for the Pranks
Sound of No Hands Clapping
DeCapo/Perseus, 288 pages, $24.95
There are very few reasons to pay serious attention to Toby
Young’s second memoir, The Sound of No Hands Clapping.
That’s because Mr. Young is 42 years old and, yes, you read
it right, this is his second memoir. Unless you’re a first-person
prodigy along the lines of, say, Mark Twain or David Sedaris,
is there any reason to have two memoirs at this age?
Aside from the prodigiously talented, exceptions can be made
for those raised by paraplegic Kangaroos, but being ambitious
and British hardly seems compelling enough for a $24 book.
Or so you might think . . .
Other reasons to dislike Toby Young: He’s as vapid and fame-starved
as the cast of a thousand Real Worlds. And the critical
eye he capably turns on pop culture, love and marriage somehow
dissipates when it comes to himself. Or at least his overarching
desire for fame. Why does he uproot his wife from London to
L.A. to pursue a screenwriting career he can easily have from
home? Why does he hire paparazzi to stalk a producer who won’t
return his calls? Why is his self-worth so wrapped up in the
very same careerism his first memoir ultimately, and vehemently,
Don’t think about this too much.
In How To Lose Friends and Alienate People, Young fell
(hard) from a seemingly enviable journalistic perch at Vanity
Fair magazine, where he upset movie stars and his editor,
Graydon Carter. Years later, married and returned to London,
his gaze is still fixed on America, but this time it’s the
Hollywood film business instead of its satellite-celebrity
industrial complex. Contracted by what he assures us is a
Very Powerful Hollywood Producer—name omitted for legal reasons—Young
busies himself adapting a book about a legendary disco-era
record producer into a screenplay. Only it never really takes
and, at risk of being reductive, drama ensues.
At the same time, Young has become a father and, oddly enough,
an actor while holding down a day job he admits being totally
unqualified for: theater critic. None of this is terrifically
exciting, mind you, but the thing about Young is that, despite
so many reasons to dislike him, he is genuinely funny and
charming—while being a complete ass.
Case in point: His account of his short-lived cub-reporter
gig at The Times (of London). Rather than work his
way up a promising career ladder, he hacks into the company
computer network and releases the salary details of the entire
editorial staff. Logged in as the boss of his supervisor,
he does things like this: “When he got to work 15 minutes
late one morning I sent him a message, purporting to be from
the editor, saying, ‘Move your fucking car. It’s in my space.’
He leapt out of his chair as if he’d received a jolt from
a cattle prod.”
To most mortals this would seem an astoundingly poor move:
The prank payout being outweighed by its consequences. To
Young, however, such mischief is as inevitable as exhaling.
Yet unlike his real life, Young the writer has great instinct
for knowing how far he can push our tolerance for foibles.
So embedded in his painless, but indulgent, romps are many
compelling insights into the life of a successful, if not
iconic, writer. Also buried in these pages are some great
exchanges between Young and a Hollywood “industry” friend
in Los Angeles about screenwriting in particular and the creative
process in general. It’s a mix of technique and tough love
that’s more interesting than this review might suggest.
Sound is hardly a book without problems. Young’s self-deprecation
is shticky, in part because his knack for making a royal twat
of himself grows suspect due to its preternatural frequency.
However, in most cases, the funny manages to cancel out the
megalomania and the skepticism regarding its authenticity.
Maybe it’s because Americans instinctively put British folk
on a pedestal of erudition, it’s a welcome relief to find
a Brit who’s book-smart and a complete imbecile. In his first
memoir, an exasperated Graydon Carter tells Young he’s “like
a British person born in New Jersey.” It’s meant as a slight,
of course, though it’s not totally untrue. Young couldn’t
buy couth in a Greenwich country club with a fistful of Vanderbilt
zygotes. But thank goodness for that because it’s what makes
his memoirs work. He’s a tacky Brit just interesting enough
to make us care, with the self-deprecating stupidity to make
us laugh and the decency to keep his acting career confined
to the stage. If only more British people were born in the
Garden State . . .