Then he stepped to the spot where he delivers his monologue each evening and noted that the stage mark was in the shape of a four-leaf clover. “I’m Irish,” he explained, “and I need all the luck I can get.”
It was a throwaway, self-deprecating line, but also an accurate self-assessment from Mr. Fallon, 42, who is in his fourth year of hosting “The Tonight Show,” NBC’s flagship late-night program.
He is weathering the most tumultuous period in his tenure there — a predicament for which he has himself to thank, and one that raises the question of whether the multitalented but apolitical Mr. Fallon can ride out the current era of politicized, choose-your-side entertainment, when he just wants to have a good time.
To be in the company of a tortoise is to be reminded — instantly, inarticulably — of the oldness of the world and the newness of us (humans, specifically, but also mammals in general). Nature has created thousands of creatures, but most of us have been redrawn over the millenniums: Our heads have grown larger, our teeth smaller, our legs longer, our jaws weaker. But tortoises, some varieties of which are 300 million years old, older than the dinosaurs, are a rough draft that was never refined, because they never needed to be. They are proof of nature’s genius and of our own imperfection, our fragility and brevity in a world that existed long before us and will exist long after we’re gone. They are older than we are in all ways, as a tribe and as individuals — they can live 150 years (and can grow to be 200 pounds).
The pairing of Fry and Holmes is a bit of a marriage made in heaven, in fact. In Britain, he is himself almost as much of a national treasure as Holmes: a public figure whose every utterance is avidly reported and disseminated throughout the Twittersphere, his bipolarity, his obsessions with technology, his amatory affairs, all reported on constantly, the contents of his richly stocked mind on permanent display in TV documentaries, his books lining the shelves. One of his outstanding ancillary skills is reading out loud. He is the marathon man of audiobooks: When he recorded the first of the Harry Potter novels for BBC radio, all other programs on the biggest channel, Radio 4, were suspended, the day being given over entirely to Fry’s Rowling. The nation could hope for no one better to sit at its bedside, soothingly and wittily lulling it into purring contentment. In the Holmes books, he reads just under a thousand pages in his wonderfully even and infallibly intelligent voice, touching the characters in deftly — the books field a very large number of well-educated middle-aged men, and it must have been difficult to differentiate one from another. Otherwise, he finds a variety of accents and tones for the many foreigners Holmes encounters; his American accents are lightly done, without attempting, for example, a Utah accent in “A Study in Scarlet.”
This analogy has its limits, obviously. “The End of Eddy” is also a gay coming-of-age story; “Hillbilly Elegy” is not. Nor is the context for these two books the same: France is a social democracy, extending to its citizens benefits Americans would find unimaginable; the United States remains, as ever, enthusiastically capitalist, with an instinctive distaste for big government.
But the parallels are unmistakable. Even many of the smaller details in the two books rhyme, no doubt because the distinguishing features of poverty do not vary all that much from place to place. The bad diets. (Vance was chubby as a kid; most of Louis’s male relations are obese.) The poor dental hygiene. (Vance writes about “Mountain Dew mouth”; Louis never brushed his teeth.) The televisions that are always blaring, the women who are always smoking, the problem parent who is always drinking.
Voice-of-a-generation experience rarely translates into voice-for-the-ages work once the writer reaches maturity; if youth is your franchise, why would you ever want to grow up? In Bit Rot, Coupland is up to more or less the same stuff he was up to in the 1990s: dashing off superficial observations about airports and the latest technology (in 1991 it was VDTs—video display terminals; now it’s smartphones) and ideas he had for businesses that would have made him rich if he’d ever done anything about it. Meanwhile, the internet has emerged as the ideal venue for the proliferating reflections of young people disaffected by their lot in life. In 1991, newspapers, magazines, and books rarely presented the perspectives of recent college graduates working shit jobs and wondering what to do with themselves. Generation X was a revelation because the kind of people Coupland wrote about didn’t have a platform on which to publicly vent their alienation. Now they have more platforms than anyone can count. Not surprisingly, everything in Bit Rot has the half-baked texture of a Facebook post (“I sometimes wonder what selfies would look like in North Korea”), because nearly everything that Coupland has ever written settles at about that level. Fortunately for him, Thought Catalog wasn’t around to compete with him in 1991.