I want to tell you about this year; I want to tell you about what’s happened. I want to tell you about what went down in “Gossip Girl” and about what’s real and what’s fake, about how time passes in Princeton, about what mattered. I bring it up only because I have only recently come to see that it is at the juncture of these precious threads that I have comprehensively and inescapably lost my way this semester, and I fear dreadfully that you, if you have not been careful, may have as well.
The second season of “Gossip Girl” began to air on September 1, 2008, and is, at the time of this writing, at the twentieth of a slated 25 episodes. This was the season, critics agreed, in which the series found its footing, though more likely comments of this sort were meant to mask the real development that it was the critics who had finally gained traction on the show’s slippery tangles of movement and not the other way around. This was the season in which the show’s adolescent characters—gifted eternally with the stupid good looks and wily instinct for self-preservation that pass as legal tender among the rich—visited Yale, discovered lost half-siblings, ate brunch, battled for control of a corporation, put on a play, and traveled to Spain. This was the season in which the show’s producers staked wide viewership on the well-aired bosoms of its blonde star, Blake Lively. This year’s episodes have had a feeling of stiffness and high pageantry that was absent in the looser-limbed first season, which more frequently sought occasion to interrupt excessive verbiage with an impromptu fashion show or photo shoot, and often concluded episodes with wordless sequences, set to peppy alternative rock, of a family football game at Empire-Fulton Ferry State Park or a tender, laughing meal in a diner.
This all perhaps sounds less interesting than I mean it to. It is with some difficulty that I have tried, this semester, to pin my understanding of the world on anything not firmly inside the realm of the concrete, the real. I can walk around campus without socks, and I can hoard bits of dried fruit in my desk drawers, but I can barely read books without finding my attention wandering away from the text and toward, instead, the particular stock of the paper that was used, the typeface, the smell of the ink. I can make daily notes on scraps of post-it notes about the blossoms on the trees, but I have found myself losing track of the days of the week, so allergic I have become to abstraction even as innocent as the passage of calendar days. All of this has brought to light how blithely unconscious I had been in straddling this distinction previously. There are books I can read and records I can play with the willful expectation of total surrender into folds of sensual pleasure, excused somehow from how the world will next look when I take my eyes off the page or remove my headphones. I watch Martin Scorsese’s “Mean Streets” and listen to Bartók’s Four Orchestral Pieces in this way. “Gossip Girl” falls, on the other hand, in a troublesome middle zone, igniting my epicurean instinct but trespassing also upon the mundane realm of my everyday existence, as though these privileged young things were to constitute as earthy and unthought-through a feature of my life as brunch in Rocky-Mathey dining hall or the little rabbits that patter about on the gentle hill behind McCormick at night.
For this uneasy dislocation no amount of mental bookkeeping has been able to account. The men and women in the second season of “Gossip Girl” are seniors, too, perched on the perilous far edge of elite private school’s tipping silver tray. It is this most obvious and facile ligature to my own life to which I might most easily impute my continued interest in the show, but the real import of my commitment feels vastly more elusive. To be constantly flipping and comparing and swapping the characters’ lives and our own, as though they were fungible units of emotional exchange cohabiting a level plane, is to bruise fiction’s mild dislocating magic. What I want to tell you about is miles afield, too, of the way in which periodic television programs can function as modest monuments of the passage of time, becoming circadian signposts that can, with no deeper significance, resemble strong cravings for specific foods at certain hours of the day. I recall sitting on a plane traveling from Lexington, KY, to Cincinnati in December of last year; I had not slept in nearly 24 hours, and all through my harried, sporadic dreams during the short flight I could think only of whether Jenny was going to make it with her fashion show, and how Serena could possibly be so interested in Aaron.
Each episode of “Gossip Girl” is, with notable exceptions, a taut construction of whirlwind dramatic movements and ultra-concentrated emotional energy, as though the high school experience had been taken into the sun and let reduce to jerky. The characters are sharply and smartly programmed to be just loose enough to permit the coiling and recoiling volatility of each episode’s snarling zigzag without threatening such miniscule details of manner and speech as the cloying and doubtful habit of calling people colloquially by the first letter of their first name. The show’s writers very much relish, it seems, the vertiginous weekly exercise of corralling their large cast into coordinated, symphonic movements of miscommunication, mistrust, and deception. This weave will simply not be broken. Occasional intrusions of flashy phantasmagoria out of Bret Easton Ellis feel, then, more like token nods to the show’s “outrageous” inheritance than any genuine motions in the direction of the series’ aspirations: a goofy, aimless little thread about a secret sex club for New York billionaires too frequently interrupts better Chuck plotlines, and the budding intimation of a conspiracy involving the paranoid foster parents of Rufus and Lily’s lovechild rouses impatience, not menace.
