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On Parade

July 12, 2012 | by

The town that I grew up in holds what people like to call, with a kind of pride in poverty, the World’s Shortest Parade on the fourth of July. A number of small towns make similar claims, but our parade, next to the beach on Maxwelton Road in Clinton, Washington, deserves it. From the field by the old Steiner farm it continues just two blocks, ending at Dave Mackie park, where a series of foot, sack, and three-legged races are run and the national anthem sung. It’s not required to register in advance to march; one simply arrives and lines up in either a motorized or non-motorized line. This year, the parade’s ninety-seventh iteration, the lineup included a number of dogs, a few Republicans, one guy in a gorilla suit, many bikes (some of them “Occupied”) and a truck full of violinists. As we waited for the start, a bored-looking high school baseball team called the Crabs slouched, chins in hand, on their hay bales, and a grandmotherly woman in a mermaid costume had her picture taken with one of two groups of pirates.

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Among the Automata

May 22, 2012 | by

By now, the entire Internet is aware that last month A/V technicians at Coachella resurrected Tupac for a performance with Snoop Dog and Dr. Dre. Though a little phosphorescent, the rapper seems lifelike enough in the videos, with his Timberlands and rather nice abs. Cumulatively, though, the effect, especially when (living) Snoop is in the frame, is, above all else, weird. Watching the virtual Pac unintentionally moonwalk across the stage, we might think of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “Sandman”: “Aha! Pretty doll! Spin round, lovely doll!” Not as odd a juxtaposition as it may seem: as Gizmodo reports, the effect was produced by means of a nineteenth-century trick called “Pepper’s Ghost.”

The nineteenth century represents the tail end of humanity's fascination with the mechanical replication of itself. Much effort had been expended in that direction the century prior, in the Marais neighborhood of Paris, where the automata builders lived and worked. That the word automata comes from an economical Greek verb for “acting of one’s own will” points somewhat toward the source of the period’s fascination with them; miming organic processes, these machines seemed to be animated by something beyond gears and wires. Actually, they were operated by clockwork: linkages or rods in the body connected to a set of cams, irregular wheels concealed in the object’s base or body. The cams served as the object’s “memory” turning in circular motion—a winding key, for instance—into linear, transposing mechanics into something resembling life. Automata were, as Freud put it, in his essay on the uncanny, unlike us enough to be at once familiar and strange, or at least “secretly familiar.” It was uncertain whether they were really doing what they appeared to be, whether they lived, whether they had something resembling a soul. But like Tupac, automata were reproducible, replaceable, and performed the same actions again and again. There were also many copies, quite a few of which still survive.

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Odd Corners Round About Brooklyn

April 2, 2012 | by

Djuna Barnes.

Djuna Barnes, best known as a cult feminist-ish lesbian experimental novelist, once described herself—with unaccustomed hauteur—as “the unknown legend of American literature.” In her early career, she claimed to have worked for every English language publication in New York City, excepting only the Times, and by the time she left for Paris in 1921, had published some one hundred articles. As it turns out, Barnes is one of the great carnival barkers of the nonfiction world—a kind of Tom Wolfe of her day.

A new exhibition of Barnes’s work at the Brooklyn Museum, running under the header “Newspaper Fictions,” concerns Barnes’s New York years, beginning with the day when, fresh from the slopes of Storm King Mountain—where she’d shared a log cabin with her mother, grandmother, polygamist father, his mistress, and her odd-monikered brothers Saxon, Zendon, Shangar, and Thurn—she allegedly marched into the offices of the Brooklyn Eagle, dressed in a milkmaid’s calico, and declared, “I can draw and write and you’d be foolish not to hire me.”

James Joyce, perhaps the greatest influence on Barnes’s fiction, liked to advise, “Never write about an unusual subject, make the common unusual.” Barnes, for one, paid this dictum no mind: like Nathanael West and Flannery O’Connor, she adored a misfit. Her writing—full of immigrants, circus animals, freaks, socialists, hipsters, servants, and suffragettes—revels in the atmosphere of the “yellow nineties,” a period characterized by Wildean decadence and art for art's sake. One of her articles begins, “There is something in the smell of Summer that makes one think of the smell of the sea, and the smell of salt and of heavy wet winds and of fish and the tangled mats of wet seaweed that come to shore, beaching themselves like wigs, somehow forgotten by tragedians strolling tragically by the sands.” Her journalism is dense with ornament of this kind, luring the reader into a baffling linguistic dream. Sometimes—out of either fancy or carelessness—it grows utterly surreal, as when she comments of Wilson Mizner that he “has a laugh like a French pastry shop.” Read More »

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Salter’s Armory

March 14, 2012 | by

James Salter, Robert Rauschenberg, 1963, black-and-white photograph, 16 x 20 inches.

