The Anatomy of a Shopping Jag

LEAD: EVERY TIME I’M ASKED ABOUT MY HOBBIES OR special interests, I am tempted to say white-water rafting, Etruscan vase painting or good old stamp collecting. But the truth is that one abiding passion has remained constant from my high school days to the present. Shopping. I am a shopper. There is no department store, specialty shop or even supermarket that doesn’t whisper to me, ”We’re open.

EVERY TIME I’M ASKED ABOUT MY HOBBIES OR special interests, I am tempted to say white-water rafting, Etruscan vase painting or good old stamp collecting. But the truth is that one abiding passion has remained constant from my high school days to the present. Shopping. I am a shopper. There is no department store, specialty shop or even supermarket that doesn’t whisper to me, ”We’re open. Please come in.”

Shopping for me has always been synonymous with growing up in New York. During my childhood, 34th Street came to mean summer camp at Orbach’s, and visiting the tree at Rockefeller Center was a prelude to Christmas shopping at Saks. And no matter how many towers William Zeckendorf Jr. erects on Union Square, that site will always be to me the home of ”The Best For Less,” S. Klein-on-the-Square. It was a graying discount department store, but there were those of us who loved it.

As I am writing this I can hear my mother saying, ”Why must you always bring up Klein’s? You’ve never admitted to shopping there.” I’m afraid this is true. Whereas a friend of mine once defined her mother as a woman whose hands would fall off if she shopped retail, I am the complete opposite. This is partially due, I’m sure, to the discovery at an impressionable age that my own mother had sewn a Bergdorf’s label into a Klein’s original. Therefore, at 12, for my first solo purchase, I bought a swimsuit at Bergdorf’s and saved the box, the bag and the label.

In high school, my favorite extracurricular activity took place on Fridays when we were dismissed at 1:15 P.M. to shop. Looking back, I’m sure the school’s intention was that we use our free time in the city to experience Monet’s ”Water Lilies” or to explore the New York Stock Exchange. But instead, every Friday, my best friend, Kathy, and I went to see Henrietta, our favorite saleslady on the second floor at Saks. We never made enormous purchases, but we each learned to sign our name on a credit slip and in parentheses to write ”daughter.” As time went by, we expanded our horizons with Friday visits to the ”Bigi” department at Bergdorf’s, the third floor at Bloomingdale’s and, at the peak of our sophistication, senior year, we entered Bendel’s. Fittingly, at least three of my high school classmates have become buyers.

Over the years, I have convinced myself that shopping can indeed be educational. A department store is like a museum, except you get to take home the display. Furthermore, shopping, much like surgery, can be divided into two general areas: emergency, which tends to be frenetic and goal oriented, and exploratory, which is a way to reassess life needs. You never really know what’s missing from your life until you see it in a shop window.

Personally, I can never find anything when I’m trying to fill a specific need. I have never found a gift or ensemble for the next day’s wedding or graduation. But when I’m not looking, I become a magnet for random Krups coffee makers and Christian Dior stockings.

For an exploratory shopper, there’s nothing like a midweek browse. It’s a way to see the city, to stay in touch with the men who buy $80 Armani ties and the women who have figures that rival Carolyne Roehm’s. It’s also comforting to know there’s still a contingent of ladies with hats and gloves who appreciate a hot fudge sundae at B. Altman’s Charleston Garden.

Browsing, surveying the territory, isn’t necessarily confined to store hours either. There’s no cure for insomnia or a 2 A.M. work block like a quick flip through an L. L. Bean or Tiffany catalogue. There’s also something very satisfying about not having to postpone gratification. If I happen to see and like a Priamo nightgown at midnight, I can dial an 800 number rather than break into the lingerie department at Bonwit’s. Frankly, I spend weeks gazing at emeralds in the Tiffany catalogue and wondering who makes those phone calls and when. Who feels the need for a $26,000 pansy brooch at 3 in the morning?

THESE DAYS, WHEN I’M feeling slightly anxious or a little blue, and the last thing I want is to find myself in a dressing room, I buy a friend or a member of my family an unexpected gift. Purchasing a present gives that lift, the ”mission accomplished” feeling that only buying will bring.

Gift shopping is not acquisitive, it’s almost humanitarian. And it really hones the crafts of consideration and selection. I pick out a target store, say Barneys, and then stroll through it, surveying plates, napkins, leather goods, any nonintimate apparel. As Paul Rudnick explains in his novel of shopping, ”I’ll Take It,” it’s very important to visit a potential purchase a few times, eye it carefully and then take some time for deliberation.

Department store eateries can lift the gift-shopping experience from the realm of a simple exchange to a complete afternoon’s outing. A slice of orange cake and a cup of cappuccino are very helpful when debating what the giftees need, what will make them laugh, what they will keep and what they will throw away.

Finally, at the end of the shopping process, is commitment. The willingness to put your name on the line. The completed gift shop – from the selection of characters to the chase and then to the ultimate resolution – is like a very satisfying, well-made play. There is always a beginning, a middle and an end.