Rather, a second year of airtime has prompted in the show’s makers a richer envisioning of its purpose and a stronger sense of what is most truly available to be spoken by these characters with these stories and what is simply wayward chuntering. In its sophomore season, “Gossip Girl” would like very much to be a small show about a group of acquaintances whose allegiances and endearments flicker and dance, not quite flittingly or thoughtlessly, but rather like air bubbles swirling to meet a common surface above the water—legibly, that is, but not without room for surprises. Even the best moments of the first season nurtured and let flower a held-out hope, in repeatedly interacting with these characters over an extended period, that our gradual comfort with their manner and motivation might be suddenly punctured by moments of explosive, unexpectedly personal communication. In the second season, characters spend reflective nights in midtown police stations, lay consoling hands on each others’ shoulders, and learn about one another in pools of shadow and torrid fits of quiet sadness. The show rides on its tiny, cataclysmic epiphanies outside of clubs and bars, ones earned with hair matted and clothing slightly sticky in the lurid final seconds before a cab departs and the night is irretrievable.
So for a show that traffics in the whip-quick and the nanoscopic, it is somewhat disorienting that the season’s—and the series’—absolute apex came in an extended stretch last fall of simmering, dangerous back-and-forth between Chuck and Blair, the series’ most troublesome and hence most consistently fun characters. The enduring pictures in my head from these episodes are not of the dark prince and princess backed up against a wall, their eyes locked and their warm, intermittent breaths escaping into each others’ mouths, or even of a scatter of limbs dashed with silk. Each time Chuck insists—growling, of course, through vice-locked teeth—that Blair express her desire for him in precisely the right terms, as though love were an epistemological condition, there is the feeling of a band-aid torn prematurely asunder, of pale pink, puffy flesh bearing an impossible Blair or an unthinkable Chuck where there had previously been a pair of airless professionals.
Despite all this, I have it on good faith from a number of observers, both friends of the show and otherwise, that “Gossip Girl” is, by its example, making viewers mean and shallow, taking our hard-fought goodness like a teacup to a steamroller. My preternatural aversion to this kind of suggestion seemed suddenly and unpredictably coarse the first time I expressed it, and it seems equally inapt now. There is, it cannot be denied, a luscious, unconscious energy that the show radiates in its rhythms and colors, in the louche seductiveness of the characters’ lifestyles and even their clothes. But after we got past the clothes and the money and the nice coats, the form that our imitative worship assumed was the addition of a sort of glittery fierceness to our daily conduct. We found ourselves responding to people around us with ferocious, histrionic intensity. We were more likely to be short with a loved one, with our parents. A “Gossip Girl fight” with a friend was one less likely to have been picked with due consideration or cause, and one that would proceed with less discretion or defined end than we were normally comfortable with.
This overriding impulse to behave as though we suddenly qualified to reach out and grab exactly what we wanted of the world was a strange one to which we did not find ourselves consciously beholden, but neither could we call ourselves entirely immune from it. Part of the problem was the pervading sense that the circumstances of this year were meant to elicit precisely this kind of pushiness, one of “taking best advantage” of the University’s resources during this final year, of continuing to demand the best of ourselves despite the trauma of the world outside of FitzRandolph Gate, of assembling our abilities and experiences into a last project that was to be “quintessentially Princeton.”
It was exhausting, all this demanding and utilizing and actualizing, and yet “Gossip Girl” remained, in our minds, an “escape” from this world rather than an outgrowth of it. We “escaped” from our own harrowing interactions with friends and lovers by observing these prettier people gliding through these same conversations—not quite with ease, but certainly with nicer shoes. We “escaped” from our own unstable high stakes by submitting to the controlled tense-and-release of scripted drama. Characters wept for their broken hearts and stolen kisses, and even then it was still, for us, an “escape” because the real tragic stature thereof could be safely contained behind our repeated insistence that this was a “trashy” show. But when tangible bits of “Gossip Girl” came to life and strode about campus, we wanted nothing more than to reach out and touch and ask questions. I am referring, of course, to Rachel, the show’s small, pixyish new English teacher fresh out of Teach for America, whom Princeton junior Laura Breckenridge played in three episodes early this year. I recall, with some clarity, that fertile March weekend after the ‘Prince’ interview with Ms. Breckenridge ran, during which the possibility of spotting L. noshing in Café Viv or exiting McCosh represented, for a juicy instant, an opportunity to play into one tiny corner of the show’s fantasy and still have time to squeeze a run in before dinner.
