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Author Archive

Workers Have Feelings, Too, and Other News

February 5, 2016 | by

KP Brehmer, Soul and Feelings of a Worker, Whitechapel version, 1978. Image via Rhizome

Six Sweet Hours of Arabian Nights, and Other News

February 4, 2016 | by

A still from Miguel Gomes’s Arabian Nights.

  • So you published one of the most lauded, beloved, fiercely debated novels of 2015—what now? A new thrill can be hard to come by. Hanya Yanagihara has elected to follow her success by swimming across Martha’s Vineyard. Just because. “Swimming,” she writes, “is the writer’s sport, because it is the sport most like writing. To swim, as to write, is to choose an intense state of socially acceptable aloneness. You can be a serious runner or bicyclist and still have to occasionally nod at a passerby or negotiate traffic. Swimming, however, precludes interaction with the world. When Anne Sexton won a fellowship from Radcliffe in 1961, she used the money to build herself a pool, which has always seemed to me a sensible artistic decision, if those two adjectives can ever be paired … There is no better place to unkink a complicated piece of invented logic than in the water—there is little else to do, in fact, but confront your problems.”
  • The Coen brothers are back with Hail, Caesar!, which, as you’ve probably heard, is about a brutish studio fixer in the golden age of Hollywood. Richard Brody sees it as a meditation on faith: “The Coen brothers are into belief systems—big and seemingly backward ideas that overcome contradictions with a leap of faith—and Hail, Caesar! is full of them … The Coens see the absurdity and the narrowness in the grandeur of the Hollywood mythology on which they were raised. Movies are different now because the people who make them don’t—and can’t—exercise the same sort of plenipotentiary power; because studio heads are no longer godlike; because studios as such, with their closed complexes of soundstages and paternalistic control over actors’ lives, no longer exist. Yet the Coens look back upon those movies with a specific nostalgia for a lost faith. The religion that the Coens grew up with wasn’t Christianity, but it was the American religion—Hollywood.”
  • Hey, they made a new movie of Arabian Nights! Imagine the pageant of exotic images to come as Scheherazade tells his stories! And then stop imagining it, because Miguel Gomes’s Arabian Nights, as Adam Thirlwell writes, has another set of references in mind: “There are no sherbets, no hunting parties, no silks: this movie employs a different vocabulary of cigarettes, drizzle, plastic signs, and metal fences … The movie lasts more than six hours, and is divided into three parts—‘The Restless One,’ ‘The Desolate One,’ and ‘The Enchanted One’—each of which is in turn divided into three or four named stories, which vary in length but which each last roughly thirty to forty-five minutes. It’s a long film that is also a series of shorts. To make the movie, Gomes set up a troupe: a mini office of investigative journalists, whose job was to come to him with raw material from Portugal’s recession.”
  • How did Joan Didion make the leap from litterateur to legend? That’s the kind of rhetorical question only Vanity Fair could answer. In the process, Lili Anolik probes the recesses of Didion’s marriage to John Gregory Dunne: “Dunne wasn’t Didion’s match artistically. Not so much a slight as it might sound. Dunne was a fine writer; Didion just happens to be more than that. And he seemed to have accepted his second-best status … ‘John told Brian [Moore, the Irish novelist] he was walking on the beach one night and he ran into Jesus and Jesus said, “I love your wife’s work!” ’ … That Didion could wipe the floor with Dunne anytime she chose must’ve been disturbing for him. And confusing. The girl he’d married, a slip of a thing, bookish and wallflowerish, turned out to be this spooky genius, a poet of paranoia or possibly a clairvoyant of paranoia fulfilled.”
  • As e-books sales begin to slump, one digital publisher is doubling down by putting out “unprintable books”: “People like to talk about how physical books have qualities that don’t transfer well to digital … We want to show that digital books can have narrative and visual qualities that champion writing but can’t be transferred to print. You wouldn’t really sit and read a novel while at your desktop would you? You’re more likely to curl up on your sofa or armchair and read a book—and you can do that on your phone just as easily as you can with a paperback.”

Things People Do

February 3, 2016 | by

Mernet Larsen’s exhibition “Things People Do” is at James Cohan Gallery through February 21. Larsen, seventy-five, works in what she has called “old-fashioned narrative paintings ... statements of longing.” “What I use are these perspectival ploys—diverse perspective, parallel perspective,” she told The Huffington Post last year. “You’re always sort of moving around inside the painting; you can never quite figure out where you’re standing, so you kind of absorb it. Matisse does that too for me too. And a lot of Japanese art, from the twelfth century particularly. They bring you inside and outside the space, you have no particular position. You can't quite get your bearings. And yet, I want you to have a sense of orient, a sense of mass, a sense of depth.”

Mernet Larsen, Alphie, 2015, acrylic and mixed media on canvas, 71 1/8" x 39 1/2".

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No One Should Envy a Writer, and Other News

February 3, 2016 | by

Edvard Munch, Jealousy, 1907.

