Our last Roundtable of 2011 considers “California and Bust,” in which superstar business reporter Michael Lewis turns his keen eye away from analyzing European financial problems, looking instead toward the mountain of debt in his home country. The story ran in the November issue of Vanity Fair.
Sunday and enterprise editor, The Dallas Morning News
In “California and Bust,” Michael Lewis uses a bike ride with Arnold Schwarzenegger as a narrative thread, a reporting technique and a metaphor.
Narrative thread. Notice how Lewis starts his section on Arnold with a scene: They meet in the early morning for the bike ride. Lewis then alternates between scenes of the bike ride and expository paragraphs that explain the challenges that Arnold faced as governor. Lewis presents the action with constant motion and precise details. In this passage, pay attention to how the action pulls the reader through the story and adds a bit of suspense.
He hauls a bike off the back of the car, hops on, and takes off down an already busy Ocean Avenue. He wears no bike helmet, runs red lights, and rips past do not enter signs without seeming to notice them and up one-way streets the wrong way. When he wants to cross three lanes of fast traffic he doesn’t so much as glance over his shoulder but just sticks out his hand and follows it, assuming that whatever is behind him will stop. His bike has at least 10 speeds, but he has just 2: zero and pedaling as fast as he can. Inside half a mile he’s moving fast enough that wind-induced tears course down his cheeks.
Reporting technique. Lewis also uses the bike ride as a way to get closer access to Arnold. The ex-governor doesn’t seem to be that reflective a person. Getting him moving and comfortable in his own element – all of that helps the reporter put the subject at ease. The chaotic bike ride also puts Lewis in a vulnerable position, which can also help lower the defenses of people with large egos – like Arnold. In this passage, pay attention to how coming upon a tall brick wall triggers a memory for Arnold – and a revealing anecdote for Lewis’ story.
We’re just a couple of miles in when he zips around a corner and into a narrow alleyway just off Venice Beach. He’s humoring me; I’ve been pestering him about what it was like for him when he first arrived in America, back in 1968, with little money, less English, really nothing but his lats, pecs, traps, and abs, for which there was no obvious market. He stops beside a tall brick wall. It surrounds what might once have been an impressive stone house that now just looks old and bleak and empty. The wall is what interests him, because he built it 43 years ago, right after he had arrived and started to train on Muscle Beach.
Metaphor. Finally, Lewis uses the bike ride to develop a metaphor to describe Arnold’s character: Arnold is improvisational and unpredictable and focused on the future. He rides his bike that way, and he appears to make important decisions that way. In this passage, Lewis makes that metaphorical connection clear.
His life has been a series of carefully staged experiences. He himself has no staged presentation of it, however. He is fresh, alive, and improvisational: I’m not sure even he knows what he will do next… What saves him from self-absorption, aside from a natural curiosity, is a genuine lack of interest in personal reflection. He lives the same way he rides his bike, paying far more attention to what’s ahead than what’s behind.
By taking a bit of a risk – it would be safer to do an office interview, and lots of things could go wrong during a bike ride interview – Lewis develops a narrative that offers us fresh insight into the one and only Arnold.
Managing editor, The Virginian-Pilot
This story is like an onion, and it should make you cry.
Michael Lewis starts broadly, with a sad prognosis for the U.S. economy. Then he deftly peels back layers and moves you to the heart of the problem. It goes like this: the nation’s economy is perched on the states’ economies, which are perched on all those cities, which are in a heap of trouble. Yes, with a capital T.
What Lewis does so effectively is take his time. Economics is not easy, and most folks are going to steer clear of a story that tries to dissect the underlying issues. Taking it step by step, Lewis makes it easy to understand and thereby, keep reading.
Along the way, I was struck by a few patterns – Lewis uses simple language to explain complex ideas. He chooses characters battling for the greater good. And he moves readers from one level to another with a familiar rhythm.
On language. Lewis discusses how Meredith Whitney tried to break down the country into zones, to better understand who was in good shape and who was faring poorly. And then he let her colorfully explain why one state wasn’t going to come to another’s rescue – “Indiana is going to be like, ‘N.F.W. I’m bailing out New Jersey.’ ”
Yup, easy to see that.
Lewis discusses Schwarzenegger’s early days in office:
He behaved pretty much as Americans seem to imagine the ideal politician should behave: he made bold decisions without looking at polls; he didn’t sell favors; he treated his opponents fairly; he was quick to acknowledge his mistakes and to learn from them; and so on.
Yup, he failed miserably.
Lewis also discusses – for wonderful context – modern Americans. And here again, simplicity:
“Human beings are wandering around with brains that are fabulously limited,” a neuroscientist says cheerfully. “We’ve got the core of the average lizard.”
Yup, future’s not looking good.
On characters. Lewis introduces folks who have fought – or are fighting – for financial stability. They are people we’ve heard of – Whitney and Schwarzenegger – and those we haven’t – Chuck Reed, Phil Batchelor and Paige Meyer. He gives us only what we need about each to feel a connection.
On Schwarzenegger: “He lives the same way he rides his bike, paying far more attention to what’s ahead than what’s behind.”
On Batchelor and his fellow city employees: “They were survivors of a shipwreck on a life raft with limited provisions.”
On Meyer, the firefighter: “ ‘I needed to learn to control my environment,’ he said. ‘I’d had this false sense of security.’ ”
On handoffs. Check these out:
• “So what’s the scariest state?” I asked her.
She had to think for only about two seconds.
•“Which city do you pity most?” I ask just before the elevator doors close.
They laugh and in unison say, “Vallejo!”
•“How do you change the culture of an entire city?” I asked him.
“First of all we look internally,” he said.
It might seem gimmicky to create a pattern like this. I thought it worked well as a way to wrap up one entity and move to the next. It quickly signals, OK, we’re done at this level and we’re going to peel away.
Back to structure. A story like this is effective because the writer is controlling the journey. Think of yourselves as teachers. You have the material and you have to figure out how you’re going to get your students to learn. Not everyone learns the same way, but you can’t go wrong when you’re patient and deliberate.
For full bios of the Roundtable editors, see our introductory post.
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