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This Week’s Reading

Staff Picks: Pop, Rock, and Bear Hock

August 29, 2014 | by

From Barry Guy's Witch Gong Game ll/l0 (1993).

From Barry Guy’s Witch Gong Game ll/l0 (1993).

John Swartzwelder has written more Simpsons episodes than any other writer (fifty-nine in total). He’s also one of the most eccentric writers in the business: one story goes that “when he could no longer smoke in restaurants, he bought his favorite booth from his favorite diner and had it installed in his home.” Since leaving The Simpsons in 2003, he has self-published a novel each year, all of which are available on his Web site. After reading his first novel, The Time Machine Did It, I’m not surprised that Swartzwelder is the same person who introduced now-classic Simpsons characters such as Cletus Spuckler, Stampy the Elephant, and the three-eyed fish Blinky (who has now become a symbol among pundits for nuclear waste and wildlife mutation). The novels are pure screwball, honoring the comedies of the Marx Brothers and Preston Sturges as Swartzwelder dismisses any narrative rule for laughs. In The Time Machine Did It, a private detective named Frank Burly (“to give prospective clients the idea that I was a burly kind of man ... and who would be frank with them at all times”) finds himself traveling through time for a supposed multimillionaire who wakes up one day to find that everything he owns is gone. The plotline includes a homemade time machine and a town taken over by criminals, but why the novel works is the simple fact that it never takes itself too seriously. “On an impulse I mooned most of the 1950’s as I went by. I don’t know what makes me do these things. I guess it’s just part of my charm.” —Justin Alvarez

In outline, it reads like something made up by Roberto Bolaño: an Austrian writer crosses America, wracked by nightmares and visions and pursued by his mysterious, estranged wife. Peter Handke’s 1972 novella Short Letter, Long Farewell helped inspire the American “road movies” of Wim Wenders, and if Bolaño didn’t know the book, there is a strong family resemblance. As the critic Wayne Koestenbaum put it, the two writers share an “ability to sound sane (though vacant-souled) about insane circumstances,” whether these involve a desert sunset or a restaurant serving bear hock à la Daniel Boone. —Lorin Stein

That Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time” is, in part, a transmutation of birdsong into lines of music has oddly come up several times over the past month, in the course of putting together the Fall issue and elsewhere. At the same time, I’ve found myself returning periodically to Music & Literature’s impressive fourth issue to gaze at the work of British composer Barry Guy, whose graphic scores are translations of sensory experiences relating to literature, painting, and architecture and visual reflections of movement, energy, and pitch. So it felt like the stars had fully aligned when I read Christian Wiman’s “translations” of Osip Mandelstam, from a small collection called Stolen Air. Instead of faithfully translating Mandelstam’s poems, Wiman has created versions of them: though some closely resemble the originals, others, he says, are “liberal transcriptions” and “collisions and collusions” between the two poets. Wiman sought to get at the sound of Mandelstam’s language, its music, without having any knowledge of Russian but feeling buoyed by Mandelstam’s notion of a poet’s “secret hearing.” And so we get silvery, jostling lines like “I love the early animal of her, / These woozy, easy swings” and “Better to live alluvial, / Better to live layered downward, / To be a man of sand, of hollows, shallows / To cling to sleeves of water / And to let them go—” —Nicole Rudick Read More »

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Staff Picks: Moo, Maine, Malfeasance

August 22, 2014 | by

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This collage helped solve a crime. Robert Rauschenberg, Collection, 1954-55; image via the New York Observer.

“From the outside it was clear that the building known generally as ‘Old Meats’ had eased under the hegemony of the horticulture department.” So begins Jane Smiley’s 1995 campus satire, Moo; from that first sentence I knew it was the only book I needed for the weekend. It had that tone—that late-century Midwestern tone. You hear it in Jonathan Franzen’s first two novels, and in Infinite Jest, too. It’s the sound of an omniscient narrator who is sophisticated and slightly wry and who, at the same time, belongs to a safe, stable, neighborly community, the sort of place where things can be “known generally.” Maybe because I grew up on the East Coast, in a city—or maybe just because it is so manifestly pre-Internet—that kind of sentence is as soothing and inviting to me as “Once upon a time.” And Moo lived up to its promise. —Lorin Stein

