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Classic Dionysian Shit: An Interview with Richard Hell

December 8, 2015 | by

© Rebecca Smeyne

“Without a doubt, the single most influential thing I’ve done was my haircut,” Richard Hell writes in Massive Pissed Love, his new collection of nonfiction. It’s a characteristically self-deprecating statement from a writer who started as one of the main sparks in New York City’s 1970s punk-rock movement. Hell has authored novels, books of poetry, and an acclaimed memoir—but his most lasting achievement, in his view, is that groundbreaking haircut.

Maybe it’s a strangely fitting legacy: Hell has been fascinated with hair since childhood. “Because it’s dead but personal and because I’m moved by the futility of its attempts to warm and protect the places where it grows,” as he put it in 2013’s I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp. Rachel Kushner’s review of that memoir lauded Hell’s commitment “to the unvarnished truth, about himself and others.” That honesty remains on display throughout Massive Pissed Love; at one point, he imagines asking Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth whether her hair is real or if she scalped an angel.

The collection is divided into three sections: long-form essays (“Massive”), angry takedowns (“Pissed”), and adoring panegyrics (“Love”). Hell, a prolific essayist and critic, has published everywhere: in Bookforum, the New York Times Book Review, GQ, and in the cunnilingus-themed issue of Ecstatic Peace Poetry Journal, where he envisions eating out a deer whose “vagina would taste like warm folds of liquefying bubblegum and then like lobster meat drenched in lemon butter sauce.” Elsewhere, he writes on culture, politics, emotions, spirituality—anything he wants, really.

I first spoke to Hell for an essay I was working on about Michel Houellebecq and the nineteenth-century French writer Joris-Karl Huysmans, who figures prominently in Houellebecq’s latest novel, Submission. The discussion below took place soon after Houellebecq, who did a literary event alongside Hell in Spain in 2008, wrote a widely discussed op-ed for the Times. (Antonin Baudry, The Paris Review’s newly appointed Paris editor, comments on it here.) Houellebecq’s call for France to be run without political parties or a government, through direct democracy, seemed like a fittingly punk-rock place to begin the conversation. Read More »

The “Splendidly Cranky” Utopian: An Interview with Curtis White

December 3, 2015 | by

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Curtis White first came to public attention as a culture critic with his best-selling The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don’t Think for Themselves (2003). Dubbed “splendidly cranky” by Molly Ivins and “absolutely indispensible” by Slavoj Zizek, The Middle Mind showed White’s ability to speak to a broad readership about the themes that run through all of his books—cultural skepticism, intellectual freedom, and the utopian function of the imagination. White’s “imagination” is the kind with an adjective in front of it: the political imagination, the social imagination, the scientific imagination. To say the political imagination rather than simply politics is to take the conceptual leap that White’s work insists upon, whereby we are reminded not only that we invent the rules of “politics” but that we reinvent and reaffirm them every day.

White grew up in postwar suburban California. He studied literature with John Barth and philosophy with Gayatri Spivak and spent his entire professional career at Illinois State University in Normal, where he eventually became a Distinguished Professor, before retiring in 2009. He now spends his time training for triathlons and writing books, most recently The Science Delusion (2013) and We, Robots: Staying Human in the Age of Big Data, which was published last month.

I corresponded by e-mail with White over a few weeks last summer about Reason, Romanticism, and the benefit of heartbreak.

We, Robots strikes me as a companion volume to The Science Delusion—two complementary ways of approaching the same problem. What do you see as the books’ common ground?

Amused indignation? All of my recent nonfictions, going back to The Middle Mind, are, finally, ideology critiques. The last two aren’t so much about science and robots as they are about the stories we’re told about science and the dawning age of “intelligent machines.” As with all ideology, we’re told these stories in order to gain our consent to a social reality that is unjust, unequal, and—here’s where I come in—dishonest. I’m indignant about the dishonesty of “science communicators” like Richard Dawkins or the economist Tyler Cowen. Dawkins and his cohort Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens speak as if science were the only legitimate source of “truth,” while the humanities, art, and religion are disciplines for the undisciplined. Cowen is a machine-age entrepreneur who glosses over the most egregious social consequences of living through machines, wholly lacking the imagination to understand how others might look at his robot utopia. For him, this future is inevitable anyway, and criticism of it is merely “standing in the way of progress.”

