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Department of Tomfoolery

The Eyes Have It

December 16, 2014 | by

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Odilon Redon’s The Cyclops (detail), ca. 1914.

Philip K. Dick was born on this day in 1928. His story “The Eyes Have It” originally appeared in Science Fiction Stories 1953, but since the copyright wasn’t renewed, it’s lapsed into the public domain. “A little whimsy, now and then, makes for good balance,” the magazine’s editors wrote then. “Theoretically, you could find this type of humor anywhere. But only a topflight science-fictionist, we thought, could have written this story, in just this way … ”

It was quite by accident I discovered this incredible invasion of Earth by lifeforms from another planet. As yet, I haven’t done anything about it; I can’t think of anything to do. I wrote to the Government, and they sent back a pamphlet on the repair and maintenance of frame houses. Anyhow, the whole thing is known; I’m not the first to discover it. Maybe it’s even under control.

I was sitting in my easy-chair, idly turning the pages of a paperbacked book someone had left on the bus, when I came across the reference that first put me on the trail. For a moment I didn’t respond. It took some time for the full import to sink in. After I’d comprehended, it seemed odd I hadn’t noticed it right away.

The reference was clearly to a nonhuman species of incredible properties, not indigenous to Earth. A species, I hasten to point out, customarily masquerading as ordinary human beings. Their disguise, however, became transparent in the face of the following observations by the author. It was at once obvious the author knew everything. Knew everything—and was taking it in his stride. The line (and I tremble remembering it even now) read: Read More »

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Marriage Plot

December 2, 2014 | by

Hanged

From Twenty Years a Detective in the Wickedest City in the World, a 1908 book—putatively nonfiction—by Clifton R. Wooldridge, “the Incorruptible Sherlock Holmes of America.”

In his agony [Devel] confessed that the only reason he confessed the murder was that he desired to get hanged, and that he preferred hanging to life with his wife. […]

“I desired to be hung,” said Devel, mournfully. “Life is not worth the living, and with my wife it is worse than death. If I had been hanged no other man would marry my wife, and I would save them from my fate. Many times have I planned to kill myself to escape her. That is sin, and I lack the bravery to kill myself, besides. If they will not hang me I must continue to live with my wife.”

Devel states, among other things, that these are the chief grievances against married life in general, and his wife in particular:

  • She was slender, and became fat and strong.
  • She was beautiful, and became ugly and coarse.
  • She was tender, and grew hard.
  • She was loving, and grew virulent.
  • She grew whiskers on her chin.
  • She called him “pig.”
  • She wore untidy clothes, and her hair was unkempt.
  • She refused to give him beer.
  • Her breath smelled of onions and of garlic.
  • She threw hot soup upon him.
  • She continually upbraided him because there were no children.
  • She scolded him in the presence of neighbors.
  • She refused to permit him to bring his friends home.
  • She came into his store and scolded him.
  • She accused him of infidelity.
  • She disturbed him when he slept in the garden on Sundays.
  • She made him cook his own dinners.
  • She spilled his beer when he drank quietly with friends.
  • She told tales about him among the neighbors, and injured his business.
  • She served his sausages and his soup cold, and sometimes did not have his meals for him when he came home.
  • She did not make the beds nor clean the house.
  • She took cards out of his skat deck.
  • She talked continually, and scolded him for everything or nothing.
  • She opened the windows when he closed them, and closed them when he opened them.
  • She poured water into his shoes while he slept.
  • She cut off his dachshund’s tail.

These things, he said, made him prefer to be hanged to living with her.

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They Can’t Take That Away from Me

October 8, 2014 | by

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On this, the eve of the announcement of this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature, the Swedish Academy seems so furtive, so inscrutable. The suspense is palpable. Bookies are collecting bets; laureled authors around the globe are making steeples of their hands, entertaining their wildest fantasies. But if you want a quick and easy way to dispel the mythos, to lend a touch of levity to the pomp and circumstance of this nervous hour, just spend a few minutes with the Nobel’s Lord of the Flies game.

It is heinously unfun.

Really. Endodontic surgery is more fun than this game.

In its first stage, you match certain quotations and objects from the novel (glasses, bananas, a pig’s head on a pike) to their respective characters. From there, you’re invited to do more matching, this time pairing objects to themes (“Law and Order,” “Hope and Rescue”) that are mounted to palm trees. But wait—wait—what’s that theme there on the right?

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Look, I know it’s pedantic, but at the moment it’s all we’ve got—a typo, a typographical error, disseminated by the offices of the highest literary prize in the land. A sign of fallibility from these infallible Swedes!

May it offer some succor to those writers perennially rumored to be Nobel front-runners—all those who are passed over, year after gnomic Swedish year. I may never join that banquet in Stockholm, your Philip Roths and Thomas Pynchons can say, but at least I can spell supervision.

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Their Just Reward

September 23, 2014 | by

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Giuseppe Arcimboldo, The Librarian, 1562.

From The Librarian at Play, a collection of essays by Edmund Lester Pearson, published in 1911. Pearson was a librarian who wrote humor and true-crime books.

I looked and beheld, and there were a vast number of girls standing in rows. Many of them wore pigtails, and most of them chewed gum.

“Who are they?” I asked my guide.