What happens when myth becomes reality? For the residents around Maine’s North Pond, a legend about a hermit became strikingly less legendary when the hermit, a man by the name of Christopher Knight, was found and arrested last year during a burglary attempt. For twenty-seven years, Knight had lived in the woods of Maine in a tent, never communicating with the outside world (except once, when he passed a hiker). “Silence is to me normal, comfortable,” he tells Mike Finkel, a journalist for GQ. “I’m not used to seeing people’s faces. There’s too much information there.” What’s remarkable about Knight’s story is that there wasn’t any particular reason he chose to disappear. He merely started driving one day and didn’t stop until he came across his camp in the woods. “I found a place where I was content.” Thoreau couldn’t have summed it up better himself. —Justin Alvarez

Sixty years ago in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the NYPD pinned a crime spree on four innocent men. What else is new, you might say. Well, a researcher has brought the malfeasance to light, and a collage by Robert Rauschenberg helped solve the mystery. Specifically, it was “Collection,” which Rauschenberg composed in the mid-fifties from newspapers containing accounts of the crimes. The Observer tells the story, which is full of crooked cops and falsified documents and botched autopsies and noirish goings-on under the Williamsburg Bridge; Rauschenberg’s involvement, however peripheral, makes the whole thing impressively surreal. —Dan Piepenbring

Many clichéd things can be said of the stories in Justin Taylor’s new collection, Flings. They’re hilarious and heartbreaking; there’s an existential loneliness to their characters; there’s a stark beauty in their sentences. But these sentiments smooth over the messy truths that Taylor works with—he’s managed to gather up all the confusion, repressed aggression, and misplaced acceptance of growing up in the nineties and becoming a young adult in the twenty-first century. Taylor isn’t afraid to place his characters squarely in our place and time. The narrator of “Sungold” manipulates his boss—a coked-up, alcoholic, trust-funded man-baby who owns an unnamed pizza chain—into not being so much of a fuck-up. In “Mike’s Song,” a brother and sister and their divorced father attend a Phish concert together. But behind his contemporary premises, Taylor is practicing a brand of acute, oblique realism that stretches back to Carver and Yates and even to Sherwood Anderson, in which events act as triggers for memories that are the real story. —Andrew Jimenez Read More »

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Staff Picks: Desert Bus, Desert Islands, du Maurier

August 15, 2014 | by

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Desert Bus

Desert Bus (1995) has gained a reputation as the worst video game ever made, but as an act of culture jamming—and a comment on a medium that often panders to our basest fantasies—it’s probably the best video game ever made. Conceived by the illusionists Penn and Teller, of all people, and intended for release on the short-lived Sega CD console, Desert Bus never reached shelves, but its concept is so staggeringly mundane (“stupefyingly like reality,” as Penn Jillette puts it) that someone eventually saw fit to leak it. Your goal is to drive a bus from Tucson to Las Vegas: an eight-hour journey, conducted in real time. Is there any traffic to negotiate? No. Can you pause the game? No. Are there even passengers on the bus? No. Can you speed, at least? No. You can’t go any faster than forty-five miles an hour, and your bus always lists to the right, so you have to be vigilant in steering—no falling asleep at the wheel. If you veer off course, the bus will stall and you’ll have to wait for a tow truck to bring you back to Tucson, a humiliating defeat that also unfolds in real time. For the successful completion of this arduous journey, the player receives … one point. Then you get to make the return trip, another eight hours, for another point. Today, Desert Bus is available on smartphones for a mere ninety-nine cents, meaning it’s possible to drive the virtual bus from Tucson to Vegas while you’re on a real bus from Tucson to Vegas. The existential despair induced by such a pursuit may well sunder our universe—but it would be so cool. —Dan Piepenbring

Picking up a paper this morning, it suddenly struck me that Napoleon (whose 245th birthday falls today) must be one of the few people who actually experienced that age-old question: “If you were stranded on a desert island, what would you read?” Confined to the (not quite desert) island of St. Helena, Napoleon’s top ten included Homer’s The Iliad, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex. But according to his biographer, Vincent Cronin, Napoleon’s number one was Paul et Virginie, an eighteenth-century love story by Bernardin de Saint-Pierre in which the heroine is sent to be educated in France and (spoiler alert) drowns in a shipwreck on her way back to Mauritius. Napoleon allegedly loved anything that resonated with his own position—anything featuring, that is, an exile, a separation from a lover, or a life of confinement. How interesting that, in a situation that seems to cry out for the use of literature as escapism, he found release in books of captivity. —Helena Sutcliffe

Sadie Stein recently turned me on to Daphne du Maurier’s 1951 novel, My Cousin Rachel. As you might guess from the title, this later book shares certain ingredients with du Maurier’s 1938 blockbuster, Rebecca. There’s a grand estate in Cornwall, a suspicious death, an innocent orphan, and a femme fatale. In My Cousin Rachel, however, we get to meet the lady in question: a Cornish-Italian beauty with a shady past. Also, the orphan is a man, a twenty-four-year old virgin in love with the memory of his dead male cousin … who looked exactly like him. In Rebecca, du Maurier invented a genre—romantic suspense. My Cousin Rachel is a creepier, campier book. What makes both novels convincingly romantic, and actually suspenseful, isn’t their lurid plots, but how well du Maurier depicts the fear of abandonment. That’s what scares her protagonists—that they might lose the mysterious, dangerous love objects who have put them in touch with their own loneliness. As Sadie warned me, My Cousin Rachel is no Rebecca. But it’s close. —Lorin Stein

Some years ago, I bought a copy of The Song of Igor’s Campaign, translated by Bill Johnston, from Ugly Duckling Presse at the New York Art Book Fair, but I never got around to reading it until now. I wanted the chapbook for its content, but also for its materials. It’s a small, limited-edition letterpress booklet: the thick cotton cover, hand torn by Johnston, is covered with ink-blue birds in flight, a photolithograph by Yulya Deych; and the pages are bound with red cord. It’s more treasure than book, which is fitting for the story it holds. Composed sometime in the late twelfth century (though some claim the poem is a fabrication from the eighteenth century), the Song describes Prince Igor of Chernigov’s campaign, in 1185, against the nomadic Polovtsians, who roam the steppes. Things go poorly for Igor, but the tale overlays action sequences, both thrilling and terrible, with descriptions of the natural world, to stunning effect, as when Igor escapes from captivity:

Prince Igor leapt into the reeds
With the agility of an ermine,
Like a white duck into the wear.
Then he leapt up on his swift horse
And down again, running like the whitefoot wolf.
He hurtled towards the Donets meadows,
Soaring like a falcon beneath the mists,
Killing geese and slaying swans
For morning, noon, and evening meals.

Nicole Rudick
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What We’re Loving: Atomic Weapons, Augustus, Ang Lee

August 8, 2014 | by

Bronze head of Augustus with glass and alabaster eyes; from Meroë, Sudan, 27–25 BC

The bronze head of Augustus with glass and alabaster eyes; from Meroë, Sudan, ca. 27–25 BC. Photo: British Museum

“I have worked in an atomic weapons depot, a Veterans’ psychiatric hospital and a perfectly awful mental hospital for juveniles, and in all of these places I did what I was told to do, and gave my notice when I had had it with the life they offered.” So begins Mike Kirby’s “Diary” in last week’s London Review of Books. With his description of making and testing bombs, Kirby shows you don’t have to picture the stuff a writer describes—you don’t even have to understand what he’s talking about—to follow his train of thought or remain under the spell of his voice. (And no, this staff pick has nothing to do with our special summer offer—but, yes, right now you can get a year of both the LRB and The Paris Review for $60.) —Lorin Stein

There are so many things about John Williams’s Augustus, the newly reissued winner of the 1973 National Book Award, that shouldn’t work. First, it’s an epistolary novel—a form that always stretches credibility, by my lights, because to advance the plot its letters must make long forays into exposition, and real letters seldom do. Two, it tracks the lives of white men who’ve been dead so long their names are shrouded in the dust of antiquity: they can be hard to tell apart. Three, it deigns to speculate on the inner life of the most famous of these men, the founder of the Roman Empire, and that kind of conjecture almost always seems presumptuous in a novelist. And yet Augustus is gripping, brimming with life. Daniel Mendelsohn’s smart, thoughtful introduction gets at why: central to the novel, he says, is “the conflict between individuals and institutions”—a fecund concern in any age. But none of its drama would bear fruit if Williams weren’t such a close observer of human behavior. “The concerns of this spectacular historical saga are intimate and deeply humane,” Mendelsohn writes. “Like the best works of historical fiction about the classical world …  Augustus suggests the past without presuming to re-create it.” —Dan Piepenbring

For forty years, Ted Kotcheff’s 1971 film Wake in Fright was believed to be lost—the editor Anthony Buckley made it his mission to find a surviving print. It’s one of the most shocking and uncompromised studies of male degradation ever put on celluloid. By the end of the film, we’ve seen drunken fistfights, rape, and a gruesome moonlight kangaroo hunt; we’ve watched as a cultured schoolteacher comes to emulate the chauvinistic drunkards he despises. Though it was reviled upon its initial release, the film, along with Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout and Tim Burstall’s Stork, paved the way for the Australian New Wave and gave filmmakers such as Fred Schepisi and Peter Weir the courage to make films like Mad Max and The Devil’s Playground. The Australia of Wake in Fright is populated by men who have become accustomed to the harshness of nowhere. Welcome to hell. Stay a while. —Justin Alvarez

