Performance Anxiety

As we’ve repeatedly been told, WASP nonchalance is merely an affectation, a performance that renders its mannered marionettes ever anxious about committing some cred-crushing gaucherie. And if it’s like that for members of the tribe, just imagine what it’s like for Jews.

Tobias Wolff’s 2003 novel “Old School” belongs to the prep-school-coming-of-age genre, while its central conflict draws on the much-mined Jew-among-gentiles trope. But the book’s spare style and focus on the literary development of its aspiring-writer protagonist give it a weight and freshness that sets it apart from others books in the genre, such as John Knowles’ “A Separate Peace.” Set in 1960, the bildungsroman charts the development of its unnamed, half-Jewish narrator, who enrolls in an elite prep school only to find himself a stranger in a strange land:

Class was a fact. Not just the clothes a boy wore, but how he wore them. How he spent his summers. The sports he knew how to play. His way of turning cold at the mention of money, or at the spectacle of ambition too nakedly revealed. You felt it as a depth of ease in certain boys, their innate, affable assurance that they would not have to struggle for a place in the world.

“Old School” contains a number of sartorial passages. In the following, tassel loafers are presented not as shoes for the starched square, but footwear for the “playboy”:

We dressed so much alike that the inflection we did allow ourselves — tasseled loafers for the playboy, a black turtleneck for the rebel – were probably invisible to an outsider. Our clothes, the way we wore our hair, the very set of our mouths, all this marked us like tribal tattoos.

Increasingly, the narrator becomes lost in his performance:

… From my own anxious studies I had made myself the picture of careless gentility, ironically cordial when not distracted, hair precisely unkempt, shoes down at heel, clothes rumpled and frayed to perfection. This was the sort of figure I’d been drawn to almost from the beginning; it had somehow suggested sailing expertise, Christmas in St. Anton, inherited box seats, and an easy disregard for all that. By going straight to the disregard I’d hoped to imply the rest. I had also meant to wipe out any trace of the public school virtues — sharpness of dress, keenness of manner, spanking cleanliness, freshness, niceness, sincerity – I used to cultivate.

By now I’d been absorbed so far into my performance that nothing else came naturally. But I never quite forgot that I was performing. In the first couple of years they’d been some spirit of play in crating the part, refining it, watching it pass. There’d been pleasure in implying a personal history through purely dramatic effects of manner and speech without ever committing an expository lie, and pleasure in doubleness itself: there was more to me than people knew!

All that was gone. When I caught myself in the at now I felt embarrassed. It seemed a stale, conventional role, and four years of it had left me a stranger even to those I called my friends.

I wanted out. That was partly why I’d chosen Columbia. I like how the city seethed up against the school, mocking its theoretical seclusion with hustle and noise, the din of people going and getting and making. things that mattered at Princeton or Yale couldn’t possible withstand this battering of raw, unironic life. You didn’t go to eating clubs at Columbia, you went to jazz clubs. You had a girlfriend— no, a lover — with psychiatric problems, and friends with foreign accents. You read newspapers on the subway and looked at tourists with a cool, anthropologicial gaze. You said crosstown express. You said the Village. You ate weird food. No other boy in my class would be going there.

A review of the book on can be found here. — CC

2 Comments on "Performance Anxiety"

  1. See the end of “This Boy’s Life” by Wolff for a classic Ivy dressing up scene at a clothes shop.

  2. Nice to see the Columbia mention. Even half a century later it rings true. They have a little “promo video” on YouTube “a doubled magic” – within the boundaries of the campus you find the greatest ideas of human history, outside the greatest things of your time – to paraphrase Herman Woulk.

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