“I’m guessing it’s in pretty good shape, your ego.”, “No complaints.”

Alongside the broad irony of being an atheist dependent on a church was the finer irony of earning his keep as a counselor of at-risk youth. Had any East German child ever been more privileged and less at risk than he? Yet here he was, in the basement of the rectory, in group sessions and private meetings, counseling teenagers on how to overcome promiscuity and alcohol dependency and domestic dysfunction and assume more productive positions in a society he despised. And he was good at what he did—good at getting kids back into school, finding them jobs in the gray economy, connecting them with trustworthy government caseworkers—and so he was himself, ironically, a productive member of that society.

His own fall from privilege served as his credential with the kids. Their problem was that they took things too seriously (self-destructive behavior was itself a form of self-importance), and his message to them was always, in effect, “Look at me. My father’s on the Central Committee and I’m living in a church basement, but do you ever see me serious?” The message was effective, but it shouldn’t have been, because, in truth, he was scarcely less privileged for living in a church basement. He’d severed all contact with his parents, but in return for this favor they protected him. He’d never even been arrested, the way any of his at-risk charges would have been if they’d pulled the shit he’d pulled at their age. But they couldn’t help liking him and responding to him, because he spoke the truth, and they were too hungry to hear the truth to care how privileged he was to speak it plainly. He was a risk the state seemed willing to run, a misleading beacon of honesty to confused and troubled adolescents, for whom the intensity of his appeal then became a different sort of risk. The girls practically lined up outside his office door to drop their pants for him, and if they could plausibly claim to be sixteen he helped them with their buttons. This, too, of course, was ironic. He rendered a valuable service for the state, coaxing antisocial elements back into the fold, speaking the truth while enjoining them to be careful about doing it themselves, and was paid for his service in teen pussy.

His unspoken agreement with the state had been in place for so long—for more than six years—that he assumed he was safe. Nevertheless, he continued to take the precaution of avoiding friendships with men. He could tell, for one thing, that the other men around the church envied his way with the youngsters and therefore disapproved of it. Avoiding men also made actuarial sense, since there were probably ten male informers for every female. (The actuarial odds further argued for preferring females in their teens, because the spy runners were too sexist to expect much of a schoolgirl.) The biggest drawback of men, though, was that he couldn’t have sex with them; couldn’t cement that deep complicity.

(…)

Then one night, after returning from a hike so long that she’d done the last part of it by feel in the dark, she went to the dining room and saw that her usual place beside Colleen had been taken by Andreas Wolf. Her heart jumped at the sight of him. He was listening seriously to another woman at the table, listening and nodding, and Pip immediately got what Annagret’s boyfriend had meant about his charisma. It was partly a matter of his still-boyish German good looks, but there was an ineffable something else, a glow of charged fame particles, or a self-confidence so calm and mighty it altered the geometry of the dining room, drawing every sight line to itself. No wonder Colleen didn’t care whether he was an asshole. Pip wanted to keep looking at him herself.

Colleen was slouched low in her chair, her face averted from Andreas, and was tapping a finger on the table, her food untouched. Pip was hurt that she hadn’t saved the place to her other side for her. She took the only available seat, beside her roommate Flor. A bowl of beef stew was being handed around the table, along with the usual yucca and potatoes and onion and tomatoes. Pip had basically thrown in the towel on vegetarianism. At least the beef in Bolivia was grass-fed.

“So Dear Leader is back,” she said.

“Why do you call him that?” Flor said sharply. “This isn’t North Korea.”

“She does it because Colleen does it,” a person named Willow said.

Pip felt slapped in the face. “It’s good to see we’re evolved past eighth grade.”

“You can bet Colleen would never say ‘Dear Leader’ to his face,” Willow said.

“I bet you’d be wrong,” Pip said. “I bet he’d just laugh. I was insulting in my emails, and it wasn’t like my invitation was retracted.”

Flor did some private, not-nice eye-widening, and Pip saw that she wasn’t doing herself any favors by continuing to mention her email correspondence with Andreas.

“Why even stay here if you’re just going to be negative?” Willow said.

“What does it say about this place that a little bit of humor is so threatening?”

“It’s not threatening. It’s boring. 30 Rock already did North Korea. The laughs have been had.”

Never having seen 30 Rock, Pip was rejoinderless and squished. All through dinner, fame and charisma rays from the direction of Andreas warmed the back of her neck. She knew she ought to hurry and go back to her room, to return Colleen’s snub and not appear needy, but she also wanted to meet Andreas, and so she lingered at the table, eating two lime-flavored custards, after the others had left. Behind her, Andreas and Colleen were speaking German. This finally made her feel so excluded and irrelevant that she pushed away from her table and headed for the door.

“Pip Tyler,” Andreas said.

She turned back. Colleen was looking aside again, tapping her finger, but Andreas’s blue eyes were on her. “Come sit down with us,” he said. “We haven’t met.”

“I’ll be on the veranda,” Colleen said, standing up.

“No, stay with us,” Andreas said.

“Need to smoke.”

Colleen left the room without a glance at Pip. Andreas beckoned to her. “Will you have an espresso with me?”

