Different people want to know different things when you tell them you're having lunch with Michael Lewis.
Financial guys who read his "Liar's Poker" wonder whether he regrets becoming an ink-stained wretch when he could have remained a bond salesman and been filthy rich by now. MTV fans want to know what it's like being married to Tabitha "Rock the Vote" Soren. Silicon Valley types want his take on the Nasdaq crash, given the success of "The New New Thing," his bestseller about tech mogul Jim Clark. New Republic readers want to know what was up with that ode he wrote to his second wife's hind end. Yuppies want to know whether it was fabulous to have spent the last year writing a Paris diary. East Coast snobs want to know if it's true that he has up and moved to California.
Unfortunately, Lewis' assignment on this day is to discuss his new book, "Next: The Future Just Happened" (W.W. Norton), which was written in tandem with a BBC documentary that aired on A&E; earlier this week. So "Next" things first:
It is lunch hour in a sushi bar in the loft district that last year was crawling with dot-commers and that this year is not as busy, though the crowd is typically young. The author is 40 and looks 30. (Think Michael J. Fox, only taller.) He tells self-deprecating tales on his more adolescent shortcomings. (How, for example, he and Soren recently had a yard sale and he couldn't help whipping a volume out of a box of old books and--"Look! This is me!"--showing a neighbor how he'd written the introduction.) Nonetheless, the boyish writer seems old in this hip hangout, with its pulsating techno music and Japanimation decor.
This fits the premise of "Next," which is a sampler of ways in which Lewis contends the Internet has shuffled social status by opening up information once available only to experts--and the forum for distributing it--to anyone with a computer, especially kids. Outsiders are inside now, he argues; amateurs are replacing experts; adolescents are being taken as seriously as adults because, on the Internet, no one knows they aren't adults.
"Next" goes looking for ways in which online information and power have weakened old-boy networks by enabling individuals to take center stage, with or without the once-requisite experience and credentials. The book ends with chapter after chapter featuring just the sort of people who'd like a cartoon-decked restaurant, namely kids.
The book--which was excerpted in the New York Times, only to be harshly reviewed by the paper's book critics for seeming too much like a collection of freelance pieces--features a cast of characters who will be familiar to readers of the New York Times Magazine. There's Marcus Arnold of Perris, Calif., the 15-year-old kid whose fixation with Court TV turns him into the top-ranked legal expert on AskMe.com. There is Jonathan Lebed, the New Jersey teen who enraged the Securities Exchange Commission by mastering the art of manipulating stock values online. There is Daniel Sheldon, whose Web site on the peer-to-peer movement--the direct sharing of music and other intellectual property without the use of middlemen or central computers--impressed Lewis with its "shining intelligence." Then he found out that Sheldon was a 14-year-old in a drab brick house in a British suburb.
"Kids just kept popping up," Lewis says, laughing at his search for telling anecdotes starring people who weren't minors. In the book, he wrote that "I was accustomed to being younger than my subjects. All of a sudden I was the weird old guy who hangs around outside the school gate and waits for the bell to ring." Lewis contends that the Internet's capacity for anonymity attracted and empowered adolescents because they, more than adults, are open to novelty and are interested in playing roles. But then he strains his argument to claim that, if Internet usage has exploded, it is because society itself has been "grabbing for a new set of masks"--an analysis that rings strangely as Internet mania has sunken into tech depression.
Several critics, who in the past have lavished praise on Lewis' intelligence and fine, witty writing, have been less kind to "Next." Its thrust, some have said, may have been new while Lewis was writing, but it reads like an artifact of the '90s now. His writing is wonderful as usual, others said, but his examples illustrate nothing except that--surprise--lonely, depressed adolescents are still as irritating as they are poignant. Some accused him of hyping the impact of Internet "experts"; others accused him of downplaying the real damage that can be done when children are taken too seriously by credulous people. Still others accused Lewis of naivete and shallow thinking. "The popular media have always tended to portray digital culture in binary terms of alarm (pornographers, hackers, thieves) or hype (everything will change forever)," tech author Jon Katz wrote in the Wall Street Journal. "Mr. Lewis seems to be falling into the latter trap."
Lewis acknowledges that "there are things I don't like about the book, but they're things I don't like about the subject--mainly that it has to be broken up by its nature, so there's no narrative." Also, not surprisingly, he regrets having allowed so much of it to have been published early. His belief that the Internet revolution is only beginning, however, is something for which he doesn't apologize. The online world is not going away, he notes, and despite the economic downturn, Silicon Valley "has this endless capacity for self-reinvention. I don't know how, but I have no doubt it will reinvent itself."
