You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Smugged by Reality

Through the Children’s Gate:
A Home in New York

By Adam Gopnik
(Alfred A. Knopf, 336 pp., $25)

I SOMETIMES WONDER if Adam Gopnik was put on this earth to annoy. If so, mission accomplished. Mind you, he finds himself in fine company in my illustrious literary perp walk. Francine Prose, with her pinched perceptions and humorless hauteur—every time she brings out a new book (she is depressingly diligent), I find myself grumbling, “Her again?” I’ve never gotten the point of Paul Auster and his swami mystique and probably never shall, unless I move to Brooklyn and achieve phosphorescence. Walter Kirn, what a hustler. But no tactician of letters has shown a greater knack for worming his way into our hearts whether we want him there or not than Adam Gopnik, the art-world observer, former Paris correspondent for The New Yorker (out of whose dispatches was spun the bestselling Paris to the Moon), and the magazine’s resident tone-poet of post-9/11 Manhattan, drizzling pixie dust across a cityscape that no longer bears the hearty flavor of “smoked mozzarella,” as he notoriously described the downtown death smell. It isn’t that Gopnik is ungifted or imperceptive, or a slickster trickster like his colleague Malcolm Gladwell, who markets marketing. He is avidly talented and spongily absorbent, an earnest little eager beaver whose twitchy aura of neediness makes him hard to dislike until the preciosity simply becomes too much.

A careerist with delicate antennae, he wants to be encouraged, petted, praised, promoted, and congratulated. (In Gone: The Last Days of The New Yorker, Renata Adler memorably encapsulated his modus operandi: “I had learned over the course of conversations with Mr. Gopnik that his questions were not questions, or even quite soundings. Their purpose was to maneuver you into advising him to do what he would, in any case, walk over corpses to do.”) He is forever soliciting the reader’s approval with an array of cloying ploys that become gimmicky and self-conscious. If he can be considered guilty of “meaching” (Adler’s picturesque word), it must be conceded that he has meached his way to the journalistic top, and an air of attainment cups his latest themed collection, Through the Children’s Gate. Gopnik’s Manhattan in these pages recalls Woody Allen’s playground circa 1986 (the year of Hannah and Her Sisters, the year Gopnik began writing for The New Yorker), an Upper East Side version of pastoral set to the cabaret tinkle of a piano playing in the next room and the cricket chirps of names and cultural signifiers being dropped. But where there were few children noisily underfoot in Woody Allen’s cinematic parlor, entering Through the Children’s Gate is like visiting Munchkin Land, with Gopnik as Munchkin mayor.

After extracting as much good copy as contemporary Paris had to offer, Gopnik and family—wife Martha, son Luke, and daughter Olivia—returned to New York in 2000 to “make a home here for good,” free of French exactitude. The Children’s Gate was their port of entry. “The Children’s Gate exists, and you really can go through it. It’s the name for the entrance to Central Park at Seventy-sixth Street and Fifth Avenue.... Now my family had, in away, decided to pass through as children, too.” In the family unit’s absence from New York, the patter of little feet had become thundering hooves. “[By] the time we came home, the city had been repopulated—some would say overrun—with children. It was now the drug addicts and transvestites and artists who were left muttering about the undesirable, short element taking over the neighborhood. New York had become, almost comically, a children’s city again, with kiddie-coiffure joints where sex shops had once stood and bare, ruined singles bars turned into play-and-party centers.” Convoys of baby strollers cruised sidewalks once crunchy with crack vials, and the Times Square where Travis Bickle hunched his shoulders in the steam-risen satanic night was now a diorama of Disney favorites.