The “escape” that was offered, then, was really nothing other than the slightly disturbing free pass to shift, without great effort, between what was comfortable in the real world and what was comfortable in the world of the show, merrily marooning the tougher stuff in the chasm between the two. The same gabby people who said things like, “Nate and Blair should totally be together,” or, “Chuck and Vanessa would make a terrible couple,” dodged eye contact when asked about their own awful stories about the same. When characters on the show groused about college admissions and summer internships, we bewailed the folly in their pinning happiness on such doubtful amulets only because theirs uncomfortably mirrored our own. This kind of false concern with the rightness of fictional characters feels like desperation taken in isolation, but comes, in a time as spiky as this one, to much more resemble scratching at phantom limbs than anything more pathetic. I watched Martin Scorsese’s “Last Temptation of Christ” for the first time a few weeks ago. The film’s modifications to the canonical accounts of Jesus’ life are too rich to be damaged by paraphrase in this small space, but it suffices to call Scorsese’s Christ a reluctantly human one, one who hears the call of divine purpose but pines still for the quiet comforts of domestic life, of wife and child. This is a bold theological statement for someone, but as far as I was concerned, it was my own vexing doubts that I saw shimmering around the edges of Scorsese’s Jesus. I wanted Peter to have an intimate chat with Judas about deciding on a job for next year. I wanted Harry Dean Stanton as Saint Paul to suddenly turn to Martha and tell her how to know what was good in life, and what was worth keeping, and what was worth wanting. I felt so irrationally close to this Christ that the nominal stubble on my chin actually seemed suddenly bristlier during the screening, as if meeting Willem Dafoe’s robust, mahogany nest halfway.
Our hopes and our concerns lope apace, but the center abides. My surest anxiety right now is to be doomed to forever speak of my last months at this school in the chummy, jokey manner in which floury men in Tommy Bahama shirts and exposed chest hair speak of old investments. “When times were better and leverage easier,” “before the Great Recession hit,” “when you could set a drink on the credit market.” We are young, very young, and to let the zippy, silly intensity of this moment slip like silt through our fingers in grasping excessively for something more refined or more true would be an incalculable loss. Even when the stories of this time are sore and predictable and repetitive, there may never again be a time in which the stakes seem so blessedly high always, and for that alone are these things worth working to capture and keep. I fear that time, or maybe shrugging indifference, will cause these richer impulses to be preserved not in the uncertain terms in which they were first expressed, but rather in the cold, unimpressive grammar of regret, or disdain, or just silence.
“Gossip Girl” is a start, but I have a strong feeling that the artifacts of right now that will come to serve as such will turn out to be far more removed from these immediate ligaments binding our literal experience of this time to our aesthetic one—far less obvious. Even the wan, courteous rejection email I received from The Wall Street Journal seems too impossibly impermanent to constitute real evidence of this year, fated as it is to never reappear in twenty years out of a stain-eaten cardboard box storing term papers and problem sets in the basement of my parents’ house. Rather, I want to place in this box the feeling of the cemetery at dusk, with crepuscular sunlight of an impossibly orange hue pooling at the feet of the headstones. I want to forever know her legs—real legs, great fleshy naked white tubes of legs. I want to preserve what it was like to attend a Senior Commencement Fair, and how it was to sit in an unkempt dorm room and loudly misremember Milan Kundera. I want to bottle somehow the drudgery of working for many weeks in a tiny carrel on B Floor, an experience that is, even by now, blurred all to samey oblivion. I remember sitting in my carrel on Good Friday this month, scuttling about YouTube for a period before settling on Julia Hamari singing the “Erbarme dich” aria from the Saint Matthew Passion, performed by the Munich Bach-Orchestra and Bach-Choir. Ms. Hamari’s voice pierced the sky, and the skin on my thighs and upper arms withered suddenly with gooseflesh.
All this will pass. The battery on my new phone is crying empty. My teeth are hurting again. My copy of the second Bill Fox record, the one that The Believer covered a few years ago, is worn through with repeated play—inasmuch, you know, as MP3s become worn. In the works at the CW is a prequel spinoff telling the story of Serena’s mother, Lily Van der Woodsen, as a teenager in L.A. in the ’80s. Princeton in 2013 is to me as monstrous and fantastic a fiction as Los Angeles in the 1980s, and we would do better to maintain both as such. I want to tell you that I swooned with either overwhelming nostalgia or overwhelming disgust as high school seniors pottered about campus last weekend on the occasion of Princeton Preview. I want to tell you that there is real utility to be had in closing my book on this place conclusively, or that I turned my thesis in to the brusque woman in Fisher Hall with some great satisfied relish, but I cannot, because that just isn’t what happened, and to say anything otherwise would be unfair.