"Nobody had been let into Jonathan Lebed's life, and the terms [dictated by Lebed's lawyer] of my being allowed in were that it had to run as a magazine article first," Lewis says. The decision meant that a big chunk of the slender book was old news by the time it was published. "I wish I hadn't done that," he says.
But enough about "Next." On to the Inquiring Minds. And, in answer to the fans of Lewis' first book, "Liar's Poker," no, he doesn't regret becoming a writer.
"For a year, it was a gas," Lewis says of his stint at Salomon Brothers, where he made $500,000 dollars in his mid-20s selling specialized bonds. "But then it just became about making money." At the time, he was just out of the London School of Economics by way of Princeton University, where he'd been an art history major. Throughout his Wall Street period, he had been writing freelance magazine articles under pen names and gathering string for "Liar's Poker."
"I remember when I got the book contract to write 'Liar's Poker,' and it was a British and American sale and, I forget the advance, but the number that sticks in my mind was $56,000, or about that. It was a 10th of what I was going to make the next year at Salomon Brothers, and I was so excited I was jumping up and down," he recalls. "And my father [an old-line New Orleans attorney] goes, 'You're not going to do this, are you?' And I said, 'You bet I'm going to do this! This is what I've been living for!' And he goes, 'No-no-no-no. No. You want to stay. Just a couple of years. Put it in perspective. Stay. Couple more years. Get rich. Perspective.' And I said, 'No-no-no-no. No. Gotta do it. Gotta do it now."'
Lewis, then barely 30, went from the trading floor to becoming a successful magazine writer even as his first marriage, to his college sweetheart, went under. "In a flurry of sexual indiscretion, I met this woman, married her 10 days after I met her, justice of the peace in New York, just kind of went and did it, don't know why--well, I do know why," he laughs.
The second wife, model-turned-business writer Kate Bohner, became the unnamed subject of a hilarious, revealing and bizarrely controversial essay in the New Republic. Readers freaked at Lewis' references to his 'terrifyingly beautiful" wife with the "perfectly shaped bottom" that drew crowds in airports. "One does not merely marry a beautiful woman," he wrote, "one is cast in the Sancho Panzaesque role of Witness to Beauty."
The response was scathing. "It is discouraging to know that one of your staffers has nothing better to write about than how women are sex objects," one reader huffed. "Our household is laying odds on how long the Michael Lewis-Bloomingdale's model marriage will hold up," another reader wrote--presciently, as it turned out. The marriage ended a short time later, though not before Lewis could fire off his response to the critics: "And she can cook, too."
"It was just a funny little piece, meant to be touching," Lewis says. "If I'd written it for Elle magazine, nobody would have paid attention to it." In 1997--a year in which one of his ex-girlfriends told Vanity Fair that Lewis should have "psychotherapy for the rest of his life, and a warning label"--he married Soren, the MTV personality he had met while the two were covering the campaign trail. Soren, Lewis said happily, liked the New Republic piece. On the subject of his personal life, however, Lewis is more poignant.
"Never in the world would it have occurred to me, or anyone who knows me, that I would have been in the position of being twice divorced at the age of 33 or 34," he says. "I'd never been in a situation where the casual, off-the-cuff joke at the dinner party was going to be me. I felt like maybe a black person would feel sitting at dinner parties and hearing racist jokes--'Oh, he's the guy who's been married three times.' It was shorthand for some larger set of negative traits that weren't mine, really. Being married twice, that's no problem. Everybody's been married twice. Two marriages are the new one marriage. But three is the new two, and I've crossed a line."
He has since gone on to give the world even more journalism about Michael Lewis, publishing a diary in Slate of his and Soren's brief move to Paris last year after the birth of their aughter. Slate readers learned of Lewis' dislike for France, Soren's list-making, Lewis' bossy psychotherapist French teacher and Soren's heavier load in the child-care department. So in answer to the yuppie question: No, Paris wasn't fabulous.
In fact, Lewis and his family are back in the United States and now live in a big, renovated Craftsman house in Berkeley, a community they became attached to while they taught journalism there before the trip to France. And what's next for the new, new Californian, now that he's been a trader, a writer, an expatriate diarist and a subject of Vanity Fair speculation? That old California standby, of course--a screenplay on Silicon Valley, and perhaps a documentary series with Soren.