Monday, January 12, 2009

Your Man In Saigon III

Way back in March of 08 I was surprised to find a mail in my box from a reader in New York who claimed that Vanity Fair magazine had tread on to The Wild Wild East's turf with their own "Our Man in Saigon" feature. The reader went on to explain that "to your readers, your are our man in Saigon" and wondered what I had thought of the story.

At that point this blog was but a month old and I wondered how I could even have had any readers at such an embrionic stage, but at least one reader there was, and from New York none the less, so I was happy to find any audience at all. A few weeks later I recieved a hard copy of the feature from New York and was able to reference it on the Internet as well. It was interesting, to read a newcomer's view of this city, as I had been here a little over two years at that point, and interesting to read it in a Vanity Fair context. Readers of this blog will certainly not confuse any writing here with the Pulitzer prize winning product of many of the Vanity Fair writers but it was more than curious to read Brian McNally thrust into that context. My comments and introduction to the first story are here.

For those not familiar with all this background suffice to say that Brian McNally is an old friend of Vanity Fair's editor, Graydon Carter, and a former restauranteur of quite some repute in New York. It's not difficult to understand Mr. Carter's fascination with his friend's decamp to Saigon in episode number one, but the second installment, published in November, brings a lot of questions to mind, not in the least Vanity Fair's editorial reasoning and various journalistic responsibilities. I had to ask myself just exactly why they were continuing with what one reviewer termed as Mr. McNally's "walking breakdown" I encourage you to read the entire piece here, but will also run through it briefly with Vanity Fair excerpts in colour, which you can click on to see the original, and my comments attached as follows:

"In Vietnam, if the weather doesn’t claim you—whether by scorching heat, the hair-trigger deluges, or a ravaging cyclone—then the swarming traffic or counterfeit medicine will."

A curious introduction at best, as neither the heat was scorching this last year nor did we experience anything so severe as a cyclone, certainly not as far inland as Saigon is situated - the work of the editorial staff at VF is more than plainly evident in McNally's second Web Exclusive "Letter From Saigon". Gone are the patchy transitions and somewhat coloquialy quaint constructions from his first public entry replaced by strands of pristinely elegant prose that might send the most avid reader, or certainly a second year political science student, to his Wiki or search in hopes of figuring out something like the following:

"No doubt, in the lurid imaginations of Wolfowitz, Perle, and Co., the place is teeming with subversive samizdat cafés, where students and intellectuals, thirsting for democracy, surreptitiously pass mimeographed essays on Thomas Paine from table to table. Apart from the fact that anyone interested in reading essays on Thomas Paine should head straight to the English-language section of any one of a number of bookstores here..."

Aside from being just needlessly erudite, this passage, and a whole political bit around it starts out by violating expat rule number one - "Unless your're a professional journalist or diplomat, stay out of politics in your host country." - and ends by just not being factually responsible in that none of McNally's political wonderings are substantiated for the reader, or other writers, in a way that could illuminate or encourage any positive change - never mind that it's plainly obvious that he's never entered one of the bookstores he references looking for Thomas Paine - of which you will find, of course, absolutely none.

"It’s far more dangerous to expose corruption in Vietnam than to practice it, as the recent widely reported trial of two journalists and two whistle-blowers demonstrated. (Two were sentenced to jail terms for breaking certain vague and paranoid laws such as abusing democratic freedoms and infringing on the interests of the state.)"

I'd be much happier to read McNally's take on restaurants and culture than I would traipse through his political or social ramblings, since in most cases he's way out of his element or just flat wrong, or blind:

"Strip clubs are nonexistent and most bars close at midnight. Scantily clad go-go girls dancing on a stage would be enough to lose a bar its liquor license. Apart from a few streets outside the tourist and ex-pat neighborhoods, street prostitution is represented almost in its entirety by the same two lady-boys who cruise Le Loi Street every night on a moped. There are no brothels that I have ever heard of and, more important, there is no organized crime, and there are no pimps involved in prostitution."

To say there's no organized crime or managed prostitution in a city growing as fast and furiously as Saigon, after having claimed that corruption is rampant in the earlier parts of his story, just doesn't make any fucking sense. And it's not true. I'm quite sure the Vanity Fair code of ethics forbids me to say the word "fucking" but it should also prevent Brian McNally from writing, and Graydon Carter from approving any purported facts about things they don't know fuck all about - since former New York celebrity restauranteurs and Spy magazine writers should not be the first people anyone would pick to route out the underworld in an unknown land.

The absense of any real humanity or real relationships for that matter is what finally permeates this second installment from VF's man-supposedly-in-Saigon. And the question of what he is actually doing here remains yet unanswered.

"There the fashion doyenne who manages to be both genuinely eccentric and genuinely dull, there the Hollywood producer who has written more books than he has read, there the phony English journalist who has been trading for 30 years on an accent that was drowned long ago in the Thames Estuary and, hijacked by happy hour, has rarely seen a sober dusk."

This snippet of carboard cut-out character sketches from New York is about as close as McNally ever gets to relating to people and it's never in a particularly personal nor complimentary fashion, whether in Saigon or New York. It is however evident that he's outgrown New York, at least in his last incarnation, and seems to be spending most of his time contemplating whether there will be anything next, aside from being a VF contributer, or not.

What I get out of the whole exercise at this point, is that a man in a more than influential publishing position has taken a shine to the seemingly curious travails of an old friend from another life and has given him a platform in which to excorcize whatever late-mid-life demons he may have left and that a tourist - an ex-NYC restauranteur as he might have been - is writing his still naive impressions of a place he had only fantasized about through the decor, staff and dishes of a restaurant he once held sway over.

For my readers, after nearly a year on this blog and three posts a week, I will carry on as their Man In Saigon as a worker, resident, writer and provocateur of a city of which I still believe holds the promise that New York may have had for Mr. McNally in his beginning years there.

For the entire "You man in Saigon Experience" check below:

IV: The search for Brian McNally ends
III: The second Vanity Fair Story
II: The first Vanity Fair story
I: Your Man In Saigon"

1 comment:

  1. Hi Mr. David. This is cool. Long time no see. How are you? I am fine. Where are you? Which school are you teaching now?


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