Mondays at 10 a.m., under routine circumstances, Random House editor Daniel Menaker should be tearing through meetings and correspondence in his glass-and-steel office at 201 East 50th Street with all the verve of a former Swarthmore soccer team captain who for 25 years edited fiction and nonfiction at the New Yorker. But these days, Menaker's circumstances are not so routine. Knopf has just published his first novel, The Treatment, and the veneer Menaker has long projected of the jaunty editor-about-town and literary dynamo, ever ready to run marathons on behalf of the books that he publishes, has begun to fray around the edges like an old pair of running shoes.
"What I miss most is sleep," says Menaker, fixing PW with an owlish gaze. "I was very cavalier about writing The Treatment. I thought when it came to actual publication, I would be fine. I've been completely blindsided by how hard it is. It's like a little blotter soaking up the ink of time."
A compactly built man with a plume of gray hair and a Chaplinesque mustache, Menaker is sitting in the living room of the apartment he shares with his two children and his wife, Katherine Bouton, the former deputy editor of the New York Times Book Review and now an editor at the Times Magazine. With its antiquated hi-fi system, a stand-up piano and a view overlooking the multitiered rooftops of the Upper West Side, the place seems an oasis of calm in an otherwise turbulent day.
Menaker has been on the opposite side of a book contract before (his short story collections, Friends and Relations, and The Old Left, appeared from Doubleday and Knopf, respectively, in 1976 and 1987). He knows the shuck and jive that job often requires -- from book tours and interviews to tactical meetings with his longtime agent, Esther Newberg, and his editor, Sonny Mehta -- but his two vocations have never proven quite so hard to juggle. Propping one black -- Reeboked foot on his coffee table, he describes, with a deadpan expression, the mini-identity crisis this book has occasioned. "I have to jump back and forth from one side of the desk to the other," he says. "At one point, I'm avuncular, reassuring, explanatory; the other times, I'm needy, narcissistic, insecure. It's very strange. It's a kind of literary version of Jekyll and Hyde."
How appropriate, therefore, that The Treatment is the story of a divided self -- Jake Singer, a 32-year-old prep-school teacher in the 1970s belatedly battling the conflicting forces of adulthood and adolescence, irony and commitment and the long-unexamined ramifications of his mother's death. Jake's own identity crisis is reflected through his extremely vexed relationship with a shrink, Dr. Ernesto Morales. And Dr. Morales isn't just any shrink. He's The Last Freudian. A sardonic, weight-lifting, devoutly Catholic Cuban, whose English is hilariously ham-fisted, Morales takes up residence in Jake's superego like some Star Chamber inquisitor, crusading against repression, denial and all of the presently unfashionable bugbears of Freudian psychoanalysis.
The foibles of such "treatment" may, at first glance, seem a new target for Menaker's satirical arrows. But in fact, his short stories have often explored the workings of the unconscious -- jokes, dreams, the mind's ability to accommodate death, loss and random coincidence. And, as Menaker quips, "I've certainly had an encounter or two with the couch as other than furniture myself." What began as a sequence of shorter pieces in the New Yorker involving Jake and Morales soon evolved into a tale of two families in uptown Manhattan and the Berkshires -- the antipodes of Menaker's fictional world -- thrown together by a set of coincidences so uncanny as to shatter Jake's presupposition that life conforms to rational principles.
"If there's any really sustained idea in The Treatment," he says, "it's the idea of accidents, the disparity between the way we comprehend and direct our lives and the reality underneath, which is that those beliefs are simply the mind's efforts at constructing a story out of our reality. "The idea of brute circumstance," Menaker continues, "is very hard for us to deal with. We meet up with people and events in a way that is completely random. These are the great imponderables." Brute circumstances have supervened before in Menaker's life. When he was 26 and a private school teacher, his older brother died from septicemia following routine knee surgery. "Trying to make sense of that event probably did more to make me want to write than anything else," he says.
Making sense of his family, whose history suggests the outline of a tumultuous triple-decker novel, no doubt played its own part. His mother, the descendant of New York WASPs, was an editor at Fortune magazine, "a capitalist tool," Menaker says, whose circle in the 1930s and '40s was nevertheless full of socialists -- James Agee, John Kenneth Galbraith and Walker Evans among them. Menaker's paternal grandparents were Russian émigrés who named their seven sons after radical social thinkers. Menaker père was Robert Owen Menaker, and there was a William Morris Menaker. Most indelible of all, however, was Frederick Engels Menaker -- the lover of gay Olympic decathlete Tom Waddell, the owner of a Berkshires farmhouse later bequeathed to his nephew; and "a central character in my life," says Menaker, "in some ways more than my father and mother."
The loosely connected stories in The Old Left (and to a lesser degree, Friends and Relations), in which a 30-something teacher/journalist contends with marriage and fatherhood, the memory of a brother's sudden death, and an irascible older uncle, seem lifted largely from these events. "There are huge pieces of fiction in it," he says of The Old Left, but "as with most fiction, it consists, as Eliot said, of shoring up one's fragments against disorder."
