"What is kidult?" asks an impatient thirtysomething Hong Kong entrepreneur delivering a PowerPoint presentation in the most memorable story in this month's Harper's. Wong is bald, disheveled and — he confesses without shame to his audience of harried retail buyers — hungover. But he is happy! In a decidedly mercenary, mirthless industry (toys: the margins are crap and there's all those lead problems, you know) Wong has made millions on a business idea that can be essentially summarized as the invention of the Happy Meal of "kidults," whereby Wong's limited-edition action figures are packaged with six-packs of San Miguel beer. "I like video games, toys, model, comics book, everything. This is kidult," Wong says, allowing that he has the body of a 35-year-old and the mind of a 5-year-old. To "mix the imagination world and the real world-this is kidult." Wong is a curiously apt symbol of Harper's itself, a magazine at once repulsed/captivated/existentially amused by its own brand of kidulthood. Hey, maybe they should start packaging the magazine with beer! (Or Klonopin?)The obsession with the infantilization of everything that runs through the toy trade fair story - it is ostensibly on DEADLY TOYS! but it is really about how capitalism sucks duh — seems to permeate both the magazine's "real world" of journalism and its "imagination world" of fiction, the latter of which is okay maybe not "embodied by" but for my purposes represented here with last month's opening reading, a short story by Ben Marcus titled On Not Growing Up. And so although I once bought in to a jaded ex-staffer's characterization of the magazine as a "crusty old man" it would actually seem to be Harper's' intimacy with its inner teenage boy that differentiates it from the legion other stapled staples of highbrow required reading. The September issue, by way of example, features: 1. A description of a humping dog toy on display at the aforementioned toy fair whose packaging reads "I hump until disconnected." 2. A retired colonel leading a newly-established cultural-sensitivity hearts/minds unit called the "human terrain team" jokingly imagines an appropriate insignia for his unit to be "a skeleton surfing on a wave of human bodies…all the bodies of all the people that the United States Army has ever subjugated throughout history." ("No, no," the psychological operations (psyop) sergeant cuts in. "A skeleton sitting on a throne of skulls.") 3. Some excerpts from the board game "Vatican." (It is like the "Life" of the Holy See.) "The Holy Spirit intervenes in our favor by appearing to cardinals who had been wavering in their support of you. Earn forty cardinal votes." Hee hee, I love it when the Holy Spirit appears and advises me to, say, write… 4. Retarded-brilliant punny headlines i.e. "Paper Pushkin" and, atop a transcript of the torture-y interrogation of a sixteen-year-old accused of killing a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan, the title "Teen Beat." ** 5. A cover story on Kaplan's burgeoning "No Child Left Behind" business teaching test prep classes wherein an English teacher relates to the author, while they are eating lunch in a nursing home, that he sometimes writes fetish erotica about old people — and also "soft-cock fucking" — to make extra money.* 6. A whole passage on scientific sex studies that determine, among other things, that "men who are narcissistic thrill-seekers also have more sex." Also: "Computers are now better than people at air hockey." I could go on, but I don't actually want to tarnish the platinum prose that sets off these semi-precious little gems!*** The larger point is, Harper's kidulthood is the very thing that is so lovable about it. Part of this is merely a matter of salvaging some of the weirder details other editors would cut "for space."**** There are readers who might find some of that sort of detail gratuitous: reviews of Thomas Frank's book The Wrecking Crew, an excerpt of which***** was last month's Harper's cover story, roundly mocked Frank's fond little asides about his favorite DC hardcore bands such as Government Issue. To such readers I can only say: Fuck you. Because in all seriousness, all this beautiful puerile crap is generally the deliberate result of the magazine's mission to apply a kidlike curiosity to its subjects, more often than not by favoring over the opportunistic time peg or the imperative to Definitively Weigh In On Whatever a degree of participation to every topic it covers, to the point that it's sometimes hard to see why exactly they chose this moment in time to send that guy — and it is usually a guy, unless it is Barbara Ehrenreich — to do that weird thing. Why follow the trail of rubber ducks stranded by a container ship that capsized in the South China sea in 1992? Why hang out with Stevie Wonder at the Super Bowl when the bizarre dispatch won't hit newsstands until the following summer? Why start an inane trend called "flashmobbing" when…hey wait! As it turns out, maybe that's actually the wrong question. Maybe because a good story, to take this back to the opening anecdote, is a little like a toy robot:
By day, Wong is a CEO, but at night he likes to imagine he's Batman. This is kidult. Growing up in Hong Kong, Wong was forever pining after toys. "For example, when I was ten years old," he says, "I saw a toy. It's a robot, but my mom she never buy it for me. At that moment the toy was 150 Hong Kong dollars. Now it's 5,300, forty times as much. I still buy it. Why is it forty times expensive? Because of the kidult market."
