September 4, 2012 | by Caleb Crain
A non-question has recently preoccupied the literary corners of the Internet: How rude should a book critic be? I call it a non-question because its non-answer is the same as for people in social situations generally: it depends. It’s impossible to find a universal rule that licenses rudeness. There’s always going to be at least one observer who feels that a conflict could and should be handled politely. (And who knows? Insofar as politeness is a skill, maybe there's always room for improvement.) Also, there’s always going to be at least one observer who describes as honest what others call rude. But even if you give up on unanimity and settle for a majority opinion, you still can’t formulate a general decision. Try it and see. Was William Giraldi justified in adopting a rude tone about Alix Ohlin’s novel? Was Ron Powers, about Dale Peck’s? Only the particular questions are worth debating, and no matter how many questions like them you answer, you never reach a rule that has the purity of math. The most you can hope for is etiquette.
January 17, 2012 | by Caleb Crain
Elizabeth Bishop was a painter as well as a poet, and the paintings that she left to her partner Alice Methfessel, who died in 2009, are now being sold. I’ve been to see the paintings a couple of times: last winter in the office of James S. Jaffe Rare Books, and a few weeks ago in the Tibor de Nagy Gallery.
The paintings are quiet. Some are domestic still lifes, including pansies in a wicker basket, a candelabra on a table, a tea set, and a doll-like lover asleep in bed. Others feature vernacular architecture: a Greenwich Village apartment building of ivy-covered brick, a wooden church in Key West, a county courthouse grand in the way of the nineteenth-century South. Most are in watercolor and gouache on vellum paper, whose delicate translucence no reproduction quite captures; lines are sometimes drawn in ink or pencil. Bishop didn’t have a steady or a precise hand, but her eye for color was fine, and she understood how to make the most of patterns, such as the radiations of a palm leaf, the stripes of a comforter cover, or the palings of a fence. She also had a Walker Evans–ish appreciation of the way that words, when they appear in the world as things, can seem both monumental and silly. The county courthouse is childishly labeled as such on a gable. On a street near a cemetery, each of five tombstones leaning against a shack reads “FOR SALE.”
The choice of subject and the modesty of style suggest that the paintings were for Bishop a personal matter. She usually signed them, when she signed them at all, with her initials or just her first name. Read More »
December 26, 2011 | by Caleb Crain
We’re out this week, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2011 while we’re away. We hope you enjoy—and have a happy New Year!
My husband and I watched Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) the other night. He’d never seen it before, to the consternation of his Facebook friends, and I last saw it a decade ago, when I remember having been vaguely entertained. Not this time, though. “God, he’s kind of awful, isn’t he?” Peter commented, about ten minutes in. I agreed but was fascinated. Before my eyes, the rentier class was daydreaming a special dream, a dream of getting away from the drudges and the scolds ...
I was not fascinated by the plot, which is thin. A high-school senior named Ferris Bueller, played by Matthew Broderick, feigns illness in order to play hooky and persuades a hypochondriacal friend and a bland girlfriend to follow him on a tour of Chicago, visiting a fancy restaurant, a baseball game, an art museum, and a German-American heritage parade. The movie depends heavily on Broderick’s charm as an actor, on his mix of too careful enunciation, direct address to the camera, and pale pink pubescence in the shower. In the opening scene, director John Hughes takes a rather large risk: Ferris lies to his parents with large calf eyes, giggling and lapsing into baby talk. What kind of movie hero consciously presents himself as infantile and duplicitous? What kind of movie hero begins by seducing his parents?
October 31, 2011 | by Caleb Crain
“Moments are the elements of profit,” Karl Marx wrote in Capital, quoting from an 1860 report by one of the British government’s factory inspectors. Marx believed that the uniformity of time underlay the fungibility of money; the time it took to make a commodity was, according to his theory, the basis of its value in the marketplace. If it takes ten hours to make an overcoat and ten to make a wheel of Stilton cheese, the coat and the cheese can be fairly traded. After all, a coat maker’s ten hours mean as much as a cheesewright’s. Or, as Thoreau put it, somewhat more poetically: “The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.”
Andrew Niccol’s new movie In Time brings the labor theory of value to the big screen with bold literalness. In the future, thanks to genetic engineering, everyone’s physical appearance ceases to develop or decline at age twenty-five, at which moment, with a silent, monitory thump, a stop watch on the left forearm—a cross between an Auschwitz serial number and a lime-green digital alarm clock—begins ticking down from one year. To get more time, one must beg, borrow, steal, or work, and with sufficient wealth, one can live forever. Read More »
October 6, 2011 | by Caleb Crain
Probably no writer ever finishes a book without wishing he could keep it to himself. For one thing, a book is company, during the writing of it; it’s hard to accept its departure. For another, a book is never free of flaws, its author being human. Poets have long been able to console themselves for the loss and the exposure by revising and republishing. Thus Whitman expanded, aggrandized, and eventually bloated Leaves of Grass; thus Wordsworth enlarged upon and finally diluted The Prelude. Some writers of fiction, too, have indulged themselves. Henry James returned to his early prose to render it more ineffable. Raymond Carver restored some of the fullness that a charismatic editor had cut from his early stories. Read More »
September 12, 2011 | by Caleb Crain
Soderbergh’s movie is scored to a similar drumbeat of numbers. Five dead in London. Three dead in Tokyo. Eighty-nine thousand cases worldwide. Eight million cases worldwide. The human mind can’t really make emotional sense of such numbers, of course, and for that Soderbergh turns to interwoven vignettes of the sort familiar from movies like Traffic and Crash. With such dismaying material, the artist’s challenge is how to make it real but not too real. If the deaths seem too real, sorrow will overwhelm viewers. (This is probably why John Lithgow’s performance of Alzheimer’s is so halfhearted in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. If anyone in your family has ever had Alzheimer’s, the last thing you want to see in a sci-fi romp is realism.) Read More »