One day this July the heat was such that it was no longer fun to roam outside. So I interrupted my summer routine (walking the dog, eating profiteroles, thinking about what a chore it must have been for Lopokova to fuck Keynes) to sit and read something. I went to Barnes & Noble, where an assistant let me know that the immense periodicals shelf has no literary section. For a moment I considered cracking a joke—something about how refreshing it was to find a library where each text is not another library, but Maxim. I couldn’t imagine her taking it well, though, and, not wanting to insult, I picked up the first thing that caught my eye: Monocle, a glossy black magazine I had never seen before.
Only after having fled the store for the safety of a park bench did I notice the full title—Monocle: A Briefing on Global Affairs, Business, Culture & Design. I soon learned that Monocle, which made its debut this spring, is the latest project of impresario Tyler Brûlé, most recently of the “Fast Lane” column in the weekend Financial Times. And like its founder, who was both shot while reporting in Kabul and the mastermind behind Wallpaper*, Monocle isn’t quite sure how serious it is. It has been dubbed the marriage of Vanity Fair and Foreign Policy—an apt working definition. And while I admire the ambition, I’m reminded of JFK Jr’s short-lived George, which took as its premise the intersection of the political and celebrity demimondes… one which, sadly, turned out not to exist. Can a magazine really cover international relations and international trend-setting?
Of course, magazines have asked and attempted to answer similar questions before. For decades Vanity Fair, despite its shortcomings, has combined glamour and substance, with an indispensable rant by Christopher Hitchens on one page, and on the next one Ben & Kate Goldsmiths’ admission that it’s easier to marry young when you have “some money.” But can the two worlds be not just paired, but fused? Monocle tries, and I have to love it for trying, but the results are often… well, take its recent ad for Luis Vuitton. Gorbachev avec valise in a cab, passing the Berlin Wall, and the subtitle: “A journey brings us face to face with ourselves.” I get that he needs the money, but wow.
If you can believe it, the editors in their wisdom devoted the September issue to nation building. Quoth the cover: “Making a modern state is easier than you think—Monocle reports on the basics of country construction.” Really? This, as Petraeus reports to Congress on the struggle to midwife a viable Iraqi state, perhaps the defining challenge in foreign affairs today, and one that has commanded the attention of every living political scientist and consumed untold dollars and lives?
I’d call this a bit of a let-them-eat-cake attitude, but I’m not sure the Marie Antoinette here even knows the peasants are starving. Monocle’s blithe detachment might be provocative or insulting if it came from someone else. But who could take offense at the sweet, absurd mutterings of this idiot savant—of course we’ll indulge Brûlé his latest position paper on Abkhazia, so long as he lets us in on that hot new sushi restaurant in Rio. Because, if nothing else, Monocle is on the scene. I’m just unsure of where the intellectual pretense comes from: wouldn’t it be easier to admit you’re a magazine of shallow interests? They wrote an article on “Super Sarko, the accessoriser,” for God’s sake. Monocle’s target demographic must be the dilettante who doesn’t know (or who won’t admit) he’s a dilettante—the sort of person who wants to read about Prada socks, but who has enough pride to only feel comfortable doing so in the pages of a “briefing on global affairs.”
And so I won’t advise you to subscribe. It would make great soft-core—there are a lot of kinda off-topic photos of beautiful, marginally-dressed young people, a foible it seems of even the most mildly gay-ish of magazines – but not at ten bucks an issue. Instead, take Monocle on your next intercontinental flight. It will be just the thing to pick up as you sigh, shift your weight, and re-cross your legs in your business-class seat after the pilot announces that arrival in Phuket will be about forty-five minutes delayed, due to a detour around the Sunni Triangle.