Sunday Reading for the Decadent

Guy TrebayThe time has come to take Sepoy to task with regard to his blanket condemnation of the New York Times. I am willing to cede the point that numerous op-ed writers for that newspaper of record often appear to lack even the most basic skills needed in making a logical argument. In the case of Maureen Dowd, of course, logical argument is not, it is hoped, even a goal. In her column, the formula of pegging every political figure and situation to a corresponding character in a widely viewed prime-time hit television show does not require logical argument, but only a fit of insinuating pique. What those who bewail the fall of quality reporting and argument in the pages of the editorials and international news at the Times need to understand is that in the newspaper produced by the most decadent city of a declining and falling empire, the best writing will not be found in those sections. While reading the book reviews yesterday, I was idly wondering why no one wrote so well nor so wittily as Noël Coward these days, when I happened to pick up the Style section. On the front cover was a story about a man named Andre J who was featured on the cover of French Vogue last month. While the topic did not interest me much, I noted that the author was one Guy Trebay, whose work I had previously admired in numerous articles, but especially in one about 24 hour gyms in Manhattan. The article was easily the best piece of writing in this Sunday’s paper, a 21st century profile written in the style of a 19th century romance, with magnificent sentences such as this:

And so it was that Andre J. — who had most recently been style-channeling Cher and compulsively Google-searching the late Detroit-born model and beauty and heroin addict Donyale Luna, and evolving his personal appearance to express what he thinks of as “a 60s, not mod, but mod-ish, and hippie look” that also contains elements of 1970s blaxploitation films — found his way to Mr. Weber’s compound by bus.

Guy Trebay would never be invited to write an op-ed column in the Times, nor would his byline grace the columns of the first section of any newspaper. He is an habitué of the style and leisure sections, yet the quality of his writing far exceeds anything to be found in those much more important parts of the paper, and his chronicling of the overstuffed decadence and glitz of his island habitat offers a much richer commentary on the state of the empire than any sordid little column by a Dowd or a Friedman, or heaven forbid, a Brooks. Guy Trebay would never call the world flat, or compare prime ministers of foreign nations fictional mafia dons or devote whole columns to baby names. It is perhaps emblematic of the blind and overstuffed quality of the so-called literati in our gilded age that the likes of the Gawker staff, a seemingly intended audience, are unable to notice Trebay’s style, and myopically read him for content alone. In closing, I leave you with this excerpt from a Trebayan gem, but one of many:

Shifts of taste and style are trivialities, of course, without any serious meaning. But they do perform one important function, as Proust pointed out: they notch our hours and moments and decades and leave us with visual mnemonics, clues by which to remember where and in which dress and what jeans (and wearing what cologne) one was at a particular time. Tracking the way styles evolve gives us insight, too, into the forms of beauty we choose to idealize.

Models who were vacant optimistic cheerleader types prevailed in the politically clueless 1970s (Christie Brinkley, Patti Hansen, Shelley Hack); brooding brunettes took over during the Age of Reagan (Linda Evangelista, Cindy Crawford and Yasmeen Ghauri); and off-kilter aristocratic types (Guinevere van Seenus, Stella Tennant, Erin O’Connor), emblematic of upper class women, came to the fore during the second Bush imperium.

What fashion now prefers as a beauty ideal is another type, the robot, personified by the stunning Raquel Zimmerman, a blond Brazilian of German heritage whose physical proportions are so symmetrical that many designers use her body as a template. That Ms. Zimmerman also has a kind of vacant cyborg aspect cannot be altogether incidental. Possibly this is the reason why Louis Vuitton hired her for a new ad campaign in which her face has been made up and manipulated so aggressively as to render her less humanly expressive than Lara Croft.

Was this intentional? Who knows? But it is no stretch to extrapolate from Ms. Zimmerman’s popularity to a time when live models will be dispensed with altogether, in favor of creatures written in CGI. That is not to suggest there is a master plan. There rarely is. Or is there?

7 Replies to “Sunday Reading for the Decadent”

  1. NYT is a trashy rag exactly because writing in the style section far supercedes the idiotic and clumsy calls for genocidal wars in the rest of the paper.

    I have the same argument with my friends who like the Economist. It has some clever writing, and wider coverage of global events than, say, Fox News. But it promotes the same trashy outlook as Fox. To me one far supercedes the other.

    I would not change my views of Fox news if I found out that they have the best, or even poetic, coverage of motorcycle races around the globe. The style section of NYT is just lipstick on a pig; beautiful, moist, radiant lipstick for sure, but lets not forget the pig.

  2. Lapata,

    The time has come to take Sepoy to task, generally. He is lazy, and I suspect he has Trotskyist sympathies.

  3. I’m not sure it’s right to compare the apples of fashion commentary with the oranges of political opinions. They are very different sub-sub-genres. And I liked the Two Tonys column. Thanks for pointing it out. Also never say never about who will land on the Op/Ed page. Frank Rich used to be the theater critic and look where he is now.

  4. …by the most decadent city of a declining and falling empire…

    ms. lapata, las vegas is holding on line one. ms. lapata, you have a call on line one.

  5. I whole heartedly concede. Guy Trebay is the awesome. Take this gem from the same piece:

    “By this past holiday season, whether at clubs and bars like Supreme Trading or Black Betty in Brooklyn, the bearded hipster-mullah-hippie look had proliferated to the point where one could barely distinguish musicians from the local Hasidim. (In the case of the popular rapper Matisyahu, an Orthodox Jew, the distinction was moot.)”

    I am just glad that the mullah-beard, a trope of Sa’adi in fact, continues its life in Williamsburg.

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