By which I mean it holds up. It's hard to imagine Harper's running a story about a high-tech shoplifting rings, for instance, without its author actually talking to any of said shoplifters, much less actually shoplifting anything themselves, as the New Yorker just did in an interesting yet unsatisfying bid to augment its seasonal style-issue offerings. It is also hard to imagine anyone there bragging about his almost-decision to join the Israeli military, but more importantly, it is harder to imagine the magazine embarking upon a four-month effort re-reporting an Army private's dispatches from Iraq under pressure from right-wing bloggers only to conclude that "The more we dug into Beauchamp's writings, the more clear it became that we might have been in the realm of war stories, a genre notoriously rife with embellishment." When really, I can think of a few things for which war stories are a little more notoriously rife, such as them blood, dumb jokes, porn and occurrences too otherworldly in their horror and pointless to know much about embellishment. Anyway, I should stop before I start to sound like I'm some sort of overeager publicist for Harper's new anthology about so-called "submersion journalism" and disclose that I personally know a few of the kidults on the Harper's staff* and that it goes without saying that I initially intended this post to be slightly more mocking, but then I started thinking about how it all pertained to the Rest Of Journalism, God Bless It, and that got me fucking depressed as usual. Which means it is about time for one of those beers I was talking about.
*"Might I suggest that, in the future, you align the titles of your articles with their actual content?" wonders the first letter in the "Letters" section. Ha. **"This is actually a merciful kidult interlude in the midst of a piece that is a bit on the prudish side. At the beginning, for instance, the writer — a Kaplan "coach" — meets a "very pretty" teacher with "full lips colored red" and you feel a little bad for him, knowing that he's only taken this terrible Kaplan job because he is a "grownup" with a wife and kids now, but maybe needs his own erotica hobby to pursue for such matters! ***Yeah, I couldn't help myself with the gross metaphor. Anyway, here is an example of how the right prose can turn a terrible gathering in a soulless town into a thing of beauty!
Ambiguity is now Hong Kong's major asset; translation, its major industry. Hong Kong translates Chinese labor into Western goods, Asian exports into American imports. It is a semipermeable membrane as well as a semiautonomous region. More than 60,000 factories in the Pearl River Delta belong to Hong Kong interests. Those factories are the primary source of both the city's prodigious wealth and its equally prodigious smog, a sulfurous whiff of which, up in Expo Hall 7, had penetrated the air-conditioning.
****Of course, they cannot keep everything; a writer with whom I corresponded once about his Harper's-chronicled road trip through Colombia shared with me that his editor had cut the part about how he was beaten at pool by the cousin of Gabriel Garcia Marquez "who told stories about them all trying to have sex with donkeys when they were younger [a costeno cutsom, apparently].") *****Incidentally, they called the piece something along the lines of "HOW A GANG OF RIGHT-WING SHITHEADS STRIP-MINED THE GOVERNMENT WHILE MANAGING TO SELL OUT EVERY LAST ONE OF THEIR DUMBSHIT PRINCIPLES" or something. This month's cover story is called "INSIDE THE KAPLAN TEST PREP RACKET" This, too, is "kidult." ******Harper's readers are genuine participants — participatory citizen journlists? — in the larger situation they observe to a degree that could also be labeled "kidult." When literary editor Ben Metcalf wrote a tongue-in-cheek essay on the virtues of paying taxes to a government that provides such an ample return on investment "body count" wise (or something), a 62-year-old from Albuquerque wrote the magazine to offer that he had actually managed to survive for the entire year of 2007 on $3,524. No shit! They fact-checked it and everything. The guy wrote that he had been applying such fiscal austerity to his lifestyle for some 29 years precisely *because* "marching for peace while paying for war is like pigging out on junk food while praying for health," which is to say, "a stupid contradiction." (And also sort of a rhyme!) Anyway, that is some crowdsourcing is all I'm saying, though I don't think anyone's boasting about that guy to the ad sales department. *Fuller disclosure because Nick wants to
milk the 'Moe is the new Emily' meme be professional: I even dated one! But we broke up.