Do you remember how it used to be? The ’10s and ’20s brought cigar-chomping robber barons and muckrakers—so much testosterone and reckless hedonism that the Crash was inevitable. The ’30s were all about men and their failure, a decade that spawned so many listless legions of unemployed that world war in the ’40s was partially seen as a job opportunity (it was a war, by the way, started by one man that made other men look just a little better). The ’60s saw long-haired men organize a three-day rock concert where everyone had hippie sex and did LSD and had hippie sex, all supposedly in the name of world peace. The ’70s: Nixon. And the ’80s and ’90s? Sexually ambiguous big-hair bands and the blithe, material culmination of Me-Firstism, delicately captured for everybody—men and women alike—in the famous Divinyls’ line of the time, “I touch myself.”
In the opinion of many scholars, we’ve been touching ourselves ever since.
I ponder this. Who is Man? Am I Man? One would think not, as I stand here in the kitchen, scrubbing. Was there ever a time when someone such as me—father, husband, worker bee—was ever unironically celebrated for his strength and vision, ever really deserved a cold martini and warm pot roast delivered by some dewy wife-creature at the end of the day?
Yes, there was such a time: the 1950s.
In September, the publishing company Alfred A. Knopf celebrated its hundredth anniversary—a remarkable milestone in an industry that continues to experience upheavals, from the rise and fall of chain bookstores to the online invasion of Amazon, which wants to dictate the price of e-books and deliver the old-fashioned kind—physical books—to our homes by drone. Many of the firms that were around when Knopf got started no longer exist, or else have been swallowed up by one of the publishing conglomerates that now joust over the book business like the competing clans in “Game of Thrones.” Knopf itself has been bought and sold several times, and now belongs, along with hundreds of other publishing imprints, to a mega-company created by the merger of Penguin and Random House. Yet somehow Knopf has held on to its identity as a publisher that prides itself on being singular—on publishing books that are not just good but good-looking and, without neglecting the bottom line, also caring about literary excellence. At last count, the company had published twenty-five Nobel laureates, sixty Pulitzer Prize winners, and more than thirty winners of the National Book Award. As much as it’s a business, it’s now practically a cultural institution.
Beneath Ms. Schiff’s crispness is a sense of strong spirits under duress, of heartbreak over the many things that can and will let you down. Those include our bodies. About a tumor, Ms. Schiff says, in words that reverberate over everything she writes, “In fiction, it’s never benign.”
My mother raised me to believe that mayonnaise was for idiots. I’d been eating it at restaurants my whole life, of course, mixed into coleslaw or chicken salad, on hamburger buns, in BLTs. But actually having mayonnaise in the fridge at home was unheard of. Mayonnaise, to my mother, was like peanut butter to the French: disgusting, uncivilized, and impossible to find. On a scale of respectability, a jar of mayonnaise came in somewhere between a vat of pig fat and one of those plastic pails of Marshmallow Fluff. When I was twenty-one, I explained all of this to my boyfriend, who was from North Carolina and loved mayonnaise. He said he felt sorry for me for having had such a deprived childhood, without any mayonnaise. I loved that I could revel in his pity. “My mother only ever bought us mustard,” I said. It was so sad to say this out loud. I cried.
In Tokyo, you can rent a cuddle. Loneliness is a health issue in Manchester. And perhaps nobody is as isolated as a migrant worker in Shenzhen. But can we really know what makes a city lonely?