The profiles Mark Singer writes for “The New Yorker” are as wry and intricate as the idiosyncratic details they contain. Singer’s style is to shovel detail atop detail in restrained, intelligent prose and slowly, these seemingly inane facts accrue meaning — ultimately, they add up to a complete person.
Similarly, Singer’s stories gain significance and are best when read together. In the nine shorts collected in his newest book, “Character Studies: Encounters with the Curiously Obsessed”, Singer sinks his teeth into the possessed personalities of both average and celebrated Americans, and his accomplishment grows clearer with the turning of every page. Obsession becomes a quality shared by author, subject and reader, and despite the alarming specificity of these profiles, Singer subtly works on a broad canvas. By the end, he has managed to map the contours of the human population.
The book begins with a story on legendary magician Ricky Jay. The true sleight of hand, however, belongs to Singer. Though Jay is Singer’s good friend, the author avoids outright praise and never allows his personality to shape the story. Instead, Singer submerges and renders Jay with objective empathy. Unlike other giants of creative non-fiction (namely Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe), Singer’s work is selfless — his old soul and sharp, quiet voice belong alongside “New Yorker” legends E.B. White and Joseph Mitchell.
Intriguingly, Mitchell is the subject of Singer’s most moving profile, “Joe Mitchell’s Secret.” Mitchell worked as a newspaper reporter for sixty-five years and spent his best days at “The New Yorker”. There, in 1964, he serialized his slanted, enchanting biography, “Joe Gould’s Secret,” the story of an egomaniac vagrant with a Harvard degree and an unpublished masterpiece. For the next thirty-two years, Mitchell went to his office every day but published no more than, by Singer’s count, two thousand words. Secretaries heard his typewriter ring, he’d write epic notes to his children, but there was never another book. That Mitchell’s writing serves as Singer’s model makes the entire episode all the more poignant.
In these moments, Singer reminds readers of his genre’s possibilities and limitations. Profiles aren’t just a place to satirize the ignorant and sentimentalize the indigent. Even worse are the standard celebrity profiles that riddle magazine covers, treating their subjects as sacred and never pushing past the publicist-vetted, innocuous answers. This glossy, surface reporting isn’t Singer’s territory: his affection is only matched by his intellect. He poses questions to his subjects, but also his readers.
For Singer, the true question is whether Mitchell’s writing can ever be as compelling as his silence. Mitchell’s legacy haunts the hallways of “The New Yorker” and its reporters. “There were so many other things to talk about with Joe Mitchell,” Singer writes. “[Mitchell] easily became animated and [he] stammered with a marvelous coherence, editing each sentence as he uttered it, so that it never quite got completed before the next interesting thought tumbled from his brain.” For Mitchell, it was both a blessing and a curse to have the heart and head of a writer. Even when he stopped writing, he remained a journalist.
Like his hero, Singer’s a consummate reporter. His rare stumbles come when he lurches into the celebrity profile.
“Although I proposed most of the assignments,” Singer explains, “It was more or less under duress that I agree to write profiles of [Donald] Trump and [Martin] Scorcese … My aversion to interviewing and writing about celebrated people is grounded in my expectation that I’m unlikely to ask a question that hasn’t previously been asked or to evoke a reply that hasn’t already been published elsewhere.”
Singer’s fears prove apt. These profiles offer the stunning revelations that Marty likes making movies and Donald really likes himself. No surprises there. Still, the profiles aren’t without their fun. In the Trump piece, Singer writes, “In attempting to ascertain the content of his interior life, I’d been forced to grapple with the possibility that he lacked a soul.”
He never finds Trump’s soul, but no matter. Throughout the book, Singer’s pen pokes past the flesh in a search for something unique and essential: the drives and desires that make his subjects, his readers and himself, all human. “Our obsessions don’t choose us,” He says, perhaps winking. “We choose them.”