On the Shelf
September 25, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- Our new issue features Ben Lerner interviewing Eileen Myles. If you’re of the try-before-you-buy mind-set, you can read a new, long excerpt: “There’s a whole female industry engaged in materially supporting the illusion that the artist doesn’t work directly on his legacy, his immediate success. He’s just a beautiful stoner boy or an intellectual … We should let the writing world and its ways of distributing awards be part of fiction. We should expose the very cultural apparatus that is affecting the reception of the book you’re reading. What’s dirty is that we’re not supposed to talk about how it has sex and reproduces.”
- And if you’ve been seeing Myles’s name a lot lately, that’s because she is, after nineteen books, getting some belated recognition, especially from younger readers, who envy the way “she seems to have gotten away with precisely the kind of New York life that doesn’t seem possible anymore—living cheaply, maintaining only glancing alliances with major academic institutions, and earning a living by making art pretty much the way she wants. ‘It helps that I was queer, it helps that I grew up working class,’ she says. ‘I wasn’t afraid of being poor. I didn’t want to live in a big house. I’m the perfect size for poetry. I can move around.’ ”
- In 1979, a puzzle book called Masquerade, by Kit Williams, landed on shelves in the UK. It went on to sell two million copies, and not because of good storytelling or any such hogwash—it promised to lead its most perceptive readers to buried treasure. “Within Masquerade’s covers were clues that pointed the way … an intricately worked golden hare, also made by Williams, in his typically perfect first attempt at goldsmithing. The prize was somewhere in England and the directions to find it encoded in the book, and that was all anyone knew … ” Not to get all clickbaity on you, but you’ll never believe what they found!
- In a previously unpublished piece, Robert Walser imagines what the rules of seduction were in the days before heating, petroleum lamps, and railroads ruined the game: “Calling someone up on the telephone did not, at the time, occur to anyone, and even the most dignified and important persons in all the land received no telegrams. Upon the seas—this much he knew—sailing ships circulated. India and America were somewhere or other. At the theater, Italian actors put on works that were sometimes operas, sometimes dramas or comedies—he’d only seen one so far. He had no doubt already done a fair bit of kissing, for he was handsome, and the attractive have little difficulty initiating pleasant ensnarements … ”
- Yogi Berra (pour one out) was renowned and ridiculed for his malapropisms—“You can observe a lot by watching,” “Nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded,” and the like—but let’s not send this man into the next life without acknowledging the full scope of his verbal talents. “Some of his best-known quotes go a long way to showing just how well language may be used … And many of them are not mistakes at all.”
September 24, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- We’re in the midst of serializing Chris Bachelder’s novel The Throwback Special—a book about middle-aged men who meet annually to reenact the 1985 NFL game in which Joe Theismann fractured his leg on live TV—whose whole gestalt I’ve tried in vain to describe to people. Fortunately, in a new interview Bachelder does my work for me: “The play is just five seconds long, but it has extraordinary density and power. It’s like some kind of astronomical event … Even if you know nothing about Lawrence Taylor or Theismann or the NFC East or the 1985 season or what quarter it was or what the score was, you still have this visceral reaction to this gruesome injury. You can still feel the terrible randomness and chaos. It opens up the awful possibility in our minds that any single play—or any single plan or design—could end up like this. All of this interests me, and the play is useful to me as a writer because it’s so contained and discrete. It’s not like trying to write about an entire game or an entire season … So the play itself is circumscribed and dramatic, but the novel is primarily concerned with it as a locus of nostalgia for these middle-aged men. There is something almost primitively spiritual about their desire to reenact this disastrous play.”
- Real talk from across the pond: “I was the head of the Piers Gaveston Society, which is the society that David Cameron allegedly stuck his dick in a pig for. I never did that … No one, as far as I know, fucked a pig’s head. But if they had it wouldn’t have mattered (provided it was consensual). Fucking a pig’s head is not what makes David Cameron a rubbish prime minister.”
