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“Happy as Hell,” and Other News

October 26, 2016 | by

Paul Beatty.

  • With his novel The Sellout, Paul Beatty has become the first American ever to win the Man Booker Prize. “I don’t want to get all dramatic, like writing saved my life ... but writing has given me a life,” he said at a press conference, where he described himself as feeling “happy as hell.” Chris Jackson interviewed Beatty for the Daily last year. “I hope that in my audience of weirdos, there’s some of those people of all races,” he said. “As people of color, as black people, we all have to have this ability to speak these different languages and make these different references—we don’t have to have it, but it helps. So for me, it’s still all in one big thing, and these cultures overlap more than they ever have. You know, in the 1970s people wanted this ‘authentic angry’ stuff that was still directed at them but in a weird I-want-to-slit-your-throat way. I’m not saying those people aren’t a part of my audience. I’m just yelling. I know their ears will hear. But I’m hoping there are a ton of ears out there that hear. I’m trying not to yell in one direction, even though I can’t really help but to do that.”
  • The last time I listened to the voices in my head, I wound up causing seven figures of property damage, inventing a new way to violate the Geneva Conventions, and becoming a father. Why? Charles Fernyhough’s new book, The Voices Within, addresses the vagaries of self-conversation, but in Casey Schwartz’s summation, it’s too vast a subject for a single volume: “Inner voices are a facet of ordinary life: They grumble and chastise and offer up opinions, though to what extent differs from one person to the next. Fernyhough starts to ask questions: How and when did these voices first enter our heads? Do young children hear voices the same way adults do? What distinguishes the inner voices that we all hear from the auditory hallucinations of schizophrenia? What is the relationship between pathological hallucinations and the exalted experiences described by medieval mystics, who believed they were hearing the voice of God?” 

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Workshopping with Flaubert, and Other News

October 25, 2016 | by

  • Before the culture of the workshop emerged, with its blandishments and its “constructive criticism,” there was Flaubert, who really put himself out there: “Flaubert is often described as a writer’s writer; but students of creative writing should be warned that he is not a would-be writer’s writer. [Michel Winock’s new biography] gives a good sense of the unrelenting misery of composition: ‘grinding away at it, digging into it, turning it over and over, rummaging about in it.’ Flaubert was referring here, not to a whole book, but to a single sentence. Over four afternoons and evenings, his friends listened in silence while he recited his Temptation of Saint Anthony, which had taken three years to write, and then told him that it should either be completely rewritten or thrown on the fire. This is perhaps not what writers’ groups call ‘mutual support’, but it was an impressive act of kindness. The final version, published twenty-five years later, was much improved.” 

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Digital Obsolescence Is Such a Drag, and Other News

October 24, 2016 | by

Miltos Manetas, Jesus Swimming, 2001. Image via the New York Times.

  • As a fan of early web art, I browse the Internet exclusively on a 1996 Packard Bell PC running Windows 95 and Netscape Navigator 2.0, thus guaranteeing that I see these works as their artists intended them to be seen. But evolving software and infrastructure is making it harder and harder to preserve the web art of the nineties and aughts—so much so that an ambitious archival project is in order. Frank Rose writes, “In the early days of the web, art was frequently a cause and the internet was an alternate universe in which to pursue it. Two decades later, preserving this work has become a mission. As web browsers and computer operating systems stopped supporting the software tools they were built with, many works have fallen victim to digital obsolescence. Later ones have been victims of arbitrary decisions by proprietary internet platforms—as when YouTube deleted Petra Cortright’s video ‘VVEBCAM’ on the grounds that it violated the site’s community guidelines. Even the drip paintings Jackson Pollock made with house paint have fared better than art made by manipulating electrons.” 

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You Should Probably Buy This French Poet’s Gun, and Other News

October 21, 2016 | by

Photo: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP.