  • Sarah Manguso holds up the many sources of writers’ envy—“of money, of accolades, of publication in this or that place … of profligacy and of well-managed scarcity … of accomplishment and of potential”—to remind us of how easy it is to mess things up: “The purpose of being a serious writer is not to express oneself, and it is not to make something beautiful, though one might do those things anyway. Those things are beside the point. The purpose of being a serious writer is to keep people from despair. If you keep that in mind always, the wish to make something beautiful or smart looks slight and vain in comparison. If people read your work and, as a result, choose life, then you are doing your job.”
  • In which Dan Chiasson attempts to peer through Frederick Seidel’s voluptuary persona in search of the man himself: “Whenever Seidel publishes a book, a portion of his readers recoil in offense, while others celebrate his courage and cunning … The louche vampire who sniffs his fingers and spurns the poor isn’t Frederick Seidel—even though, as we learn elsewhere, this ‘character’ who has so little to do with Seidel lives in Seidel’s apartment, socializes with his friends, and shares his tastes in wine, shoes, and motorcycles. In photo shoots, Seidel stands in his Upper West Side living room, dressed up like ‘Frederick Seidel,’ surrounded by décor whose provenance we have come to know from his poems. The troubling power of this work isn’t its distance from its author but its stifling proximity … His style favors successive tremors of bile and animus, often crudely rhymed so as to suggest doggerel or ad copy.”
  • How Chris Jackson, executive editor of Spiegel & Grau, is building a list of writers from the margins: “ ‘I want to protect the writer, of any race, from the dishonesty of racism, and how it can inflect any kind of work,’ he said. ‘And, for writers who are trying to challenge the pandering of the white gaze, if you have to go through a series of gatekeepers who are uniformly white, you’re going to end up with something that’s’— here came a considered pause—‘it’s going to be tough to preserve the integrity in the end.’ ”
  • Reading Primo Levi in translation, Tim Parks stumbled on the word ankylosed, prompting some thoughts on diction between languages: “A certain credit or self-esteem now attaches itself to reading translations; it is something that intelligent, broad-minded people do. Above all, it is understood that the books will be literary and challenging, perhaps with something of their exotic origins still clinging to them … The American reader of translated novels is predisposed to read a rather different, non-standard English. No one need be anxious that quintals or ankylosed might force themselves into standard vocabulary; rather, they will remain pleasant curiosities, or perhaps even pretentious markers, catering to a self-consciously ‘informed’ reader of foreign novels … We know what it sounds like when an Italian speaks English with an Italian accent. But how can we possibly recognize the flavor of written Italian in written English, if we can’t read in Italian? How can we distinguish it—in English—from the flavor of Spanish or French or Russian or Czech? What can we experience beyond a muddled exoticism?”
  • Book trailers: Those are funny, right? Watch as writers who’d normally object to crass consumerism sit down in the front of the camera to sell some hardcovers. It’s a uniquely self-loathing spectacle, as Katy Waldman writes: “Perhaps everyone is embarrassed by the apparent fact that a soft-shoeing writer gets people’s wallets out faster than flashes of plot and craft. Perhaps authors resent that it’s so hard to sell their actual books, or phone it in because the clips feel tangential to this tower of words they’ve made. Perhaps hustling your person is just grosser than hustling an object. Or perhaps writers appreciate not having to ‘pimp’ their novels, retreating, instead, inside their winning personalities, if applicable, and the self-mockery represents a kind of nervous laughter.”

Paper—It’s Not Just for Writing! And Other News

February 2, 2016 | by

Twentieth-century lithography by the Danish designer Axel Salto. Image: British Library, via Hyperallergic

  • In which Elif Batuman, visiting Turkey, puts on a head scarf and begins to rethink some things: “What if I really did it? What if I wore a scarf not as a disguise but somehow for real? I was thirty-four, and I’d been having a lot of doubts about the direction my life was taking … Now a glimmer appeared before me of a totally different way of being than any I had imagined, a life with clear rules and duties that you followed, in exchange for which you were respected and honored and safe. You had children—not maybe but definitely. You didn’t have to worry that your social value was irrevocably tied to your sexual value. You had less freedom, true. But what was so great about freedom? … Travelling alone, especially as a woman, especially in a patriarchal culture, can be really stressful. It can make you question the most basic priorities around which your life is arranged. Like: Why do I have a job that makes me travel alone? For literature? What’s literature?”
  • Infinite Jest turned twenty yesterday, and Tom Bissell has given it an astute new appraisal: “In interviews, Wallace was explicit that art must have a higher purpose than mere entertainment: ‘Fiction’s about what it is to be a … human being.’ And here, really, is the enigma of David Foster Wallace’s work generally and Infinite Jest specifically: an endlessly, compulsively entertaining book that stingily withholds from readers the core pleasures of mainstream novelistic entertainment, among them a graspable central narrative line, identifiable movement through time and any resolution of its quadrumvirate plotlines … Made-up words, hot-wired words, words found only in the footnotes of medical dictionaries, words usable only within the context of classical rhetoric, home-chemistry words, mathematician words, philosopher words—Wallace spelunked the O.E.D. and fearlessly neologized, nouning verbs, verbing nouns, creating less a novel of language than a brand-new lexicographic reality.”
  • In the interest of evenhandedness, please note that the novel has earned, on Amazon, a large share of one-star reviews, and these disappointed readers deserve their say, too. “If you’re trying to make sense of a bunch of mumbo-jumbo then by all means place this one in your shopping basket,” one happy customer wrote. “He is a literary bully,” another reader said. And: “Didn’t know it was 1000 pages. Too hard to hold. Bought one for my son and he felt the same way.”
  • Paper: it’s good for writing, yes, but—did you ever think of this?—it’s also good for decorating. The new Anthology of Decorated Papers compiles some fine examples of all the things people have done with paper besides writing on it, which is, when push comes to shove, boring. “Much of the collection of over 3,500 papers focuses on book endpapers and other publishing ephemera. There are also wrappers, backs of playing cards, currency paper, wallpaper, musical instrument covers, and other examples of the medium, mostly dating from the sixteenth to twentieth centuries.”
  • I like to say that magazines are dying because it makes me look smart and chicly pessimistic. And I have to imagine my forebears felt the same way. People have been saying that magazines are dead more or less since they were born. Evan Ratliff writes, “We are not the first generation to witness the death of great magazine writing. That bell began tolling, some would say, as far back as 1911, when a run of unprofitability forced Samuel S. McClure to sell off McClure’s—founded in 1893 … When Vanity Fair came (in 1913) and went (in 1936), it was only a hint of the carnage that the era of radio would bring. We lost the titanic trio of Scribner’sForum, and Liberty—you remember them, of course—not to mention Living Age. When the Delineator went from over two million subscribers in 1929 to suddenly ceasing publication in 1937, the writing was on the wall.”

