A while back I posted an appreciation of Adam Gopnik, who writes with grace and humor on just about everything. (Slightly earlier, I had posted Babbling Babes, which referred to his sister’s work on infant language. It’s GopnikWorld here at languagehat.) Having finally gotten around to the Sept. 30 New Yorker (it’s tough keeping up with all the periodicals), I just finished his “Bumping into Mr. Ravioli” and had to write another paean. This piece starts off as a charming description of his daughter’s imaginary playmate:
My daughter Olivia, who just turned three, has an imaginary friend whose name is Charlie Ravioli. Olivia is growing up in Manhattan, and so Charlie Ravioli has a lot of local traits: he lives in an apartment “on Madison and Lexington,” he dines on grilled chicken, fruit, and water, and, having reached the age of seven and a half, he feels, or is thought, “old.” But the most peculiarly local thing about Olivia’s imaginary playmate is this: he is always too busy to play with her….
On a good day, she “bumps into” her invisible friend and they go to a coffee shop. “I bumped into Charlie Ravioli,” she announces at dinner (after a day when, of course, she stayed home, played, had a nap, had lunch, paid a visit to the Central Park Zoo, and then had another nap). “We had coffee, but then he had to run.” She sighs, sometimes, at her inability to make their schedules mesh, but she accepts it as inevitable, just the way life is. “I bumped into Charlie Ravioli today,” she says. “He was working.” Then she adds brightly, “But we hopped into a taxi.” What happened then? we ask. “We grabbed lunch,” she says.
He and his wife are a little worried, and he consults his sister, the child psychologist. She says there’s nothing to worry about; “most under-sevens (sixty-three per cent, to be scientific) have an invisible friend, and children create their imaginary playmates not out of trauma but out of a serene sense of the possibilities of fiction.” (I was amazed by the 63% figure, by the way; why didn’t I have one?)
I paused. “I grasp that it’s normal for her to have an imaginary friend,” I said, “but have you ever heard of an imaginary friend who’s too busy to play with you?”
She thought about it. “No,” she said. “I’m sure that doesn’t occur anywhere in the research literature. That sounds completely New York.” And then she hung up.
From there he goes into a discussion of why modern urbanites in general, and New Yorkers in particular, are so busy all the time when their ancestors didn’t have the problem (“Pepys, master of His Majesty’s Navy, may never have complained of busyness, but Virginia Woolf, mistress of motionless lull, is continually complaining about how she spends her days racing across London…”), and segues back to the playmate (“Charlie Ravioli, in other words, was just another New Yorker: fit, opinionated, and trying to break into show business”). Then the story takes a turn that it would be churlish to reveal, but the last page is a touching little minidrama that many authors would have made a whole meal out of rather than just dessert—it reminds me of Mozart’s penchant for tossing in a couple of totally new melodies towards the end of a sonata-form movement when nobody expects him to do anything but restate the key he started in. Sorry, it’s not online, but it will be in his next collection. Buy it.
(Incidentally, a few pages after “Mr. Ravioli” there’s a cartoon showing a grumpy little boy lying in bed and his father, sitting on a stool with a book open in his hand, saying “It’s not about the story. It’s about Daddy taking time out of his busy day to read you the story.” Probably coincidental, but a nice juxtaposition.)
Update: The Gopnik piece “The Cooking Game” that I wrote about earlier is now online here.
Further update (Aug. 25, 2006): “Mr. Ravioli” is now available as a pdf file! (Scans of the original magazine pages, sometimes a bit hard to read, but far, far better than nothing.)