Capitalism, Michael Sandel and Michael Moore

Doha diary, part 1

I didn't arrive in Doha yesterday in time for the inauguration of the Doha Tribeca Film Festival at I M Pei's wonderful Museum of Islamic Art, which looks out over the Doha Sea at one end of the Corniche. So I missed seeing Martin Scorsese, Jeff Koons and Robert de Niro, among others, treading the red carpet ahead of a screening of Mira Nair's film Amelia, which stars Hilary Swank as the pioneering aviator Amelia Earhart.

I missed the festival after-party at the Four Seasons, too, having to make do instead with cocktails in the lounge of my hotel. (The hotel is the most easterly outpost of a chain of boutique hotels, and is blandly luxurious, in the style of such establishments the world over. Its lounge appears to be the destination of choice for the gilded youth of Doha, who smoke and drank heroically -- the drinking and the smoking surprised me -- and danced to a set by an expensively imported French DJ.)

I awoke this morning to discover that I'm staying in the middle of a vast building site. Towers of varying heights, some of them vertiginously tall, are sprouting wherever one looks. Doha, it seems, is a kind of dusty tabula rasa on which a 21st-century city is being built in staggeringly short order. Regular visitors tell me the city is unrecognisable from as little as five years ago.

Qatar, and Doha in particular, is currently in a frenzy of self-assertion -- it's the sort of place where strangers tell you, proudly and unbidden, that GDP grew by 11 per cent last year. As well as hosting the film festival, Doha is currently the venue for a high-profile women's tennis event, and in a couple of weeks' time will welcome the national football teams of England and Brazil for a friendly match. Indeed, so confident is this tiny emirate that it's bidding to host the 2022 World Cup -- as giant billboards throughout the city remind you.

And shortly before the festival opened, it was announced that the emir's daughter, who, like many of her counterparts in other Gulf states, is an enthusiastic and generous patron of the arts, was talking to the Palace of Versailles about co-funding an exhibition in Doha of the work of the Japanese artist Takashi Murakami. (The past, meanwhile -- that is, the prehistoric era before the discovery of petroleum in Qatar in 1939 -- exists here only in facsimile. This evening, I was taken to the Souk Waqif, an architecturally faithful reconstruction of the original souk that the government tore down some years ago.)

The highlight of the festival this afternoon was a screening of Michael Moore's documentary Capitalism: a Love Story. I've often thought that Moore's work combines demagoguery and sentimentalism in a distinctively indigestible way, but this film is different. Sure, he does his ordinary-schlub-speaking-truth-to-power schtick, but his evisceration of the behaviour of the custodians of US capitalism, on Wall Street and on Capitol Hill, is extraordinarily powerful -- on account of its almost guileless quality of moral censure and disapproval. Think of it as an extended howl of what the American philosopher Michael Sandel calls "bailout outrage".

That's it for now. I'm off in a moment to an outdoor, midnight screening at the Museum of Islamic Art of Steven Soderbergh's new film The Informant. More on that tomorrow.

UPDATE: Frustratingly, I got to the museum just now, only to be told that the Soderbergh screening had been cancelled "on the order of the authorities". Mysterious. I'll try to find out why.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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Sex and the city: the novel that listens in on New York

Linda Rosenkrantz's Talk captures the conversations of a sex-obsessed city.

Especially for New Yorkers such as the ones in Linda Rosenkrantz’s novel Talk, summertime is both maddening and delicious: it’s a limbo during which no serious work is possible, because some crucial decision-maker at the top of the chain is inevitably out of town, so even the most ambitious strivers must find a way to fill their days with something other than striving. It’s a time to take stock of what has happened and speculate about the future – that comfortably abstract time that starts the day after Labor Day and is as blank as the opening page of a new notebook on the first day of school. Meanwhile, because little can be done, there is nothing to do but dissect, analyse, explain, confide, complain, chat and kibitz. Talk is a book that more than lives up to its name.

Realising that the lazy conversations that fill up the days during this liminal time might be revealing, Linda Rosenkrantz took her tape recorder to East Hampton, New York, in the summer of 1965. She spent more than a year transcribing the tapes, leaving her with 1,500 pages of text featuring 25 different speakers, which she then whittled down to 250 pages and three characters. The result is a slim novel told in conversations – though Rosenkrantz has said that it was her publisher, “wary of possible legal ramifications”, who insisted on presenting it as fiction.

Emily Benson, a party girl and sometime actress, spends her weekends lying on the beach with Marsha, a working girl who has rented a house there for the season. Often they are joined by their friend Vincent, a painter who is almost as boy-crazy as they are; despite this, he and Marsha share a love that verges on the erotic but never quite manages it. All are around thirty and are single, though none really wants to be.

