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This Week's Reading

What We’re Loving: Real Struggle, Real Soul, Real Tennis

May 23, 2014 | by

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D’Angelo, right, with Nelson George at the Brooklyn Museum Wednesday night. Photo: Drew Gurian/Red Bull Content Pool

Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle—judging by the half that’s been translated into English—is a tough book for a critic to grapple with: a six-volume autobiographical novel that can spend fifty pages describing a teenage beer run or a second-grader’s first day at school. The book was a sensation when it appeared in Norway, five years ago; since then it has fascinated (and puzzled) many readers in America, from James Wood and Zadie Smith to Jonathan Lethem. Volume Three is my favorite so far, though no doubt the effect is cumulative: I’ve never read such a vivid depiction of ordinary child abuse—the legal, non-sexual kind—from a child’s point of view; I have never seen a writer evoke the world of child’s play so vividly, or the view from the back seat of a car on a long drive. Not everyone feels the love. In The Nation, the irascible William Deresiewicz dismisses My Struggle as a “giant selfie,” wishes Knausgaard wrote more like John Updike or Saul Bellow, and chalks up the enthusiasm of his fans to narcissism: “The spectacle of a fellow author’s self-revelation . . . has obvious professional significance.” It’s rarely a good sign when a reviewer vents his spleen on other readers. For a corrective, see Ben Lerner in the London Review of Books. Lerner notices all the same things as Deresiewicz—Knausgaard’s use of cliche, his digressions, his seeming lack of form or invention—then tries, brilliantly and persuasively, to explain why they work. Lerner places My Struggle in a long tradition of novels at war with novelistic convention, a tradition that he associates with the avant garde and that others might call realism itself. Agree with it or not, this is actual criticism. As Lerner writes: “It’s easy to marshal examples of what makes My Struggle mediocre. The problem is: it’s amazing.” —Lorin Stein

On Wednesday night, I had the great pleasure of seeing an interview with D’Angelo, perhaps the most gifted, elusive artist working in R&B—he’s ascended into the pantheon with Sly Stone and Prince, visionary but inscrutable. With 2000’s Voodoo, D’Angelo made what remains the definitive soul record of the past fifteen years, a languid, earthy tour de force that borrows in equal measure from the church and the street. Since then, he hasn’t released a thing; he’s scarcely even performed in public. So his appearance on Wednesday had a sense of anticipation: would he announce a new album? He didn’t, but he was such a gracious, remarkable, casual speaker that it didn’t matter. NPR has posted a transcript of the conversation, which was held before a sold-out crowd at Brooklyn Museum. It touches on his adolescence in Richmond, Virginia; his painstaking, deeply hermetic recording process; and his gospel-inflected approach to songwriting. Nelson George, the interviewer, put it best when he told D’Angelo, “You’re one of the few people who has mystique, you know that. I mean in the age of TMZ and all that stuff … there’s an aura still about your career. It’s very unusual today for anybody to have any mystery left.” —Dan Piepenbring

I recently unearthed a 1999 LRB review by Edward Said of a tennis anthology edited by the novelist Caryl Phillips. When I think of tennis, I don’t think of Said (nor do I imagine Phillips, for that matter)—all the more reason to give it my attention. I also have a vested interest in tennis. My father grew up in Forest Hills, Queens, and played near the West Side Tennis Club (the club wouldn’t let Jews join, but he did see early professionals such as Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, and a sixteen-year-old Chris Evert play there); his father played competitive tennis into his early nineties (the pool of players in his age group was quite small, as you might imagine); and I grew up watching tennis matches on television with my parents and trying to learn the sport myself. Though I only sometimes watch Wimbledon or the US Open now, I can tell the stakes have changed. As Said bemoans, tennis has largely lost its amateur class, and its league of professional players are “technical specialists” ruined by commercial interests. Federer is lovely to watch, but his recent dominance of the game was boring. The women’s game, Said points out, retains its “human pace” and “inventiveness.” That no single woman dominates the sport makes the matches more fun to watch, more exciting, more … sporting. —Nicole Rudick

