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This Week's Reading

What We’re Loving: Gas Stations, New York Stories, The Room

September 13, 2013 | by

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Forty-three years after his death, John O’Hara still holds the record for the most stories published in The New Yorker (247), a record all the more impressive when you consider that he spent a decade boycotting that magazine over a negative review. Wherever he published, one of  O’Hara’s favorite subjects was New York City. He specialized in speakeasies, but he also took an interest in gentlemen’s clubs, Park Avenue apartments, dressing rooms, tenements—like Balzac, he aimed at a full panorama, in his case of the years before World War II. Now O’Hara’s New York stories have a volume of their own, thanks to the scholar Steven Goldleaf. My favorite is “Bread Alone,” about a father and son at a ballgame. Something tells me that it inspired the first chapter of Underworld. At least, it would be a worthy inspiration. I read The New York Stories as homework (Goldleaf and I will be discussing O’Hara this coming Monday with the novelist Lawrence Block) but it was a labor of love. —Lorin Stein

“Imagine a movie so incomprehensible that you find yourself compelled to watch it over and over again. You become desperate to learn how (if) on earth it was conceived: Who made it, and for what purpose?” These words could only refer to The Room, a cult phenomenon frequently described as the Citizen Kane of bad films; they come from The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made, by Greg Sestero and the peerless Tom Bissell. Sestero was coerced into participating in the project by its enigmatic, megalomaniacal writer-director-star, Tommy Wiseau, and served as reluctant intern, cameraman, casting director, and, ultimately, costar (“Mark,” to the initiated.) The book is hilarious, and the stories behind the making of The Room are even more bizarre than one might expect; truly, like the film itself, they must be seen to be believed. —Sadie Stein

A masterpiece of Mexican noir, but difficult to find for many decades, Rafael Bernal’s The Mongolian Conspiracy is in the same vein as the work of countryman Paco Ignacio Taibo II: it’s politically-charged yet funny, full of intrigue but with the real action springing from its language. The story is standard—a plot to kill the president and the interference of the CIA and KGB—but the real heart of the film is the inner monologue of our antihero, Filiberto Garcia. I could have followed him for hundreds of pages as he pined over Marta, a Chinese girl with a troubled past. Given Mexico’s recent violence and corruption, The Mongolian Conspiracy may read like a modern-day fable on how to survive–and it should. “All I know is how to start down this road,” our narrator states near the end,” how to live carrying my solitude. Fucking solitude!”—Justin Alvarez

When the Paris Review offices moved to Chelsea this spring, we entered a neighborhood so full of major construction projects that renavigating the route from subway stop to the office’s door became a daily ritual. Yet, despite my general avoidance of constructions sites, in the past couple of weeks I have been drawn to one, on the northwest corner of Tenth Avenue and Twenty-Fourth Street, at a Getty gas station. First I noticed the greenery. Rows of trees were planted, and layers of sod were laid. Initially, it looked like the gas station was being beautified, maybe in an attempt to make its patrons forget about the distillation of crude oil and fracking, but once the rolling hills were in place, it was clear that no cars were going to be serviced here. Finally, in the past few days, sheep—and photographers—have started to appear; specifically, the late French sculptor François-Xavier Lalanne’s sheep sculptures. Lalanne’s sheep will grace their own mini-meadow for a limited time only; the site is scheduled for demolition and a high-rise condo will be built in its place. The pace of construction projects seems to never slow, but for the time being, Tenth Avenue has one spot which encourages passerby to pause. “Sheep Station,” a noncommercial art exhibition, opens to the public on September 17. —Kate Rouhandeh

“Plot doesn’t interest me; I’m into words.” I know many a literary-minded writer who has proclaimed as much, myself included. Then one day an author I respect gave my work a blistering critique. “It’s well-written, clever, but who cares?” That got me thinking … what does make a reader keep turning the page? In an effort to find out, I began reading Doyle, Simenon, and Chesterton detective stories, and this week I picked up John Le Carré’s classic Smiley novel The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and could not set it down until I’d read straight through to its stunning final sentence. What is it that creates this near-perfect symbiosis of high literary and genre fiction? Le Carré builds suspense, ending a chapter with an unsettling revelation, then following a different storyline in the next; there’s his masterful use of POV: he disorients us by keeping the camera close to the protagonist spy, Leamas (we feel close to him, but are we?); we end the book wondering just who are the good guys and bad guys. Either way, we know we’ve been on an exhilarating adventure written by a master. —Adam Winters

 

3 COMMENTS

3 Comments

  1. Carl | September 13, 2013 at 2:32 pm

    Quickly scanning the table of contents of the new O’Hara book, it’s unfortunate to see my favorite O’Hara story, “Now We Know,” is missing. As a teenager, I loved “Now We Know.” It was quick and bittersweet, and with what I took for hard, adult wisdom. Today, I don’t know. That said, just by riding the right bus at the right time of day, the story comes back to me, easily and almost in its entirety. Which counts for something, I guess.

  2. OJ | September 13, 2013 at 3:09 pm

    Mr. Stein, in our post in The New Yorker, of august 19, “HE TOLD THE TRUTH ABOUT HIS TIME” you write: ‘With O’Hara there’s no Vaseline on the lens.’ I laughed, because only a photographer would know that trick to soften the image. Of course, I’m dating myself, but I thought that was just precious!

    Cheers

  3. Mack Hall | September 14, 2013 at 10:19 am

    Nice-looking young people, but why do they appear to be practicing pouts?

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