There at the New Yorker
Menaker's blazing career at the New Yorker, which ended when he was poached by Harry Evans at Random House in 1994, was no less tumultuous. Reflecting on the upheaval that's transformed that magazine over the last two decades, Menaker doesn't disguise his ambivalence about William Shawn's stewardship, and while he's careful to credit "the standards and rigor I learned there," he is equally adamant about distancing himself from the cult of Shawn so sharply evoked by the recent memoirs of Ved Mehta and Lillian Ross.
After arriving there as a fact-checker in 1969, Menaker immediately fell out of step with the New Yorker old guard and, as he tells it, found it impossible to suppress his unhappiness. "Shawn's New Yorker was not a place to be obstreperous," he says. "And I was."
When Shawn printed an article on the Constitution with which Menaker disagreed, he fired off a letter meant for publication attacking the piece. As a copyeditor he was antagonistic toward the work that came his way. He complained about being forced to keep late hours. He told Shawn he found Elizabeth Drew's Watergate diary "much too long and boring." In 1976, there was a union drive at the magazine, and Menaker was the only editor to sign the union card.
Such defiance, he says, was "desperately out of keeping with the atmosphere of the office. There was a slight s&m atmosphere between underlings and overlings that prevailed, and if you spoke up it was considered a sacrilege."Not long after his arrival at the magazine, Menaker was asked to leave. He was saved, he recalls, only by the intervention of William Maxwell, who began grooming him for a job in the fiction department. During Maxwell's final three months at the New Yorker in 1975, Menaker worked in the eminent editor's office, "literally across the table from him." As a fiction editor, the chips began to fall into place for Menaker, not least because, as he puts it, he "calmed down a little. As people began sending me more stuff, my opinions became a little more confident."
Although he won't comment on the magazine's contents these days, the commercialization of the New Yorker clearly suited him well. With the succession first of Robert Gottlieb and then of Tina Brown, Menaker's stock continued to rise. "As the New Yorker became less its old self and more its new self, I did better and better," he recalls. "First of all, I was older and had more experience, but also I was out from under the weight of the years of the old New Yorker. That kind of melted away. Perhaps ultimately to the New Yorker's literary detriment. But to my personal advantage."
He also found his job evolving into something resembling a book editor, his dealings with the world of commerce and hype extending well beyond the hermetic politics of his department. "I had had a tuxedo on once in 25 years before Tina came," he recalls. "The first year Tina was there, I had a tuxedo on five or six times because the New Yorker became a functionfest. Working there as an editor suddenly became much more broad. You had to host a party, you had to arrange a photo shoot. And that purity of reading, editing and corresponding was gone. In its place was something much more zesty and open to the world. For better or worse or both."
When Menaker was named Random House senior literary editor in 1994, he was therefore prepared for all but the technical aspects of the job; those skills he learned under Ann Godoff's protective wing. "I don't think I had an hour's conversation with Harry after he hired me," Menaker says. "Ann did everything. In fact, she didn't have to do anything, because I wasn't her hire. She led me step by step through the acquisitions process."
But nothing could have prepared him for the first novel he published at Random House, Primary Colors. Like other surprise bestsellers, the novel landed on his desk with little fanfare. Evans asked him to read it over a weekend, Menaker was hooked and bought it for what was reported to be $200,000. The rest is publishing history. "It just exploded. It was like holding a bomb -- a good bomb -- in your hand. It just went off," he says. Menaker insists he didn't know the author's identity (all editing was done through the agent, Kathy Robbins) until five minutes before the notorious press conference in July 1996. "I went to Kathy's office," he recalls. "She said to me, 'I want you to meet Anonymous.' She opened a door and there was J ." Some might say that Menaker has left one old boy's club for another, given his close affiliations with the Random House-New Yorker-New York Times Book Review axis through which so many prominent trade books pass. With the exception of Jonathan Kellerman, whom Menaker now edits, the books on his list are in the midlist range -- Deborah Garrison's A Working Girl Can't Win, Julie Hecht's Nothing But You and George Saunders's CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, for example. But all have posted strong sales following stellar reviews and widespread publicity.
Menaker admits he's an efficient pitch man. He has bitter memories of how The Old Left was "left sort of dangling slowly in the wind" when his editor, Alice Quinn left Knopf for the New Yorker, and he knows all too well that without an editor hustling for such a book, its prospects dwindle. "When I believe in a book do I call everybody in town? Yes. Do they listen? Sometimes."Ever since I was 13 and liked to pick which doo-wop song would be number one on the hit parade, I've had a great proselytizing spirit for movies and records that I thought were worthwhile. I want to share them. But I also have the great advantage of really believing in the work I'm doing. I'm trying to sell good books to an audience that I think still exists for good books. So I have a kind of vestigial New Yorker idealism about what I think good writing can do for people and how it can create a community and change the way you look at the world."