In 1934, Oscar Reutersvärd pioneered the modeling of “impossible objects,” two-dimensional figures that project a three-dimensional object when viewed from a particular direction. The puzzle game “Monument Valley,” available on both iOS and Android, is built on this optical illusion—a sort of architectural Sudoku. It allows the player to interact with the isometric environment of dead-end paths and trick doors, moving the game’s protagonist, Ida, through gaps that seem to defy logic. The game is one of the most beautiful I’ve ever played. It’s like, as many have noted, an M. C. Escher drawing brought to life. The game designer Ken Wong told Wired, “We hope players will stay engaged for the same reasons they might enjoy a walk through a museum or an art gallery.” —Justin Alvarez

I was recently sent a book of poetry called A Dark Dreambox of Another Kind, by a poet I’d never heard of, Alfred Starr Hamilton. He wasn’t widely read or published in his lifetime; this is the first full collection of his work. The book, with its childlike, lonely, careful poems, was a revelation to me. Hamilton writes often in metaphor (my sub-pick for this week, if I’m allowed one of those, is Denis Donoghue’s latest, a book on how metaphor changes the world) and manages to create sweet optimism in feelings of sadness or wistfulness, though his life didn’t seem to contain much encouragement. In the preface and introduction to this book, you can read about the forty-five or so poems per week that Hamilton sent to Cornell’s Epoch magazine—a volume that exceeds even The Paris Review record for submissions per week from a single poet—which accumulated in shoeboxes, and about the time Hamilton was arrested for refusing to take shelter during an air raid drill in 1961. Like a gentleman, he notified the police in advance of the necessity for his arrest: “Peaceably protesting the air raid siren on April 28, 4 P.M., I will be sitting in the park at Watchung Plaza by the flag pole, reasonably refusing shelter, I will not resist being arrested impersonally, and may peaceably be taken to the station.” —Anna Heyward

On Monday night, Fun Home, the musical based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir, cleaned up at the Obie Awards. And just a few weeks ago, Bechdel and the cast and crew of the musical went down to South Carolina to speak and perform in support of the College of Charleston, after the institution’s budget was cut for assigning Bechdel’s gay-positive Fun Home to incoming freshman. Book burners have an unintentional habit of pointing us straight to the good stuff, and the South Carolina legislators are no exception, having led us to this brilliant, thoughtful memoir. In graphic frames, Bechdel curates the accumulated artifacts of her life—drawings, photographs, diary entries, letters, maps—to craft a witty, erudite reflection on her relationship with her complex and secretive father. Childhood habits and quirks, like an original font character that crops up in Bechdel’s early diaries, become fodder for Winnicottian analysis, to delightful effect. A thought-provoking and visually beautiful addition to your summer reading list, perhaps best enjoyed in the company of Bechdel’s masterfully deployed interlocutors, from Winnicott to Joyce to Wilde. If you’ve already read Fun Home, check out Bechdel’s equally hilarious and heartfelt follow-up, Are You My Mother?Chantal McStay

Before traveling abroad, some people pick up a Lonely Planet guide or two, maybe create a rough itinerary for each day, even go tanning to avoid an early sunburn. I read the local literature, as impractical as it may be. I’m going to Brazil next month, and I can’t tell you about what the weather may be or what the critic’s picks are for restaurants or bars in Rio de Janeiro. But I can tell you, as I read through Hilda Hilst’s novel With My Dog-Eyes, about the country’s “vertiginous-precise landscape done with a Japanese paintbrush.” Or the labyrinthine “veredas” described in João Guimarães Rosa’s The Devil to Pay in the Backlands,” “where a criminal can safely hide out, beyond the reach of the authorities … God himself, when he comes here, had better come armed!” Or the fused language of formal Portuguese and native Brazilian in Mário de Andrade’s Macunaíma, whose titular hero was born “in a far corner of Northern Brazil, at an hour when so deep a hush had fallen on the virgin forest that the brawling of the Uraricoera River could be heard.” In these books I can understand, to paraphrase Jan Morris in our Art of the Essay interview, not just how someone feels about a country but something powerful about the country itself. —J.A.

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