If you are neither looking to buy art nor quite understand the glut of it before you, what do you do at the Armory Show? To an ill-informed visitor, it’s like being at the Louvre, but without the benefit of history to fall back on. The show’s aesthetic labyrinth is thus the source of a certain amount of bafflement. I dealt with this quandary partly by writing down what it was I happened to see and enjoy, as though to come back to it later: Ai Weiwei’s porcelain owl houses; some distorted nudes by the photographer André Kertesz; a series of vegetables in gelatin-silver prints by Charles Jones; the Turkish artist Irfan Onurmen’s tulle portraits; totem poles by Charlie Roberts; a photograph, called L’Oiseau dans l’Espace, by Brancusi.

I arrived late on the last day of the show and spent the first twenty minutes of my visit searching for the press office (ah, the other pier), explaining why I did not possess any sort of business card, failing to locate the down escalator and descending alone in an elevator twice the size of my kitchen. I eavesdropped on a couple trying to decide if they could afford two seventeen-thounsand-dollar Weegee prints, agreeing they had space in their home. Then a young man told his friend just how badly he wanted to fuck someone’s sister (“so bad”). Next to the champagne bar, beneath a huge neon sign reading scandinavian pain, I allowed a kind Norwegian to apply a temporary tattoo to the underside of my wrist with a damp paper towel. I was surprised at how intimate this was—he might have been taking my pulse.

“You see,” he said, “most of what this is about is the fact of making it happen at all.”

Almost by chance I found the booth for “As They Were: American Masters Through the Lens of James Salter,” a combined effort by Loretta Howard and Nyehaus galleries, showcasing some of James Salter’s films and photographs taken between 1962 and ’63 while he had a studio in Peek Slip. In the event you don’t know who Salter is, the curators have obliged by providing a few old editions of his books in a glass case, along with the script for his film Downhill Racer next to a bluish spiral of canistered film sitting atop the receipts from its printers. There is a photo of the bearded Salter, standing behind his camera in a field, and another of the author as an old man, being greeted by Robert Redford. So, you see: legit. Read More »

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Mistaken Identity

January 24, 2012 | by

William Gaddis, self-portrait.

On March 29, 1962, the Village Voice ran a full-page ad touting the merits of William Gaddis’s The Recognitions—a book which had been published a good seven years before. As the ad notes, one of that novel’s major themes is mistaken identity, specifically forgery “of Old Masters, $20 bills, slings, personality, everything.” The text continues: “The Recognitions sold like cold cakes in hardcover because of stupid reviews by the incompetent, amateurish critics. Everyone ‘knows’ the critics are no good, but everyone believes them anyway. For an antidote, I offer my article ‘fire the bastards!’ ... on sale at Village bookstores. Or mail me a quarter for it.” The ad was signed, rather bafflingly, with the name and address of one “jack green.”

 

The text to which green refers, Fire the Bastards!, an excoriation of the Recognitions’ original reviewers, came out in the pages of a paper called newspaper, typewritten, mimeographed, and stapled on beige, legal-size paper beginning in 1957. At the beginning of February Fire the Bastards! will be reissued in book form by Dalkey Archive Press, which first collected it (against green’s express wishes) in 1992. As interesting as it is on its own merits, as both a kind of literary performance art and as a commentary on Gaddis’s work and the state of literary reviewing in general, this strange document is eclipsed by the even stranger events that followed its mysterious publication. It spurred several decades of lively literary conspiracy theories—theories so rich with questions of mistaken identity that they could have emerged from Gaddis’s own pen. Read More »

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Jane’s Lace

December 20, 2011 | by

One of the difficulties of adapting Persuasion, Jane Austen’s sixth and final finished novel, for film is that so much of its drama is internal: encoded in an indirect glance, in the brush of hand against skin, the muffled thump of a heart. Passion, passed through the sieve of eighteenth-century English propriety, is visible only diffusely in the text, as coloring in the landscape or in the minutiae of gesture. The novel quietly condemns the social conventions that demand this: Austen is archly dismissive of the Regency woman’s “art of pleasing,” her “usual stock of accomplishments,” and her frivolous feminine occupations, like “cutting up silk and gold paper.”

When Anne and Frederick, Persuasion’s lovers, do finally reach one another, it’s through a remarkable letter written literally into and onto a separate conversation—an almost postmodern moment of intertextuality—that explodes such conventions:

I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever … I can hardly write. I am every instant hearing something which overpowers me. You sink your voice, but I can distinguish the tones of that voice when they would be lost on others. Too good, too excellent creature!

As the scholar Robert Morrison argues in a beautiful new annotated edition of Persuasion from Harvard’s Belknap Press, it’s the most romantic moment in Austen’s work. But, romantic or not, Austen’s form of kabuki can frustrate a modern preference for fervor.  Read More »

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