The Daily

Arts & Culture

Cheddar, Cheever, and the Burbs

September 1, 2015 | by

An illustration from Muriel Stanek’s How People Live in the Suburbs, 1970.

Fifty years ago, John Cheever published The Wapshot Scandal, his second novel. Like many second novels, it’s more ambitious and more playful than its predecessor, the work of a writer who suspects he’s better than he feared. The traditional form suddenly seems boring, the same old themes threaten a categorization that the writer doesn’t want, and the writer—encouraged by praise, validated by awards, perhaps softened by income—realizes he can write just about anything. So he does.

The Wapshot Scandal begins where The Wapshot Chronicle ended: with the Wapshot family leaving the safety of St. Botolphs and searching for fulfillment in more modern suburban communities. An acrid whiff of cynicism rises from the page: we know this won’t end well, Cheever knows we know, and now it’s a matter of how and when. Moses and Coverley Wapshot bring their wives to Proxmire Manor and Talifer, respectively; the first is an archetype of the suburban nightmare, the second an archetype of a Cold War community, built around a missile-research facility.

Scandal is very much of its time, but even in its time the satire was well-trod: husbands drink too much, wives betray, wealth corrodes, families splinter, sex—granted or withheld—destroys. Cheever’s cynicism isn’t unique; he never claimed it was. What was, and what remains, unique, are passages like this:

The village, he knew, had, like any other, its brutes and its shrews, its thieves, and its perverts, but like any other it meant to conceal these facts under a shrine of decorum that was not hypocrisy but a guise or mode of hope.

This is what made Cheever special: he understood that the desperate idealism behind existential decay is still idealism. Which brings me to, well, me. Read More »

On the Pleasures of Not Reading

August 31, 2015 | by

An illustrations from the Nuremberg Chronicle, by Hartmann Schedel (1440–1514).

What a golden age this is for trolls. Never has it been easier, with the proper combination of disdain, ignorance, and calculated condescension, to work hundreds of thousands of strangers into an indignant lather. If you don’t mind the occasional death threat, the polemic has never been a more attractive mode. It’s pungent.

I have to believe the Guardian’s Jonathan Jones feels the same way—his article today, “Get real. Terry Pratchett is not a literary genius,” is too arrant a piece of provocation to be unintentional. Its thrust is that the late Pratchett, whose final Discworld novel has just been published, is part of a “middlebrow cult of the popular” distracting readers from more ambitious, capital-L Literary fare. That’s a contentious argument in and of itself—but Jones’s true troll masterstroke lay in his admission that he’s read hardly a sentence of Pratchett’s work. The author “is so low on my list of books to read before I die,” Jones writes,

that I would have to live a million years before getting round to him. I did flick through a book by him in a shop, to see what the fuss is about, but the prose seemed very ordinary … life really is too short to waste on ordinary potboilers. I am not saying this as a complacent book snob who claims to have read everything. On the contrary, I am crushed by how many books I have not read.

Some of that feels deliberately bush-league—that “million years” bit gives too much of the game away; clearly this is a piece of rhetoric designed not to be reasoned with but balked at—but beneath the hauteur is a useful point, one that much of literary culture, in its glad-handing, is at pains to admit. There are writers we instinctively, permanently dislike: not only will we never read them, we will quietly relish the not-reading, finding in it a pleasure that can occasionally rival reading itself. Read More »

Long Story Short: In the Studio with Aidan Koch

August 20, 2015 | by

Photo: Amanda Hakan

Photo: Amanda Hakan

On Aidan Koch’s cover for our Summer issue, six panels depict a woman lounging and reading and ruminating at the shore. Each panel exists both as a discrete event—here, she looks at her book; here, she shades her eyes—and as one sentence in a paragraph about the woman’s day at the beach. The issue also features Koch’s comic “Heavenly Seas,” the story of a woman who travels to a tropical location with a man she doesn’t love. It is twenty-eight pages long and contains just over a hundred words of dialogue and no narration. The difference between “Heavenly Seas” and the cover sequence is like the difference between Lydia Davis’s long short stories and her very short ones.

Koch, a native of Olympia, Washington, is the author of three book-length comics—The Whale, The Blonde Woman, and, most recently, Impressions. She also makes sculptures, ceramics, and textiles that reinterpret the classical motifs that appear in many of her comics. Her narratives are elliptical, fragmentary, and open-ended; it seemed appropriate to include “Heavenly Seas” in an issue that is largely about translation. Last month, I met Koch at her studio, in the basement of a tatty mansion she shares with eight other artists and a corn snake named Cleopatra, in Bushwick, Brooklyn.

Where did the story for “Heavenly Seas” come from?

I’d been trying to think about how to utilize the idea of traveling. I’d read a couple of Paul Bowles books, and I liked how well he captured the mindset of how foreign places can seem to the traveler and how that’s seductive but also scary. He also thought about people’s attitudes in different countries and in confronting different cultures. That’s something I’d been considering, since it’s a big part of my life. I’ve been traveling constantly for the last three or four years. I left Portland in 2011 to travel and just didn’t stop. I went to Spain and Turkey, then I was in Scandinavia and around Europe. My book Field Studies documented 2012, when I lived in a different room in a different city every month, just because I didn’t know what to do with myself. I thought maybe I’d figure it out along the way. Read More »

Design a Cover for the Twentieth Anniversary Edition of Infinite Jest

August 13, 2015 | by

Cover_IJ

There are two routes to literary immortality:

  • Slave for years—if not decades—over a work of fiction so searingly sui generis, so well and truly fused with an authentic zeitgeist, so deeply attuned to life’s vicissitudes and the mysteries of the soul, that establishment and nonestablishment figures alike have no choice but to revere you and send you soaring toward the firmament, never to be forgotten.
  • Hitch your wagon to David Foster Wallace’s star.

For the less ambitious among us, option number two has never been more desirable. To celebrate the twentieth anniversary of Infinite Jest, Little, Brown is hosting a contest: you can design the cover for the new edition, thus earning one thousand dollars and suturing your memory to Wallace’s own. Read More »

I Think I Would Rather Be a Painter

August 10, 2015 | by

At the Guggenheim, writers and artists cross-pollinate.

Carol Bove, Vague Pure Affection, 2012, wood and steel shelves, paper, brass, concrete, and acrylic, 85" x 35 1/2" x 16". © Carol Bove, photo courtesy Maccarone Inc., New York

Writers have always been in love with the visual arts. Just think of Frank O’Hara’s sly poem “Why I Am Not a Painter,” which is actually all about the creative entanglement of the two forms—tinged with yearning and a wry bit of envy:

I am not a painter, I am a poet.

Why? I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not. Well,

And it isn’t just poets. Hemingway, that great champion of muscular prose, credited Cézanne as one of his masters—a guy who painted pictures of rooftops. More recently, Don DeLillo has haunted the outer edges of the art world in novels such as The Body Artist, Falling Man, and 2010’s Point Omega, which begins and ends with a description of Douglas Gordon’s video installation 24 Hour Psycho. Read More »

Vermeer in Manhattan

August 4, 2015 | by

Johannes Vermeer, A Maid Asleep, oil on canvas, 1656–7, 2' 6" x 2' 10".

“Imagine you lost everything that really mattered to you, and then you had a dream, and in that dream you found out that you never really lost it, because it can’t be taken away from you. That’s how Vermeer makes me feel.”

The poet Michael White was trying to explain to me his obsession with Johannes Vermeer—with his psychologically charged interiors and enigmatic female figures. Michael’s fascination arose from a chance encounter with the artist’s work in Amsterdam, where he had gone to distract himself from a divorce so destructive that it had left him deeply depressed, feeling as if he would live out the rest of his life alone.

Though I was working with him at a university in North Carolina, I didn’t know him well enough at the time to understand the emotional hardship he was going through—or that his experience in the Rijksmuseum with Vermeer’s quietly ambiguous images had led him to travel the world on a quest to see every one of the master’s paintings. In fact, none of that was clear to me until I read his new memoir, Travels in Vermeer, a book that’s part travelogue, part meditation on the meaning of art. Read More »