Sinking ships…

A writer promoting a soon-to-be published novel probably shouldn’t dedicate her time and energy to promoting someone else’s work, but when the writer in question is a twenty-nine-year old wearing a seahorse cardigan, it’s safe to say she doesn’t make many decisions based on frivolities like logic and practicality. The reality is that I was a reader before I was a writer, and I genuinely believe that my obligation to books trumps my obligation to self-promote. (I suppose there is a soul in there somewhere, and I’d like to think it’s first edition and leather-bound.) Plus the book in question is the best book I’ve ever read.

That isn’t the type of statement I’m prone to making. I tend to regard books as my children, and while I might have a momentary favorite–usually whatever I happen to be reading at the time–to indicate that one is far superior to its brethren might result in bookshelf bullying and alienation. But I just can’t help it. I came back from Alaska with two obsessions: dog mushing and Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale.

The excerpt below was not selected specifically to highlight the beauty of Helprin’s writing style. I could have picked any passage from the book’s 748 pages and impressed just about any reader with his style and obvious love for language. I chose the passage below because it made me nostalgic for something I’ve never felt or seen. Because it reminded me of newspapers as I naively imagined them to be–before I understood that the noble industry that I’ve been so desperately proud to be a part of is dying (or at the very least evolving into a beast so altogether distinct that they could hardly call themselves members of the same species).

Bear in mind that by posting this excerpt, I make no comparison between Winter’s Tale and my own work. It is far superior to anything I have written and so exquisite that I can’t resent Helprin for his accomplishment:

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“Even from afar, one could distinguish The Sun from those buildings that surrounded, and, over time, nearly overwhelmed it. The Sun was always recognizable because of its flags. These were not like the chorus lines of national underwear hanging out to dry in front of the United Nations or around the skating rink in Rockefeller Plaza, but, rather, individual beacons of flamelike color. Five enormous flags played on the wind. In the four corners were the banners of New York City, New York the state, The Sun, and The Whale, and in the center was the American flag. The Sun’s flag was a brassy gold sun with a corona of sharp triangles, set on a white satiny field. The Whale’s flag was half light blue and half navy, scalloped by waves to divide the sea from the sky, with a huge whale resting motionless above the water and flipping his tail in articulated strokes of blue, white, and gray. In the rare case of a demonstrably just and unjust war, in which one side was purely the aggressor and the other merely a victim, the victim’s standard would fly underneath the national flag. Banners decorated the inner courtyard and were hung like tapestries in the city room because Harry Penn held that these were to a building what a tide and a scarf are to a man and a woman. “A good tie can make an old gray bastard like me look like the king of Polynesia,” he would say. “I’d love to wear a nice tie, and so does he building.”

The building itself was iron-framed, stone-faced, French, neoclassical rectangle by the nineteenth-century architect Oiseau. It was light on its feet and spacious, and yet it was substantial. It had been completely refurbished 110 years after its completion, and now the huge window frames were filled with rimless smoke-colored glass that looked like large flat gemstones in classical foils. At the heart of the building was a large courtyard with gardens and a fountain. On the four walls of the courtyard, lighted stairways were hung over the open space. A conservatory shell of glass and steel covered this atrium, and in the warmer seasons were cranked open like a cargo hatch and folded conveniently out of the way.

The interior was eggshell white, though some walls were shaded in quiet colors or draped with tapestries; and here and there were enormous paintings of active whaling scenes. Looking into them was to be on the sea; the white water seemed so real that one shied away lest one’s face be slapped by the gleaming tail fin of a fighting whale. The ceilings were three times as high as in the modern idiom, and rimmed with moldings skillfully executed by craftsmen who had gone to their rest many generations before. Throughout the buildings were Oriental carpets, warm woods, brass trim, and subtle recessed lighting that was sometimes focused in to make bright pools, and sometimes drawn back for a palatial wash. The flooring was of oak, the staircase of mahogany. The elevator cages were of brass, teak, and red crystal: they were lifted silently in elevator halls filled with palms and bright spotlights that caught them on the rise and made them sparkle like diamonds.

In the basement were the power plants; one for the generation of electricity, and one solely for the presses. These were ancient and elaborate constructs of iron, brass, and steel that took up half an acre in a collection of puffing samovars, madly racing wheels, sesquipedalian drive rods in frantic intercourse with capacious cylinders, boilers big enough to cook the entire apricot crop of the Imperial Valley, and a forest of catwalks and ladders to allow access to the valves, levers, tickle pumps, gauges, and dials that made some passersby, who saw the whole apparatus through greenhouse-like windows set in a moat of air, think that they were looking at a clock factory or a distillery. When both plants were humming, with their lights shining on the cheerful puffs and tiny plumes of escaping steam, they seemed to be the heart of the world. Busloads of schoolchildren were brought from as far away as Ohio just to stare down at The Sun’s powerful machinery and the aged mechanics who ran and maintained it. The mechanics alone knew the secrets of the old technology. And even they, who had learned the works from their fathers, did not know the names of half the parts, or what whole inactive appendices were for. Much of the machinery sat in place without being used, and yet all the gears, wheels, and pistons had to be kept polished and oiled.

Also in the basement were a vault, five squash courts, a seventy-five-foot swimming pool, a gym, saunas, steambaths, and rows of showers.