And he said: “They are the girls who wrote ‘Lovely’ or ‘Perfectly sweet’ or ‘Horrid old thing!’ on the fly-leaves of library books. Some of them used to put comments on the margins of the pages—such as ‘Served him right!’ or ‘There! you mean old cat!’”

“What will happen to them?” I inquired.

“They are to stand up to the neck in a lake of ice cream soda for ten years,” he answered.

“That will not be much of a punishment to them,” I suggested.

But he told me that I had never tried it, and I could not dispute him.

“The ones over there,” he remarked, pointing to a detachment of the girls who were chewing gum more vigorously than the others, “are sentenced for fifteen years in the ice cream soda lake, and moreover they will have hot molasses candy dropped on them at intervals. They are the ones who wrote:

If my name you wish to see
Look on page 93,

and then when you had turned to page 93, cursing yourself for a fool as you did it, you only found:

If my name you would discover
Look upon the inside cover,

and so on, and so on, until you were ready to drop from weariness and exasperation. Hang me!” he suddenly exploded, “if I had the say of it, I’d bury ‘em alive in cocoanut taffy—I told the Boss so, myself.”

I agreed with him that they were getting off easy.

“A lot of them are named ‘Gerty,’ too,” he added, as though that made matters worse. Read More »

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The Mystery of the Plaster Plimpton

August 11, 2014 | by

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Hailey Gates holding our plaster Plimpton, a donation from Duncan Sahner and Rodney Cook.

By the largesse of Duncan Sahner and Rodney Cook, The Paris Review has come to possess a handsome bust of our late founding editor, George Plimpton. Specifically, this is a plaster maquette—the sculptural equivalent of a draft or sketch—by George M. Kelly, a sculptor of some renown. When Sahner and Cook heard that Kelly was soon to be evicted from his studio in Astoria, they “put together a team of Monuments Men” to rescue some of his work. This maquette was among their bounty.

And yet so much of the story remains untold. For starters, how did Kelly and Plimpton know each other, and who prevailed on whom to have Plimpton sit as a subject? Furthermore, if our bust is only a preliminary model, then where’s the final version?

The Times offers tantalizing evidence of its existence. Back in 2003, on the occasion of Plimpton’s death, the paper reported that Elaine’s—the restaurant and New York City institution, shuttered in 2011 after more than forty-five years in business—had “a plaster bust of Mr. Plimpton … on a shelf in the back room.” There’s even a photo of him standing beneath it. Elaine Kaufman, the proprietor, told the Times,

A couple of years ago a guy named Kelly did a bust of George in brass … The guy wanted a lot of money, $35,000. I don’t have that kind of—BLEEP!—money. So we ended up with the plaster cast.

That cast remained on display until the restaurant closed. Photographs suggest that it’s not the same cast presently in our office. Ours has a visible seam just behind the Plimp’s ear; the model in Elaine’s is a more polished affair. And if there are already two of these plaster Georges, might not there be others, too?

If you or your loved ones have any clues as to the whereabouts of the bronze Plimpton, or of any further plaster Plimptons, or perhaps even of a marble or Plasticine Plimpton, please let us know. In the meantime, we’re delighted to show off our plaster Plimp, who is, as you can see, eminently photogenic:Read More »

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These Bugaboos

June 11, 2014 | by

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One measure of a book’s influence is the mark it leaves on the vernacular. In this sense, many plaudits must go to William Styron, born today in 1925, who helped start The Paris Review and served as an advisory editor. His 1979 novel, Sophie’s Choice, has ascended into idiom, as Wikipedia and Urban Dictionary have acknowledged. The latter defines a Sophie’s Choice as “essentially a no-win situation … a choice between two unbearable options,” and gives the following example:

The loan [sic] hiker’s arm was wedged in a crevice when he slipped and fell. He didn't have the strength to release himself. Each movement wedged his arm more deeply into the crevice. After several days without food and water, he was left with a Sophie's Choice: continue to wait for help and possibly die, or use the serrated blade of his pocket knife to cut off his own arm and climb to safety before bleeding to death.

But some don’t seem to grasp the finer points of the phrase’s usage.

To wit: there has been, since 1984, a restaurant in England named Sophie’s Choice. Yes, a center of fine dining, serving “modern European cuisine and a range of wines from around the world,” which takes its name from a novel whose titular choice involves which of one’s offspring will die in a concentration camp.

“Our emphasis on good service creates a relaxed and welcoming atmosphere,” the proprietors write. Mains include roast breast of Barbary duck and char-grilled medallions of lamb rump with Cumberland sauce. They do weddings. 

Styron said in his second Art of Fiction interview,

Not long ago I received in the mail a doctoral thesis entitled “Sophie’s Choice: A Jungian Perspective,” which I sat down to read. It was quite a long document. In the first paragraph it said, In this thesis my point of reference throughout will be the Alan J. Pakula movie of Sophie’s Choice. There was a footnote, which I swear to you said, Where the movie is obscure I will refer to William Styron’s novel for clarification. This idiocy laid a pall over my life for a dark brief time because it brought back all these bugaboos we have about the written word.

One can imagine that this establishment was no better received, if the author was aware of it. And I hope he was not—this is a scenario in which ignorance is bliss. If you choose to celebrate his birth tonight, best to make your reservations elsewhere.

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