These are very narrow, bigoted men. They have no respect for anything other than their own empirical, technological dogmas. The worrisome thing is that we don’t see more prominent objections to their thinking, other than a few heroic figures like Chris Hedges. But I may have answered my own question there—if you have strong objections to what is inevitable, you will not be “prominent.” You will not be taken seriously. As much as possible, you will not be seen. Read More »

The Audience Is the Jury: An Interview with Rick Alverson

November 19, 2015 | by

Gregg Turkington in a still from Entertainment. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Rick Alverson’s new film Entertainment follows a comedian (Gregg Turkington) on the verge of mental collapse. On tour in California, his routine is simplistic, crude, and lame, the venues are bleak and half-empty. Alone in hotel rooms, he stares blankly at telenovelas. Every night, he leaves a voice mail for his daughter, who never calls back. Alverson intertwines pain and humor, his camera lingering for painful lengths on Turkington’s pale features. The actor turns his popular persona, Neil Hamburger, on its head: an act intended to be ironically vile and loathsome threatens to become legitimately vile and loathsome, and Entertainment evolves into a disquieting portrait of modern-day disillusionment, manifesting in emotional disconnect, misogynist rants, and isolation. 

This experiment in discomfort is a continuation for Alverson, whose previous film, The Comedy (2012), starring Tim Heidecker, focused on a group of affluent, aging New York hipsters suffocating in their own riches and irony, a reversal of the mainstream feel-good blueprint that confused and angered many critics and viewers. I spoke to Alverson in Manhattan earlier this month about his thoughts on Entertainment, portrayals of masculinity in the media, and Teletubbies.

This film is very particularly constructed.

When we watch movies, we paste together these narrative threads that are completely inconsequential. I think that’s due to a restlessness in us. The first thing the mind goes to is the credibility of the narrative, and the content. A large part of what I ended up doing in the edit was thinking about what happens after that, with the viewer’s intellect. It became more and more exciting, because I’m an audience as much as anybody. We’re taught to be unaware, or think that these events are disposable or superfluous, but we’re really vulnerable when we watch media. Especially in dark rooms. Read More »

Night Shift: An Interview with Leslie Stein

November 4, 2015 | by

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“Life is nonlinear and that takes a lot of courage to cope with,” writes Leslie Stein in her new book, Bright-Eyed at Midnight. Stein coped, in part, by sitting down at a blank page each night for a year to draw comics. Fueled by insomnia and prompted by characters she encountered while tending bar or traveling the city or by bittersweet childhood memories (her insomnia stretches back to juvenile night terrors), she produced twelve months’ worth of microstories that build a larger narrative through accumulation. In addition to diaristic recollections of everyday events, she meditates on collaged aphorisms and observations snipped from Jules Renard’s Journal, offers up doodled portraits of teen crushes, and returns again and again to the moment just before dawn, when she is alone, awake, and contemplating her art and her existential questions.

In Bright-Eyed, Stein has foregone traditional comics panels, leaving her dreamlike watercolor scenes surrounded by white space. Dialogue between the book’s impish figures is handwritten in colored pencil and linked to its speakers not by conventional word balloons but by small, unobtrusive squiggles. Some nights seem to get the best of her: a handful of pages are dense, wildly rendered paintings with anxiously scratched self-portraits and recriminations peering out from between brush marks. The Globe and Mail described these as “Kandinsky illustrating Virginia Woolf.”

Seasonal headers are the only organizing devices in the book, which has been edited down to 224 drawings. According to Stein, her publisher wanted page numbers, but she resisted, not wanting to interrupt Bright-Eyed at Midnight’s magical quality. “How does this book even exist?” she told me. “It’s unique—it’s a comic book and an art book, it’s a diary. You could open it to any page to begin.”

Stein and I met at a bar in Brooklyn early one evening in late August to discuss her nightlife. It was hot, so we sat under a tree to talk.

When you decided to draw every day for a year, were you making the work for yourself instead of readers?

I didn’t actually anticipate having any readers. I started drawing the series on New Year’s Eve—it sounds so gimmicky, but it really wasn’t on purpose. I had had a difficult year. I was either bartending or alone all night. I wanted something new and different to play with, to get color in my life. New Year’s is symbolic. I wanted to think about what a new year meant in my own life rather than people’s expectations of it. I didn’t want to go out to a party. I did a bunch of terrible drawings that evening and then went out drinking anyway, because I felt discouraged. When I got back to my apartment, I did a scratchy comic about my night and threw it up on Tumblr. The next day I woke up and there it was. I took it down, because posting it was kind of an accident, but then started the next in the series right away. Since I was playing around with materials, the style changed often but turned into something concrete. By the end of the year, I was laying down my lines in a specific way before coloring, and the spatial relationships between images and the design of the characters had solidified. Read More »