- In LA, a new opera called Hopscotch is testing the limits of the genre—it’s set in cars, and the audience has to climb into a limousine to start: “Attendees will be told to show up at their start time at an address along one of three colored routes. Once inside the limo, they will be driven, along with a handful of musicians, for about ten minutes. Throughout this approximately ten-minute ‘scene,’ which, yes, takes place inside a car, a vocalist may sing along with a prerecorded track playing on the car’s stereo, or there could be two singers and an alto saxophone, or the car may drive by a quartet on the street and the sound will be piped into the limousine as it passes … The car will arrive at a location where the group will disembark to witness the next scene, which will take place in a public space. Once that concludes, the group will be ushered into a different limousine, inside which the next scene will unfold.”
- Today in thoughtful remarks on largely forgotten Portuguese modernist classics about existential despair: pause to remember Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, which is “much more philosophical quandary than it is a novel, and retroactively engineered at that, where various editors and translators arranged the hundreds of fragments and diary-type entries. As a result, no two editions are truly the same in order or content (my edition by the British publisher Serpent Tail Classics was on the slender side, only 272 pages, whereas the Penguin edition is 544 pages). Throughout the course of the ‘novel,’ Soares documents his days as a bookkeeper on Rua Douradores and the heavy ontological and existential musings that weigh down his hours, particularly the disconnect between the vivid world of the mind and the monotony of a daily, work-driven existence.”
- Art history’s all well and good, but what’s really instructive is the history of the French frame: “Louis XIII was fond of an Italian influence in his frames, while Louis XIV, being ostentatious in all corners of life, preferred the gilding and carving to be as elaborate as possible. Later Louis XV honed it down for more stately, but still very sculptural shapes, and finally Louis XVI favored an even more subdued aesthetic, although it all came crashing down with the French Revolution. Nevertheless, this frenzy for frames had an impact on the exhibition of art across the continent.”
September 23, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- Today in the thrill-a-minute world of annotation: well before Genius began its quest to annotate the world (or at least the internet), scholarly annotations of modern books for popular audiences delighted the readers of the 1960s. “The science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, for instance, produced annotated versions of Don Juan, Paradise Lost, and Gulliver’s Travels in the 1970s and eighties … The list of books that have been annotated for a popular audience is now in the high dozens … Annotation is a form of literary lingering: It allows us to prolong our experience with a favorite book, to hang around the world of a beloved text a bit longer. But it can also serve as a gateway, for younger readers, to the pleasures of scholarship, by pointing to a larger universe of knowledge beyond.”
- And there’s news, too, of annotation’s sexy, scandalous cousin, citation. The venerable Journal of Criminal Justice decided to boost its “impact factor”—calculated by the average number of citations a journal receives—by citing itself over and over and over again. It’s thus managed to be both number one in its field and widely suspected of malfeasance. “In the most eyebrow-raising instance, one four-paragraph editorial, published in 2014, didn’t take up even a single page yet managed to have forty-seven citations, all to the Journal of Criminal Justice.”
- No one knows if Pynchon wrote the novel Cow Country, but people are pretty sure—roughly 100 percent sure—that he wrote this haunting 1966 essay on the aftermath of the Watts riots, which is, given its author’s caginess and flights of fancy, exceptionally well reported: “Except for the use of the words ‘Negro’ and ‘Caucasian,’ Pynchon’s essay reads as if it could have been written this past summer, almost a half-century later. Its downbeat premise, delivered in the voice of a young disciple of Malcolm X, is no less contemporary.”
- In 1902, the French artist Albert Bergeret designed Women of the Future, a series of trading cards depicting women at work in professions typically reserved for men: your doctor types, your lawyer types, your military-fencing master types. His feminist ambition is laudable; his insistence on skimpy outfits for the female generals and sergeants of the future, less so …
- “This is all work by local artists and craftspeople … We have yoga classes on Wednesdays and Fridays. It’s just a really great community space … All of our parenthetical duck bidets are ethically sourced in Nicaragua. The lettering on our storefront was painted with sea foam scraped lovingly from the back of a nursing beluga whale combined with a special dye extracted from Welsh nuns. Extracting dye from nuns is, contrary to popular belief, completely painless.” The cynical, no-bullshit New Yorker has been replaced with the humorless, self-serious, astrology-obsessed post-hipster, and now we all must suffer.
September 22, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- If you’re like me, you spend most of your free time imagining what Hamlet might look like: the pallid cheeks, the heavy eyelids, the ruminating brow, the svelte silhouette, the dejected posture … But what if he was fat? What if the hero of the greatest tragedy of all time was a portly slob? His own mother believes he is—“He’s fat and scant of breath,” she says to Claudius—and an inspection of Shakespeare’s fat usage provides some troubling evidence.
- Women read more crime fiction than men, supposedly because they “savor the victim role.” But Vera Caspary, a midcentury crime novelist, did just the opposite: “On the page, Caspary had almost supernatural powers of bemusement; she turned her sorrows into triumphs. She liked to joke about her attractiveness to ‘macaroni salesmen.’ Her husband, whom she met when she was forty, was a movie producer, but she earned more than he did, and he resented it. She tried to ignore his resentment, and corrected people at parties who called her Mrs. Goldsmith.”
- My grandfather’s favorite place to walk was the mall, and in this he was not alone—shopping centers are apparently “the second most popular venue for walking in the country, just behind neighborhoods.” Mall walkers, or Mall Stars, tend to be older, and they’re admirably immune to the commercial aspects of the space, especially when they walk early in the morning: “Since nothing’s open you don’t have to worry about what you’re going to buy,” one mall walker said. “Plus, all the stores sell clothes for young people.” The Mall of America boasts some 250 Mall Stars. There is something to live for.
- Fiction in England “flourished for centuries before that of any of its neighbors”; even so, one of its earliest practitioners, Geoffrey of Monmouth, couldn’t bring himself to admit he was making shit up. His History of the Kings of England was full of invented royalty, but “Geoffrey considered himself a historian, and presented himself as such … Even at the time there were people who thought he was taking the mickey; one commentator, Gerald of Wales, remarked that demons would flee when the gospels were read, but flock round to listen to Geoffrey’s fibs (there was, for instance, no ‘Emperor Leo’). Nevertheless, his work was hugely popular, and more than two hundred manuscripts survive.”
- Now that the scandal surrounding Michael Derrick Hudson and Sherman Alexie has died down, let’s revisit another ruse, from 2012: that time when a guy said he was John Ashbery just because his e-mail address was email@example.com, and a prominent lit mag believed him.
September 21, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- There are any number of prestigious opportunities available to freelance writers—footwear catalogs, restroom signage, pamphlets about flossing—but it takes a truly outstanding writer to land the best gig of them all: fortune-cookie writer, at seventy-five cents a pop. It’s exacting work. The fortunes “have to be general enough to make sense for any kind of customer, but at the same time, they can’t offend anyone … Companies keep databases of thousands of fortunes accumulated over years that they rotate on a regular basis to keep people from getting the same ones over and over. Coming up with original ideas when there are already ten thousand in the database—as there are, for example, at cookie manufacturer Wonton Foods—is a real challenge.”
- Stephen King on William Sloane, whose 1930s horror novels were the opposite of Lovecraftian: “Because they ignore genre conventions, Sloane’s novels are actual works of literature … In To Walk the Night, we discover that a disembodied brain—perhaps an alien from space, perhaps a human intelligence from another time-stream or dimension—has inhabited the body of an ‘idiot’ girl named Luella Jamison, transforming her vacuity into coldly classical beauty.”
