It was probably inevitable that James Atlas, a well-known writer, would present himself in his memoirs as a wretched loser. These days, even big-time executives complain that "the system" has done them wrong, and wealthy athletes whine about a few harsh words from coaches or sports writers. So why shouldn't James Atlas make My Life in the Middle Ages: A Survivor's Tale (HarperCollins), which might have been written as a chronicle of success, into a 220-page lament for his ego? He's learned how to transform defeat into something grand and theatrical.
At some recent point, North American civilization developed a perverse rule: Everyone must seek prosperity, but no one should admit achieving it. Atlas's pathos-drenched autobiography deserves to be read beside another recent book, Scott A. Sandage's Born Losers: A History of Failure in America (Harvard University Press), which describes how the ethos of the self-made man divided 19th-century Americans into winners and losers. This process has finally given us the spectacle of the luckiest humans who ever lived defining existence as a bitter endurance course. You can often hear even a wealthy, famous man call himself a "survivor."
A few years ago, something tragic happened to Atlas: In middle age he was fired from his job. A staff writer on The New Yorker, he had been hired in the Tina Brown era and apparently never adjusted to the requirements of her successor, David Remnick. He wasn't turning out what Remnick wanted. So Remnick fired him, explaining that the money he was paying Atlas would go to a more productive writer.
Something like this has happened to most of us. It is never nice. But Atlas treats it as a catastrophe. Incredibly, he experienced it as "a nearly archetypal experience -- like watching a child being born or losing a parent." His chest tightened, he felt panic clawing at his throat. Waves of self-pity flooded his brain.
"Why can't you just put me on a reduced contract?" he pleaded. Remnick said no. "But what am I going to do?" Atlas asked. "I've got a family to support."
He found it difficult to walk out of Remnick's office, just as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman was reluctant to leave the office of the man who let him go. A professional with many literary skills, Atlas nevertheless began comparing himself to poor Loman, a salesman with no abilities beyond the connections he had made working for a particular company. Atlas had dozens of opportunities; he has since written two more books and edited two series of biographies, one for Penguin and one for HarperCollins.
And yet he mourns his personal failure. He chatters about other writers who (in his eyes) failed, such as William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood. He cites the disappointments of Norman Mailer. He even drags in the decline of a major-league baseball pitcher.
Eventually we understand Atlas's point. He hasn't lost a job, he's acquired a place in cultural history. He flaunts his failure like a badge of honour and installs himself alongside history's celebrated losers.
He even goes back 19 years to wallow once more in the reviews he received for his only novel --"punishing" in the weekday New York Times, "even more vicious" in The Washington Post, a "demo job" in the Sunday New York Times. The book sold 6,000 copies, 10 times as many as the first edition of Moby Dick, but it was a defeat Atlas couldn't accept. He was out for success, not satisfaction. "It's not enough to say that I took it hard; it felt as if a death had occurred." He never wrote another line of fiction.
Doctor, here's the problem: This man insists on being unhappy. Since adolescence he's consulted a platoon of psychotherapists, all to no avail. One shrink expressed great interest in Atlas's conversation, but Atlas discovered that this man's brand of psychiatry stressed the virtues of empathy. In Atlas's eyes, that made his interest untrustworthy. The next psychiatrist sometimes fell asleep during therapy sessions, and Atlas had to call out sharply to awaken him. By this point in the story, many readers will feel empathy for that poor doctor.
Atlas has a bigger and more persistent complaint: While he's brought up his children and maintains a nice apartment as well as a country place, he makes quite a lot less money than he would like. From his father, who earned a comfortable income as a doctor, he inherited "the nagging sense that one ought to have money." He feels profoundly "the humiliation induced by the fact that I can't afford a BMW and my friend can." He sees someone he knows on TV, plugging a new book: "Instantly my stomach knots up: His will sell, he'll make money, he'll buy a BMW ... I'm tormented." When he looks at an automobile ad, his heart aches to own a Jag.
Sandage, in Born Losers, quotes David Riesman, the sociologist, to the effect that by the middle of the 20th century, Americans had become unable to face "the possibility of defeat in one's personal life or one's work without being morally destroyed." The idea of the self-made man should have been liberating. For the first time in history, men (it would take generations for the formula to include women) could, if they had sufficient brains and energy, rise above the status of their parents and shape their own lives. But this hopeful belief, while defining the future as gloriously open-ended, laid a heavy burden on those who did not succeed.
Sandage, exploring "the hidden history of pessimism in a culture of optimism," points out that society's losers had to accept all the blame for their condition, just as they would accept the credit if they had made it on their own. He quotes Ben Franklin, for generations the philosopher of American enterprise, who blamed failure on laziness, drunkenness, greed and related sins. Atlas remains, consciously or not, Franklin's disciple. Lying in bed, waiting for sleep, he tortures himself over opportunities lost, energy wasted.
By the end, many readers will understand what's wrong with Atlas. He's so self-absorbed that he can't genuinely interest himself in his work or the world beyond himself. Whatever happens, happens essentially to him. It's a condition that's hard to cure but easy to name: Narcissism.