They pay lip-service to literary and political concerns, listing authors, musicians and political figures such as Kennedy, Castro, Mailer and Roth, but mostly their talk is about sex (they would rather sleep with Mailer than Roth and Castro than Kennedy). Sex acts and their consequences are anatomised in detail, with orgies and abortions brought up as casually as the recipe for salad dressing. Emily is infatuated with a married man named Michael Christy – they always refer to him by his first and last names. Marsha has a few casual involvements but none seems likely to take the place of Vincent, especially as he not only talks to her endlessly but sometimes, after a few glasses of wine, playfully asks to see her vagina or breasts. To the extent that the novel has a plot, it’s a love story but not about Michael Christy or any of the other men who merit recurring mentions. The three friends comprise a love triangle that even they, with their self-consciously avant-garde attitudes, don’t seem to recognise for what it is.

It takes a few pages to get used to the oddness of reading a novel in dialogue form and to stop being annoyed by the characters’ oh-so-Sixties affectations. Everything is “far out” and the word “scene” is deployed with alarming frequency – at one point, Emily memorably dismisses a menu suggestion by declaring that she doesn’t want to “get into a whole home-made pie-making scene”.

It is harder to get past the characters’ attitudes to race. An early chapter shows them being very impressed that Marsha has a “Negro” analyst (although, Marsha says in a casually appalling aside, “You don’t think of him, say, if you want to invite a Negro to a party”).

But these are unvarnished slices of chatty vérité: this was how arty thirtysomething New Yorkers in 1965 talked and thought about their lives. A television show set in 1965 might be criticised for being too on the nose if it reproduced, say, Emily’s rhapsodies about her LSD experience. “I was intimately a part of every pulsebeat of every sun that came up on everybody’s life,” she tells Vincent, and goes on to cite Salinger. These conversations actually happened. And luckily, at the moment when that alone ceases to be enough to sustain the reader’s interest, the characters begin to reveal enough about themselves to become interesting as more than a page of history.

Marsha, it turns out, is very funny and winningly down-to-earth. Emily and Vincent are much too impressed with their own promiscuity and sexual appetites; they relish listing their conquests and describing sex acts in a way that, in 2015, might seem uncool even among 14-year-olds. Marsha’s sex talk, however, is frank and hilarious. In one of her wittiest moments, she describes a liaison that left her with welts on her back and the ruse she then employed to explain them away when her mother came over from Westchester the next day to help her try on bathing suits. Indeed, the guy seems to have been worth the welts: “The time I passed out, we wound up in the shower together and it was very, very wild ecstatic lovemaking, one of the great moments of my life. Except I was worried about my hair getting wet.” Marsha has the best lines in the book. While the friends are debating whether to go to a party, she deploys her finest: “I don’t want to talk to people I don’t know. I can hardly talk to the people I do know.”

As we grow more attached to Marsha, Emily seems increasingly irritating in comparison. But I’m sure if you transcribed the dialogue of many charismatic people they would seem as tiresome and self-involved as Emily does – and we know she must be charming because of how excited Vincent and Marsha are about being around her and how much they miss her when she skips a weekend or two. Still, she’s a bit much. At one point, while discussing their sexual preferences on the beach (again), she cuts Marsha off mid-sentence, saying: “I haven’t quite finished with me.” She never does.

Marsha is also interested in herself but in her case the interest seems merited. Towards the end of the novel, we learn that she has been spending the summer writing a book. Could it be the one we are holding? In the final chapter, as the two women unpack from the summer, Marsha reports telling her therapist about “what a horrible person I emerged as on the tapes and how all the three of us talk about is sex and food and yet how I felt we were the only people who communicate in the whole world”. It may be that the book has doubled back on itself to become about its own composition or that Rosenkrantz is Marsha (she has recently admitted that “one of these three taped ‘characters’ is moi”.)

In this light, the book stands as an early entrant in a field that is now in full flower: works by women who use their lives and personae as raw material for their art, such as Chris Kraus’s influential 1997 novel, I Love Dick, and Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? (2010). Stephen Koch points out in his fine introduction that Talk also paved the way for TV shows such as Girls and Broad City, in which fiction is grounded in the creators’ real-life personae.

Unlike those ongoing sagas, Talk is ­finite: autumn came and the experiment was over. Did Michael Christy ever leave his wife for Emily? Did Marsha finally let go of Vincent enough to make space for a heterosexual man in her life? A lot of plans were made that summer but we will never know whether all they amounted to was talk.

Emily Gould’s novel “Friendship” is published by Virago

Talk is out now from NYRB Classics (£8.99)

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism