The Daily

Arts & Culture

Cheddar, Cheever, and the Burbs

September 1, 2015 | by

An illustration from Muriel Stanek’s How People Live in the Suburbs, 1970.

Fifty years ago, John Cheever published The Wapshot Scandal, his second novel. Like many second novels, it’s more ambitious and more playful than its predecessor, the work of a writer who suspects he’s better than he feared. The traditional form suddenly seems boring, the same old themes threaten a categorization that the writer doesn’t want, and the writer—encouraged by praise, validated by awards, perhaps softened by income—realizes he can write just about anything. So he does.

The Wapshot Scandal begins where The Wapshot Chronicle ended: with the Wapshot family leaving the safety of St. Botolphs and searching for fulfillment in more modern suburban communities. An acrid whiff of cynicism rises from the page: we know this won’t end well, Cheever knows we know, and now it’s a matter of how and when. Moses and Coverley Wapshot bring their wives to Proxmire Manor and Talifer, respectively; the first is an archetype of the suburban nightmare, the second an archetype of a Cold War community, built around a missile-research facility.

Scandal is very much of its time, but even in its time the satire was well-trod: husbands drink too much, wives betray, wealth corrodes, families splinter, sex—granted or withheld—destroys. Cheever’s cynicism isn’t unique; he never claimed it was. What was, and what remains, unique, are passages like this:

The village, he knew, had, like any other, its brutes and its shrews, its thieves, and its perverts, but like any other it meant to conceal these facts under a shrine of decorum that was not hypocrisy but a guise or mode of hope.

This is what made Cheever special: he understood that the desperate idealism behind existential decay is still idealism. Which brings me to, well, me. Read More »

Our Daily Correspondent

Varieties of Reluctance

September 1, 2015 | by

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One of Alex Jardine’s illustrations from The Reluctant Cook.

I was delighted, at a London bookshop, to encounter a recent reissue of the 1954 Ethelind Fearon manual The Reluctant Hostess. As far as I’m concerned, Fearon’s entire oeuvre should be in print always, regardless of commercial considerations. She is that idiosyncratic.

Fearon, who died in 1974 and at present doesn’t even rate a Wikipedia entry, was an authority on restoring medieval houses and an accomplished gardener—at one point she kept H. G. Wells’s garden—but as her official Random House bio would have it, “under pressure from publishers and an eager public she also wrote a number of books on such diverse but essential subjects as pigkeeping, pastries, how to keep pace with your daughter, and how to grow herbs.” (I want to meet every member of this supposedly clamoring public.) Read More »

Bulletin

Our Fall Issue Is Here

September 1, 2015 | by

Our Fall 2015 issue, featuring a detail of Nyssa Sharp’s Girl with the Yellow Skirt.

Our new Fall issue features an Art of Poetry interview with Eileen Myles, who talks to Ben Lerner about life in New York, getting sober, and the steadiness of her poems:

I like the idea of writing a poem I could have written thirty years ago. I’m the factory. My writing fears manifest more on the order of my inability to stop being Eileen Myles. I guess I don’t worry about my poems so much. I worry about me.

Myles also shares a few of her favorite artworks in our portfolio.

And our managing editor Nicole Rudick discusses the Art of Fiction with Jane Smiley:

One of the things I love about novels is that, in addition to offering good stories and having ideas about how the world works, they’re also artifacts about the details of the time in which the author lived … I would imagine somebody in a hundred years reading one of my novels and going, Are you shitting me? The shingles were going the wrong direction? Or, What are shingles?

There’s also one of James Salter’s final lectures; new fiction from Ottessa Moshfegh, Patrick Dacey, and Deborah Eisenberg; the second installment of Chris Bachelder’s novel The Throwback Special, with illustrations by Jason Novak; poems by Ange Mlinko, Eileen Myles, Michael Hofmann, Stephen Dunn, Kevin Prufer, Geoffrey G. O’Brien, Nathaniel Mackey, and Linda Pastan; and an essay by Robert Anthony Siegel.

Subscribe today!

On the Shelf

Paperbacks for the Patriarchy, and Other News

September 1, 2015 | by

The perfect way to kick off your fall?

