It's no secret that the Washington Post Company, home to one of America's most important and revered newspapers, is floundering. The company's once booming education business, Kaplan, has cooled significantly in recent quarters, and ad revenues in both print and online are also down. Fighting to keep its head above water, the Post Co. has now done what many dying people do: turned to hospice care.
"What is kidult?" asks an impatient thirtysomething Hong Kong entrepreneur delivering a PowerPoint presentation in the most memorable story in this month's Harper's. Wong is bald, disheveled and — he confesses without shame to his audience of harried retail buyers — hungover. But he is happy! In a decidedly mercenary, mirthless industry (toys: the margins are crap and there's all those lead problems, you know) Wong has made millions on a business idea that can be essentially summarized as the invention of the Happy Meal of "kidults," whereby Wong's limited-edition action figures are packaged with six-packs of San Miguel beer. "I like video games, toys, model, comics book, everything. This is kidult," Wong says, allowing that he has the body of a 35-year-old and the mind of a 5-year-old. To "mix the imagination world and the real world-this is kidult." Wong is a curiously apt symbol of Harper's itself, a magazine at once repulsed/captivated/existentially amused by its own brand of kidulthood. Hey, maybe they should start packaging the magazine with beer! (Or Klonopin?)The obsession with the infantilization of everything that runs through the toy trade fair story - it is ostensibly on DEADLY TOYS! but it is really about how capitalism sucks duh — seems to permeate both the magazine's "real world" of journalism and its "imagination world" of fiction, the latter of which is okay maybe not "embodied by" but for my purposes represented here with last month's opening reading, a short story by Ben Marcus titled On Not Growing Up. And so although I once bought in to a jaded ex-staffer's characterization of the magazine as a "crusty old man" it would actually seem to be Harper's' intimacy with its inner teenage boy that differentiates it from the legion other stapled staples of highbrow required reading. The September issue, by way of example, features: 1. A description of a humping dog toy on display at the aforementioned toy fair whose packaging reads "I hump until disconnected." 2. A retired colonel leading a newly-established cultural-sensitivity hearts/minds unit called the "human terrain team" jokingly imagines an appropriate insignia for his unit to be "a skeleton surfing on a wave of human bodies…all the bodies of all the people that the United States Army has ever subjugated throughout history." ("No, no," the psychological operations (psyop) sergeant cuts in. "A skeleton sitting on a throne of skulls.") 3. Some excerpts from the board game "Vatican." (It is like the "Life" of the Holy See.) "The Holy Spirit intervenes in our favor by appearing to cardinals who had been wavering in their support of you. Earn forty cardinal votes." Hee hee, I love it when the Holy Spirit appears and advises me to, say, write… 4. Retarded-brilliant punny headlines i.e. "Paper Pushkin" and, atop a transcript of the torture-y interrogation of a sixteen-year-old accused of killing a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan, the title "Teen Beat." ** 5. A cover story on Kaplan's burgeoning "No Child Left Behind" business teaching test prep classes wherein an English teacher relates to the author, while they are eating lunch in a nursing home, that he sometimes writes fetish erotica about old people — and also "soft-cock fucking" — to make extra money.* 6. A whole passage on scientific sex studies that determine, among other things, that "men who are narcissistic thrill-seekers also have more sex." Also: "Computers are now better than people at air hockey." I could go on, but I don't actually want to tarnish the platinum prose that sets off these semi-precious little gems!*** The larger point is, Harper's kidulthood is the very thing that is so lovable about it. Part of this is merely a matter of salvaging some of the weirder details other editors would cut "for space."**** There are readers who might find some of that sort of detail gratuitous: reviews of Thomas Frank's book The Wrecking Crew, an excerpt of which***** was last month's Harper's cover story, roundly mocked Frank's fond little asides about his favorite DC hardcore bands such as Government Issue. To such readers I can only say: Fuck you. Because in all seriousness, all this beautiful puerile crap is generally the deliberate result of the magazine's mission to apply a kidlike curiosity to its subjects, more often than not by favoring over the opportunistic time peg or the imperative to Definitively Weigh In On Whatever a degree of participation to every topic it covers, to the point that it's sometimes hard to see why exactly they chose this moment in time to send that guy — and it is usually a guy, unless it is Barbara Ehrenreich — to do that weird thing. Why follow the trail of rubber ducks stranded by a container ship that capsized in the South China sea in 1992? Why hang out with Stevie Wonder at the Super Bowl when the bizarre dispatch won't hit newsstands until the following summer? Why start an inane trend called "flashmobbing" when…hey wait! As it turns out, maybe that's actually the wrong question. Maybe because a good story, to take this back to the opening anecdote, is a little like a toy robot: