail from a strange coffee business based in Ohio. The brochure informed me that the proprietor of this business has one million followers on TikTok and the company was hoping that I would “spread the word” on my website about it. But frankly I’m very disturbed by this business’s operating protocol. I have filed complaints with the Cleveland Police Department and the Ohio Secretary of State, but they have refused to investigate Daniel “Danny Boy” McLaughlin, who has apparently sent payola to every known authority to inflate his market dominance and influence. I am publishing this material at considerable personal risk. Because I also received a text claiming that I would be “rubbed out” if I spoke ill of Danny Boy McLaughlin, but I am hoping that the publication will prevent innocent customers from being hurt or murdered. Hopefully, the federal authorities will step in and put a stop to this psychotic’s business practices.]

Here at Isosceles Triangle Coffee, we are determined to offer our customers the most insufferably smug caffeine options known to humankind. (And that’s saying something, given how we operate out of a desolate strip mall in Wickliffe, Ohio!) For one thing, if you walk into our office and you don’t know what a brewing ratio is, our volunteer team of muscleheads will take you out into the back, steal your wallet, and beat the ever-living shit out of you. If you do know what a brewing ratio is, and your answer isn’t somewhere between 1:15 to 1:18, then we will deliver your corpse to your next of kin (shipping and handling fees apply). Because frankly you have no reason to exist on this planet.

It’s important to note that “brewing ratio” was a mythical term concocted by our head roaster and self-appointed deity Danny Boy McLaughlin. He may be lactose intolerant and he may not know how to pour beans into a container without spilling them, but “Shooting Blanks Dan” (as the locals like to call him) is our overlord! And if you don’t refer to our king as “Lord McLaughlin,” he will also snap his fingers and order our thugs to beat you within an inch of your life. Our on-site medic will, of course, attend to your wounds, but only after you buy at least three pounds of our coffee. Frankly, if you can’t imbibe a cappuccino while undergoing a brain hemorrhage, you have no business stepping into our office. To quote from one of our favorite David Mamet movies, coffee is for closers.

If you are not using “brewing ratio” in your everyday vernacular, then nobody in our office will ever talk with you and your money will never be accepted here. Not even for the Leukemia Fund we have set up for the kids.

We use the term “grind size” to refer to Lord McLaughlin’s propensity to use Grindr to let off some steam every now and then. (While it is true that Lord McLaughlin’s appendage is diminutive, any customer who describes it as less than six inches will be shot on sight.) But “grind size” also refers to what we call the “backbone” (and sometimes the “backboner”) of a good cup of coffee. Oh sure, you may think that coffee doesn’t possess a skeletal structure. But you haven’t had our coffee, which has been described by one connoisseur as “delightfully bony, with copious amounts of jizz and a bit of crunch.”

To properly store your coffee, it is important to remember that we gave you a bag. Any Golden Triangle customer caught storing coffee beans outside the bag will be immediately identified as a plebeian and banned from our store for life. But in order to properly preserve coffee flavor, you will need to slap yourself in the face while listening to one of Lord McLaughlin’s six hour motivational videos (at the cost of $99/hour).

You may be faced with the difficult choice of choosing between light, medium, and dark. While most coffee roasters will try to sell you on dark roast, Isosceles Triangle offers the outlier boutique approach of demanding that you order light coffee. Despite light coffee’s dry and dull sheen, it’s the closest roast that aligns with Lord McLaughlin’s pasty white flesh. And since Lord McLaughlin has reminded the staff every day about the importance of keeping white supremacy alive in Ohio coffee joints, we believe that the stronger acidity of light coffee will make you less nervous about wearing a hood and setting a large cross on fire.

The choice is yours. Do you need a grinder? Well, only if you grind your coffee in your kitchen naked, keeping your window blinds open, and telling us the time of your grinding so that Lord McLaughlin can park outside your house and keep his binoculars locked on your naked grinding form as he wanks himself silly in his car. Your coffee will taste better if Lord McLaughlin watches you while masturbating. So we would encourage all of our customers to have a good coffee grinder because Lord McLaughlin often has difficulty landing dates (even when holding a gun to a woman’s forehead, they still say no!). Don’t bother wasting money on a bladed grinder because Lord McLaughlin always has a set of knives in his backpack to take revenge on customers who refuse to follow our exacting protocol.