WITHIN THE CONTEXT OF NO CONTEXT by George W. S. Trow

WITHIN THE CONTEXT OF NO CONTEXT

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Two long pieces originally published in The New Yorker--the first of which is perhaps the apotheosis of a sensibility (archly sneering, cutely disjointed) that has recently become an unmistakable force in that magazine's humor, criticism, and reportage. In this little essay, Trow strings together a series of totem-like musings and a slew of jargony phrases to describe the disastrous effect of TV on contemporary culture: ""the work of television is to establish false contexts and to chronicle the unraveling of existing contexts; finally, to establish the context of no-context and to chronicle it."" How so? Well, TV's mode is that of the ""cold child""; its enemy is ""the adolescent orthodoxy"" (""adulthood"" is dead), so culture has become the making of false links between the vast celebrity-sized ""grid of two hundred million"" and ""the tiny, tiny baby grid of you and me and baby and baby's problems and my problems and your problems and can we keep even this little baby grid together?"" But despite all this dense meshing of McLuhan and Tom Wolfe, it soon becomes clear--especially when Trow gets sarcastically specific about TV (""Even if Pepper dresses up like a whore to stop whores from turning babies into whores, it's still just half the problem"")--that he's mostly just saying, in costume-party dress, what Michael J. Arlen and others have been saying for years about TV's false intimacy, self-enclosed references, and reductiveness. And Trow's attempt to connect his phraseology to a sketch of the Pointer Sisters or a memoir of his job at the 1964 World's Fair (""It was the world of television but taken seriously"") is very nearly embarrassing. Only, in fact, on one subject--journalism in the ""age of television""--does Trow settle down to make some convincing, if un-startling, points (a comparison of People with the old Life; a snide, but accurate, shot at ""one literary man"" who has brought book-reviewing to the level of telling us about his divorce). The book's second half is less ambitions and more successful: a profile--roughly in the standard New Yorker format--of Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic Records. Trow accompanies Ertegun (who started out as a Turkish dilettante but amazingly ""mastered the American art of vogue-making"") on a round of rock/Beautiful-People parties; he observes him making deals; he sketches in his past (which is a mini-chronicle of Rhythm & Blues on records). And though this hardly comes across as ""One Style . . . Within That Context"" from Part I, it does offer some amusingly captured dialogue, some fair pop-music history (despite Trow's over-fondness for casually sweeping judgments), and a genuinely intriguing, impressive personality in Ertegun--who combines the instinct for both black and white hit-making with a love for Fred Astaire above all. Primarily of interest to observers of pop-music culture, then, but those more glittery, generalized doo-dads up front may attract some trendy attention.

Pub Date: Sept. 28th, 1981
ISBN: 0871136740
Publisher: Little, Brown