Admittedly, there are negative aspects to shopping. Prices can be astronomical, and, conversely, sizes can be minute. A month or so ago, I was looking for a simple party dress and came across a blue linen item for $7,000. I realized that if a friend or stranger spilled a drink or mayonnaise on me while I was wearing that dress I could become a homicidal maniac. Moreover, as a New Yorker, I know that there are far more important causes than my obtaining another apple-shaped vase or purple sweater. I’m training myself to get a shopper’s lift by writing late-night checks to various pressing social and artistic causes.

BUT IT’S HARD TO BREAK old habits. And there’s nothing wrong with just looking. For instance, the other Friday I had some time on my hands, and I decided to meander through Saks, look around, take in the Ellen Tracys. I had no plans to buy anything and my mind was on my next appointment.

It was one of those days when I had convinced myself that not only did I not need anything, I really didn’t deserve anything. Therefore I had no temptations and decided after a brief tour to head out. But just as I was walking through the perfume department, a voice called to me.

”Miss Vasserstein! Miss Vasserstein!” An attractive blond woman with a Swedish or Swiss accent was beckoning me.

Well, to a born shopper there’s nothing like a saleslady who remembers your name. Especially one in the perfume department at Saks. Suddenly I felt transported to the world of Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer and ”The Women.”

”Yes, dahling,” I wanted to answer, but I just said, ”Yes.”

”Miss Vasserstein, I have something for you.” ”You do?” ”Yes, remember when I helped you try the Fracas?”

”Of course.” Actually, I did remember. Perfume is a spur-of-the-moment shopper’s delight. You never have to go into a dressing room to try it on and the size always fits.

”If you liked Fracas, you will love Carolina Herrera.” She sprayed my wrist. ”I promise you will love this.”

Suddenly, I was purchasing not only the eau de parfum, but the body lotion. I was Carolina Herrara! The saleslady handed me her card. All I have to do is call her in case I run out.

Frankly, I could have made it through the rest of the afternoon, and most likely the rest of my life, without that purchase. But the helpful saleslady’s suggestion certainly perked up the day. It was very nice to get an unexpected gift for myself. And I’ve saved the box and the shopping bag. I only wish there were a label.


American Energies, Essays on Fiction

In 1991, roughly a decade past the month she affixed as the moment the human character changed, Virginia Woolf published her essay “Modern Fiction,” in which she averred that fiction writers, long hemmed in by the trivial stuff of the material, now stood before a horizon of limitless possibility: the human mind. She had been reading Ulysses, which was then appearing in installments in the Little Review. She found it wanting, and wondered rhetorically if it were not so that “in any effort of such originality it is much easier, for contemporaries especially, to feel what it lacks than to name what it gives.” Nevertheless she marked what she had seen of it as cause to wax sanguine about the future of the novel, which now had the potential to be a total document of consciousness–to unwind the scroll of memory, to catch the sounds of time’s pass. “Record the atoms as they fall upon the mind,” Woolf exhorted her colleagues:

“The proper stuff of fiction” does not exist. Everything is the proper stuff of fiction, every feeling, every thought; every quality of brain and spirit is drawn upon; no perception comes amiss. And if we can imagine the art of fiction come alive and standing in our midst, she would undoubtedly bid us break her and bully her, as well as honour and love her, for so her youth is renewed and her sovereignty assured.

  • It is not only at three-quarters of a century’s distance that the rhetoric seems hypertrophied. T.S. Eliot believed the novel had died with Flaubert and Henry James, and said so. Ortega y Gasset maintained that the genre’s subject matter had been mined well beyond the point of fruitful yield. As the novelty of earlier subjects diminished, readers’ tastes grew more rarefied: there was an ineluctable evolution toward audience boredom and implacability. It was not for nothing, Ortega quipped, that the novel was called “novel.”
  • In his first book, An Artificial Wilderness (1987), Sven Birkerts maintained that, contrary to the coroner’s reports, fiction was alive and well and living in–well, living virtually everywhere except the United States. Literature worthy of the name was still being forged abroad, emanating from “cultures that feel, or have recently felt, the sharp pressure of history.” Birkerts held that writers little-known in this country–like Thomas Bernhard and Michel Tournier–were crafting solid works from the old materials and on the grand themes: want, terror, the ubiquity of evil.
  • In contradistinction to their gravity, the native product was so much unbearable lightness: John Barth was a purveyor of “self-consuming metafiction,” Raymond Carver of a “numb affectlessness,” Mailer and Capote of “docu-fiction.”

