The Daily

Department of Tomfoolery

Floating Capital

October 21, 2015 | by

Fear him.

The eeriest and most gravid of today’s new emoji is this guy: the so-called Man in Business Suit Levitating. In Apple’s rendition, he cuts an imposing figure, like a rich kid who’s just aced his LSATs—a simpering, dubiously pompadoured fella in polarized glasses and a natty suit. His tapered silhouette hangs above a blip of a shadow. He’s a superhuman exclamation point. He’s the floating face of capitalism. And if literature has taught us anything, it’s that he brings nothing but bad news wherever he roams.

I’m prepared to advance an entirely unfounded argument based on an hour of Googling: that this levitating businessman is the latest, most accessible form of a character who has haunted literature for more than a century. Sometimes wily, sometimes unscrupulous, and sometimes merely misguided, he’s held aloft by Adam Smith’s invisible hand only to be flung earthward again. Join me, won’t you, on an impromptu whistle-stop tour of THE LEVITATING BUSINESSMAN IN LITERATURE.Read More »

You’re Hired

September 9, 2015 | by

I wrote ringtones for Donald Trump.

The year was 2004. Both NBC’s The Apprentice and really fun cell-phone ringtones had taken an unsuspecting public by storm. I had managed to elude both—I kept my phone on vibrate and I was ready to stare in bemusement at anyone even thinking of telling me I had been “fired.”

But I needed money, so when the call came to write ringtones for Donald Trump, a quiet businessman from Queens who had been reluctantly thrust into the spotlight by the seventh most popular program on network television at the time, I said yes. I had been doing some freelance writing and one of my clients was among the tangle of corporations assigned to the case. Fortunately, they decided to throw me a bone.

Of course, I knew a thing or two about Trump already. He had flawless hair; he slept on piles of money each night; given the choice between having something not gold-plated or entirely gold-plated, he chose door number two every time. Still, I wanted to do the best job possible, so I had one of Trump’s minions send me copies of two of his books, Trump: The Art of the Deal and Trump: The Art of the Comeback, as well as an anatomically correct Trump doll that would tell me all sorts of things every time I pressed its back, something I couldn’t help but do repeatedly as soon as it came into my possession. Read More »

Certificate of Tastelessness

February 9, 2015 | by


Thomas Bernhard in Portugal, 1986.

At this point, we tired of it! Because what happens is, when you keep on diminishing art and not respecting the craft and smacking people in the face after they deliver monumental feats of music, you’re disrespectful to inspiration … Then they do this whole promotional event, and they’ll run the music over somebody’s speech, an artist, because they want commercial advertising. No, we not playing with them no more. —Kanye West on the Grammys, February 8, 2015

Every year, the stately procession of awards shows delivers us another imbroglio, and every year I wish that Thomas Bernhard, who would be eighty-four today, was still around to take the piss out of them. In a just world, our country’s glossiest magazines would pay Bernhard to attend awards shows around the world, allotting him thousands of words with which to vent his signature blend of misanthropy, contumely, vitriol, and spleen, with no paragraph breaks. “Everything is fundamentally sick and sad,” Bernhard once wrote. And: “There is nothing but failure.” If the Kanye Wests of our time were stealing the stage to say stuff like that, the state of our union would be stronger.

Bernhard was full of vinegar for just about everyone and everything, but so severe was his allergy to pomp and circumstance that he wrote a book about it. My Prizes: An Accounting describes a variety of banal ceremonies Bernhard was swindled into attending because, you know, he was being feted at them. “The Grillparzer Prize,” which opens the collection, provides a useful blueprint for anyone who hopes to disrupt the prizewinning paradigm. Some general instructions follow. Read More »

The Eyes Have It

December 16, 2014 | by


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 »


Marriage Plot

December 2, 2014 | by


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.


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.