The Daily

This Week’s Reading

Staff Picks: Back Waiters, Blackouts, Bulletin Boards

March 18, 2016 | by

From the cover of Sweetbitter, out in May

In its first chapter alone, Jean Stein’s West of Eden: An American Place sees a fortune made and squandered, a dubious murder-suicide, a media blackout, hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribe money, and a death by battery acid. And this isn’t fiction—it’s an oral history of Los Angeles, full of myth and rancor and especially desolation. Focusing on just five addresses, including the Dohenys’ fabled Greystone Mansion and Jack Warner’s Beverly Hills monstrosity, Stein excavates an LA counternarrative that’s been buried for decades in the city’s foundations, obscured by those who insist on marketing the place as paradise. The Los Angeles that emerges here is anything but a dream factory—its denizens are so felled by corruption and hubris that their lives take on the dimensions of Greek tragedy. West of Eden is a stunning accomplishment. Strange that it comes at roughly the same moment as the Coen Brothers’ Hail Caesar!, which tells, beneath its frothy surface, another sad story of old Hollywood’s bitter power-brokers. —Dan Piepenbring

“We are getting / rid of ownership, substituting use. / Beginning with ideas. Which ones can we / take? Which ones can we give?” I read these sentences a half dozen times, stopping after each read to consider a new meaning that appeared before me, like an ever-expanding horizon. In fact, most sentences in John Cage’s Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse) took several readings to get through. But these fragments of opinions and problems, worries and joys are meant to be meditative, and working through them recalibrates the reader’s perspective. Shifts between typefaces, indentations, and colors make a collage of the text, and there is little sense of where one entry ends and the next begins, which produces wonderfully unexpected juxtapositions and startles to attention odd anecdotes like this one: “In the lobby after La / Monte Young’s music stopped, / Geldzahler said: It’s like being in a / womb; now that I’m out, I want to get / back in. I felt differently and so did / Jasper Johns: We were relieved to be / released.” And to think that it’s really all just words arranged on a page. But, as Cage points out, “If we could change our language, / that’s to say the way we think, / we’d probably be able to swing the / revolution.”  —Nicole Rudick 

west of eden

Detail from Ed Ruscha’s Back of Hollywood (1977), on the cover of West of Eden

Stephanie Danler’s novel Sweetbitter, out in May, is, in an almost literal sense, a sensational debut. Most of it takes place during the dinner rushes and “shift-drink” periods (read: after-hours ragers) at an unnamed gourmet restaurant in Union Square, where its protagonist, Tess, gets a job as a back-waiter after having moved to New York at twenty-two. Where Sweetbitter differs from your typical move-to-NYC-with-nothing-to-my-name bildungsroman is in its hedonism; it’s not about Tess “finding herself” as much as it’s about the conquest and glory of, say, befriending another back-waiter who’ll front you a bump of cocaine on Saturday night and who’ll crush an Adderall into your coffee the next morning, when the whole staff is hungover. The prose in itself is a dopamine tease: when Danler describes the brininess of a Kumamoto oyster chased with chocolate stout or the lights over the bar in summer twilight, I wanted to get drunk and slurp seafood with my friends. What I like most about Sweetbitter is how well it works as an ensemble novel: when Tess and her coworkers, vivid and indispensable, are all together, all fucked up. —Daniel Johnson

“Around this time I became a frequent visitor to a sex-ad bulletin board,” begins Domenick Ammirati’s short story “Marcy,” in the thirty-fifth anniversary issue of BOMB. Discomforting and tragically beautiful, the story peels away nearly all that’s taboo about scouring for sex on the Internet, that “limitless interactive archive of erotic fiction.” The narrator, Dean, posts an ad online, fiddles with his profile picture (swapping the sunglasses photo out for the shirtless one, and back again), and waits for someone to respond. What follows is a lonesome scene between Dean and the woman who answers his ad, Nina, set in the Independence Towers housing projects of New York. The story is a vignette of the ways people use each another to get their fill, and how quickly they discard them when they can’t. And yet there’s an undeniable undercurrent of heartache and longing beneath it all that left me shaken. Ammirati’s writing is stark and unflinching; I hope to read something else of his very soon. —Caitlin Youngquist

A still from Ryan Trecartin’s CENTER JENNY, from the cover of BOMB’s thirty-fifth-anniversary issue.

The hardest thing to write about well is writing. Novels with novelists as their protagonists seem to me a kind of unimaginative gesture at intellectual intimacy, but those who do it well make the reader a confidant in the creative process. Mark Leyner’s new novel, Gone with the Mind, and Patrick Madden’s latest essay collection, Sublime Physick, both pull it off. Leyner’s book, as with most of its predecessors, stars himself, and if you read the excerpt in the Review last year, you know it’s an autobiography wrapped in the story of that autobiography’s conception: it takes place entirely at a reading in a mall food court in New Jersey. (Spoiler alert: he never actually begins the reading.) The Leyner we meet on the page reminds me of an ecstatic, drug-addled seatmate I had once on a Greyhound bus ride from Pensacola to Tallahassee—a man whose dilations made more sense to me as the trip wore on, when they revealed themselves as quiet revelations. Madden’s essays, meanwhile, are Montaigne-like exercises in hair-splitting and self-questioning, until finally Madden admits that he’s an essayist and that living the examined life is what he does. Both people, and both books, are ones I’m not likely to forget. —Jeffery Gleaves