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Calamity of Excellence

He may be one of our leading magazine journalists - on staff at The New Yorker since 1981, a frequent contributor to Harper's and The Atlantic Monthly - but Lawrence Weschler is not very happy with the state of the art. In fact, he's horrified - and thinks we should be too. Of particular concern to him is the kind of "general interest" journalism that The New Yorker used to exemplify and now only sporadically does. This kind of journalism could be defined roughly as something that was offered up to the public not because it was about something that was in the news, or because it might attract the services of a famous photographer, but for the simple reason that the magazine's editor thought readers might find it interesting. In today's market, that editor would be driving a cab.

"It seems to me that the culture as a whole, and magazines in particular, are part of an increasingly Pavlovian system," Weschler told me recently during an hour-long conversation in a conference room at Vroman's bookstore in Pasadena, where he would later give a reading from his new book, Calamities of Exile. "You see an article about Oscar Wilde, and you think, 'Well, that's interesting, that seems like something that's neutral.' But no! It turns out there's a movie I have to go and see."

Weschler, who grew up in Los Angeles and wrote for both the L.A. Reader and the L.A. Weekly back in the late '70s ("I was the John Reed of the rent-control movement," he says, laughing), is thin and bearded and manages to extract more motion out of sitting in a chair than most people do running down a street. He leans forward, he leans back, he waves his arms around; his hands, which seem to have a life of their own, move nonstop. If you've read his books, this is pretty much what you'd expect. Enthusiasm (about culture, politics, strange coincidences and the sheer oddness of life) is the fuel that drives almost everything Weschler writes, and the man himself turns out to be as much of an enthusiast in person as he is on the page.

"I've been having this incredible correspondence with an independent American filmmaker who's living in Slovenia," he told me, eyes widening in amazement, as if the mere idea of an American filmmaker living in Slovenia were enough to spark an article all by itself. "We were having a discussion about the world of general-interest magazines, and he said that, increasingly, when you come to America and look at the culture, you have the sense of conduits being set up for the transfer of money from everybody to the proper bank accounts. And the system is always the same, he said, 'a short, sharp whiff of titillation, followed by a hand in your back pocket. In short - crack.' And what he calls crack, I would call Pavlovian."

Although he's lived in New York for 17 years now, L.A. has remained a significant part of his work - in Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonders, his extended meditation on the Museum of Jurassic Technology, as well as in books about artists Robert Irwin and David Hockney. Recently, he could also be found hymning L.A.'s light in a special California issue of The New Yorker. But he's also gone far afield, writing about politics in Brazil, Poland and Bosnia. His current project, a book called Vermeer in Bosnia, merges the political and cultural themes of his earlier work.

"What remains my interest, much more than writing books," Weschler said, "is to write for magazines, specifically about what people don't already know, which was absolutely the model of the old New Yorker. That space has been more and more compressed in the magazine world generally. I'm talking now more as a reader than as a writer. There's less and less that addresses us as independently curious citizens, or as people possessed of a sense of wonder. Everything feels instrumental - what do they want from us?"

Calamities of Exile is a good example of the kind of journalism that wants nothing from us but our attention: journalism that elucidates rather than titillates, that shows rather than sells. Consisting of three separate studies of three political exiles from three different totalitarian regimes (Saddam Hussein's Iraq, communist Czechoslovakia, apartheid-era South Africa), the book is first and foremost a collection of stories - rather fantastic stories at that - all of which involve bizarre familial and political complications, along with layers of coincidence which, in a novel, might seem contrived. Weschler calls these pieces "nonfiction novellas," in part to stress their narrative content, but also in the hope that they will be placed in the literature section of bookstores rather than buried in Political Science. In fact, they are classic examples of what used to be known as the New Yorker profile: long, extended meditations on a person, and, through that person, on a subject (in this case, exile, totalitarianism, dissidence, and the history and culture of each exile's home country).

Weschler is not blind to the factors that are making his kind of journalism increasingly rare. "In fairness," he said, "there is this incredible pressure on people's time that didn't used to exist. One of the reasons that it's becoming harder for this kind of journalism to find a place is the decline of the one-income family. Say what you will about the miseries, the horrors of the husband going to work, the wife going out of her mind with boredom in suburbia - and the New Yorker short story was the primary place where that story was told - come Friday afternoon, the housework was done, and both the husband and wife had the weekend to lie on the hammock and read long stories. Now there's just less and less time."

Weschler paused for a moment. "It's not like someone evil is doing this," he said. "But, having said that, it is a crisis of the republic. It's not just confined to magazines. It's across the board."

Still, it doesn't look like Weschler's about to give in to market forces and start profiling celebrities yet. Vermeer in Bosnia, he says, will be a study of the relationship between culture and terror. The book's seed can actually be found in the final section of Calamities, which is about the exiled Afrikaner poet and painter Breyten Breytenbach, who ran afoul of South Africa's apartheid regime when, in the 1970s, he returned to his native country as an anti-apartheid secret agent. At the beginning of his piece on Breytenbach, Weschler recalls going with him to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where they looked at one of the Vermeers. The painting, of a woman in a blue dress, was, in Weschler's words, "the very essence of lucid grace and tranquillity," but Breytenbach had noticed something else about it: not just the date (1660), but a map of Holland on the wall behind the woman, where tiny boats could be seen bobbing off the Dutch coastline. "It's hard to believe that from all that serenity . . . emerges the Boer," Breytenbach said. And then, pointing an accusatory finger at the boats, he added: "Look, that's them leaving right now!"

Weschler loves this story. He told it to me during our conversation at Vroman's, and he repeated it the following night at the Museum of Contemporary Art, where he was lecturing on Breytenbach. The first person he told it to, in 1986, was New Yorker editor William Shawn. Shawn had sent Weschler out to do a "Talk of the Town" piece on the International PEN Club's annual congress, taking place that year in New York. Breytenbach had been one of the stars of the conference, but when Weschler approached him for an interview he claimed to be all talked out and suggested they go look at paintings instead. While Weschler told Shawn the story, the legendary editor listened silently, then nodded his head. According to Weschler, that nod meant, "This Breytenbach fellow is obviously too interesting for a short article. Spend as much time writing about him as you want, and use all the expenses you need."

Six years later, Weschler handed in the 25,000-word article, having first written the other two pieces in Calamities of Exile. Though it has only just arrived in bookstores, the book already feels like the product of a different era.


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