An ex­cerpt from Adam Gop­nik’s At The Stranger’s Gate: Ar­rivals In New York,

National Post (Latest Edition) - - WEEKEND POST - Week­end Post Adam Gop­nik will present At The Strangers’ Gate in Toronto at the Hot Docs Cin­ema on Sept. 26 and at the Kingston Writ­ers­fest on Sept. 27 Ex­cerpted from At the Strangers’ Gate by Adam Gop­nik. Copy­right © 2017 Adam Gop­nik. Pub­lished by Al­fred

Al­most forty years on, the eight­ies in New York seem mo­men­tous in the larger life of the world, too. Forty years is the nat­u­ral ges­ta­tion time of nos­tal­gia, the in­ter­val it takes for a past pe­riod to be­come a lost time, and, some­times, a golden age. There’s a sim­ple rea­son to ex­plain why. Ev­ery­body’s shock­ing first in­ti­ma­tion of the set­ting sun – which takes about forty years to hap­pen – in­spires a look back at the sun ris­ing, and its imag­ined light makes ev­ery­thing from then look golden. Though pop cul­ture is most of­ten per­formed by the young, the di­rec­tors and pro­gram­mers and gate­keep­ers – the suits who con­trol and cre­ate the con­di­tions, who make the calls and choose the play­ers – are, and al­ways have been, largely forty- some­things. The four- decade in­ter­val brings us back roughly to a point when they were be­com­ing aware of them­selves. Forty years ago is the po­tently fas­ci­nat­ing time when we were just ar­riv­ing, when our par­ents were youth­ful and in love, the Edenic pe­riod pre­ced­ing the fallen state recorded in our ac­tual mem­o­ries.

Yet t he eight­ies, t hough once again a set sub­ject, still bear more dis­ap­proval than it seems quite fair to load on any past time. Their light shines in ret­ro­spect more brassy yel­low than truly gold and gen­er­ous. The time gets summed up in a phrase no one ac­tu­ally said: Greed is good. Greed was, per­haps, more un­apolo­getic at the time than it had ever been be­fore. It was not so much that we ex­pe­ri­enced cap­i­tal­ism with the gloves off as cap­i­tal­ism with­out guilt, or, to put it another way, with­out a con­science. A lot of peo­ple got rich and had no shame about it, along the way re­mak­ing the city in their im­age.

Still, the truth is that no pe­riod or place be­longs to the neat sum­maries of pop­u­lar his­tory. Moods don’t change so read­ily; lives aren’t lived in such neatly de­ter­mined pack­ages. We live as much in de­fi­ance of the pop­u­lar themes as in thrall to them. The head­lines are of no help when we’re mak­ing up our own epi­taphs. When I think of the eight­ies I can re­call one or two shim­mer­ing nights when rich men did rule, but I re­call more morn­ings when hav­ing a pair of sneak­ers and a Walk­man seemed to mark one most as a lover of his time. His­tory and ex­pe­ri­ence still are mea­sured out on sep­a­rate cut­ting boards. We know that, ex­actly, by how badly they fit each other. When we put on our pe­riod clothes, so to speak, the pants pud­dle and the waist tugs and the jacket won’t quite but­ton up. The ad­just­ments that have to be made are the proof of how off the mea­sure­ments are in mem­ory.

Still, some­thing did change then. Not hu­man na­ture, per­haps, some­thing more like the na­tional char­ac­ter. In the eight­ies in New York all the bounds of money be­gan to loosen. At the same time, most of the cer­tain­ties that rich peo­ple once had about sex and life and marriage and roles that peo­ple played came to an end. Most no­tions of equal­ity dis­solved, but so did most no­tions of gen­til­ity. The tan­dem ef­fect is still baf­fling to a lot of peo­ple, who thought it had all along been the gen­til­ity per­pet­u­at­ing the in­equal­i­ties, in­stead of the other way round. In 1961, Lenny Bruce was ar­rested and mar­tyred for say­ing “cock­sucker” in a night­club in Cal­i­for­nia. By the time Ron­ald Rea­gan was Pres­i­dent, any­one could say “cock­sucker” in any night­club in Cal­i­for­nia; or, rather, by the time you could say “cock­sucker” in any night­club in Cal­i­for­nia, Ron­ald Rea­gan was Pres­i­dent. Sort­ing out the con­tra­dic­tions – or at least liv­ing within them tol­er­a­bly – is part of the work of get­ting the era.

Why, in a city ruled by bru­tal ma­te­ri­al­ism, did things seem in­creas­ingly un­real? One an­swer was that the buy­ing and sell­ing had be­come so ab­stract that only un­real signs could rep­re­sent them. Money had al­ways meant a lot. Now some thought that money meant ev­ery­thing, that only money had weight in the world. Others thought that now money meant ev­ery­thing. Not just that ev­ery­thing had been pushed aside for the pur­suit of money but that even what re­mained as art or mu­sic had no way of get­ting it­self ex­pressed ex­cept through money – or some fluid that rep­re­sented it. Money had pushed ev­ery other value aside. Money had made it­self into art.

I had the sense of another di­vide tak­ing shape, one harder to see but just as im­por­tant. The world was get­ting blowsier and big­ger and harder to cap­ture; the counter-life was tak­ing place in smaller and smaller rooms. It took place in stranger and stranger subcultures, in more bizarre and ec­cen­tric ex­is­tences, lived more marginally than be­fore. This made for a kind of bro­ken dis­junc­tion between public life and pri­vate ex­pe­ri­ence.

Within that di­vide, we were still an am­bi­tious gen­er­a­tion. Am­bi­tion seemed ad­mirable and also plau­si­ble, in a way that it no longer quite does to many. We ac­cepted an as­ton­ish­ing amount of ab­sur­dity in our liv­ing con­di­tions and ap­petites – our Girls tiny apart­ments – in pur­suit of our am­bi­tions, but on the whole we ex­pected them to be re­al­ized. To­day the young live less ab­surd lives, but have more chas­tened am­bi­tions. Ad­e­quacy seems, bit­terly, enough. Watch­ing Lena Dun­ham’s se­ries about twenty-some­things in Brook­lyn now, I am star­tled to see the pro­tag­o­nist, Han­nah, get­ting ex­actly the same job at the same men’s mag­a­zine that I had got­ten in 1983. But where we saw such jobs – ab­surdly, but even so – as an ob­vi­ous step on the lad­der to writerly fame, Han­nah feels trapped and mis­er­able. The peo­ple in the cu­bi­cles around hers also seem trapped. There’s more room to breathe, but less room to ma­neu­ver. We tol­er­ated woe­ful in­ad­e­quacy in sure and cer­tain hope, as the Angli­can prayer for the dead would have it, of even­tual de­liv­er­ance. When I go to the homes of the twenty- some­things now, I sense that they live on higher floors, but have lower ceil­ings.


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