There are those who will decry the loss of that old bedlam spirit, as low rent creative funk is flushed out by high-priced emporia and homogenized chain stores (goodbye CBGB, hello Duane Reade), but there is no disputing that Manhattan is a safer, cleaner, nicer, more hospitable city than the hellhole of shock-horror New York Post headlines of yore (such as the immortal “Headless Body in Topless Bar”). As Gopnik puts it, “it is hard to compare the Mad Max blackout of ‘77 with the Romper Room blackout of ‘03 and insist that something has gone so terribly wrong with the city.” Certainly it’s preferable to raise children in a city where stray whizzing bullets are at a minimum and the dead don’t rise after dusk. Is it needless to add, though, that the urban arcadia in which Gopnik exults is almost exclusively the preserve of an affluent, mostly white cultural elite able to afford private-school tuitions and trips abroad? I don’t mean to get political or anything, but I don’t see the Hispanic and black parents in my neighborhood shuttling their kids to “kiddie-coiffure joints.” Gopnik tends to universalize his impressions, to generalize from his insulation.

“There’s no bad place to watch children grow [Beirut, Rwanda, Baghdad?], but Manhattan is a good one,” he writes. Good? Why, it’s the best! “Ah, the children, the children!” he exclaims. “Has any place ever been better contoured to them than Manhattan is now? We take them out on fall Saturday mornings—Paul Desmond saxophone mornings, as I think of them, lilting jazz sounds almost audible in the avenues—to go to the Whitney or the park to look dutifully at what remains of the avant-garde in Chelsea, or to shop at Fairway, a perfect place, more moving than any Parisian market in its openness, its joy, a place where they have cheap soap lets you taste of six different olive oils [sic].” This bountiful note of yuppie triumphalism warbles through the book—of the label “yuppie” itself, Gopnik gloats, “We were called that, derisively, before the world was ours”—as the pride and pleasure that he and his co-evals take in their exalted taste buds and their little geniuses reflect flatteringly on their own achievements, material sense of well being, and immersion in the vital, fizzing stream of urban resplendence.

AND YUPPIE TRIUMPHALISM en-twines with New York chauvinism, as civic pride fluffs its chest feathers and proclaims bragging rights. It is tiresome and a little puzzling how New Yorkers feel the need to keep asserting that “We’re Number One.” London is a world-class capital with an all-star historical cast, but you don’t hear London authors crooning and crowing about their city’s brio, flair, resilience, and iconic status at regular intervals. London’s greatness is taken more in stride by the locals. But here it’s as if the influx of wealth that has spiked real estate values since the 9/11 bounceback has endowed the city with some of the smug exclusivity of a gated community. In a “Talk of the Town” piece in 2005, Gopnik lamented the new street signs that were being bolted into place at Manhattan’s daunting intersections. The new signs were aesthetically displeasing, he argued, and, worse, they catered to the alien and the uninitiated. “New York is not a hard place to get around in. If you don’t know where you are, you don’t deserve to be here.” There speaks the Manhattan provincial. We’ve come along way, obviously, from “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere,” as Frank Sinatra and Liza Minnelli used to instruct in that fight anthem “New York, New York.” It used to be that earning the battle stripes of a true New Yorker was a challenge to be met. Now it’s a privilege that derives from the steep admission price.

In with the in-crowd, Gopnik isn’t content with his contentment—he feels compelled to deliver a sales pitch, a pushy ode to innocence and New York’s days of heaven. “But why such a fuss about children in New York, or anywhere? I hear some level head (not you, reader) sigh. Can’t we simply accept childhood, really, as children do, as just a preface to personhood?” No, we—he—cannot. For childhood is the lost paradise from which most adults have been exiled. “Children reconnect us to romance,” he writes. For them, “every morning is the first morning in Paris, every day is the first day of love,” and through their translucent eyes ours are given a fresh polish: “They compel us to see the world as an unusual place again. Sharing a life with them is sharing a life with lovers, explorers, scientists, pirates, poets. It makes for interesting mornings.” Until the first major growth spurt turns them into aliens with iPod ear buds attached, children rejoice in the sunbeam spotlight of pure exuberance. “And then they are not here to do better, or to be smarter, or to get ready: They are here to be, and they know it. We delight in children because they keep the seven notes of enlightenment, as the Buddha noted them. Keep them? They sing them, they are them: energy, joy, concentration, attentiveness, mindfulness, curiosity, equanimity.” 