- While we’re on horror: try reading The Hound of the Baskervilles when you have a profound fear of dogs. “My elementary school’s library had an edition of the book with a cover like this: a black dog with red eyes standing in a green hoary mist, spittle oozing from its jaws, while the vague silhouette of someone in a cloak (Sherlock Holmes?) lurks in the background. I was totally captivated and scared shitless by the horrific power of this book.”
- The lexicographer Francis Grose was the first to record phrases like fly by night and birds of a feather, in addition to other, non-flight-related idioms. His Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue deserves the same recognition as Johnson’s Dictionary, and its entries live up to its name: “Inebriation is well documented, with terms ranging from ‘Hicksius Doxius: Drunk’ and ‘Emperor: Drunk as an emperor, ie ten times as drunk as a lord’ to ‘Admiral of the narrow seas: One who from drunkenness vomits into the lap of the person sitting opposite him’. Other entries focus on bodily functions. There’s ‘Fizzle: A small windy escape backwards, more obvious to the nose than ears; frequently by old ladies charged on their lap-dogs’, as well as ‘Fart catcher: A valet or footman, from his walking behind his master or mistress.’ ”
- We all know that cops are putzes—but does this, in and of itself, explain their love for doughnuts? Is that love a symptom or a cause of their idiocy? The link between law enforcement and dough runs deep: “We’ve officially stuffed the protecting-and-serving citizens of our country with sugary pastries since at least World War I, when the Salvation Army sent female volunteers to France to cook doughnuts and bring them to the front … ”
September 18, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- In 1965, an elderly Buster Keaton starred in film, a little experiment in cinema by one Samuel Beckett—an unlikely collaboration, but an inspired one. The movie was almost entirely silent, and shot largely in the first person; Beckett regarded it as an interesting failure. Now there’s notfilm, a documentary about film. “Beckett’s twenty-two-minute film dealt in striking ways with many aspects of motion-picture history, and more generally, the nature of spectacle, of perception, and of being perceived by self and others … the film was shot over eleven days, with the camera chase, then a five-minute scene on some stairs, followed by a seventeen-minute sequence in a room.”
- In which Kafka gets real, very real, maybe too real, in a letter to his father: “You asked me recently why I maintain that I am afraid of you … we were so different and in our difference so dangerous to each other that if anyone had tried to calculate in advance how I, the slowly developing child, and you, the full-grown man, would behave toward one another, he could have assumed that you would simply trample me underfoot so that nothing was left of me. Well, that did not happen. Nothing alive can be calculated.”
- Today in provisional libraries: at the Calais migrant camp, a British volunteer has set up “a book-filled haven of peace.” “The shed is filled floor-to-ceiling with books: chick lit, thrillers and a neat set of Agatha Christies line the shelves, alongside a large atlas, a few dictionaries and grammars, and the thin green spines of children’s learning-to-read books. More books spill out of boxes stacked in the corner, and pens, notepads, bags of clothes, a globe, a guitar and a game of Battleship … I am taken aback when a man who has been flicking through various novels for at least half an hour, including classics like Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, settles on a thin picture book about kittens. When I ask him if he really likes cats, he shrugs, mumbles a thank you, and leaves.”
- And while we’re on libraries, here are some items you can now check out at various centers of knowledge around the country: cake pans, snow shoes, ukuleles, American Girl dolls, mobile hot-spot devices, sewing machines. “Services like the Library of Things and the ‘Stuff-brary’ in Mesa, outside Phoenix, are part of a broad cultural shift in which libraries increasingly view themselves as hands-on creative hubs, places where people can learn new crafts and experiment with technology like 3-D printers.” Rent-A-Center must be shaking in its corporate boots.
- Where does porcelain come from? Edmund de Waal endeavors to find its origins: “Trace the origin of any physical object, from the Mona Lisa to an iPhone, and there will be a mass of human labor and human stories lurking behind it, no matter how purely a product of the solitary artist or glossy factory it might seem to be. What is striking about porcelain, however, is that while it appears to be the acme of artistry, it is, by and large, the result of relentlessly standardized piecemeal work.”