The first floor held paper-storage facilities, the presses, truck bays, and a reception hall. The second floor was taken up entirely by linotype and computer composing rooms, and the classified department. Advertising, layout, accounting, personnel, and payroll were on the third floor. The fourth floor was in the city room. Instead of horrible metal desks jammed together in an overlit airplane hangar, The Sun’s center of operations was contained in four spacious rectangular rooms arranged around the courtyard, with rows of tables running along their lengths. Affixed to the tables were green gas lamps, and underneath were cabinets, drawers, and the electronic cables that connected each reporter’s desk with the library, the morgue, the composing rooms, and the data banks…

Spiral staircases punched up through the ceilings to the fifth-floor offices of department heads, columnists, editors, and the publisher. Harry Penn’s office, which once had belonged to Isaac, took up half of one of the building’s long sides. It was probably the world’s only indoor harpoon range. Racks of the finest harpoons lined the walls. When someone wanted to practice, he took up one of the lances and stepped into a box that stimulated the prow of a rocking whaleboat. Ahead, at thirty feet, wooden representations of whales were towed across the room.

The sixth floor was the site of the communications, computer, facsimile, meeting, and board rooms. The seventh floor was comprised of common rooms and a restaurant. The eighth and ninth floors housed the library. It had several million volumes in open stacks, all the major newspapers and periodicals either bound or on computer, and a map section. Expert librarians maneuvered a seemingly limitless budget to keep it well maintained and up-to-date. The reference collections were wonders of the world.

On the roof were a conservatory, a greenhouse, a sundeck, a promenade, and an outdoor café from which one could see the harbor, the bridges, a magnificent cityscape, and sections of open sky bluer than the sky above Montmartre. Here, the flags flew, and here, on summer afternoons and evenings when the paper was working with vigor and grace, a string quarter sometimes played.

The Sun building was so perfect in execution and so full of energy that, upon looking at it from a distance, one could easily imagine that it was on the verge of coming alive. Just like Isaac Penn’s ships, which gathered in riches from across the seas, The Sun’s writers and reporters had packed it with memories of all the wonders they had seen and assessed. Though the lights were never off, because either The Sun or The Whale was always in the works, it was said that were they to be extinguished there would still be more than enough light by which to see, for 125 years of clarity were impounded in the timbers and arches.

No less ingenious than the physical quarters of The Sun was its social and economic organization. Perhaps owing to Isaac’s hard days washing pots, the Penns had always believed in a high minimum wage. Their editorial columns persistently inveighed against the idea of welfare for the ablebodied, and governmental social programs that were little more than elaborate patronage scheme. For this, they were repeatedly condemned in liberal circles. On the other hand, they were just as persistent in advocating what was considered to be a sky-high minimum wage. (They believed that hard and good work deserved its reward, and responded to arguments from conservatives that such a wage would create unemployment and dampen entrepreneurial drive, with the counterargument that that latter could be sustained and flourish with the containment business-tax reductions made possible by greater income equality and a smaller welfare burden.)

The Penns were not a hundredth as rich as the Binkys, and, whereas the Binkys had accumulated their wealth by grinding people into the ground, the Penns had done nothing of the sort. First, everyone on The Sun, from a kitchen helper who had been there for an hour, to Harry Penn himself, received exactly the same wage and benefit package—exactly. And it was a good one, too, good enough to make any job on the paper a great prize. Every Sun employee enjoyed equal privileges in regard to pension, health care, access to athletic facilities in the basement, and admission to the café and restaurant. Anyone could take advantage of the generous educational benefits, and throw in music lessons on the side. And yet, there was every reason to work hard and advance within the organization.

The Sun was patterned after a whaling enterprise. After all expenses were paid out and everyone had his living, the profits were divided according to an elaborate system of shares. No one other than an employee of the paper was entitled to shares, and they were neither inheritable nor transferable. Each employee received five shares upon joining. Thereafter, for every advance he made he received another five, and one for each year he had worked. There were twenty levels of advancement, and there was seniority…

This system tickled not only ambition, but productivity as well. Since the number of shares were not fixed, and since whatever profit accrued each year was finite (the notion of infinite profit haunted Craig Binky, who hired economists and sorcerers to see if it was possible), it was to everyone’s advantage to work hard—not only to produce a higher profit, but to hold down the number of jobs and, thus, the number of shares.

The Sun’s employees wanted to serve it as best they could, not only because doing so was in their interests, but because The Sun was fair—and they could feel this in the same way that they could feel beauty in a landscape. How delightful, too, to know that not only could they feel it, but it could be demonstrated by several systems of logic, and by the way people looked when they came in, morning and evening.

And The Sun’s remarkably equitable and effective social system originated not in the barrel of a gun, nor in any cruelty, nor in the French Communes, nor with revolutionary violence, nor in the imagination of a reader in the library of the British Museum, but in the nineteenth-century American whaling ship.”

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Comments

  1. I skipped the excerpt because I’m in the middle of this book right now, thanks to you! I just got to the second section and am interested in where this is all going. We can’t be done with Peter Lake and Beverly Penn (can we?) but we seem to have fast forwarded several decades. Speaking of great books have you gotten hold of One Thousand White Women yet?

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