The Daily

On the Shelf

Whither the Fog Machine? and Other News

March 24, 2016 | by

Photo: Antje Naumann.

  • What does Chris Bachelder’s new novel The Throwback Special have in common with Leonard Michaels’s 1981 book The Men’s Club? Both, as Miranda Popkey writes, are excavations of a certain kind of American white-dude frustration, and both have a chorus of male voices. But The Men’s Club was all sexual bluster and aggression, and The Throwback Special shows how masculinity has changed in the intervening decades: “Bachelder’s reliance on sub-rosa psychological churnings partly reflects his strengths as a novelist: he excels as an analyst of the anxieties that undergird social mores rather than as a dramatist of extravagant scenes. But it also reflects, I think, something about the lives and fears of a number of white American men, circa 2016. These men, Bachelder’s novel seems to argue, see themselves, relative to their forebears, as smaller and weaker and more cautious creatures; they shy away from the overblown tantrums, the explicitly dominant displays, that were once their due … Where The Men’s Club offers over-the-top operatics, The Throwback Special gives us hidden neuroses; as a result, the men of Bachelder’s novel can tend to look, in comparison, diminished.”
  • All right, everyone, we’ve been putting it off for long enough. It’s time to have a good think about the physical properties of stage fog. “Stage fog is a delicate creature: whether as haze that hangs in the air, a thicker vapor, or the low-lying kind that the lighting designer Natasha Katz calls Brigadoon fog—the stuff that wafts like a cloud around the actors’ ankles when it’s kept really cold, and rises higher when it’s not … Often water- or oil-based, sometimes made with dry ice, fog is difficult to control and as evanescent as theater itself—especially the fast-dispersing variety. Actors’ Equity has a whole host of guidelines about using it safely … ‘Fog and its compatriot, low fog, the super-chilled stuff that hugs the floor—those two things eat up more tech time than anything else. You can go for a week and just keep tweaking.’ ”
  • There exists a shadowy cabal hell-bent on overthrowing the modernist artistic tradition. These men loathe Picasso. They spit on Rauschenberg. Graffiti makes them weep. They gather at night … Wait, no, sorry, they gather at eight thirty in the morning in their efforts to restore classical painting to its lost glory. Jacob Collins is their leader. “The stories surrounding Jacob Collins all tend to go like this: a young artist, lonesome in a love for premodernist painting, stumbles upon Collins, who has built a life out of the premise that the twentieth century nearly ruined art … Collins doesn’t just want to revive premodern painting; he wants to live like a classical painter … Collins’s own rigorous studies—starting with classical fundamentals and working up to the live figure—form the basis of the pedagogy. In the first year, students dedicate mornings to cast drawing and cast sculpture, and afternoons go to master copies, block-ins, figure drawings, and perspective. The next year, students spend mornings on cast paintings and afternoons learning figure grisaille and anatomy. Year three involves figure painting in color and color theory, and year four focuses on figure painting in color, figure sculpture, and still life.”
  • You could throw a rock out your window and hit a fan of Mrs. Dalloway or To the Lighthouse. Advocates for Between the Acts, Woolf’s last novel, are harder to come by. Why is it so often overlooked? “Despite the inherent comedy that its setting and action allows—the book describes a pageant staged in the grounds of a country house—it evokes and encompasses, as Woolf herself hoped it would, ‘all life, all art, all waifs, all strays.’ Its ambition and execution—complete with moments of fragmentation, passages of prose poetry and darting movements from one character’s consciousness to another—are strikingly original, daring and yet assured.”
  • While we’re in the more esoteric section of Brit Lit: “Unless you are a scholar of sixteenth and seventeenth century literature you have probably never heard of John Taylor the Water Poet. Or for that matter Robert Greene, the bohemian university wit, or Richard Barnfield, the sodomitical sonneteer … They subvert our expectations of what we have come to consider canonical … We can take this ferryman Taylor, this self-declared ‘water poet,’ as representative of these marginal poets. Considering his conservatism, it may seem contradictory to argue that there is anything transgressive about him. Taylor, who liberally sprinkled his pamphlets with jokes at the expense of his wife, seemed almost achingly conventional … In his poetry, reportage, pamphlets, and reviews Taylor provided a voice so common that it was overlooked in his own time and sadly still often overlooked today.”