The terrorism of 9/11, the subsequent invasion of Iraq, and the long and elusive "War on Terror" not only created seismic shifts in the economy and foreign policy, but drew heavy dividing lines in American journalism. The Internet was already a beast most major media companies were struggling to comprehend, let alone manage, but the pressure cooker of an attack on the homeland stirred the chaos even more, jumbling ethical loyalties so much that it took years for accurate, objective journalism to regain ground.
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The absurdity of those years has long deserved a satire, and now it has it: "The Last Magazine," a novel by Michael Hastings, a New York-based writer and foreign correspondent who died in 2013 in a car accident. He was 33.
Hastings covered the Iraq war for Newsweek, so it's not a stretch that his protagonist, also named Michael Hastings, is working for its fictional counterpart: The Magazine, an international weekly that is winding its way to irrelevance because of profound apathy toward real-time news via the Internet and a hierarchy of newsroom elites plucked from the Ivy League who profess nothing of value, only the sound of their own voices. This is ripe comic territory, and Hastings' writing cuts deep: The aloof Sanders Berman is a professional pontificator, dry but driven to direct coverage any way the wind is blowing. His nemesis is Nishant Patel, a multilinguist intellect who spends company money lavishly and eventually exits his post to pursue his true calling: that of cable news pundit.
Pleasing these two blowhards takes manipulation, an emerging talent of the fictional Hastings, an eager-to-learn 22-year-old researcher who soon enters the tutelage of A.E. Peoria, a 34-year-old foreign correspondent fueled by sex, meds, booze and self-destruction. While their relationship unpeels with familiarity, the balance of power eventually shifts — imagine Jay Gatsby and Nick Carraway or, for you millennials, Michael Cera blinking at the dizzy rants of Philip Seymour Hoffman.
This is a posthumous work — Hastings' wife discovered the unpublished manuscript on his computer after her husband's death — which inevitably means parts of it read as unpolished or a bit dusty. Frequent interludes in which the writer stepped in to remind readers of the page count, and to estimate how long it will take them to finish, represent a meta-moment from a decade earlier that no longer feels especially provocative. Hastings also clearly enjoyed writing Peoria, and how could he not? The character is poised on the brink of disaster on every page.
But those pages spiral uncontrollably. We hear Peoria's obsession with learning about the failures of century-old writers, despite never having read their work. We also spend a lot of time inside Peoria's mad mind tracking his thoughts as he discovers he is nothing without a byline — not a comforting discovery after being suspended without pay for six months. Hastings also introduced a secret journal Peoria starts to write in the depths of his despair, but it soon vanishes, an early spark that held promise in the narrative but could not be sustained.
Hastings clearly knew this world, and his dialogue pops off the page. His keen eye for the creatures of the New York media universe focuses on the fabricated lifestyles of that world's desperate inhabitants. Here, no one is immune. After skewering the Brooks Brothers literati uptown, Hastings turns to the downtown digital kids, presumably the kind filling The Daily Beast, Gawker and other new media operations, and who operate within the same boho dross Jay McInerney first wrote about three decades ago:
They are important, or believe in their own importance, even if only expressed with the required self-mockery. They aren't artists, and not really a community of writers, either: they are bloggers, and their focus is each other. They are hyper-consumers; they don't write, they create content, stripping away any pretense of some larger ethos or goal except that it is somehow hip, rebellious — though they'd never use those words and they mock hipsters and rebellion too. A desire to be noticed and to criticize the criticizers of the world, to gain its acceptance by rejecting it, breeding a strange kind of apathy and nihilism and ambition, floating in a kind of morally barren world ...
The observation holds true today, when reporting a story and reporting on the reporting of a story occupy the same space, amplifying the noise. As on-point as these observations are, Hastings also managed a plot, and it involves Peoria saving a soldier's life during an ambush in Iraq — an event that understandably changes his life but also returns to him, unexpectedly, once he's settled into the routine of a Barnard College journalism professor. Peoria is falling from the start of the novel, and Hastings punted him further down the rabbit hole. A debauched night in Bangkok is a particular highlight, especially because Hastings wrote with woozy rhythm and an emphasis on absurd detail.
History frames this story, and foreign policy decisions based on deceit put these wheels in motion. The suffering amid the insufferable is comic gold, and Hastings had no time for heroes. The world he created is filled with lost boys stamping their feet for validation. This could be the perfect summer bro comedy. Paging Judd Apatow!
Mark Guarino is a staff writer at The Christian Science Monitor, where he covers national news and culture from the Midwest.
"The Last Magazine"
By Michael Hastings, Blue Rider, 337 pages, $26.95Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun