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This Week's Reading

What We’re Loving: Gremlin Jokes, Spiritual Paths, Sundae Ire

January 17, 2014 | by

Backgammon (1982) by Jane Freilicher

Jane Frelicher, Backgammon, 1982.

It’s been almost fifteen years since Akhil Sharma published his first novel, An Obedient Father. This terrible, improbably funny book—about a single mother forced to share an apartment with the father who raped her as a child—won Sharma a PEN/Hemingway prize, a Whiting Award, and praise from the likes of Jonathan Franzen and Joyce Carol Oates. (I remember because it was the first novel I had the honor of editing.) Now Sharma is back with Family Life, the tale of an Indian American boy coming of age in the shadow of a family disaster. It too is terrible and improbably funny, and is excerpted in this week’s New Yorker. With acid, deceptively artless prose and a faultless ear for dialogue, Sharma strips his characters bare from page one and dares us to love them in their nakedness. I cannot think of a more honest or unsparing novelist in our generation. —Lorin Stein

Michael Hofmann is the only translator whose work I would read no matter what he decided to English—if only I could keep up with him! In the excellent new issue of Asymptote, he tells a story about interviewing Wolfgang Koeppen in 1992, four years before the German novelist’s death. (“With my English reticence and youth, I met Koeppen halfway: in other words, we were both barely out of our shells.”) He also writes of the Joseph Mitchell–like silence that Koeppen fell into after the publication of Death in Rome (1954) and lauds the still-untranslated last book, Youth (1976)—giving us reason to hope he might be at work on an English version. The final remarks on Koeppen’s sentences—continually “sidestepping into freedom,” “scrupulously managed, supple, cadenced, sumptuously lexical, expressive prose”—double as a description of Hofmann’s own writing. —Robyn Creswell

Poetry’s January issue contains a thirty-page feature on Jane Freilicher: her artwork and her close friendships with a number of poets, among them Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, and James Schuyler. The section is adapted from Tibor de Nagy Gallery’s wonderful exhibition, last summer, “Jane Freilicher: Painter Among Poets” (it’s currently on view at the Poetry Foundation, in Chicago). I remembered having glimpsed the show’s catalogue in Lorin’s office. I liberated it, and I’m not sure I’ll give it back. It’s like having a scrapbook made by the people whose work you most admire, and it shows that they had as good a time in one another’s company as you’d imagined. “Some little gremlins seemed to have popped loose in my idea factory and I think they may have been sent over from Koch’s brassiere factory,” writes Freilicher to O’Hara. And in what may be my favorite letter in the whole book, from Jane to Frank on a poem of his: “it just don’t seem to have that real low-down smelly sexy everyday Olympian quality your admirers depend upon.” —Nicole Rudick

“A so-called adult sundae is adult only in the sense that all the fun is gone, scoops arrayed stolidly in a row. True, the chocolate ice cream is spiked with Scotch and the cherries soaked with Pimm’s, but these come off as mostly medicinal. Hardly an incentive to grow up.” Ligaya Mishan’s review of the East Pole manages to be hilariously caustic without getting nasty: no mean feat. —Sadie O. Stein

I’d had Tracie Egan Morrissey’s “Inside the Rainbow Gulag: The Technicolor Rise and Fall of Lisa Frank” waiting patiently in a browser tab for more than a month; this week I finally read it. Frank is, as children of the nineties know, a kind of school-supplies doyenne: her company made the most unabashedly treacly notebooks, lunchboxes, and stickers ever to see a first grader’s cubby. As Morrissey writes, “Frank’s name alone conjures up a specter of koala bears clinging to rainbow-flavored ice-cream cones, neon tiger cubs frolicking with surfing penguins, and, of course, majestic unicorns prancing before a swirl of hearts and stars.” It’d never occurred to me that there might be a sordid story behind all this, but then again, how could the creator of such a lurid fantasy-world not be completely fucked up? Morrissey’s piece shows us the surreal animosity that ruled Frank’s Tucson, Arizona, headquarters. There’s screaming and cocaine and extramarital affairs, all of them drenched in garish colors. Throw in a couple murders and the story would have all the trappings of one of the more vicious Coen Brothers satires, like Burn After Reading. —Dan Piepenbring

As I get older and read more criticism and, thus, write less and less, I find myself turning again to Julia Cameron’s bestselling The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity (1992). Those for whom chirpy self-helpfulness tends to bring on spiritual and creative nausea will appreciate Cameron’s down-to-business exercises (the “Jealousy Map” is particularly illuminating), and perhaps find themselves clearing both physical and mental space for a visit from the Muse. —Rachel Abramowitz

A few years back, Paris Review contributor David Gordon published his debut novel, The Serialist. The book was satirical but also true to its crime-fiction roots. It was also really funny. Little did any of us, including Gordon himself, know that it was to become a huge success—in Japan. In the New York Times Magazine, Gordon recounts his “double life,” where “people toasted me and applauded my ability to eat with chopsticks or sign my name really big on a poster.” He adds, “It was as if I had fallen asleep and had a weird dream about my own book.” And, in a way, it is a dream, as his day-to-day life back in the States has not really changed. The “wonder” of another life also plays into Takashi Hiraide’s The Guest Cat, a novel I just completed in a blur of a few hours. Short and subtle, the book explores the lives of two writers who one day invite a neighbor’s cat into their home. The cat comes and goes as she pleases, but, as Hiraide observes, “was her coming to our house a return—a homecoming—or was it the other way around? Was home really over there?” Justin Alvarez

 

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