  • I’ve been keeping a close eye on the collectible handguns of emotionally unstable French poets, and I have a good idea: if you’ve got sixty thousand euros lying around, consider bidding on the pistol that Paul Verlaine used in his attempt to murder Arthur Rimbaud. It’s a handsome gun, soon to be up for auction, and it’s sure to make a great Christmas gift for the one you love. Agence France-Presse explains, “Verlaine bought the 7mm six-shooter in Brussels on the morning of 10 July 1873, determined to put an end to a torrid two-year affair with his teenage lover … It was in a hotel room there at two in the afternoon where, after the lovers had rowed, cried, and got drunk—according to Rimbaud—that the suicidal Verlaine raised the pistol. ‘Here’s how I will teach you how to leave!’ he shouted, before firing twice at Rimbaud. One bullet hit him in the wrist, while the other bullet struck the wall and ricocheted into the chimney. But, having been bandaged up in hospital, Rimbaud again begged the author of Poèmes saturniens not to leave him. Verlaine, who was to be dogged by drink and drug addiction all his life, pulled out the revolver again and threatened him with it in the street.”
  • Hey, honest question—are you in an online cult? Think about it. The Internet is, in some ways, little more than a cult-delivery mechanism. As Linda Besner writes, “In the 1961 handbook Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, the psychologist Robert Lifton suggests that cults can be identified by, among others, the following traits: the creation of neologisms designed to reshape the adherent’s outlook, separation from family and friends, fostering cognitive dissonance, confessional pressure, and a charismatic leader. In other words, cults are about control … An online ‘cult’ would not need to kidnap you, or bring pamphlets to your door, or go to you at all; instead, you would go to them. Perhaps the greatest difference is how much of a self-starter the average follower needs to be. The onus is on you to indoctrinate yourself.” 

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Shhhh—It’s the Desert, and Other News

October 20, 2016 | by

Photo: Simon Prisner.

  • From afar, winning the Nobel Prize in Literature seems like a real laugh riot, at least to those of us whose main ambition in life is to gain the adulation of the Swedes. But a new volume of Samuel Beckett’s letters suggests that taking home the Nobel is not such a bed of roses: “The Beckett of the years covered by this fourth and final volume of letters is lionized even before he is awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1969. Although, in his case, the word ‘award’ is wholly inappropriate: he considered the prize a threat to his creativity (‘I hope the work will forgive me and let me near it again’). He was on holiday in Tunisia with his wife, Suzanne, when his publisher sent a telegram: ‘In spite of everything they have given you the Nobel Prize.’ Writing to his lover Barbara Bray a week later, Beckett’s response to his laureateship couldn’t be less effusive: ‘Here things are pretty awful and little hope of improvement.’ ”
  • Want some peace and quiet? I don’t mean your garden-variety hushes or lulls. I mean some real fucking silence. Well: go on a hot-air balloon ride in the world’s driest desert, the Atacama. You won’t hear a peep. Ian Thomson did it, and I gather it went pretty well: “In some parts of this shadowless immensity it has not rained for four hundred years … From the air, the Atacama resembled an African savanna, with thorny gorse, inland beaches of white dunes, and the occasional llama skeleton picked clean by condors. I thought: this must be one of the most magnificent views in all the world. We could clearly see horses grazing in a ranch; and away there, beyond a row of solitary carob trees, meadows of alfalfa dwindling in size to resemble toy-railway lichen … In the silence of the Atacama evening, the moon hung bright and radiant; the silence was as deep and complete as if never disturbed. In Santiago the next day it really felt as if we had returned from the moon.” 

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A Pocket Versailles, and Other News

October 19, 2016 | by

The penthouse at Trump Tower. Photo: Sam Horine.

  • Thom Jones, a high school janitor whose short stories vaunted him into the literary spotlight in the early nineties, has died at seventy-one: “ Jones worked on the Betty Crocker Noodles Almondine line at a General Mills plant. He was fired as an advertising copywriter because, he was told, a client would not countenance his proposed slogan for the Jolly Green Giant—which was more or less, with an expletive inserted, ‘These are the best peas I ever ate’ … His ferocious, semiautobiographical short stories about boxers, custodians, soldiers, crime victims, cancer patients and asylum inmates coupled a fateful machismo—the eternal pessimist Arthur Schopenhauer was his hero—with grim humor.”
  • Our indefatigable efforts to drill into Trump’s psyche have led us to this: a close consideration of his interior decorating. Back in his eighties heyday, the Donald—still with Ivana then—turned to the designer Angelo Donghia to help him tame the Trump Tower penthouse. But in the intervening decades, something, some remaining tendril of good taste, was irrevocably broken, and now, as Thomas de Monchaux writes, the Trump penthouse is overstuffed with decorative diversions: “From the reflective ceilings to the gilded Corinthian capitals, a would-be Sun King eventually built himself a hall of mirrors, a pocket Versailles. Closer to the truth may be that a restless eye sought for itself a home that, detail upon detail, eye-catcher upon eye-catcher, provides constant diversion. The current Trump penthouse is a place for a short span of attention, a place without threat of stillness, a place where you don’t spend a lot of time wondering whether something is right or wrong. Ironically, the task of making such a place is not a matter of quick judgment and definite attitude, but is methodical, belabored, and slow.” 

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