Friday, April 26, 2013

Trying to get old gracefully


Remember Alison Lurie? The novelist? She hasn't published a novel in half-a-dozen years, but she regularly appears in the New York Review of Books, writing on everything from John Updike to Peter Pan (which may not be such a broad spectrum, after all). She is still very much with us, at age 86, and a personal rebuke to my ten-years-younger fading productivity.

I read her first in 1974, a novel called The War Between the Tates, about a married college professor who has an affair with a student. Then in 1984 she won the Pulitzer Prize for Foreign Affairs, a novel about, well yes, foreign (love) affairs. She was the female Updike, exploring the territory we ex-altar boys more timidly and less conclusively found ourselves traversing.

Anyway, here she is again in the NYRB, reviewing a novel by Claire Messud. Before getting to the novel, she takes the time to develop a theory of the "celebrity complex."

She draws our attention to celebrity culture, "occurring spontaneously in the so-called advanced democratic societies," that separates us into a privileged minority who are recognized as fully and triumphantly human, and the rest.

Basically, we're talking about the people who are featured in People magazine, and the people who buy the magazine.

This can lead, says Lurie, to an affliction she calls the celebrity complex:
When we get together we tend to gossip not about our own relatives and friends and neighbors and coworkers, but about film and TV and sports stars and members of the British royal family. Individuals who we know only as flimsy two-dimensional paper shadows, or fleeting electronic impulses on a screen, interest us more than three-dimensional human beings. In advanced cases of celebrity complex, the afflicted persons feel that fame is necessary to self-esteem; if they cannot achieve it themselves, they may define and value themselves most importantly as fans.
Lurie wants to celebrate those folks who are neither in the magazine nor buy it -- schoolteachers, carpenters, doctors, homemakers, or civil servants, for example, who are locally recognized and honored by friends and families for doing what they do conscientiously and well. Lurie probably won't get in People magazine for writing NYBR essays/reviews at age 86, but she has my jealous admiration. I would even go so far as calling myself a fan.