Media Circus: Paris When it Fizzles

An exclusive look inside the navel of New Yorker boulevardier Adam Gopnik, the Seinfeld of public intellectuals

Published December 10, 1996 8:00PM (EST)

for devoted readers of the New Yorker -- an ever-dwindling, masochistic segment of the American reading public -- there is a unique pleasure that comes along every month or so. They greet an old friend, a regular contributor whose tortured sentences and haphazard arguments are dwarfed only by his cultural self-regard. He is a man so addled in temperament and resolutely trivial in his obsessions that he makes the worst graduate seminar in postmodern critical theory seem as terse, hard-headed and momentous as a Winston Churchill Blitz broadcast. He is, in short, Paris correspondent Adam Gopnik.

Gopnik is perhaps the closest thing that today's New Yorker has to a public intellectual, weighing in with sober assessments of everything from art exhibitions to the Beatles revival to the Oklahoma City bombing (in a lead editorial bearing the raffish title "Violence as Style").

But a closer look at Gopnik's oeuvre yields a disconcertingly tiny worldview, one that accords closely with Freud's definition of neurosis as a private religion. Gopnik immerses himself (and his readers) in the mundane details of his life -- writing about such topics as Parisian apartment-hunting, Parisian fashion gatherings, even workouts at Parisian gyms.

Now, it may seem an unfair exercise to excoriate the craft of a man so palpably enamored of late 20th-century Paris. It's a bit like decrying, say, Entertainment Weekly for being overstuffed with Baywatch reportage: Ephemera just comes with the turf.

Yet pause a moment and ponder the august weekly that is Gopnik's meal ticket. Harold Ross's and William Shawn's New Yorker had, God knows, more than its share of pretentious excesses. But it also, in good weeks, gave space to provocative work like Hannah Arendt's "Eichmann in Jerusalem" and Jonathan Schell's "The Fate of the Earth," to say nothing of the regular contributions of critics like Harold Rosenberg and Mary McCarthy.

These days, though, hoping that the new New Yorker can rise to serious occasions is a lot like waiting for Madonna to stop being famous. Instead we have Gopnik's nightmarish deployment of Seinfeld-scale social observation on the various hipster scenes of Paris. No better example could be adduced than his groundbreaking essay in the Dec. 2 issue, "A Tale of Two Cafes." It opens in a burst of insouciance, with our jaded expat announcing "I have been brooding a lot lately on what I have come to think of as the Two Cafe Problem."

The Problem, Adam explains, first emerged as the deceptively mundane question of what to do for lunch. It seems his multitalented friend Nicole Wisniak -- "the editor, publisher, advertising-account manager, and art director of the magazine Egoiste" -- was to meet him at the Cafe Flore, on the Boulevard Saint-Germain. But "we couldn't find an empty table -- that kind of Saturday." Quite.

Adam, the innocent abroad, proposes they adjourn to the nearby Cafe aux Deux Magots. Nicole, "a woman of such original chic that in her presence I feel even more ingenuous and American than I usually do," grows pensive and pained, in that civilized way of hers: " 'I don't know,' she said, at a loss for the usual epigrammatic summary of the situation. 'We used to go there, I think ... 20 years ago ... .'"

Over the course of the next few thousand words, our American Adam struggles, not altogether successfully, to cough out an explanation for the vanished vogue of the Deux Magots.

The attentive Gopnik reader, however, can quickly grasp the piece's real point: to drop names and high-culture allusions as frequently and as breathlessly as possible: Camus biographer Olivier Todd; essayist Jean-Paul Enthoven ("the author of the season's most winning collection of literary essays"); and an unnamed "friend who has been a figure in the French media since the 1940s and who eats lunch at the Flore every day." Strip away the conceit of the piece -- a subject about which no sane person could be made to care in the first place -- and you see, in such asides, the essence of Gopnik-ism: There is absolutely no one in the Paris literary or fashion scene who is not fabulous, and he knows them, or of them, all.

And whenever there is a whiff of theory in the air, Gopnik lunges at it. Thus the retreat of the trendy to the unsightliest corners of the Flore becomes "the law of Inverse Natural Appeal." Thus something he calls "the explanation in terms of the futility of all explanations." Such ostentatious theorizing, a valentine to Gopnik's sense of his own sophistication, but a tedious chore to his readers, clutters virtually every piece Gopnik has written, from last month's pedestrian assessment of the state of children's publishing to his effort last March to dismiss the transportation strikes in France, nonsensically, as "a petit-bourgeois ghost dance." Sustained immersion in Gopnik's collected works is like a holiday among the Lilliputians: It is with something of a shock that one recalls that things do actually happen in the world, even in Paris.

But then perhaps Adam is better shielded from such disorienting truths. Consider the crash of TWA Flight 800 last summer, which occasioned a vaguely surrealistic "Talk of the Town" item from crack aviation reporter and seasoned New-York-to-Paris commuter ... Adam Gopnik. (One can't help but picture the frenzy preceding the assignment: La Belle Tina, eyes flashing ravenously, yelling at her subordinate, "Get Gopnik on this, Goddamnit!")

What do we learn of the doomed flight? That it was a flight like many other 800 flights, "the generic representative of something amazing that had become mundane."(Note again the trademark Gopnik lurch into involuted abstraction, a reflex that always stops readers dead in their tracks to ask, "Why am I being told this?") Flight 800, our correspondent continues, "was late a lot, but T.W.A., trying hard, would pass around cold jumbo shrimp in the lounge and send the captain out to reassure the passengers. His tones consoled; his promises appeased; the shrimp nourished." The diction grates.

The passengers? They "always seemed eerily the same; the backpacking kids in the rear rows; the honeymooners excitedly reviewing their Michelins up front; the second-honeymooners in first class, with their frequent flyer miles and their reservations for lunch tomorrow at L'Ami Louis." Gopnik tries to summon some humanist sentiment for this slapdash parade of clichis by pleading for them to come alive in our memories. The problem, however, is that most of the people in the world aren't privileged enough to indulge in Gopnik's cherished globe-trotting affectations in the first place; they are, in fact, the people he so palpably scorns by zeroing in on their un-chicness: lunch at L'Ami Louis -- really.

Indeed, in a colossal lapse of editorial taste, the same issue of the magazine features an unimaginably long Gopnik piece on haute couture, a subject that he warms to much more passionately than the large-scale loss of human life: "The clothes are extravagant and unreal, but they don't seem camp. They don't seem artificial or out of this world, just symbolic of a common human hope that the world could be something other than it is -- younger and more musical and less exhausting and better lit."

It's high time we let Adam have that precious world, just so he can stop writing in ours.

By Chris Lehmann

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