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This Week's Reading

What We’re Loving: Captain Kentucky, John Henry, Plagues

December 7, 2012 | by

I picked up Barbara Comyns’s Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead when it was first reissued in 2010 but then had to put it aside. I began it again—and finished it—last week, and I’m so glad I did. The novel, originally published in England in 1954, concerns the Willoweed family and their reactions to an outbreak of madness and suicide in their small village. Its humor is by turns black and light, its characters morbid and delightful. An aberrant pastoral as smart as this one could only come from someone with a biography as nutty and wonderful as Comyns’s. A painter by training—she exhibited with the London Group—Comyns married and had two children. To support them, “she dealt in antiques and vintage cars, renovated apartments, and bred poodles. She later lived in Spain for eighteen years.” —Nicole Rudick

Brain still humming with Elaine Blair’s brilliant essay on David Foster Wallace, I read his own long 1990 review of Wittgenstein’s Mistress, now reprinted in Both Flesh and Not. So much has been written about Infinite Jest, but for me these two essays together do the best job of describing what’s at stake in that novel—morally, philosophically, artistically. Among other things, Wallace reveals his debt to Stanley Cavell (a teacher whose influence he later played down) and his raw-nerved engagement with feminist criticism. At times, too, “The Empty Plenum” reads like a sort of preemptive rebuttal to Jonathan Franzen’s elegy in The New Yorker. Wallace may not have been the sage we wished for, but as Blair writes, he “worked a reverse-Promethean theft, taking our humble spoken idioms and delivering them to the gods.” —Lorin Stein

I Just Hitched in from the Coast is a wild, frolicking romp of a story collection by Ed McClanahan, one of Ken Kesey’s band of Merry Pranksters who referred to himself as “Captain Kentucky” back in those hazy psychedelic days. The image of Captain Kentucky himself on the cover in full hippie regalia and looking like a total dude was what first captured my interest. What kept me coming back were riotously funny tales of McClanahan’s youth, like the wonderfully titled “Fondelle, or: The Whore with a Heart of Gold.” It’s a little Hunter S. Thompson cut with the mellowing influence of a peaceful flower child that makes for one hell of a fun ride. —Graham Rogers

This week I’ve been reading The Year of Dreaming Dangerously, the latest from Slavoj Žižek—everyone’s favorite pop-culture-reference-spewing, raunchy, Slovenian, Marxist philosopher-celebrity. Yes, it’s possible he’s the de facto favorite because of the lack of competition, but his signature combination of historical analysis (the book is an examination of the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, and other international protests and uprisings) and compulsive allusion-making (to The Wire, Jacques Lacan, David Guetta, and Alain Badiou, just to name a few) makes for a book that’s as intellectually addictive as it is timely. —Emma Goldhammer

The Duchess of Cambridge is having a child! And to explain our indifference to TPR’s British intern, we’ve spent the week trying to pick America’s greatest natural aristocrat and throw the stodgy old-world varietal into unflattering relief. This crown (so to speak) belongs to John Henry, the former slave who steel-drove himself to martyrdom in defiance of the industrial machine. And while Henry’s legend has been extensively celebrated in story and song, it’s utilized to greatest literary effect in a thing we should all be loving: Jason Isbell’s tune “The Day John Henry Died.” Isbell’s Henry is the hero of a long-lost cause: an autoworker in a dead economy or a cowboy up to his holster in the Pacific Ocean. And the song isn't concerned with the triumph of human over machine or even work over adversity so much as the marvelous futility of triumph itself. So congratulations on the kid, Kate and Will. But remember: though the British monarchy may have invented imperial obsolescence, Americans sing it better. —Samuel Fox

“Disappointed both in love and in friendship, and looking upon human learning as vanity, he had come to a conclusion that there was but one good thing in the world, videlicet, a good dinner.” Who at one time or another hasn’t felt like Christopher Glowry, master of Nightmare Abbey, employer of Diggory Deathshead (Glowry’s servants are selected “by one of two criterions,—a long face, or a dismal name”) and father of young Scythrop (named after “a maternal ancestor, who had hanged himself one rainy day in a fit of tedium vitae”)? Thomas Love Peacock’s 1818 Gothic satire, Nightmare Abbey, is not nearly as well known as its Austenian near-namesake, but it should be. —Charlotte Goldney

The new issue of n+1 kicks off with an oddly self-lacerating love letter to The Paris Review, but there’s at least one essay here that I wish we’d published ourselves: Kristen Dombek’s “How to Quit,” a meditation on sex, substance abuse, and gentrification that I have now read three times, each time with greater amazement: “If the old neighborhood was real, this building is a steam-powered time machine. If the new neighborhood is real, this building is a dream, or a crypt. In other words, all this building makes me want to do is drink and fuck.” Hallelujah and amen. —L.S.

2 COMMENTS

1 Comments

  1. Mo Ibrahim | December 7, 2012 at 4:35 pm

    Nicole Rudick wrote, “I began it again—and finished it—last week, and I’m so glad I did.”

    I’ve never done that, but I recently read a book that had been lingering in my library and I was like, “I can’t believe I didn’t read this already!”

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  1. […] readers of the Daily already know how Nicole, Sadie, and I feel about the neglected English writer Barbara Comyns. Last week it was my turn […]

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