Illustration by Geoffrey Grahn
A few years ago, the feisty cultural critic Thomas Frank suggested in the pages of The Baffler that it would soon be impossible to critique market culture, because its dominance would have become so overwhelming as to make any alternative unimaginable. Two new books, David Brooks’ Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There and Daniel Harris’ Cute, Quaint, Hungry and Romantic: The Aesthetics of Consumerism, suggest that Frank may have been correct in his prophecy. Neither Brooks nor Harris is short on criticism, exactly, but neither one of them really draws blood. In fact, you can’t help suspecting that if either one of them ever did draw blood, he’d either faint at the sight of it or run out and fetch his victim a bandage, apologizing profusely all the while.
The publicity package for Bobos in Paradise, Brooks’ “comic sociology” of America’s new dressed-down-Fridays elite, would have us believe that we are in for a grand old satire of contemporary humbug and excess. “Do you believe that spending $15,000 on a media center is vulgar, but spending $15,000 on a slate shower stall is a sign that you are at one with the Zen-like rhythms of nature?” goes one of the questions on the book flap, under the heading “Are You a Bobo?” (A bobo is a BOurgeois BOhemian, someone who, by cunningly blending the liberated ’60s with the enterprising ’80s, makes unspeakable amounts of money while behaving as if money were the last thing on his mind.) But that’s the book flap. The book itself, as we quickly learn from Brooks’ introduction, bids satire — not to mention humility — a hurried goodbye. “All societies have elites, and our educated elite is a lot more enlightened than some of the older elites, which were based on blood or wealth or military valor,” Brooks announces three pages into his text. “Wherever we educated elites settle, we make life more interesting, diverse and edifying.”
Try saying that aloud, without gagging. All I can say is, it must be nice to feel that good about yourself, to know that every time you sweep into a neighborhood, driving up the rents, trailing Restoration Hardware stores and overpriced bakeries in your wake, things will be improved for everyone — at least for those who can afford to stay. But Brooks (a senior editor at The Weekly Standard and a contributor to Newsweek, NPR and The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer, among other suitably virtuous outlets) doesn’t mind overpriced bakeries. In fact, he’s rather fond of them, the more earnest and pretentious the better.
In a chapter titled “Consumption,” he tells us all about a town called Wayne, Pennsylvania, 13 miles west of Philadelphia. Once upon a time, Wayne was such a square, white-bread kind of town that it was impossible to find an espresso, let alone any good faux-peasant bread. But now everything’s changed, and boy has Wayne got a bakery for you, “one of those gourmet bread stores where they sell apricot almond or spinach feta loaf for $4.75 a pop.” This particular store is owned by two former yuppies who have seen the holistic light, and no sooner do you walk in the door than they hand you a sample slice “about the size of a coffee table book” and start lecturing you on “the naturalness of the ingredients and the authenticity of the baking process” — in other words, they may not work on Wall Street anymore, but they can’t stop hustling for a second. Not even over a loaf of bread.
Another “Latte Town” Brooks is fond of is Burlington, Vermont, which boasts a “phenomenally busy” public square:
There are kite festivals and yoga festivals and eating festivals. There are art councils, school-to-work collaboratives, environmental groups, preservation groups, community-supported agriculture, anti-development groups and ad-hoc activist groups. The result is an interesting mixture of liberal social concern and old-fashioned preservation efforts to ward off encroaching modernism and, most important, development.
But the result doesn’t sound like an “interesting mixture” to me. Rather, it sounds like an annoying agglomeration of monomaniacs (“Practice yoga!” “Support small farmers!” “Eat whole grains!”) with axes to grind. Perhaps they should all simply sell axes. That would make for a truly “interesting,” not to mention entertainingly macabre, town square, and it might even attract tourists.
