The Daily

This Week’s Reading

Staff Picks: Lunar Landscapes, Washerwomen, File Formats

February 5, 2016 | by

Peter Hujar, William Burroughs, reclining, 1975.

Of all the things I’ve read about Michel Houellebecq’s Submission, the most poignant has to be Elif Batuman’s essay in this week’s New Yorker—about Houellebecq’s novel, but also (and mainly) about her experience as a woman and journalist in Turkey, unexpectedly drawn to the idea of leading an observant Muslim life: “Houellebecq’s vision of an Islamic state, for all its cartoonishness, has a certain imaginative generosity. He portrays Islam not as a depersonalized creeping menace, or as an ideological last resort to which those disenfranchised by the West may be ‘vulnerable,’ but as a system of beliefs that is enormously appealing to many people, many of whom have other options.” —Lorin Stein

Dan has already covered the Peter Hujar show that’s up at Paul Kasmin, but I can’t resist talking about it again. Hujar’s portraits, particularly the close-ups that are on view here, are compelling: looking at faces that are, often, looking back at us; rarely do we have such an opportunity to study the details of another’s visage, and the longer I look, the more foreign they appear, like lunar landscapes instead of human faces. Maybe that’s why the subjects I recognize easily—Warhol, Sontag, John Waters, Quentin Crisp, Burroughs—are less captivating than those I don’t: Paul Thek, whose head is cocked curiously as he stares agape into the camera; John Heys in Lana Turner drag in 1979 and then again, in 1985, as himself; Rene Ricard, naked, his legs pulled to his chest, head in hand. Of the two portraits of David Wojnarowicz in the show, I spent the most time in front of the one in which his hand obscures most of his face, so that, instead, I examine the tidy curve of his fingernails and the length of his collarbone (and think of Georgia O’Keeffe’s Ram’s Head with Hollyhock). —Nicole Rudick 

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Every year, about a dozen tourists are afflicted with a debilitating neurosis called Paris Syndrome: the contrast between their expectations of the City of Lights and the grittier reality leads to shock, hallucinations, and sometimes repatriation. They should read Luc Sante’s The Other Paris, a love letter to and an elegy for the Paris of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a city uniquely comfortable conflating high and low. Sante’s prose is dense with the argot of the French, English, and American intelligentsia that helped to inform the book. And this is no mere nostalgia exercise; Paris’s bygone economies come alive on the page, a tableau of pimps, washerwomen, ragpickers, commercial poets, ant farmers, and clochards. Sante treats them all with sympathy. He’s at his most passionate when chastising the bourgeoisie who irreparably “fixed” Paris; seldom has the word rational—used here to describe the city-planning ideology of Haussmann and his confederates—been deployed with such venom. The import of The Other Paris is perhaps best expressed in a Baudelaire quotation from the first chapter: “The old Paris is no more (the form of a city / Changes faster, alas, than the heart of a mortal).” —Rakin Azfar

The dispassionate twenty-year-old narrator of Helle Helle’s This Should Be Written in the Present Tense pretends to be a student at Copenhagen University: she rides trains, begins and ends friendships, and lives, usually for a few weeks, with whatever man will take her. Her life is “a fog of existential ennui occasionally punctuated by tenuous connection,” as Jonathan Russell Clark put it in the New York Times. Despite what the novel’s title would have you think, the future is always there in this story, reminding the narrator that everything she does is inconsequential: that she’s only twenty, too young to matter, too young to make anything last. Isn’t that how being twenty is? We forgive her because she continues to gives herself to the present, even though her wandering search for herself could be seen as sociopathic in an older person. Present Tense may sound like just another bildungsroman, but it’s surprisingly devoid of ego, and deeply thoughtful. —Jeffery Gleaves

The Fox sisters. From left to right: Margaret, Kate and Leah. From “Radical Spirits”

The Fox sisters. From left: Margaret, Kat,e and Leah. From “Radical Spirits”

The way I feel about Samantha Hunt’s Mr. Splitfoot is how one of its characters describes meeting his wife: “We fell in love in a bloody way, thorns and hooks.” The story follows two seventeen-year-old orphans, Ruth and Nat, as they escape their ludicrously evangelical foster home by freelancing as traveling mediums along the Erie Canal. Fourteen years later, it’s along the same road that Ruth—returned from over a decade of disappearance, now mysteriously mute—escorts her pregnant niece, Cora, with an urgency she can’t communicate. Drawing on the fanatical history of the Hudson Valley, Hunt explores the middle ground between spirituality and crookery; the title is an allusion to the Fox sisters’ nineteenth-century séances. Ruth’s and Cora’s experiences of that landscape are like hallucinatory expeditions through a gothic wasteland. Somewhere along the way, Hunt conned me into believing that temporary possession by a hellish demon isn’t, after all, so different from the crucible of motherhood. —Daniel Johnson

“The data reminiscences that follow are probably an unrewarding read,” Daniel Wilson begins Files I Have Known, a twenty-nine-page e-booklet freely available from the experimental publisher Gauss PDF. And he’s right: there’s nothing terribly gripping in these ten stories, all pertaining to various files (e.g. “amb1.wav,” “fafda.rtf,” and “E-XCENTR.XM”) and the ephemeral way they drifted in and out of his life as a computer user. So why did I read Files I Have Known in one attentive sitting? I don’t know. I liked the way it evoked many hours of wasted time, and the many technologies that have claimed said time. In a chapter that will ring true to many children of the nineties, Wilson recalls hoping to get a digital copy of The Anarchist’s Cookbook from a classmate who eventually delivers it on a diskette “wrapped in pages ripped from an exercise book.” Files has no high-art pretensions. It’s just a compact, potent reminder of how asinine things like file formats have come to fill our days. If Nicholson Baker kept a working diary of his e-mail attachments (and here’s hoping he does), he might produce something similar. —Dan Piepenbring

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