All Writers Have a Corpse in Their Closet: An Interview with Andrés Barba

November 3, 2015 | by

Andrés Barba. Photo © Andrés Barba

Andrés Barba’s August, October, now translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman, should bring him the wide Anglophone readership he’s long deserved. The novel follows the fourteen-year-old Tomás as he travels to the coast with his affluent family on their summer vacation. He’s at a point in his life when everything feels distant and strange: friendships, sex, the alluringly lawless behavior of the lower-class kids he meets. Tomás ends up becoming complicit in the sexual assault of a local girl, the central event from which the narrative unspools, and back in Madrid, assailed by guilt, he tries to plot a path toward atonement—one that shines at times with an uneasy air of self-interest. The reader becomes trapped in a story of immaturity and transgression that leaves no room for the usual reassuring tropes of coming-of-age novels. The prose moves on constant commas, swaying between arousal and revulsion, and in its subject matter August, October brings to mind the early work that earned Ian McEwan the nickname “Ian Macabre”: First Love, Last Rites; The Cement Garden.

Barba is the author of twelve books in Spanish. Besides literary fiction he has written essays, poems, books of photography, books for children, and translations of De Quincey and Melville. We discussed his obsession with aloneness, the difficulties of capturing Moby-Dick in Spanish, and why certain “pompous utterances” in literature are “only useful insomuch as Justin Bieber can get them tattooed across his ass.” Barba is fluent in English, but felt more natural discussing his craft in Spanish. Cecilia Ross kindly translated his answers. Read More »

Colossally Sordid: An Interview with Luc Sante

October 27, 2015 | by

Luc Sante. Photo © Laura Levine

With the publication of Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York, in 1991, Luc Sante established himself as one of New York City’s most imaginative elegists. The book was a shrewd chronicle of Lower Manhattan abjection from the mid-nineteenth through the early twentieth centuries—but also a call for a more expansive sense of historical memory, one with room not just for the banking magnate and the besooted proletarian behind him but for the guy behind him, too, with the chewed-off ear and the shiv. Sante followed Low Life in 1992 with Evidence, a collection of startling and often sublime crime-scene photographs taken by the NYPD in the 1910s, a project in which Sante afforded his poor tenant-dwellers more dignity than many of them could claim in their abbreviated lives. Since then he’s contributed regularly to The New York Review of Books; written the liner notes of the Anthology of American Folk Music and translated Félix Fénéon’s Novels in Three Lines; published an autobiography of sorts, The Factory of Facts; and released a collection of essays, Kill All Your Darlings. 

His new book, The Other Paris, magnifies the crime, grime, and scrappy, world-reverberating insubordination of Parisians down through history. Sante’s Other Paris is the one that belongs to le Peuple and always has—to the prostitutes, the ragpickers, the laundresses, the pickpockets, the North Africans, Roma, and Jews, the pop singers and tattooed gang members (the apaches, many of whom “had a dotted line around their necks, to guide the blade of the guillotine”), the insurgents on the barricades and the Illegalist bomb throwers, the ones who got their heads cut off and the ones who physically did the cutting. Perhaps most of all, the Other Paris belongs to the flaneurs, the original dandies in the underworld, in whose tradition Sante has followed as a first-rate observer and reassembler of Paris, making this book the most recent contribution to the venerable body of literature that has sought to capture Paris the way it really was and is, from the vantage of the street rather than the street view.

Flaneurie is a huge part of The Other Paris—you call the flaneur the “exemplar of this book.” Since flaneurs have been the truest historians of Paris, did you find the act of walking at all important to your research? For as much consideration as you give to the social consequences of the built environment, it seems like a dérive or two might go a long way toward finding the essence of Paris from “the accumulated mulch of the city itself,” to borrow a phrase from Low Life.

When I wasn’t at the movies, I was walking. I walked all over the city, repeatedly—I kept journals of my walks, which are actually just lists of the sequences of streets. Even though the city isn’t as interesting as it once was—modern construction and commercial real-estate practices have wiped out so much of the old eccentricity—there are still hidden corners and ornery survivals, and of course the topography is such a determinant. New York City is more or less flat and what isn’t was mostly leveled long ago, so it’s missing that aspect of accommodation to hills and valleys and plateaux, not to mention the laying out of streets on a human scale long before urban planning scaled things to the demands of machines. Read More »