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What We’re Loving: Atomic Weapons, Augustus, Ang Lee

August 8, 2014 | by

Bronze head of Augustus with glass and alabaster eyes; from Meroë, Sudan, 27–25 BC

The bronze head of Augustus with glass and alabaster eyes; from Meroë, Sudan, ca. 27–25 BC. Photo: British Museum

“I have worked in an atomic weapons depot, a Veterans’ psychiatric hospital and a perfectly awful mental hospital for juveniles, and in all of these places I did what I was told to do, and gave my notice when I had had it with the life they offered.” So begins Mike Kirby’s “Diary” in last week’s London Review of Books. With his description of making and testing bombs, Kirby shows you don’t have to picture the stuff a writer describes—you don’t even have to understand what he’s talking about—to follow his train of thought or remain under the spell of his voice. (And no, this staff pick has nothing to do with our special summer offer—but, yes, right now you can get a year of both the LRB and The Paris Review for $60.) —Lorin Stein

There are so many things about John Williams’s Augustus, the newly reissued winner of the 1973 National Book Award, that shouldn’t work. First, it’s an epistolary novel—a form that always stretches credibility, by my lights, because to advance the plot its letters must make long forays into exposition, and real letters seldom do. Two, it tracks the lives of white men who’ve been dead so long their names are shrouded in the dust of antiquity: they can be hard to tell apart. Three, it deigns to speculate on the inner life of the most famous of these men, the founder of the Roman Empire, and that kind of conjecture almost always seems presumptuous in a novelist. And yet Augustus is gripping, brimming with life. Daniel Mendelsohn’s smart, thoughtful introduction gets at why: central to the novel, he says, is “the conflict between individuals and institutions”—a fecund concern in any age. But none of its drama would bear fruit if Williams weren’t such a close observer of human behavior. “The concerns of this spectacular historical saga are intimate and deeply humane,” Mendelsohn writes. “Like the best works of historical fiction about the classical world …  Augustus suggests the past without presuming to re-create it.” —Dan Piepenbring

For forty years, Ted Kotcheff’s 1971 film Wake in Fright was believed to be lost—the editor Anthony Buckley made it his mission to find a surviving print. It’s one of the most shocking and uncompromised studies of male degradation ever put on celluloid. By the end of the film, we’ve seen drunken fistfights, rape, and a gruesome moonlight kangaroo hunt; we’ve watched as a cultured schoolteacher comes to emulate the chauvinistic drunkards he despises. Though it was reviled upon its initial release, the film, along with Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout and Tim Burstall’s Stork, paved the way for the Australian New Wave and gave filmmakers such as Fred Schepisi and Peter Weir the courage to make films like Mad Max and The Devil’s Playground. The Australia of Wake in Fright is populated by men who have become accustomed to the harshness of nowhere. Welcome to hell. Stay a while. —Justin Alvarez

Hot on the (platform) heels of last night’s seventies-themed celebration of Rick Perlstein’s The Invisible Bridge at the office, I offer a rather different rendering of the age of synthetic fibers via Ang Lee’s 1997 adaptation of Rick Moody’s The Ice Storm. Set during Thanksgiving 1973, the film captures, with Lee’s signature precision, the full gamut of seventies escapism—and yeah, there’s a swingers party. But beneath the water beds and shaggy hairstyles, this is a movie about adolescence; its cast of teenagers wants desperately to experience adult life, and yet they’re utterly unprepared for the series of very adult situations in which they find themselves. The scene in which two characters question whether or not their parents will get divorced has an unforced, awkward closeness to it that rings true. Lee gets at something difficult to describe about coming of age: often it’s not a gradual process but a baptism by fire. —Chantal McStay

And while I’m on the topic of the seventies: I can only listen to the Bee Gees for so long before thinking of this ingenious little ad for MTV’s The State, which aired in 1994. The commercial, set to Robin Gibb crooning “I Started a Joke” (in perhaps the most wonderfully literal application of that song ever), uses the underappreciated sketch show’s absurdly negative reviews as selling points. Michael Ian Black, Ken Marino, and the rest of the crew mope around as pithy put-downs like “Significantly less than sporadically funny” and “More miserable crap” flash across the scene—twenty-eight seconds of pure delight. —CM

In his book Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters and his essay “Humor,” the philosopher Ted Cohen presents a lucid, accessible theory about jokes: that there cannot and should not be any such theory. Like art, he says, jokes transcend explanation—it’s the inexplicability and unexpectedness of the thing that usually accounts for its being funny. What we are able to say about jokes is that they form a sense of community, and Cohen is smart about this: he says that joke-telling provides occasions to see the amusement in me echoed by the amusement in you (provided you like my joke, of course). These moments of mutual recognition are not, unlike the jokes, to be taken lightly. —Parker Henry

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