American Energies is a less satisfying collection, not least because, as the title implies, Birkerts attempts a volte-face. After having given us, in An Artificial Wilderness, a rough map of the world’s literature on which his countrymen populated only the narrowest and most desolate islands, he is hard pressed to convince that the recent years of our nation’s fictioneering are indicative of anything remotely like “energy.” (If Barth and Mailer are ultimately disappointing, what’s to be made of J. California Cooper?) The preface tries bravely to patch over the inconsistencies–Birkerts tells us the manuscript was for a time called “The Death of the American Novel”–but apostasy is likely as not to be an embarrassing spectacle, and by the end of it we find ourselves reading that the present book is best thought of not as a diptych, but as a funnel. The moment, shall we say, is Spinal Tap-ean.

In “Backgrounds,” the book’s first section, the twaddle becomes a source of real irony. For just as Birkerts forsakes the metaphor of the diptych for the funnel, or the artistic for the merely utilitarian, he begins this collection of essays on fiction with a group of pieces on non-fiction. It is a mistake. Birkerts’s obvious knack for tracing the veins of the essential in a novel stalls in the three-dimensional world, and at times he keels over into puffery and bathos. Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature is an elegy for “everyone.” USA Today, as if life imitated art theory, is upgraded from newspaper to “postmodern collage of the world.” And in a review of Terry Teachout’s Beyond the Boom, Birkerts seems to find no evidence that a group of young conservatives might perchance be exercising proper, or even independent, judgment:

Was the Aquarian project of social liberation–misguided as it was in some ways–so offensive, so terrifying to the generation just coming up? If so, then we older boomers ended up destroying our deepest ideals. We chased away all spirit, spontaneity, enthusiasm, and experiment, and left in our wake a new way of being young–a way that formerly belonged just to the embittered old.

Lament for the Aquarian informs the book’s second section and center of gravity, “American Fiction.” Here Birkerts dives into the fray surrounding the novel’s future and emerges somewhat wet. Two major essays use as a springboard Tom Wolfe’s broadside, “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast: A Literary Manifesto for the New Social Novel.” Wolfe, like his homophonous colleague in the department of manifesto, is wise to the game of self-declaration. We find him advocating a new kind of novel much like the kind of novel he has recently penned. The essay, published in Harper’s a couple of years ago and often discussed since, chastised writers for leaving reality to the journalists and rebutted recent laments, like Philip Roth’s, that the real world had become hyperreal, daily discharging in the news figures that dwarf those born of the novelistic imagination. Nonsense, cried Wolfe, the world of the real was ready and waiting to be novelized, if only there could be mustered sufficient notebook-toting Zolas for the task.

Birkerts disagrees, in part because he believes Roth’s claim extends beyond the extraordinary characters in the news to include a “shattering of the context that might explain them”:

The real has become surreal. Some bonding element in the social order has crumbled away, shivering our picture of public life into fragments. Watergate long ago proved that the social contract was a tissue of lies and evasions, and that government ran on fear and self-interest; assassinations pointed to the retributive violence alive in the American heart. All heroism leaked out of political life, and with it all confidence in solid goals and purposes. The strain of counter-culture solidarity that had run through the liberal-democratic part of the culture gave way to narcissistic self-protection.

Literary criticism has become surreal, perhaps, when the Trickster is held culpable for the crappy novels coming over the transom.

As is often the case in the compassionate soul, individual failures of achievement are blamed on everyone and everything but the individual. Instead of bad novelists we have bad conditions for the novel. It is not a document of reality we need, Birkerts avers, but rather novels that have in their vision a loss of confidence in reality, the vague dread he believes endemic to our age. He adjudges only Pynchon, DeLillo, and Robert Stone as successes in this regard, because they are “paranoids” who have rendered the modern American soul in chiaroscuro. The future of the novel rests in uncovering “the black hole at the heart of the contemporary.”

When he trades the spray-paint can of manifesto for the ball-point of reflection, however, Birkerts is one of the better critics. His genealogy of the larger trends may be a little screwy, but his readings of particular books and authors rarely err, and the essays in the book’s final section, “American Writers,” display the crisp style that made the first collection such a pleasure.

Birkerts’s sense of the state of modern fiction is nowhere more evident than in his decision to end the book with a piece on David Foster Wallace. Wallace, let me proclaim in the spirit of manifesto, is by quite a long chalk the finest writer under 30 in the nation. His work is Woolf’s map of the subjective submerged in Wolfe’s external reality. It is without paranoia; it simply exists in the benumbed realm of the audiovisual, and is at once hilarious and disturbing as hell. Wallace’s selection as final author in the book hints that Birkerts may recognize that he is wrong about his own prescriptions to restore American fiction to vitality. As Birkerts writes, “Wallace’s stories are as startling and barometrically accurate as anything in recent decades . . . |he~ is, for better or worse, the savvy and watchful voice of the now.” He goes on:

Between Wolfe and Wallace, we find ourselves in a strange bind. If fiction is to win and hold a readership, it will probably have to move Wolfe’s way. But the new social novel does not hold much of the truth about the changed conditions of our subjective lives . . . the man–or woman–hunched over coffee in the mall. . . . Where shall we get the picture of who we are?

One hopes Sven Birkerts will use his talents to address this question thoroughly, and this question only, next time around.