Brooks’ central thesis, that the 1990s saw a grand conjoining of the hippie and the yuppie, resulting in a newly relaxed business style, a business-oriented bohemianism, is well taken, though much of the book strays into territory covered recently by other writers trying to make sense of all-conquering capitalism. Like George W.S. Trow in My Pilgrim’s Progress, Brooks starts out by examining The New York Times of the 1950s. Like John Seabrook in Nobrow, he notes the conflation of upper- and lower-class tastes, and his chapters on Bobo pleasure and intellectual life struck me as less pointed versions of James Atlas’ essays on ruling-class obsessions in The New Yorker. Reading Brooks’ tongue-in-cheek account of the new meritocrats, of their casual sartorial style, love for “distressed” furniture and curious belief in oxymoronic “flat hierarchies,” I was reminded of Saul Bellow’s portrait of Allan Bloom — an anti-Bobo if ever there was one — in his new novel, Ravelstein. When Bloom’s best-selling book on education, The Closing of the American Mind, made him rich, he immediately went out and bought himself a $20,000 wristwatch, some Lanvin jackets, and other items testifying to a previously frustrated thirst for luxury. Bobos would have looked down on such shamelessly extroverted expenditure, but other, less privileged members of society responded to it. According to Bellow,
Young blacks would stop [Bloom] in the street to ask about his suit or his topcoat, his fedora. They were familiar with high fashion. They talked to him about Ferré, Lanvin, about his Jermyn Street shirtmaker . . . His heart warmed toward such connoisseurs — lovers of elegance.
I suspect Brooks’ heart warms to it, too, because he certainly enjoys poking fun at Bobo pieties. Not too much fun, you understand, as that might actually upset someone. Working both sides of the fence is a Bobo specialty, and Brooks proves adept at it. This is a book both liberals and conservatives can love, and no doubt it was designed that way. In his chapter “Intellectual Life,” Brooks criticizes the pomposity and inbreeding of 1950s New York intellectuals and the Partisan Review crowd, and suggests that today’s brand of camera-friendly egghead has a more realistic view of life. But the picture Brooks paints of contemporary intellectual life is so deeply cynical that, when he tells us things were even worse in the ’50s, you can’t help feeling insulted on behalf of Lionel Trilling and company.
There are some good things in this book, but it’s so smug in places you want to kick it down the street until some bozo — pardon me, Bobo — comes along in a Range Rover and grinds it into the asphalt. “Bobo businesspeople have created a corporate style attuned to the information age, with its emphasis on creativity, flat hierarchies, flexibility and open expression,” Brooks chirps robotically in the final chapter. “It’s simply impossible to argue with the unparalleled success of America’s information age industries over the past decade.”
It’s impossible, you see. So don’t even try. A good book, when you close it, opens something inside you. When you close Bobos in Paradise, all doors slam shut. David Brooks is a clever journalist, but his book is an unpleasant combination of cynicism and flattery.
“What, after all, would a world without consumerism be like?” asks Daniel Harris, author of The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture, in the afterword to his new work, Cute, Quaint, Hungry and Romantic.
Surely not one that I myself would choose to live in. There would be no cities because cities are dependent on trade, nor money because there would be nothing to buy . . . To imagine a world without consumerism is to erase oneself, to devolve through eons of human progress back to an era in which all of our time would have been devoted to scrabbling for roots and berries, with not a second to spare for making art or reading literature, let alone for writing ungrateful diatribes attacking the very society that has made my life and its manifold comforts possible.
This is both graceful and charming, as is much of Harris’ book, which consists of 10 minutely observed essays on the ways in which consumer culture promotes and describes itself (“Cuteness,” “Deliciousness,” “the Natural,” “Coolness,” etc.). Nonetheless, his afterword gives one pause. Surely human history doesn’t divide quite so neatly into consumerism on the one hand, and scrabbling for nuts and berries on the other? To say that imagining a world without consumerism is to “erase oneself,” or revert to caveman status, only makes sense if you define any society in which money is traded for goods as a “consumer society.” It seems, to put it mildly, a rather myopic view. To paraphrase Nietzsche, “He who spends too much time gazing into the abyss becomes the abyss,” and it’s possible that Harris, in researching his book, has been reading too much ad copy for his own good. Still, by describing in such maniacal and witty detail the true nature of the junk that surrounds us — just as Nicholson Baker did in The Mezzanine — Harris has performed a real service. His book is best sipped slowly, one essay at a time. Read straight through, the sheer accumulation of detail is apt to become cloying, as is Harris’ rather meek scholarly persona. His is a good, honest, well-written book. But you can’t help wishing that, at least once, Harris would stamp his foot and yell about something.
BOBOS IN PARADISE: The New Upper Class and How They Got There | By DAVID BROOKS | Simon & Schuster | 284 pages | $25 hardcover
CUTE, QUAINT, HUNGRY AND ROMANTIC: The Aesthetics of Consumerism | By DANIEL HARRIS | Basic Books | 270 pages | $24 hardcover