That’s not how I recall my childhood, I seem to remember a lot of lulls and cloudy intervals, but who can blame Gopnik for wanting to play dress-up himself and enjoy that extra-special morning playtime joy? As when, in one of the book’s more wince-inducing sections, he gets kitted out with a walkie-talkie and an orange vest to do his tour of duty as a school safety patrol and, securing the streets,finds his true Barney Fife part in life. “It was the first purely happy time I’d known in years. Round and round the blocks, seeing the kids going home, saying with truly obnoxious officiousness (and to Luke’s extreme embarrassment, when he saw me), ‘Okay, kids—let’s move on! Okay, kids— let’s get home. Everybody home now.’” He works up quite an appetite ordering those snots about, and, like many a patrolman, feels the need for doughnut nourishment. “After a solid, virtuous hour of safety patrol, I decided to stop for a quick, excusable, union-sanctioned break. (The union would have blessed it had they known about it, and had I belonged to one.) I ducked into the Starbucks—leaving my poor private school charges, I suppose, for a moment completely naked to the Hobbesian elements—and got in line.” An incident occurs inline that allows Gopnik to flex his junior G-man authority and regale his family later with his heroics, only to have Martha pinprick his pride in her recurring role as ego deflator: “‘The really sad thing, children,’ said my wife, ‘is that he means it ...your father would like to be some kind of cappuccino commando, making sure that milk steamers don’t get used nefariously. “It’s a bit too formulaic and pat: Life With Father pre-shrunk for a less patriarchal, more self-deprecating age; and the arch dialogue doesn’t ring true. That “nefariously” dangles.

It can’t be easy living with a husband given to regular swoons of enchantment, and one sympathizes with Martha when she lodges a concern that the Purim talk—his “Purimspiel,” which anyway means “Purim play”—that Gopnik is preparing to give at a black-tie dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria might produce a classic Jewish midlife sentimental jag. “Is this going to be one of those things where you end up still skeptical but strangely exhilarated by the faith of your fathers? ... Because if it is, I don’t want you to do it. It’s hard enough having you around morose all the time. It would be even worse if you were strangely exhilarated.” But it will take more than a caution flag to subdue the Gopper and trim his gossamer wings.

STRANGE EXHILARATION WHEEZES throughout Through the Children’s Gate (tempered with the doubts and frets that fleck across every parent’s internal monitor), never more so than in the chapter on the kindergarten production of Peter Pan at Luke’s school (”the full musical, complete with the wonderful Moose Charlap music”), where the technical challenge of making the children fly becomes a governing metaphor for the “general buoyancy of the age—everything else is flying, stocks, real estate prices, why not the children?” Why not, indeed? Not that he advocates launching the buggers into orbit. “We want our children to fly, and we want them to be tethered. We believe in freedom for them, but freedom within narrow channels of liberty, parent-tested and precut. We want them to fly, but we want them to fly as kites do, as Macy’s balloons do, safely on the ends of strings, not freely, as birds do, Mother [an allusion to a line in Macbeth].” But even a restricted flight-pattern doesn’t dampen Gopnik’s enthusiasm once the mechanics have been ironed out and everyone’s qualms are addressed—one scheme, involving the parents dressing in ninja black and holding the cast members aloft, is vetoed when a voice of sanity points out that having adults bursting from the wings and grabbing children “would cause panic and fear”—because the hours of thought and effort invested by the ad hoc aviation-school kindergarten committee testifies that American parents, unlike their pissy French counterparts, “will do anything to make their children fly.” Italics give way to exclamations as Gopnik recaps opening night and submits a rave review. “Peter Pan opened at last [as if it had been in pre-production for years]. It was wonderful! The force of the story, the children longing to be free, the songs, the sword fights... a great show! Everyone was delighted. And the children flew! How they flew!”