  • Whatever you’re reading these days, it’s probably not as popular as Amish romance novels, which owe their meteoric rise, perhaps, to an old-fashioned yen for the patriarchy: “There’s no mistaking the potent commercial lure of the ‘bonnet books’—so called because of the young Amish women plastered on their covers. In less than a decade, bonnet titles have overtaken bestseller lists, Christian and non-Christian alike … these novels seldom offer fare any more lurid than a much-regretted kiss. Sex is always offstage, and mere carnal longing is usually mastered by the more powerful desire to do God’s will … their treatment of spiritual questions is itself oddly lustful, given their penchant for containing spiritual inquiry and experience within the strict bounds of faintly illicit-sounding modes of sectarianism and separatism.”
  • Bromance, mandels, mansplain, man-icure, man-purse, bro-hug, manscape, man-date: whither the explosion of Neologisms for Men™? We could laud these new words as evidence of a long overdue recovery: “A popular online collection of old photos shows how much American men used to casually touch each other: Victorian gentlemen posing with hands clasped; grizzled cowboys sitting with arms entwined, and a striking amount of lap-sitting. But such pictures from the middle of the twentieth century and later are rare.  The culprit is homophobia … It turns out that straight men’s need for intense, intimate relationships with each other never went anywhere, as evidenced by the ebullient burst of words celebrating it.”
  • Why, when we read, do some of us hear a voice in our head while others proceed in total quiet? And why, for that matter, did we ever begin reading in silence to ourselves, rather than aloud, to friends? “Silent reading had become the norm for educated readers by the fifteenth century but even four hundred years later, La Cagnotte, Eugène Marin Labiche’s 1864 comedy, mocks a farmer for reading a private letter aloud; the bumpkin retorts that he can’t understand what he reads unless he hears it … Recent neurological research questions whether silent reading actually is silent. Evidence grows that the brain interprets ‘silent’ reading as an auditory phenomenon.”
  • More art from Aidan Koch, whose portfolio lit up our Summer issue: her work will be on view next month at And Now, in Dallas.
  • Bored? Hang out with H. P. Lovecraft fans at the Cthulhu Prayer Breakfast, why don’t you. And have a croissant while you’re at it. “In time, we were tapped to hit the buffet line, which snaked down the hotel’s corridor. ‘An ouroboros!’ exclaimed my neighbor, as we shuffled towards bacon and croissants. A sliver of fruit fell to the carpet. ‘The cantaloupe of Thoth!’ someone cried.”

Arts & Culture

On the Pleasures of Not Reading

August 31, 2015 | by

An illustrations from the Nuremberg Chronicle, by Hartmann Schedel (1440–1514).

What a golden age this is for trolls. Never has it been easier, with the proper combination of disdain, ignorance, and calculated condescension, to work hundreds of thousands of strangers into an indignant lather. If you don’t mind the occasional death threat, the polemic has never been a more attractive mode. It’s pungent.

I have to believe the Guardian’s Jonathan Jones feels the same way—his article today, “Get real. Terry Pratchett is not a literary genius,” is too arrant a piece of provocation to be unintentional. Its thrust is that the late Pratchett, whose final Discworld novel has just been published, is part of a “middlebrow cult of the popular” distracting readers from more ambitious, capital-L Literary fare. That’s a contentious argument in and of itself—but Jones’s true troll masterstroke lay in his admission that he’s read hardly a sentence of Pratchett’s work. The author “is so low on my list of books to read before I die,” Jones writes,

that I would have to live a million years before getting round to him. I did flick through a book by him in a shop, to see what the fuss is about, but the prose seemed very ordinary … life really is too short to waste on ordinary potboilers. I am not saying this as a complacent book snob who claims to have read everything. On the contrary, I am crushed by how many books I have not read.

Some of that feels deliberately bush-league—that “million years” bit gives too much of the game away; clearly this is a piece of rhetoric designed not to be reasoned with but balked at—but beneath the hauteur is a useful point, one that much of literary culture, in its glad-handing, is at pains to admit. There are writers we instinctively, permanently dislike: not only will we never read them, we will quietly relish the not-reading, finding in it a pleasure that can occasionally rival reading itself. Read More »

In Memoriam

Swimming with Oliver Sacks

August 31, 2015 | by

Oliver Sacks died yesterday at eighty-two.

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Oliver Sacks swimming in Rhinebeck, NY, in July 2015. Photo: Bill Hayes

I met Oliver Sacks at the Blue Mountain Center, an artist and writers residency in the Adirondacks, where we spent August of 2012. The room I was assigned had a pretty view out onto Eagle Lake, but it was tiny—there was no way I could pace in it, and I needed to pace, so I disappeared into the mountains several times a day. I walked and walked, got lost in the pouring rain and knocked on the cabin doors of strangers, hoping to be adopted, maybe. Instead I was given haphazard, passionless directions back to the colony. While I was feeling the dark of the woods pressing heavily on my shoulders, Oliver was writing to the sounds of the loons on the lake. He was seventy-nine then. Read More »