Elyot Vionnet, an erudite, fastidious, semi-retired substitute teacher who’s lived forever in a rent-controlled studio apartment that almost, but not quite, overlooks Gramercy Park, has ventured out to Cake Shop on the Lower East Side, quietly judgmental. Actually, he’s a figment of Paul Rudnick’s imagination and a recurring character in his new book of stories and essays, I Shudder: and Other Reactions to Life, Death, and New Jersey.
There are poignant moments in I Shudder—profiles of his deceased agent Helen Merrill, the costume designer William Ivey Long, and friends who died of AIDS (the circumstances tinged with Rudnickian absurdity, of course). But Vionnet provides an irresistible, sneering through-line.
“Mr. Vionnet has what I call style rage,” explains Rudnick. With his impeccable elocution and shabby-genteel scorn, Vionnet acts out the pent-up petty animus that boils quietly within Rudnick and all New Yorkers amid daily street life. “It’s when you’re walking down the street and a well-dressed woman is coming toward you and she’s got a coffee in one hand and a phone in the other, and when she slams into you and drenches you with the coffee, she looks at you as though it’s your fault.” He takes a bite of his vegan chocolate-chip cookie (Rudnick subsists on junk food). “What if, without your having to actually pull the trigger, that woman died?” he muses gently. “Wouldn’t there be a soul-deep satisfaction there, if, after she finished assaulting you, she was hit by a car? Once her broken body was lying in the street, how loudly would you scream”—he drops into a small, bored voice—“ ‘Help’?”
What would Vionnet make of Cake Shop? “On one hand, he would appreciate the multiple layers of irony involved in the use of plywood paneling,” says Rudnick. “Every inch of this place has been endlessly considered to look offhand and eternally hip. And everyone is trying so desperately to appear nonchalant and unconsidered that everyone for about a ten-block radius is exhausted.” He turns Vionnet’s gaze on two nearby hipsters. “The return of the potbelly as an accessory: Those guys are way ahead of the curve. Then there’s the beards grown in a petri dish, then applied.” That bony, scruffy model-quality couple over there? “It’s sort of like they’re staying at the world’s first five-star youth hostel.” But what would Vionnet say about his striped polo and loafers? “I’ve escaped his attention,” he says, sounding relieved.