BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

Wish there was more ...

In a recent blog post elsewhere, I was looking to accurately source a quote, so did a little legwork on Fran Lebowitz … a humorist whose bon mots I have been happy to regurgitate for many years … and found this book (which I promptly ordered from new/used vendors over on Amazon).

As noted, I knew of Lebowitz for quite a long time, but really didn't know much in terms of the details of her career until looking into this book. She actually started out with Andy Warhol, doing pieces for Interview, and later moved on to being a columnist for Mademoiselle ... however, her actual written output appears to be limited, and most of which seems to be within the covers of The Fran Lebowitz Reader, which features both her earlier collections, 1974's Metropolitan Life, and 1981's Social Studies.

Frankly, I found this quite disappointing, as I had envisioned some vast trove of witty material lurking out there, just off my radar, which I could delve into … but, no … this appears to be pretty much what there is. I (like others) had thought of Lebowitz as a latter-day Dorothy Parker, but, although she holds her own quip-for-quip with her great predecessor, the material she's generated has thus far been fairly thin (this 2-in-1 volume is 333 pages). Of course, this is not counting her unfinished work … she's been playing off her long-unfinished Exterior Signs of Wealth for decades (in a 1994 interview1 she was noted to have recently “broken through” a 10-year bout of writers block, and elsewhere was quoted as saying the book … still unfinished … would be out by the turn of the millennium), and supposedly has another book, Progress (which was first excepted from a decade ago), that supposedly has a release date for later this year.

It seems that Ms. Lebowitz maintains her Manhattan lifestyle primarily on the public speaking circuit (although she has had a recurring role as a judge in the Law & Order TV shows, and has appeared in a couple of movies – recently in The Wolf of Wall Street), which, I assume, allows her to be witty and noticed without having to actually write. Which brings me to my first clip from the Metropolitan Life side of the book, in the initial chapter, My Day: An Introduction of Sorts, which is set up with times, activities, and commentaries, winding up with:
2:05 A.M. – I enter my apartment and prepare to work. In deference to the slight chill I don two sweaters and an extra pair of socks. I pour myself a club soda and move the lamp next to the desk. ... I pick up my pen and stare at the paper. I light a cigarette. I stare at the paper. I write “My Day: An Introduction of Sorts.” Good. Lean yet cadenced. I consider my day. I become unaccountably depressed. I doodle in the margin. … I look longingly at my sofa, not unmindful of that fact that it converts cleverly into a bed. I light a cigarette. I stare at the paper.
4:50 A.M. – The sofa wins. Another victory for furniture.
I've deleted a couple of sentences there, which gave some specifics of how she was distracting herself, but felt, for illustration purposes here it stood better without them. The whole 2.5-page chapter is, by these last two entries, evidently the introduction that she was needing to write, which eventually loses to the sofa. I literally “LOL'd” when it hit that last line (made more poignant that her family's business for generations had been in the furniture trade).

The two component books here have somewhat different tones, largely expressed in length, with the latter book having some substantially longer bits, but also in “social context”, 1974 and 1981 being variant ages of the New York scene (which reminds me of the note in the front matter of the book which says “Fran Lebowitz still lives in New York City, as she does not believe that she would be allowed to live anywhere else.”). Both books are divided into “thematic” sections, with Metropolitan Life featuring Manners, Science, Arts, and Letters; and Social Studies offering People, Things, Places, and Ideas. One thing to note here is that much of the activities described in the text are somewhat dated … the latter volume came out in the year that New York's notorious/celebrated Studio 54 closed, and the IBM PC first appeared … and the former came out in that post-hippy era (I think there needs to be a label for the early 70's, like how Punk was followed by New Wave in the popular imagining, there should be something to tag the “post-hippy” years – which were freaky enough on their own) of 1974 … neither of these time frames being particularly relevant to “millennials” and their generational neighbors.

Speaking of dated … the following quote comes from a section condemning pocket calculators … and, kids, there was a time when these did not exist, only coming to market in the early '70s … so these would have been the equivalent of the iPads of the day:
The rigors of learning how to do long division have been a traditional part of childhood, just like learning to smoke. In fact, as far as I am concerned, the two go hand-in-hand. Any child who cannot do long division by himself does not deserve to smoke. I am really quite a nice girl and very fond of children but I do have my standards. I have never taught a child to smoke before he has first taken a piece of paper and a pencil and demonstrated to my satisfaction that he can correctly divide 163 by 12.
Oh, yes … among other anachronisms here, Ms. Lebowitz is a very enthusiastic smoker, which (even evidenced by the bits in this review) constantly surfaces in her (less enthusiastically pursued?) writing.

In the chapter “No News Is Preferable”, she goes on quite a run about the news industry, from its ancient Greek antecedents (including killing the bearer of bad news – that would create quite a churn in front of the network cameras!) to the very early days of cable TV. She notes that many people like the news, and “consider it to be important, informative, and even entertaining”, and details each of these elements – of which the “informative” struck me as particularly wry:
    Strictly speaking, the news is informative insofar as it does indeed provide information. Therefore the questions one must ask here are:
  1. Do I want this information?

  2. Do I need this information?

  3. What do they expect me to do about it?
Answer to Question Number One
    No. If a genetically handicapped Scientologist attempts to take the life of the vice-president of the 4H Clubs of Texas with a crossbow and somebody knows about it, I would prefer that he kept it to himself.

Answer to Question Number Two
    No. If three unemployed psychopathic blacksmiths have stolen the daughter of the inventor of lead paint and are threatening to read to her aloud from Fear of Flying until everybody in Marin County is given a horse, I fail to see how knowing this will help me to find a large but inexpensive apartment in a better neighborhood.

Answer to Question Number Three
    I can not possibly imagine.
Needless to say, some things never change, with the banality of the News being one of them. This brings me back to bemoaning that there is not more by Fran Lebowitz out there … if anything, the world has gotten more twisted in the decades of her “writers block”, and I, for one, would welcome having had her impressions of that downward spiral accessible.

The Fran Lebowitz Reader is still in print (with a different cover than pictured here – the used copy I got was from when they were pushing the Public Speaking documentary that Martin Scorsese did about her a few years back), and the on-line big boys have it currently at 27% off of cover price … however, “very good” copies can be had from the new/used vendors for as little as a penny (plus shipping). As discussed above, I was happy to have “gotten caught up” with Ms. Lebowitz with this combination volume, but am sorely disappointed that there's not more stuff from here out there.

1 – a 1994 piece by Bob Morris in The New York Times, in which were such gems as “The words are in the cigarettes.” and She says the only thing she likes less than writing is exercising, which she does because her doctor says it's the only way she can keep smoking and not aggravate her bronchitis. “It's the only time I wish I was writing, because at least you can sit down.” plus this barb: “I don't like avocados. They're the mayonnaise of vegetables.”

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Tags: book review

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