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This Week's Reading

What We’re Loving: Antrim, Glynn, a Massive Sugar-Woman

May 16, 2014 | by

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Kara Walker, A Subtlety

In the last few years one of my favorite novelists, Donald Antrim, has devoted himself to short stories—not as finger exercises, but with a combined intensity, delicacy, and feeling for tradition that set him apart from any writer of his generation. This morning I finished the galleys of his long-awaited collection, The Emerald Light in the Air, and immediately started reading them again. What is it about Antrim? He writes as if prose were his native language: his sentences have the matter-of-fact pathos and absurdity of dreams. Also, they are often very funny: “An Actor Prepares” remains, after fifteen years, one of the funniest short stories I have ever read. Nowadays the comedy is quieter and darker, with protagonists who struggle to remain within the ranks of the worried well. It’s all up-to-the-minute (you could write a paper about the evolution of cell phones in Antrim’s work), but his themes are the Chekhovian classics—ambivalence toward the life at hand; yearning for the life that might have been—and he evokes unhappy love with a sensuousness and a subtle, plausible magic that recall Cheever at his best. —Lorin Stein

Go see Kara Walker’s massive installation, “A Subtlety,” at the doomed Domino Sugar Factory. The space was once a warehouse for unrefined sugar that arrived from the Caribbean. Now, the air is sticky with molasses; it drips from the ceiling, staining the floor and the factory’s newest resident, a thirty-five-foot sugar-woman in sphinx form, naked but for a headscarf and some earrings. She presides over thirteen boys of molasses and resin who labor on the concrete. And she watches, and whatever she’s watching seems not in this room, seems elsewhere, ahead and behind and beside us. —Zack Newick

Since the death of Thomas Glynn earlier this month, I’ve gone down a rabbit hole of sorts: I’ve tried to locate many of the author’s obscure works, including an 1,800-page unpublished manuscript on the first 150 years of the Dannemora prison, a much shorter history of New York State, an array of short stories, and the occasional essay (don’t miss this great 1975 profile of Frank Zappa from Modern Hi-Fi & Music). Glynn self-published A Child’s Christmas in Chicago in 2002, and while the title may come across as more sentimental than most of Glynn’s oeuvre, think twice after reading the novel’s opening line: “Hey, it’s Christmas for Christ’s sake.” With a touch of the raconteur Jean Shepherd and the voice of a young Gulley Jimson, the story is a mix of oddball characters, whimsy, and the kind of heartbreak that only the Christmas season can bring. —Justin Alvarez

It can be a real relief to read something that isn’t stylized, or even something badly written, after reading Proust, which I have been doing on and off this week. In his excellent essay on volume three of Knausgaard’s My Struggle series, Ben Lerner celebrates Knausgaard’s unquotability and his sloppiness. Moreover, Lerner provides the best answer I’ve yet read on what Knausgaard’s writing does to us, and why we’re so obsessed with it, why “we can read it compulsively while being uncertain if it’s good.” —Anna Heyward

I caught a midnight showing of Godzilla last night at the newly-renovated-and-reopened movie theater of my childhood. It must say something that I found Godzilla’s plight and his sad, sometimes bewildered facial expressions more moving than those of the actual people in the film. But maybe I was projecting—perhaps because I was revisiting my youth, I had on my mind an old favorite, Ray Bradbury’s story “The Fog Horn,” about a lonely creature, the last of its kind, summoned from the depths of the ocean by the low call of a foghorn echoing across the sea. Bradbury is not afraid of real sentiment, which can make his stories feel hokey and dated. It’s also a trait I admire deeply in his writing. Godzilla wasn’t bad, really, but I found myself wishing it were a bit more hokey, a bit less self-serious. I guess that era, like Godzilla’s, like Bradbury’s, like the creature’s in “The Fog Horn,” is gone. —Tucker Morgan

Yesterday brought the ridiculous news that Jonathan Safran Foer has arranged to print original writing on bags and cups in Chipotle stores. Malcolm Gladwell, Toni Morrison, Michael Lewis, and George Saunders have all contributed pieces to the series, which Chipotle calls, with unbearable pretension, “Cultivating Thought.” Safran Foer has framed this as a kind of public service, though whether consumers want a side of A-list pap with their burritos remains to be seen. The critics, I’m sure, are sharpening their knives at this very moment. James Camp has already set the tone in a delightfully sharp piece for The Guardian: “Cultivating Thought,” he writes, makes the galling assumption that we don’t have enough to read. “It transforms writing from a main event into an accompaniment. James Joyce once told an interviewer: ‘The demand that I make of my reader is that he should devote his whole life to my works.’ Joyce didn’t want readers. He wanted hostages. His books aspired to replace the universe. Safran Foer and his collaborators ask only the devotion that is compatible with digestion. At the Chipotle on 42nd Street in New York, the cups and bags had yet to arrive. The public library stood a hundred feet away. Its security guard assured me I wouldn’t be able to take a burrito inside.” —Dan Piepenbring

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