Friday, July 16, 2004

Jon Carroll is a Complex Algorithm Residing on the Cal Tech Mainframe

Serendipity? I've been meaning to write about Jon Carroll and the perils of irony, and today he plows my road. Carroll writes that he has a problem. Someone is apparently impersonating him not in print but in the flesh, that flesh showing an interest in young female fans. The purpose of today's Carroll column is to warn his readers of that fact and to warn off the impersonator.
But there is a problem getting to the problem.
Let me be as clear as I can be: I am not making any of this up. This is not a prank of some kind. I say that because I have a weakness for pranks. Once, in a moment of perhaps ill-advised high spirits, I wrote that I was really a woman and that I had to pretend to be a man in order to get my Chronicle column. I still get letters about that. "My friend Grace swears you are a woman and I maintain that you're not. Please clarify." OK: I'm not a woman.
He calls them pranks. I would call them playful ironies, little flights of fancy in which he says the thing which is not true. Often he does not seem to be doing this to make a larger point but just because, like Bill Clinton, he can. I am struggling to find a way to describe how I think this works. I've written before about how a columnist makes faithful readers feel like insiders because they "get" what the casual reader does not. Because Carroll has written in a certain way over 20 years about a wide but not unlimited range of topics, readers do feel as if they know his frame of reference and his code. (I am using myself as the measure for his typical reader.) They know when he is being serious and when he is not. Sometimes this play, this adopting of a false attitude or making a false claim, pleases the reader just because we know it's play. I would say a  prime attraction of irony is the simple pleasure of recognizing that it is irony. The subject matter may have a role, too. If he suggests he is willing to engage in deviant conduct -- I recall the column in which he mused on poisoning a neighbor's dog -- there's a kind of escapism in it for Carroll and thus for his readers.
Let me give an example. Here I am drunk at noon! I write. Is this simple irony pleasing  to me because I have never been drunk at noon in my life? Is there a momentary delight in being someone else if only for the space of a sentence? Am I pleased that my wife will read this and know that I am joking because she knows I have never been drunk at noon and will probably never be, and she smiles as the little boy puts on the funny hat and says, I'm a pirate
It's a kind of play, I think. I need to read a good book -- a strong, scholarly book -- on play and on the pleasure of watching others play and the value of play to the player. I suddenly think of Bruno Bettelheim and his observation of the child Marcia, who first learned to differentiate between "me" and "not me" by playing with her feces in the bathtub. (Oh, sure! "... suddenly think..." meaning you did a quick google search -- Eds.)
My point is that one of the characteristics of Jon Carroll columns over the years is this occasional indulgence in pretending things are true that are not. One of his most famous "pranks" was his invention of Pele dancing, a secret society that gathered to perform a mysterious dance. Was it a satire on the pleasures of the exclusive and forbidden? Was it a send-up of the jargon of any specialized activity? Or was it just a bit of fiction that does what fiction does, that is, placing us in another world and thus letting us be other than we are, at least for a moment.
Apparently a lot of people didn't get it. Here's an explanation and a fragment of the Perils of Pele.
The price of pulling his readers collective leg is that when Carroll wants to talk about something that sounds as if he made it up, he has to work very hard to reassure readers that he didn't make it up. How do I know he isn't making up this impersonator? The point is that, as a long-time reader, I am confident I know when he is kidding and when he isn't. I would bet twenty dollars he has an impersonator. 
Just so I am equally sure he was being prankish last week when he wrote he would take money from those who wished to place the names of products and services in his column. He began the column in his familiar tone of badinage:

Today I would like to talk very seriously about newspaper ethics. I have been in the news business, man and boy, for about 90 years now -- I had a long boyhood -- and as a newsman -- please don't say "columnist"; I'm really just an old police beat reporter scrabbling for a scoop on the dark mean streets of the city I like to call "San Francisco" -- I've been thinking a lot about the way things used to be, and the way things are, and perhaps the way they shall be. I get paid by the word.

He yearns for the days of bribes and freebies. He refers to the stuff thrust at Herb Caen around the holidays piling up outside his office. (He speaks the truth. I saw it, saw it all.)

He hypothesizes:

Back in the old days of casual corruption and illicit favors, we had the golden age of journalism. We had Ernie Pyle and Joseph Pulitzer and Walter Lippmann and George Herriman and H.L. Mencken. Now we've cleaned up our act, and what do we get? Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass and Ann Coulter. You think maybe there's a connection.

Is he goofing here? His jokey tone having informed us that whatever is to come need not be taken with more than half seriousness, will he in fact explore this provocative, this plausible topic, with at least that half seriousness? As far as I can figure out, the answer is no. He concludes by trolling for free stuff in exchange for which he will make a product placement in his column. 
Now, take myself, Jon Carroll. I do not drink alcohol, but I do enjoy a nice trip to France. Suppose I were to write about, say, something that you're vitally interested in that could use the publicity. Does the world come crashing down? No. Whom does it harm? Not me; I'm in France. Suppose we were to meet on a quiet corner near the Place de la Concorde. Suppose you had a satchel filled with euros with nonconsecutive serial numbers. Suppose I had a little space a week from Friday to promote perfume-saturated volleyballs. Think about it.
He doesn't mean it. His "prank" makes me smile because I am certain he doesn't mean it, though I suppose he enjoys playing at being naughty. "I see," I say: You are so unnaughty that playing at being naughty affirms your goodness to all who know you. 
("Well, we could always pick up girls," one of my priest colleagues says. I roar with laughter. I get it.)
Maybe Carroll is satirizing something, though I can't imagine exactly what. I can't find the message in this, only the fun that comes with getting to know a columnist over time and watching him play with -- dare I say it? -- his feces! He has turned away from serious engagement about the possibility that maybe you need to be a bit of a rogue and a bit of a hustler to do a certain kind of exuberant, aggressive journalism. Let me explore that idea on my own time. I am satisfied with his column as written.
Butbutbut. What if next month his impersonator is making conversation with a fan he bumped into at the Top of the Mark who just happens to own a string of vacation villas somewhere on Italy's Ligurian Coast, and the impersonator says, "You remember that little column I did about how journalism was better when journalists weren't above accepting a little token of appreciation...?"
Irony, the double-edged sword? If only it were only double-edged ....


1 comment:

mackdoggy said...

Never been drunk at noon???


Not on vacation, or at a barbeque in the hot sun in the south, or just because you were still drunk from the night before?

Onto the merits:

As Jon's column made it into Romenesko (quite prominently), I'm wondering how it appeared to that audience which, presumably, is not fully conversant with the truth/parody dialectic so often found in his work.