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Tom Vanderbilt

Tom Vanderbilt is the author of Survival City: Adventures among the Ruins of Atomic America. He lives in Brooklyn.

Diary: The View from Above

Tom Vanderbilt, 31 March 2005

On a recent flight from Salt Lake City to New York, the announcement came ‘to kindly lower the window shades so that other passengers may enjoy the in-flight entertainment programme’. I demurred, and my window soon seemed a searchlight sweeping through the dark cabin, disconcerting those passengers trying to enjoy The Notebook. Why settle for Hollywood pap, I thought, when they...

‘The Manchurian Candidate’

Tom Vanderbilt, 21 August 2003

There is no evidence that Lee Harvey Oswald saw The Manchurian Candidate, which was released in 1962, a year before Kennedy’s assassination. A more plausible cinematic influence on him is Suddenly (1954), in which Frank Sinatra plays a President’s assassin who acquired his taste for killing in the Second World War. Yet the idea was there in The Manchurian Candidate: an emotionally...

Chicago heatwaves

Tom Vanderbilt, 22 August 2002

As I write, the temperature in New York City is 86° F. The relative humidity is 56, the winds are south-westerly at seven mph, visibility stands at six miles. What do those numbers really signify? The temperature doesn’t sound extreme, yet when I leave my air-conditioned house I don’t feel that I’m stepping outside so much as entering another atmosphere. My spirits sag,...

Secrets and spies

Tom Vanderbilt, 7 March 2002

In James Bamford’s first book on the National Security Agency, The Puzzle Palace, published soon after Reagan became President, Frank Raven, an NSA official, is asked what happens when someone on whom the NSA is spying enters the US. ‘You have intelligence which is entirely foreign and you have intelligence which is entirely domestic,’ Raven says. ‘But then you have...

Sweatshops

Tom Vanderbilt, 29 October 1998

Just east of Fifth Avenue on 57th St in New York City there is an archaic, gymnasium-like building with the legend ‘PS 6453’ engraved on its peak. First you wonder how a public school ever got built in such a tony shopping district, then you realise the structure is actually home to Nike Town New York, the Manhattan version of the ‘entertainment retail’ boutique Nike has opened in a dozen other cities. The building, it turns out, is not the gym of a Thirties public school but a reconfigured department store. The ‘6453’ spells ‘N-I-K-E’ on a New York telephone keypad.‘

Damp Souls

Tom Vanderbilt, 3 October 1996

In the United States, bestselling works of what is now called literary fiction tend to be aggressively regional – think of Jane Smiley’s Iowa, Jane Hamilton’s Midwest or E. Annie Proulx’s Newfoundland. They are literary postcards, nostalgic, often mawkish renderings of some quaint locale. Fulsomely praised as ‘generous’, ‘lyrical’, ‘redemptive’ and ‘luminous’, less Dirty Realism than stonewashed romanticism, they usually extol smalltown America, preferably the sort of place that’s pastoral and virtuous but in which one could still find a level of sophistication and a multiplicity of endearing eccentrics. Local colour works wonders, but since all colour is local (to rework Tip O’Neill), some universal truths should also be present and in the usual form – love, for instance, unrequited, gone wrong, renewed, consummated, young, forbidden, discovered, doomed, forgotten, repressed.’

Bugged

Tom Vanderbilt, 6 June 1996

‘You can leave Bill, but Bill never leaves you,’ one young Microsoft refugee in Douglas Coupland’s microserfs muses on hearing that the chairman has got married on the Hawaiian island of Lanai. It’s a believable sentiment, the lingering awe of an impressionable ex-employee towards his first real boss – and when your first boss is Bill Gates, personality cults die hard. Later in the novel, the narrator describes seeing the boyish billionaire’s face on video monitors at an electronics trade show: ‘and it was so odd, seeing all of these people, looking at Bill’s image, not listening to what he was saying but instead trying to figure out what was his … secret.’’

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