I have never quite understood the concept of "summer reading." Most of the people I know tend to read the same sort of thing in summer that they read in autumn, winter and spring, if they read anything at all. Those who do set out to alter their reading habits in summer tend to take heavier and harder books to the beach with them, not lighter and easier ones. It is their poignant and perennially confounded hope that with sufficient leisure they will finally crack the "War and Peace" case or learn what the computer revolution is actually about or something like that. The only thing they ever get for their pains is extensive sleep and new guilt.
Still, ever respectful of the deeply ingrained notion that all summer reading must be at least slightly diverting, I choose this hot and humid moment to recommend a book that has been out for several months, that is funny as hell and that tells you in this wise a lot of true things about all of us--including especially the great national press/politics/issues machine. Mary Breasted has written the book, and it is called "I Shouldn't Be Telling You This."
Not all the critics have found this novel as superb a satire as I do, and some were more fascinated than I by its specific takeoff on various New York Times and Village Voice people. To me the book gets us all in its net. Its vision, as some have complained, is in many respects preposterous--but then so is its subject matter: the half intentional, half accidental and not always terribly elevated way the press causes things to happen, often despite itself and to its own great sorrow. Nobody wants to believe this, because nobody especially likes this vision--neither the press, which holds a far more flattering, even noble, picture of itself as purposeful promoter of the public weal, nor the press's many critics, who insist that we are indeed purposeful, but ideological, corrupt and manipulative in our purposes . . . a meticulously well-oiled conspiracy. And now along comes Mary Breasted with something that for all its satirical nuttiness is much, much nearer the universally unwelcome slapstick truth.
Her heroine is Sarah Makepeace, a 27-year- old Radcliffe graduate who drifts through the mid-1970s in New York, becoming almost inadvertently a journalist. Sarah's roots are cranky New England Wasp, summed up in a father who lives in a state of perpetual outrage at "the CIA, the State Department, the FBI, the presidential seal, the congressional frank, chemical fertilizers, the Republican Party, Christmas cards, nuclear power plants, reconstituted orange juice, Mormons, lipstick, Burger Kings . . ." and several other items and institutions about which he spends his days writing futile and furious letters to the editor. Sarah has been introduced to the world of ambitious young New York psychiatrists through Ellie Einstein, a former college roommate and now Legal Aid lawyer who is married to and calamitously influenced by an analyst named Roger. Ellie pleads all of her Legal Aid clients insane, much to the consternation of both the local bench and her young-punk clients who in fact aspire to be criminals, not mental-health wimps.
A militant women's caucus, the political establishment, the gay community and the government of New York City are among the many other victims of Mary Breasted's relentless ribbing. But the press gets it above all. Sarah, wholly unfit for the job, is hired by The Newspaper mainly as a pawn in the various power struggles going on among the editors and between them and the Woman's Faction. She is immediately pitched off the ledge into that mixture of labors familiar to all journalists: assignments that are either impossible to accomplish (instant, on-deadline analysis of a report called "Unrealized Capital Increments in the New York City Eleemosynary Trusts") or grotesque ("'Now, I've got a story that's just right for you,' he said, handing me a press release on the noon ceremony to be held that day in the City Hall parking lot. The Greek archbishop was going to bless the hot-dog carts.")
She had landed a job, Sarah was to reflect at one point, "that required a body to stand around in 99-degree heat listening to people with wet armpits say they were 'gratified to be here.'" But before she was done, through a combination of events--mostly fortuitous and largely fueled by other people's silliness, stupidity or ambition--she and The Newspaper have created a terrible phony as dark-horse candidate and caused him to be nominated and elected. "No, we couldn't have," she says fervently to herself--"Could we?" Her editors speak far more gravely and self-importantly of their burdensome "responsibilities."
Some have said all this is too batty to be true. But it is batty in precisely the same way other novels that deal with journalistic subterfuges, such as Evelyn Waugh's hilarious "Scoop" or Nathanael West's chilling "Miss Lonelyhearts," are batty--and also true. What such fiction gets exactly right is the odd dual truth that the press does exert enormous influence on what happens, but that much of the influence it exerts is in fact slapdash, intended to do something else, a consequence not of premediated coup-making but rather of the various inelegant lusts, moods and ambitions of the (yes) human beings it comprises. Just like your office. Just like the government.
Though this book puts me in mind of "Scoop," its heroine, as distinct from its subject matter, has an even stronger literary resonance. Sarah Makepeace is like Sally Jay Gorce in Elaine Dundy's marvelous book "The Dud Avocado" or Holly Golightly in Truman Capote's "Breakfast at Tiffany's." This heroine is invincibly innocent. To be sure, she is no Pamela or Clarissa. But though sexually liberated, she remains an intellectual ing,enue--hapless and buffeted about, and yet the unwitting cause of much traumatic action. She is in fact a kind of idiot savant, and her observations, many though not all of them damagingly true, shed a very useful light on the place and the society through which she bumbles, even if half the time she doesn't know what they mean.
I don't think Sarah's story is all that bad a metaphor for the press as a whole. We'd be better off if we could (our image be damned) accept it. And if our more frenetic critics, so enamored of their conspiracy theory, could accept it they would be light-years nearer the truth.