The Soviet Man of the Future, and Other News

February 1, 2016 | by

Georgy Zimin, Still Life with Light Bulb, 1928–1930. Image via NYRB

  • Philip Larkin’s poems and letters present him as misanthropic, hard-hearted, and above all miserable—but he moonlighted as a photographer, and his work in the medium shows a dramatically different side of him. “In their sociability, tenderness, and sweep, the photographs complicate the caricature of Larkin as England’s laureate of despair, squeezing out lines between shifts as a university librarian … Rather than a poet committed to monkish isolation and routine, Larkin the photographer appears as an eager traveller through Britain and Ireland, with [Monica] Jones often in tow … Larkin kept these travels, and the photographs they inspired, a secret from pen pals like Kingsley Amis, for whom he reserved obscenity-filled reports of his own bitterness and alienation—his wide-eyed curiosity replaced by an ironic sneer.”
  • A new exhibition at the Jewish Museum, “The Power of Pictures,” looks at the revolutionary intent of early Soviet photography and film: “Russia’s new political masters wanted to create a new society and a ‘new Soviet man’ … Many of the best-known avant-garde artists embraced this task with enthusiasm: some felt as though their art was the engine driving history. Artists like El Lissitzky, Rodchenko, Stepanova, Goncharova, Malevich, Mayakovsky, and Tatlin—to varying degrees influenced by Cubism, Futurism, and other western European movements, as well as by Russian folk traditions—had been making work that in different ways sought to redefine the very notion of art … Photography was the perfect medium for promoting the new state order. Its use in newspapers, magazines, posters, journals, and books as something other than portraiture was a new phenomenon. It was by definition ‘modern’ and ‘forward-looking’—a non-elitist medium for the age of mechanical reproduction.”
  • We’ve all tired of the manic-pixie dream girl, that brazen testament to the narrowness of the male imagination. But John Green, in his young-adult novels, gives the stereotype considerably more depth: “In Green’s novels, there is considerable tension between the potent appeal of his manic pixie characters, the excitement and fun they bring into the narrators’ lives, and the messages these characters impart about their own lives and identities. It is only through celebrating the quirky charisma of manic pixie dream girls and fully exploring their attraction that he is able to show their accompanying problems … In his most complex work, he deconstructs the type, showing readers the pitfalls of defining others in narrowed ways … ”
  • Afronauts, the Ghanaian director Frances Bodomo’s new film, tells the little-known story of the Zambian space program, which mounted an ambitious attempt to send twelve astronauts to the moon in the sixties. “Zambia’s landscape isn’t really arid desert; it’s not really desolate,” Bodomo says. “And this is where the sci-fi comes into it, because you can take liberties and telling an alternative history comes into to it. You know it’s wonderful that they’re already on this landscape that already feels like the moon, that already feels like they’re already where they’re going. That feels like the message at the end of the film, that they’re already where they always wanted to be. The loneliness and the pain and the self-negation that exists here is what it’s going to be up there. The trials and tribulations here are going to be up there. Visually, they’re already in their dream space.”
  • Concrete, simplicity, utopia—let’s hear it for brutalism, people. Put your hands together for brutalism. A new book by Christopher Beanland argues that we must learn to love brutalist architecture, and that there’s plenty to love in it: “The key thing about concrete, Beanland argues, is it can span great distances (enabling architects to construct stronger and more spacious buildings) and be stretched into wild shapes, from ziggurats and beehives to flying saucers … Beanland believes our concrete nostalgia is a protest against the greed of the current housing market, with cities like London being bought up by the international super-rich.”