“I didn’t even know there was espresso here.”

“All you have to do is ask. Teresa!”

Pedro’s wife, Teresa, stuck her head out of the kitchen, and Andreas raised two fingers. Pip sat down in the chair farthest from him at his table. The nerve she’d had in writing emails to him was so far gone that she didn’t even want to shake his hand. She just hunched her shoulders and waited to be spoken to.

“Colleen tells me you’ve been enjoying yourself here.”

She nodded.

“Did I not tell you it’s the most beautiful place?”

“No, you definitely told me.”

“As good as my word, right?”

“Definitely. It’s wonderful.”

“I’m sorry I wasn’t here when you arrived. Making the Argentinean capital look like nineteen-seventies East Berlin—they needed a lot of advice.”

“It’s cool that they’re making a movie about you.”

“Very strange but, yes, very cool. Also very dull. You stand around for ten hours waiting for twenty minutes of action, and even then you don’t see it directly. You’re at the back of a crowd in a trailer, trying to see a monitor.”

“Still and all,” Pip said.

“Still and all, intensely gratifying to the ego.”

“I’m guessing it’s in pretty good shape, your ego.”

“No complaints.”

Jonathan Franzen, Purity.

Trying to be perfectly likable is incompatible with loving relationships

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The simple fact of the matter is that trying to be perfectly likable is incompatible with loving relationships. Sooner or later, for example, you’re going to find yourself in a hideous, screaming fight, and you’ll hear coming out of your mouth things that you yourself don’t like at all, things that shatter your self-image as a fair, kind, cool, attractive, in-control, funny, likable person. Something realer than likability has come out in you, and suddenly you’re having an actual life. Suddenly there’s a real choice to be made, not a fake consumer choice between a BlackBerry and an iPhone, but a question: Do I love this person? And, for the other person: Does this person love me? There is no such thing as a person whose real self you like every particle of. This is why a world of liking is ultimately a lie. But there is such a thing as a person whose real self you love every particle of. And this is why love is such an existential threat to the technoconsumerist order: it exposes the lie.

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Jonathan Franzen on The Encyclopedia of New York, DeLillo:

It worries me a little, therefore, that the city [NYC] has now been paid the additional compliment of a million-and-a-half-word encyclopedia. There’s something decidedly valedictory about The Encyclopedia of New York City, edited by the same Kenneth Jackson who wrote Crab grass Frontier. The Encyclopedia has the heft and ambition of a monument. It’s a grand list for an age in love with lists. As soon as I got the book, I paged to the entry for “Sewers,” a topic of perennial fascination. I found a good historical overview of the subject but no hint of the daily drama of contemporary sewers. Indeed, a numbing sameness afflicts nearly all the longer articles in the Encyclopedia. Each entry begins with vaguely colorful arcana from the city’s earliest history (reading about “Intellectuals,” for example, we learn that “the leading intellectual circle of the late eighteenth century was the Friendly Club”), goes on to pursue the subject doggedly decade by decade, often achieving a full head of steam around 1930 (thus, under “Intellectuals,” The New Republic and Partisan Review are treated at some length), and finally peters out rather sadly in the present (“In the mid 1990s … major magazines of opinion continued to be published in the city but lacked the urgency and influence that they had enjoyed in earlier times”). It’s an odd thing to experience the present, which is, after all, so present, again and again as the dusty terminus of historical spurs. Reviewers of the Encyclopedia have dwelled on what’s missing from it, and their quibbles reinforce the notion of the city as a work completed, rather than a work in progress.

The chief pleasure of the Encyclopedia lies in a kind of Derridean lateral slide of association. I move from “Terrorism” to read about “Anarchism,” across the page to “Amphibians and Reptiles,” on to “Birds,” and (after a side trip to “Birdland” and a courtesy call on “Parker, Charlie”) to “Cockroaches,” which “are known to be attracted to toothpaste,” which brings me to “Colgate-Palmolive” and its founder “Colgate, William,” who fled England in 1795 “to escape public hostility toward his father, who had supported the French Revolution.” It’s like a game of Telephone: “Anarchism” connecting with the sansculottes not by way of history but, rather, via “Cockroaches.”

Yet there’s something empty about this pleasure. A city lives in the eye, ear, and nose of the solitary beholder. You turn to literature to find the interior point of intersection between subject and city, and as a living connection to New York’s history a few lines of Herman Melville or Don DeLillo outweigh whole pages of an encyclopedia. This is Ishmael downtown:

There now is your insular city of the Manhattoes, belted round by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs—commerce surrounds it with her surf. Right and left, the streets take you waterward.

This is DeLillo’s Bucky Wunderlick, walking the same streets more than a century later:

It was early afternoon and soon to rain, nondeliverance in the air, a chemical smell from the river. The bridges were cruelly beautiful in this weather, gray ladies nearly dead to all the poetry written in their names.

DeLillo, an essential New York artist, is unmentioned in the Encyclopedia, whose lengthy “Literature” article has little more to say about the post-Norman Mailer scene than this: “Many of the writers who had become well known in the 1960s left the city during the 1970s and 1980s.”

Jonathan Franzen, How To Be Alone