James Atlas: My Life in the Middle Ages

Courtesy of James Atlas
James Atlas
My Life in the Middle Ages


Since the dawn of man, magazines have been, to use the '90s parlance, "aspirational." Remember what Anthony Hopkins's Chivas-swigging Nixon said to the painting of JFK?: "I'm what they are...you're what they want to be." A recent kiss-and-tell about Vogue's Anna Wintour intimates that the editor insisted that an inspiring story about a flight attendant with ovarian cancer be rewritten as...the story of a Prada-swaddled female CEO with ovarian cancer. Every masthead topper in the hot seat, twisting beneath the whirring dynamos of Corporate Power, feels the urge to lift the reader's eyes skyward toward some cloud-shrouded Fantasy Upmarket Self.

James Atlas's My Life in the Middle Ages is a collection of essays about mid-life by the celebrated biographer of Delmore Schwartz and Saul Bellow. You are likely to find an Atlas piece striding the mast of the New York Times Sunday Magazine, or the Times Book Review, front cover, top berth--he's king of the world! His subjects are deceptively humble: losing a tennis game to a strong teenage son; getting bounced from a desk-jockey spot at the New Yorker; watching spry, shiny-eyed Dad go from raffish tennis champ to cancer-riddled shadow of his former self. (Yes, tennis metaphors everywhere.)

In the style of Atlas's onetime subject Bellow, he starts out in punchy, pop-magazine style, grabbing you by the lapels in paragraph one, clearly laying down a thesis by two...then dawdling. Lingering in a plainspoken way over the dullest details. Failing to jerk the story forward at the pace you'd expect. Then--ho presto!--profundity falls at our feet like a suitcase plunging from an overstuffed closet. That's the Atlas touch.

The oddity about Middle Ages is that Atlas's Joe Everyman routine (I'm just like you, but with a table at Elaine's and a house in the Hamptons) is culturally defunct. It no longer plays in Poughkeepsie. The man tackles this head-on in the preface, wherein he admits that his generation of upper-middle-class New Yorkers in the culture industry can only hope to ask 21st-century Americans to see their faces reflected in his. And once upon a time, you'd pick up a mass-market monthly like Esquire or GQ, and a guy much like Atlas--bookish, secure, with a roaming eye, maybe, but a solid grip on bourgeois values--was supposed to be a stand-in for you, the Male Reader.

No more, cher maître Atlas! Today, the male reader is meant to see in his mirror a steroidal, starlet-obsessed, immaculately clad, toy-addicted, slightly but secretly gay self. In short, the hero of Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho. Little-Man Atlas, your observations on lower-back pain and the hankies on the headrests of shrinks' couches are acute, poetic, painful, exquisite! But you want us guys to hold your hand in cross-class solidarity. As Tommy Lee once said in an interview in Blender: "It ain't that kinda party no more."

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