It’s a wonder Gopnik himself wasn’t on stage skimming above the London chimneys, such is his empathetic glomming-on. If it’s trying for the wife to have Gopnik leaving a vapor trail around the house when strange exhilaration hits, it can’t be easy for the kids having their father always hovering around for material, taking down their latest witticism at the dinner table to work into a future piece, documenting every rite of passage in Rea Irvin typeface. There are times when Gopnik’s children seem to be trying to humor him, obliging dad with enough whimsical interludes and reusable anecdotes to get through the winter.

Some of their dividends pay off. Perhaps the best-known piece in the book is “Bumping into Mr. Ravioli,” an account of daughter Olivia’s vexing relationship with Charlie Ravioli, an imaginary sidekick who is seldom at her side. For most children, an imaginary friend is a constant companion, a secret sharer, but Mr. Ravioli is a phantom always on the go, hard to book for a long chat: “She sighs sometimes at her inability to make their schedules mesh.” Concerned that Mr. Ravioli might be a figment of buried trauma (shades of Val Lewton’s The Curse of the Cat People), Gopnik phones his sister Alison, a developmental psychologist who has just finished a review of Marjorie Taylor’s study Imaginary Companions and the Children Who Create Them. Alison assures him that Olivia’s fictional offshoot is a healthy by-product of developing consciousness––the conversion of impressions and experience into creative narrative. “I grasp that it’s normal for her to have an imaginary friend,” Gopnik says, “but have you ever heard of an imaginary friend who’s too busy to play with you?” Pause. “She thought about it. ‘No,’ she said. ‘I’m sure that doesn’t occur anywhere in the research literature. That sounds completely New York.’”

So it is, the urban condition in a convenient can, as Gopnik diagnoses Ravioli’s bump-and-run tactics as symptomatic of the postmodern syndrome that has made Manhattanites the masters of avoidance maneuvers, a race of artful dodgers. “Like Charlie Ravioli, we hop into taxis and leave messages on answering machines to avoid our acquaintances, and find that we keep missing our friends. I have one intimate who lives just across the park from me, whom I e-mail often, and whom I am fortunate to see two or three times a year. We are always ... busy. He has become my Charlie Ravioli, my invisible friend.” I think of this as the “This Week’s Not Looking Good for Me” syndrome. Try setting anything up in New York and nailing down a specific date, and one party or the other will inevitably weasel, “This week isn’t looking good for me, but next week looks good.” Then next week arrives and it doesn’t look good either, having mysteriously worsened over the weekend. Rinse, lather, and repeat, each postponement followed by another postponement, each punt followed by another punt downfield, the disjointed tango of phone tag and excuse-making prolonged until the two parties forget the original reason they intended to meet and become vaguely irritated with each other. Gopnik: “The crowding of our space has been reinforced by a crowding of our time, and the only way to protect ourselves is to build structures of perpetual deferral: I’ll see you next week, let’s talk soon.”

With Charlie Ravioli, Gopnik cleverly wired a Walter Mitty-ish fantasy figure into the jump-cut discontinuities that we take for granted as the frictional tax of being entwined in a neural network of e-mail, instant messages, customized ring tones, and “Lt. Uhura” Bluetooth devices—millions of individuals bubble-wrapped in our own talky cartoon balloons. Olivia deserves a cut of the royalties for giving her father such a valuable donnee, as Henry James would say.

Unwilling to let well enough alone, alas, Gopnik books Charlie Ravioli for a return engagement in a chapter called “Third Thanksgiving: Bitterosities,” where Olivia announces that Charlie has gotten himself hitched to a girl named Kweeda. “I am guessing at the spelling,” muses Gopnik, “obviously thinking it likelier that a guy like Ravioli would marry an African princess, Kweeda, than Queeda, mere Balkan nobility.” However her name is spelled, her future is cursed. Soon after, Olivia lets drop the grave news that Kweeda has died. Of what? ask her praying-mantis parents. “She died of a disease called Bitterosity, “ Olivia says, and, as if on cue, Gopnik whips a complete meal out of this inspired crumb, bannering it as a synonym for the corrosive spite that makes the cocktail-party circuit such a skeleton feast.

