Robert Fulford's review of Lunch with Jan Wong

(The National Post, October 14, 2000)

Alan Thicke, Canadian-born talk show host, buttered his roll and sprinkled salt over it. He poured salt on his salad, too, and on his risotto. Jan Wong made notes, described his actions in her Globe and Mail column, and brought down on his head the terrible swift sword of her contempt. Thicke, she wrote, "eats like he never left Kirkland Lake."

When I read that remark over breakfast on April 16, 1998, I laughed aloud. It was a nervous laugh, mingling horror and delight. That was a horrible thing to say about Thicke and his home town. It was mean. Yet it was also honest, Wong's crude natural response. Wong displays her prejudices in the open, and she has prejudices that most of us can barely imagine. Salting your roll is eccentric, and probably leads to high blood pressure, but does it call for a gross insult in a national daily paper?

Only Wong would answer, "Yes." Wong is unique among journalists in her shamelessness. In a period that universally condemns snobbery, she has the courage (call it perverse courage if you like) to present herself as a blatant snob, superior to all those around her and thus entitled to make harsh appraisals of everything from their table manners to their conversation. A Jan Wong interview has all the charm of a train wreck, complete with the moaning of the survivors. With Wong, every day is Judgment Day, and she's a hanging judge.

The Alan Thicke interview appears in Lunch with Jan Wong. This collection of columns, decorated with a few afterthoughts and an occasional fresh fact, brings together some mildly interesting observations about mainly uninteresting people. But it is rarely boring. It tells us only a little about each subject, but it amounts to an extensive portrait of Wong.

She's an unusual character, a mixture of spunk, rancour and pride, with an imperious way of pulling rank on both her readers and her subjects. Jan Wong has been to hell and back, and she wants us to know it: "My years in China toughened me for the celebrity beat. After witnessing the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre, I'm only mildly unnerved by a celebrity hissy fit."

Does she understand that many readers will see that as braggadocio? Certainly she scores low marks on self-awareness. Otherwise, she couldn't write, "Mostly, a meal has a civilizing effect on people." She's explaining why her victims never stomp out of the restaurant, even if she asks about their breast augmentation, but she apparently doesn't realize that many readers will wonder why a meal doesn't have a civilizing effect on Jan Wong.

Her amused nastiness enrages some readers and excites others, but it's not just an attention-getting device. It seems to flow naturally from her, as much a part of her personality as her mischievous smile, her easy charm, and her admirable devotion to the craft of writing. She loves the damaging detail. Helen Gurley Brown hogged the breadbasket, taking all the focaccia and cornbread, then ate her salad with her fingers. Jukka-Pekka Saraste grabbed a bowl of spinach, meant to be shared by three people, and gobbled it up himself. Anthony Quinn shook "a frightful dose of salt" into his soup, before he tasted it. Eartha Kitt took home a bottle of olive oil from the restaurant table. George Cohon squeezed five packets of ketchup onto a single hot dog. The horror, the horror. Did Tiananmen Square really prepare her for these atrocities?

Wong may speak disdainfully of celebrity culture, but it's essentially as celebrities that she approaches her subjects, whether they happen to be actors, writers or executives. Often she starts out with no more than a hazy idea of who they are. She confesses that she agreed to interview Michael Ignatieff only because she confused him with Michael Ondaatje (she was surprised when The English Patient didn't show up in the research). Preparation makes her superficially knowledgeable about her human subjects, but her understanding seems rarely to go beyond a computer search and maybe the reading of a book or two.

The acknowledgements in Lunch with Jan Wong reveal that she has a model who inspires her: She thanks an editor "for suggesting I study the wonderful columns of Lynn Barber in the Sunday Independent." Barber, who confesses that she most enjoys celebrities when they are touched by "the cold breath of failure," has been described as the mistress of the articulate put-down. When she interviewed Robert Redford she raised the problem of his pockmarked face, and after her lunch with the 74-year-old Joseph Heller and his second wife in 1998, she gave the Independent's readers a portrait of a dysfunctional marriage: "When I talk to him, she gets annoyed, when I talk to her, he does."

Barber may have also inspired a fictional creation, Fanny Tarrant, the villain of Home Truths, a comic novel that David Lodge recently adapted from his play about vicious celebrity journalism in England. His epigraph quotes the Oxford definition of "home truth" as "a wounding mention of a person's weakness." Fanny, who writes for the fictional Sunday Sentinel, deals in home truths, like Wong. A TV playwright, after reading her account of an interview with him, says: "I feel as if I've been shat on from a great height by a bilious bird of prey." (Incidentally, would the official censor of the National Post kindly refrain from putting a hyphen where the "a" is in "shat"? I believe reference to the Vatican Index will show that the past tense is not considered improper.)

That poor fool knew Fanny's reputation for inflicting pain, but he believed he could charm her; he was certain he would become one of the tiny group of subjects she treats gently. This is the same mistake that the vain and the ambitious often make when Jan Wong calls. By now it's probably the main reason that she still finds victims.

Lunch with Jan Wong (Doubleday, 281 pp., $29.95), by Jan Wong

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