In writing a review of a book which itself is a review of a writer’s failed attempt to write for a magazine, the visual analogy which instantly pops into my head is the swirling kaleidoscope effect generated when staring into a mirror with another mirror in the background.
Horrifically, instead of an image of me inside of an image of me ad nauseum, this discussion of Toby Young’s memoir “How to Lose Friends & Alienate People” could be viewed as a writer discussing a writer discussing a writer and so on and so on.
I soon calmed my initial paranoia with the simple reminder each book review must involve at least one writer discussing another writer, otherwise there would not be much to review in the first place. Oh yeah.
Sufficiently placated, I put pen (ok, computer-generated text) to paper (yes, I know, online document file) in consideration of this British journalist’s recounting of his wildly unsuccessful attempts himself to put pen to much of anything while in the service of the New York glossy behemoth, Vanity Fair, during the mid-90’s.
Considering the success and notoriety Mr. Young previously achieved in London (sufficient to pique the interest of VF editor Graydon Carter) as well as the ensuing ability to document his exploits, it appears the only time in his life this self-described ‘hack’ was not prolific coincided exactly with his five year stint in Manhattan.
Luckily for us, he was able to break through that barrier and graciously humiliate and humble himself for our benefit with striking wit and unabashed insider details. Initially invited across the Atlantic on a six month trial period in the employ of the flagship publication of the Conde Naste empire, he survived for two years though one has to wonder how he lasted that long.
From his very first day, when he assumed the ‘casual’ dress code gave him free reign to show up in jeans and a punk rock T-shirt, to his misguided attempt to one-up a colleague in their competition for the affections of a female coworker resulting in a strippogram being performed in the Vanity Fair offices on ‘Take Your Daughter to Work Day’, you have to wonder if Mr. Young really did earn his Oxford degree or if he’ll just go to truly great lengths for a good punch line.
Self-depreciating, Toby Young is without question. From the very opening of his tale the mesmerizing effect of being in the company of his true ruling class, A-list Hollywood celebrities at the 1994 Vanity Fair Oscar bash, becomes his impetus for selling his literary soul in the hopes of membership into that class.
He sees his invitation to New York to work for Vanity Fair as his membership into that rarified club of higher mortals. He openly aches for this, freely admitting he is superficial enough to do anything to be in the company of others he knows all too well to be superficial themselves.
For four fifths of this book, he stubbornly continues to ignore all the pratfalls usually of his own doing, which normal people might read as spiritual warning signs. Even his dismissal from Vanity Fair does not cause him much time for pause. Rather, it provides additional opportunity to soak both his downward spiraling career and excruciatingly described love life failures in more and more excessive drug and alcohol binges.
It is ironic that such a Hollywood Ending as true love saves this man. Had he written this as fiction, surely he himself would think that too corny. Appearing on Toby Young’s Manhattan doorstep soon after his dismissal from the magazine, the younger sister of an ex-girlfriend from London becomes first his friend, then his lover and ultimately his savior.
It is her disdain of this figment of a society in which he so desperately wishes to be included that finally causes him to question what it is he truly values. Not only does he re-evaluate his pursuits, both personal and professional, he opens his eyes to the bigger world outside the VIP rooms and publicists’ positioning parties.
He may have sunk to the depths during his five years in search of journalistic success in Manhattan, but it seems a small price to pay for what he has ultimately received in return. And we, the readers, certainly enjoy the ride.
As an interesting postscript, the man who yearned to even be thought worthy among the celebrity circuit now lives what has to be considered a quasi-celebrity lifestyle on the outskirts of London with his wife and newborn baby.
Over the past couple of years he has helped produce a sold-out run of “How to Lose FriendsÃ¢Â?Â¦” as a stage play in the UK, been approached to be on the UK reality TV show “Celebrity Big Brother” and even went so far as to pose nude as a way of promoting the American publication of his book. Successful? Yes. But completely grown up, maybe not yet.