BITTEROSITY HAD TAKEN DOWN Kweeda; it could happen to anyone. She had moved to New York, I guess, and gotten it there, as we all do, or will, if we’re not careful. What might Bitterosity be? Bitterness born of betrayal and disappointment, jealousy and resentment—half of life here involves safeguarding yourself from the plague of Bitterosity. It is a plague: you see the buboes of Bitterosity swelling on your body, the flush of Bitterosity rising on your face, and soon the cheerful young woman who arrived with a black leotard and a desire to dance, or the young man with the manuscript in his suitcase and an ache in his heart, becomes another grumbling embittered crank, a querulous angry radio-talk-show caller, an anonymous website poster, a failed writer complaining about his publisher and the stupidity of the critics and the public, or just another person contributing bad reviews of inoffensive restaurants to Zagat. Bitterosity has you in its grip, and, like poor Kweeda, you die from it. (Actually, I can count at least four people who have already died of Bitterosity, though not all of them quite know it. They are vampires of Bitterosity, living on in the strange Manhattan gloaming of its afterlife.)

The gnawing resentment of creative talents who never achieved what they desired or never received the breaks they felt they were due is a rich, stubbly grown-up subject that deserves better than the gentle spray of ironies that Gopnik employs whenever a fanciful notion dials his number. (The sharpest, funniest inventory of the shrapnel embedded in writers’ tender hides remains Gilbert Sorrentino’s bitteroso novel Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things.) But Gopnik cleaves to the cute. I can’t help remembering the moment in Renata Adler’s book when Gopnik, after having successfully pitched a story to The New Yorker’s new editor Robert Gottlieb (”With stammers, little laughs, upward puffs of air, and this new rubbing of hands, he described what he had in mind”), takes his humble leave and Gottlieb, after a silent beat, says,”Adam is adorable.” A damning compliment, fit for a performing flea.

But adorability remains high on Gopnik’s agenda, and when we get to the chapter “Death of a Goldfish,” we can hear the wry chuckles percolating on the sitcom sound track from the opening setup—

When our five-year-old daughter Olivia’s goldfish, Bluie, died the other week, we were confronted with a crisis larger, or at least more intricate, than is entirely usual upon the death of a pet. Bluie’s life and his passing came to involve so many larger elements—including the problem of consciousness and the plot line of Hitchcock’s Vertigo—that it left us all bleary-eyed and a little shaken.

—and blossoming into cackles as wacky complications ensue:

“Let’s try this,” Martha said. “Let’s tell her that, though Bluie did die, this Bluie [a replacement fish, a ringer for the original] is kind of Bluie reborn.”
I thought she might have something, and in the next fifteen minutes, we did a quick, instinctive tour of the world’s religions. We made up a risen-from-the- grave Christian story: the Passion of the Bluie. We considered a Buddhist story: Bluie goes round and round. We even played with a Jewish story: Bluie couldn’t be kept alive by the doctors, but what a lovely bowl he left for his family!

Luke’s rites of passage aren’t scanted. They are rolled out for our edification, too, though he isn’t the fount of heartwarming family fare that his sister is. When he and his pal Theo spend an afternoon shooting pool in the badlands of SoHo, Gopnik is one happy pappy. “I beamed with pleasure and relief. They had played pool! Pool hustlers! What could be better than learning how to adjust a cue to strike a ball into a pocket, as compared to another meaningless two-hour session in front of a screen doing mindless hand-eye-coordination games? They were not druggishly indulging in a cynically engineered entertainment. They were in touch with Americana, with history!” Martha, mistress of derision, sinks another fang into her husband’s fun. “Wasn’t pool sort of like the video game of nineteen-aught-three?” she snarks. “It sounds like instead of letting them do mindless crap, you’re getting them to do dated mindless crap.” Chalk up another one in the Can’t Win department.

