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This Week's Reading

Staff Picks: Moo, Maine, Malfeasance

August 22, 2014 | by

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This collage helped solve a crime. Robert Rauschenberg, Collection, 1954-55; image via the New York Observer.

“From the outside it was clear that the building known generally as ‘Old Meats’ had eased under the hegemony of the horticulture department.” So begins Jane Smiley’s 1995 campus satire, Moo; from that first sentence I knew it was the only book I needed for the weekend. It had that tone—that late-century Midwestern tone. You hear it in Jonathan Franzen’s first two novels, and in Infinite Jest, too. It’s the sound of an omniscient narrator who is sophisticated and slightly wry and who, at the same time, belongs to a safe, stable, neighborly community, the sort of place where things can be “known generally.” Maybe because I grew up on the East Coast, in a city—or maybe just because it is so manifestly pre-Internet—that kind of sentence is as soothing and inviting to me as “Once upon a time.” And Moo lived up to its promise. —Lorin Stein

What happens when myth becomes reality? For the residents around Maine’s North Pond, a legend about a hermit became strikingly less legendary when the hermit, a man by the name of Christopher Knight, was found and arrested last year during a burglary attempt. For twenty-seven years, Knight had lived in the woods of Maine in a tent, never communicating with the outside world (except once, when he passed a hiker). “Silence is to me normal, comfortable,” he tells Mike Finkel, a journalist for GQ. “I’m not used to seeing people’s faces. There’s too much information there.” What’s remarkable about Knight’s story is that there wasn’t any particular reason he chose to disappear. He merely started driving one day and didn’t stop until he came across his camp in the woods. “I found a place where I was content.” Thoreau couldn’t have summed it up better himself. —Justin Alvarez

Sixty years ago in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the NYPD pinned a crime spree on four innocent men. What else is new, you might say. Well, a researcher has brought the malfeasance to light, and a collage by Robert Rauschenberg helped solve the crime. Specifically, it was “Collection,” which Rauschenberg composed in the mid-fifties from newspapers containing accounts of the crimes. The Observer tells the story, which is full of crooked cops and falsified documents and botched autopsies and noirish goings-on under the Williamsburg Bridge; Rauschenberg’s involvement, however peripheral, makes the whole thing impressively surreal. —Dan Piepenbring

Many clichéd things can be said of the stories in Justin Taylor’s new collection, Flings. They’re hilarious and heartbreaking; there’s an existential loneliness to their characters; there’s a stark beauty in their sentences. But these sentiments smooth over the messy truths that Taylor works with—he’s managed to gather up all the confusion, repressed aggression, and misplaced acceptance of growing up in the nineties and becoming a young adult in the twenty-first century. Taylor isn’t afraid to place his characters squarely in our place and time. The narrator of “Sungold” manipulates his boss—a coked-up, alcoholic, trust-funded man-baby who owns an unnamed pizza chain—into not being so much of a fuck-up. In “Mike’s Song,” a brother and sister and their divorced father attend a Phish concert together. But behind his contemporary premises, Taylor is practicing a brand of acute, oblique realism that stretches back to Carver and Yates and even to Sherwood Anderson, in which events act as triggers for memories that are the real story. —Andrew JimenezRead More »

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Arts & Culture

So Vivid You Can’t Get Free of Them

August 22, 2014 | by

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Ray Bradbury

Do you know why teachers use me? Because I speak in tongues. I write metaphors. Every one of my stories is a metaphor you can remember. The great religions are all metaphor. We appreciate things like Daniel and the lion’s den, and the Tower of Babel. People remember these metaphors because they are so vivid you can’t get free of them and that’s what kids like in school. They read about rocket ships and encounters in space, tales of dinosaurs. All my life I’ve been running through the fields and picking up bright objects. I turn one over and say, Yeah, there’s a story.
—Ray Bradbury, the Art of Fiction No. 203, 2010

Ray Bradbury would be ninety-four today—for more on his Art of Fiction interview, be sure to read “Fact-checking Ray Bradbury,” by our own Stephen Andrew Hiltner. And for proof of Bradbury’s metaphorical gifts, check out “All Summer in a Day,” a 1954 story published in the commonsensically named The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. It’s conceptually unforgettable and, among the stories of his I’ve read, uniquely haunting.

“All Summer” takes place in a school on Venus, or rather, the Venus of the future—humans have colonized the planet. Problem is, Venus is rainy. All the time. “A thousand forests had been crushed under the rain and grown up a thousand times to be crushed again.” The sun shines for only two hours (consecutive, fortunately) every seven years. And in this drenched Venusian schoolhouse, where all the descendants of the rocket men and women presumably suffer from constant Seasonal Affective Disorder and severe vitamin D deficiencies, there’s one girl, Margot, who remembers the glories of sunshine: Read More »

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Our Daily Correspondent

Fresh Hell

August 22, 2014 | by

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Dorothy Parker

If you wish to celebrate Dorothy Parker’s birthday with a small gift to yourself, you have many options. An Etsy search of the writer’s name will give you letterpress prints and pillows and pins; a locket; earrings, several flasks; a bracelet; a range of portraits, including a cat in a cloche; a sampler; and a choice of two dolls. And the tote bags! Ah, the tote bags. Need I even mention the tote bags? I am not immune; yesterday, I treated myself to a Dorothy Parker cocktail, made with Dorothy Parker gin. At the Algonquin, no less. (There is also a certain charm to “what fresh hell” spelled out in Morse Code.)

