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Newsday, 6 March 2005

MY LIFE IN THE MIDDLE AGES: A Survivor's Tale, by James Atlas. HarperCollins, 220 pp.

James Atlas has written a book about class that pretends to be a book about age. More to the point, My Life in the Middle Ages is a volume of musings about the world of "the lower upper middle class," to adopt George Orwell's expression.

What Orwell captured in that phrase was an exact nuance of self-consciousness: the fussy precision about one's exact spot on the ladder. Of course, he was writing about Edwardian England from the vantage point of someone living during the 1930s who thought that the class into which he was born would soon disappear. Orwell was trying to come to terms with the deep patterns of emotion and attitude that remained in him from that upbringing. As someone socialist by conviction and bohemian by temperament, he wanted to purge much of it from his soul.

Not so James Atlas. His book started life as a series of essays in The New Yorker during the fat and frantic 1990s. The only expectation he ever nurses of an abolition of his class status is through upward mobility. But it didn't come.

Orwell confronted his own sense of entitlement by going into impoverished areas and writing, with brutal candor, about his feelings of disgust at how people lower in the world lived. Atlas' moment of transformative shame comes from going into the office of a powerful magazine editor who doesn't renew his contract. The doors on high begin to close.

That fussy precision about one's location on the ladder evidently gets no easier to bear as you get older. It bothered Atlas quite a bit in his early 40s. He would read his alumni newsletter with an ever keener feeling of status anxiety. Now that he is in his mid-50s, it still flairs up painfully, on occasion, like a bad knee. Yet he can afford to buy stuff -- expensive stuff, cool stuff, even real estate -- which takes some of the edge off, for a little while anyway.

Trying to pay his credit card bills fills him with dread. But not as much as the inevitable future voyage into that undiscovered land from which no traveler returns and where they don't take Visa.

OK, now you know pretty much everything of substance that Atlas has to say. If you belong to a household making under, say, $150,000 per year, it may be difficult to read this book without experiencing a keen desire to go kick the author. And if you earn more than that, you may still want to kick him, because his moments of insight are so few and so paltry.

He writes:"A house reveals more than the taste of its inhabitants; it's the visible expression of their character traits." And: "Maybe the phrase 'mental weather' should be taken literally; one day a storm, the next day sunshine." And then there is the Atlas theory of what happens as people hit middle age: "There's a sense of shrinking horizons, of possibilities closing down. Life seems static, uneventful; the end of the road is in sight."

These things are true enough. Everyone thinks them, or something like them, eventually -- most often, in my experience, in the dentist's waiting room. They do not become profound, however, through the insertion of a semicolon. Ralph Waldo Emerson said that reading a great writer let him glimpse his own thoughts illuminated with borrowed glory. But the experience of reading My Life in the Middle Ages mostly left me thinking that it's time to schedule that appointment to get a filling replaced.

The disappointment is particularly keen because, as a teenager, I read Atlas' first book, Delmore Schwartz: The Life of an American Poet, over and over again, so that there may be whole chapters imprinted on whatever brain cells have survived into my own middle age. It was a book about being young and brilliant and about aging very badly indeed. (Schwartz, who burned the candle at both ends and in the middle as well, ended up famous and completely insane.)

Atlas also wrote a biography of Saul Bellow. In the present volume, he refers in passing to Bellow's friend Isaac Rosenfeld, another brilliant young writer who died in his 30s "in a seedy, furnished room" (as Bellow put it). Atlas envies him a little because he died "before the inevitable erosion of his early promise." He didn't plunge all the way into failure and might yet have redeemed himself with success.

But Atlas never suggests that success or failure can be measured, except by reference to the checklist of "the five worldly pleasures" he learns from reading the Dalai Lama: "fame, wealth, sex, sleep [and] food." Atlas counts himself unsuccessful because "the first two were proving elusive."

Now, for a writer with any seriousness of intention, the only meaningful success comes one page at a time. You can, of course, trade that success for money or fame (with the food, sex and sleep following in their wake). At least you can try. But there is a sort of accountant in a writer's soul who keeps a record of those transactions.
I expected the author of a biography of Delmore Schwartz to have some sense of how bad a bargain a writer can make. But in his memoir, Atlas seems utterly unaware of that accountant.

Unless, of course, My Life in the Middle Ages is a declaration of bankruptcy.