Michael Frayn Novel Cures Hamptons Disease

I received a curious “invitation” the other day, on proper cardboard, suitable for propping up on the chimney piece in the best Anglo-phony style. It bore a little drawing of a man, bearded and bespectacled, looking for all the world like the images of Bilbo Baggins one finds in cheap illustrated editions of J.R.R. Tolkien, although wearing a suit and tie instead of doublet, pantaloons and pointy cap. In aspect if not artistic quality, the sketch is reminiscent of the elder Bruegel.

Now, as it happens, I am reading a perfectly wonderful new novel called Headlong by Michael Frayn (Metropolitan Books/Holt) that turns on the discovery of a lost painting by Bruegel, who among other things painted Landscape With the Fall of Icarus , a picture that came instantly to mind when the Kennedy plane went down. As it happens, my own second novel, Someone Else’s Money (out of print), turns upon the discovery of a lost series of Rubens oil sketches, so my interest was immediately stirred when I read a review of Mr. Frayn’s new work in The Spectator . If you like art or are possessed of an iota of intellectual curiosity, I think you will like this book a lot.

Mr. Frayn is one of our best all-rounders, the author of the farce Noises Off as well as Towards the End of the Morning , a novel about journalism as good as Scoop which includes a BBC talk-show scene that will gladden the heart of anyone who loathes-as I do-the blather-based media of the present.

I studied the drawing on the invitation carefully, trying to divine its meaning, both iconographical and iconological. The former is about images, the latter about those images understood in context. In the interest of enlightenment, let me quote Mr. Frayn on the distinction: “Iconography … tells us that the look [on a person’s] face is one conventionally adopted to represent the expression of interest. Iconology, on the other hand, involves understanding that in this particular context, what this conventional expression of interest actually conveys is mockery.”

In other words, the next time you’re standing on the lawn of some hideous Sagaponack, L.I., house clutching a plastic tumbler of New Zealand sauvignon blanc, and some cretin in Prada or Polo (either the sport or the shirt, it doesn’t matter) to whom you’ve just been introduced responds to whatever you’ve said with, “How interesting,” take those words at face value and then consider what is really meant, and you will have exercised both iconographical and iconological competence. Of course, whatever pride you may feel at this will soon be overcome by the horrified realization that you must be losing your mind, to be in this sort of place among these sorts of people, and that neither “-graphy” nor “-ology” will be of the slightest use in the loony bin.

Which, without putting too fine a point on it, returns me to the invitation in question. The drawing it carries depicts the little man in the act of thumbing a ride. He carries a sign that reads “Washington or Bust!” Next to him is a bulging suitcase-not the best choice of image, summoning as it does intimations of “carpetbag”-from which pieces of paper protrude.

Even with a magnifying glass, I was unable to make out exactly what these are supposed to be: stock certificates, perhaps, or policy outpourings of that lugubrious, sleep-inducing, Council on Foreign Relations or Brookings Institution kind that are collectively referred to in this space as “chin-scratchers.” Position papers of the sort turned out by the good and great in August, when it’s hard to find enough people around to form a committee or cosign an initiative. I have a friend by whom I can set my calendar: If, on a summer’s day, I open The New York Times to the Op-Ed page and see his byline above 500 words to the effect that the global financial system contains both opportunities and risks, I know it must be Aug.15. The year, as Lady Bracknell remarked of the Brighton line, is immaterial. The expression on the little figure’s face is a doofus grin, verging on a simper, presumably intended to ingratiate, but in fact having the opposite consequence, since printed above is the legend: “We would like you to join us [for cocktails on Sept. 3] to scrape up enough money to send Jon Corzine to Washington.” That’s a week after Lady Macbeth of Mamaroneck ( pace Shostakovich) and her consort have been feted out this way by the collection of second-line Herbert Allen wannabes who constitute their Hamptons political cadre.

The venue for the Corzine fund-raiser is appropriately political, by 1999 terms: said to be the site of much merrymaking year-round of a kind that would doubtless have attracted at least one Presidential candidate in younger, more foolhardy days. Attached is a card that offers one the alternatives of ponying up $1,000 and attending, or sending less and not attending.

That begs the important question: Why are we being asked to pay good money to send Mr. Corzine to Washington? I can frankly think of no good reason. Let us begin at the beginning, as we iconographers, -ologists tend to do. Who is Jon Corzine and why does he want to go to Washington?

Well, as a reader of many newspapers and sometimes observer of Wall Street, I can readily answer the first. Until recently shown the door by his partners, Mr. Corzine was the co-head of Goldman, Sachs &Company. Although given the boot, he nevertheless is reported to havetakenoutsome$300 million in the big firm’s recent initial public offering.

As for why he wishes to go to Washington, I do not think it is to see the Ingres exhibition. I believe he wishes to be a senator, a desire which seems to fall upon wealthy men of limited capacity with alarming-and, for this great Republic, deplorable-certainty.

I have to say that this opportunity to invest in Mr. Corzine’s political future leaves me cold, and would even if I had $1,000, a sum that may represent “scrapings” to these people, but is a king’s ransom to those of us who dwell in the shadowed nether world of Reduced Circumstances. Even if I lived and voted in New Jersey. Indeed, as resident of a state that has wholly different Washington needs from New Jersey, I find an invitation of this type insulting.

To begin with, if Mr. Corzine is in fact worth $300 million, let him pay the whole cost himself. If he gets himself elected and does a good job, I am sure a grateful Garden State electorate will be happy to finance future terms. Of course, since we pay senators less than Goldman pays third-tier derivatives traders, perhaps that’s why we end up with Corzines on the ballot. Who else can afford to run?

Then there’s this. What qualifies someone who loses out in a power play to his own stock brokerage partners to be a U.S. senator? If you followed Goldman’s internal political battles in the financial press, you would have come away with the impression that Mr. Corzine’s difficulties had a great deal to do with perceived failings in the people department. Since the Senate appears not to have changed much in its internal practices since Sam Rayburn advised L.B.J. “To get along, go along,” one wonders about the man’s qualifications in this area. I mean, come on! One day you get canned, and the next you decide you have what it takes to be a senator? Besides the $300 million. Don’t answer that!

So what is this all about, then? The folks whose names are on the invitation are people of means. The best thing they could do for their questionable candidate would be to set out a spread for anyone interested and let him make his pitch. After which, the convinced would pony up; others would simply set down their plastic tumblers and steal away. One can’t escape the feeling that this is simply an excuse for a party, with the bar set at $1,000 in an effort to draw the right people. I’m sorry-call me a fool, call me an idealist, and possibly these days it’s the same thing, but despite everything politics is still too important for this kind of foolishness.

On the other hand, perhaps it’s me who’s missing the boat. At the top of the column, I observed that the drawing of Mr. Corzine makes him look like Bilbo Baggins in Lord of the Rings . Perhaps that’s the point. For the past couple of years, the goings-on in Washington have made life in Middle Earth and Sauron’s kingdom look like a quiet day in Massapequa. Maybe what we do need is the right dwarf for the job, and Mr. Corzine’s the one.