Dorothy Parker’s Art of Fiction interview, from 1956, has always been among my favorites. She has no interest in glamorizing her reputation. She has scant regard for her much-vaunted wit. From the interview’s introduction: “Readers of this interview ... will find that Mrs. Parker had only contempt for the eager reception accorded her wit.” “Why, it got so bad,” she had said bitterly, “that they began to laugh before I opened my mouth.” I can’t think of an interview more honest, or more generous. She refuses to call herself a serious writer, saying:

There’s a hell of a distance between wisecracking and wit. Wit has truth in it; wisecracking is simply calisthenics with words. I didn’t mind so much when they were good, but for a long time anything that was called a crack was attributed to me—and then they got the shaggy dogs.

And on the vaunted Round Table: “I wasn’t there very often—it cost too much. Others went. Kaufman was there. I guess he was sort of funny.”

Say what she will, no one can take away from the body of her quotables—or, for that matter, an easy cultural shorthand that reduces her to bons mots. But for my money, there’s no quote that sticks with you quite so much as the final lines of that interview:

It’s not the tragedies that kill us, it’s the messes. I can’t stand messes. I’m not being a smartcracker. You know I’m not when you meet me—don’t you, honey?

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On Games

Ask Questions Later

August 22, 2014 | by

At the worst possible moment, Battlefield Hardline valorizes police violence.

An early screenshot of Battlefield Hardline.

The Battlefield series, one of the past decade’s most popular video-game franchises, has already given gamers the chance to play as soldiers in World War II, Vietnam, and the Middle East. Now Battlefield Hardline, slated for release early next year, allows players to assume the role of a new kind of soldier: the police officer. A recent preview of the game shows a cop throwing a thief to the ground and cuffing him; the player is given the option to Hold E to Interrogate. The officer yells, “Tell me what you know!” and earns fifty points: Interrogation successful.

To Visceral Games, who developed Battlefield Hardline, the roles of soldiers and cops are so interchangeable that Army camo can simply be “re-skinned” into police uniforms. In light of the killings, riots, fear, and unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, the game raises disquieting questions about the relationship between law enforcement and citizens—in short, it’s a horror to watch.

As a cop in Hardline, you’re tasked with preventing robberies and rescuing hostages, which often means shooting all the criminals until they’re dead. (The gentlest thing you can do is arrest them.) The game also enables players to take the role of the criminals, and perhaps the more troubling aspect of Hardline is that this experience is identical to playing as the police: both “the good guys” and “the bad guys” see the world through crosshairs. The best players shoot first, and shoot from behind. Read More »

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On the Shelf

Mocha Dick, and Other News

August 22, 2014 | by

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Image: Creative Editions/Randall Enos, via the Atlantic

  • At the Morgan Library and in England, Jane Austen miscellanea abounds: recent years have seen the discovery, exhibition, and/or sale of Austen’s turquoise ring, Austen’s nephew’s memoirs (with her handwriting somewhere among the pages), Austen’s teenage notebooks, fragments of her unfinished novel, a stone shield excavated from a house near her birthplace …
  • “Once a sci-fi plot conceit, time travel has become among the most popular structural devices in contemporary fiction. Today ‘time machine fiction’ reigns supreme.”
  • Before Moby-Dick there was Mocha Dick—not a coffee-chocolate phallus but “a real-life whale … who fought off whalers for decades before being killed by harpoon.” It was a magazine story about Mocha that inspired Melville to write his novel; now, in a new illustrated book, Mocha Dick: The Legend and the Fury, the original whale gets his due.
  • The history of nine terms of endearment, including such perennials as sweetheart (1290) and sugar (1930), but also some deep cuts: mopsy (1582), bawcock (1601), and prawn (1895), the last of which ought to come into vogue again any minute now.
  • A manual for the first computer game—“The Ferranti Nimrod Digital Computer,” dubbed “Faster than Thought”—has sold for $4,200. The computer was designed specifically to play “a match-stick game called Nim that was played in the French movie L’Année Dernière à Marienbad.”

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Video & Multimedia

Robert Stone, Tabloid Writer

August 21, 2014 | by

I think cultural undergrounds develop in the void left by the abdication of the official culture. During the sixties, so many august institutions seemed to have no self-confidence. The universities, corporations, the very fabric of the state. Everything you pushed just seemed to fall over. Everything was up for grabs. For me, the counterculture was like a party that spilled out into the world until one had the odd feeling in society that one was walking around looking at the results of a party that had ended a few years before—a big experiment. But there was no program, everybody wanted different things. I think Kesey wanted a cultural revolution, the nature of which was uncertain; he was just making it up as he went along. Other people were into political reform. Others thought the drugs would fix it all. Peace and love and dope.
—Robert Stone, the Art of Fiction No. 90

Happy birthday to Robert Stone, who turns seventy-seven today. Prime Green, his 2006 memoir, features more of his thoughts on the sixties—and he is very good, and often very funny, on the sixties. In the clip above, he reads an excerpt from the book about his time as a writer at a supermarket tabloid, an unsavory publication he calls the National Funder. Stone worked under a guy called Fat Lou “in the dank basement of hackdom,” at an office not far from the Flatiron Building. His forte: headlines. His compunctions: myriad. But his work as a yellow journalist: impeccable.

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