In a later chapter Gopnik and Luke bond over baseball, guy stuff that they can share without mom’s editorial interjections killing everything. When Luke opts for pinstripes, his father does likewise. “Luke remains a Yankees fan. I have, amazingly, become one myself, in the wary, ironic way that one can be a Yankees fan now, a pigeon watching the antics of the hawks from a safe distance. “ As a New Yorker for over thirty years, I can confidently assert that there is no such creature as a “wary, ironic” Yankees fan. (If such a being existed, the ghost of Billy Martin would slap it silly.) No true fan would declare home-team loyalty with such a sad-sack sigh, as if adjusting the elastic band in his shorts: “We have accepted the Yankees, more than we have embraced them. They are another New York accommodation that we have made.” Gopnik just doesn’t seem cut out for guy stuff; his fidgety navel-gazing keeps interfering.

Near the end of this vain book Gopnik tristfully acknowledges that now that his son and daughter are older, they are too big to slide under the microscope (“Neither of my children can any longer be my subjects”). But Olivia, who might as well be an honorary member of Salinger’s Glass family, has one last tincture of precocious wisdom to impart. Asked by her father if she likes being a child, Olivia nods yes and answers sagely, “Being a child is the most awesomest thing.” How come? She shrugs, as if following a stage direction. “Because your brains are, like, fresher and less filled up with memory. You have more free brains.” If you want a brain somewhere between a crisp head of lettuce and a helium balloon, I suppose nothing beats childhood; but I suspect these are Gopnik’s button-eyed sentiments rather than his daughter’s. Her endorsement sounds more like the contrived effect of a writer “sicklied o’er with the pale cast of platitude” (to quote the late Marvin Mudrick) than it does a spontaneous response recorded for posterity, and its placement on the last page of the book carries the significance of its author sounding the closing bell, his homily concluded.

Her words, his—either way, I don’t buy it. The freest brain in this book belongs not to a Blakean child with unused megabytes of memory but to Gopnik’s late friend Kirk Varnedoe, the art historian and former chief curator at the Museum of Modern Art, whose death in 2003 from cancer left an unfillable void in the planetarium sky of New York’s cultural life. Like the late Richard Martin, the former curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, who died in 1999, Varnedoe was famous for opening his lectures without any fuss or prelude, keenly attacking his subject with a brisk, slicing Zen stroke and releasing his scholarship and brilliance in a series of crescendos. As Varnedoe’s condition worsened, art, illness, and virtuoso talk converged: “Years of chemotherapy had left the veins in his arms so collapsed that sometimes it took half an hour for a nurse just to find an entry. He would grimace while being poked at with the needle, and then go on talking. He had the chemotherapy at one of the midtown extensions of the hospital, where the walls were earnestly decorated with Impressionist posters, Manet and Monet and Renoir—the art that he had taught a generation to relish for its spring-coiled internal contradictions and tensions there as something soothing for dying patients to look at.”

A football fan who coached a local team that practiced in Central Park, Varnedoe trained his analytical eye one Saturday on the epochal “Hail Mary” pass thrown by Doug Flutie in 1984 in the Boston College-Miami game being re-broadcast on ESPN Classics, deconstructing the play—“That’s no Hail Mary. Watch it again and you’ll see. That’s a coverage breakdown”—until its rusty components fit together in a shining new revelatory way. Quite a tutorial for a lazy Saturday. “And for one moment he looked as happy as I had ever known him: one more piece of the world’s mysteries demystified without being debunked, a thing legendary and hallowed broken down into the real pattern of human initiative and human weakness and human action that had made it happen.” So rarely does genuine animation pierce the thatched roof of this book’s etchy prose that one can forgive the passage’s hyperbole and table one’s annoyance with Gopnik (until his next New Yorker piece, that is), because in the presence of critical powers stronger than his own he had the good sense to recede into the scene, reminding us that at the fade of day nothing beats adult conversation. You kids go play somewhere else.

This article appeared in the February 12, 2007 issue of the magazine.