Hot on the (platform) heels of last night’s seventies-themed celebration of Rick Perlstein’s The Invisible Bridge at the office, I offer a rather different rendering of the age of synthetic fibers via Ang Lee’s 1997 adaptation of Rick Moody’s The Ice Storm. Set during Thanksgiving 1973, the film captures, with Lee’s signature precision, the full gamut of seventies escapism—and yeah, there’s a swingers party. But beneath the water beds and shaggy hairstyles, this is a movie about adolescence; its cast of teenagers wants desperately to experience adult life, and yet they’re utterly unprepared for the series of very adult situations in which they find themselves. The scene in which two characters question whether or not their parents will get divorced has an unforced, awkward closeness to it that rings true. Lee gets at something difficult to describe about coming of age: often it’s not a gradual process but a baptism by fire. —Chantal McStayRead More »

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What We’re Loving: Slugs, Sluggers, Suet Pastry

August 1, 2014 | by

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Linotype operators of the Chicago Defender, 1941. Photo: Russell Lee

Have you ever been reading, say, a George Eliot novel and suddenly wondered how the dry cleaning worked? Or what everyone used for toothpaste? Or how the farm women managed to do all that mowing in corsets? If this is the sort of question that interests you, prepare to be engrossed by Ruth Goodman’s How to Be a Victorian: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Victorian Life. No doubt some material will be familiar to viewers of Goodman’s BBC series, Victorian Farm, Edwardian Farm, and Victorian Pharmacy; having spent so much time costumed, cooking, and laboring for the camera, Goodman is terrific at describing the feel of heavy worsteds, or the craving for suet pastry, or the manual skills that she admires in Victorian men and, especially, women. Her admiration is contagious and, often, unexpectedly moving, as we see workmen tending to their gardens or little girls learning, from a magazine, how to sew by “dressing dolly.” This is cultural history even a kid could understand, and that (I suspect) even a scholar might enjoy. —Lorin Stein

Roger Angell received the baseball Hall of Fame’s award for writers last week, and I’ve been reading through Game Time, one of his many Baseball Companions. Angell had a way of getting players, especially pitchers, to talk about their craft with detail and clarity—they’re all philosophers of the game, as well as practitioners. In “Easy Lessons,” a piece about spring training in 1984, Angell talks with some older players who were winding up their careers. A thirty-seven-year-old Reggie Jackson says, “I often think about coming to the end. It’s fairly real—it’s a possibility—and I can’t say it doesn’t bother me.” Tom Seaver and Don Sutton talk pitching mechanics with a courtly, conversational style that is just like Angell’s. With the Mets permanently stuck at five games under .500, it’s a relief to revisit seasons past. —Robyn Creswell

My grandfather worked as a linotype operator, carefully managing sorts and slugs (tiny letters and spaces cast from molten lead) to bring words into type. By definition, this meant he was a comprehensive and intimate reader of countless newspapers, books, and pamphlets over the course of his career, which saw the height of mechanical typesetting and its subsequent decline at the hands of electronic automation. What began as a highly sought-after union job—one that allowed him to travel widely, working for presses in the U.S., Ireland, and Australia—had essentially dried up by the time he retired at fifty-five. So I was heartened when I saw the meticulous shots of lead-letter type and mechanical printing presses and pigs (blocks of lead from which new type is molded) in a PBS feature on Arion Press, one of the last presses dedicated to making books by hand, with hot metal typesetting on handmade pages and hand-sewn bindings. Arion is currently working on a special edition of Leaves of Grass—Whitman, a literary champion of the common man working with his hands, seems a fitting choice for this project. At Arion, you can see some of the last hand-typesetters on Earth, dedicated to an art that is all but lost. There are no big victories to be had against digitization, against the steady decline of books as treasured objects, as things to hold rather than screen sequences to be “46 percent done” with. There are only small, futile acts of defiance, and tiny letters made of lead. The full segment, which includes an interview with former poet laureate Robert Hass, airs tonight on PBS. —Chantal McStay

Though I already quoted it at length in this morning’s news roundup, I can’t endorse Rebecca Mead’s latest column for The New Yorker, “The Scourge of ‘Relatability,’ ” enough. The word relatable was once the province, Mead explains, of daytime talk-show hostesses—the word conjures manicured executives passing glossy focus-group results around a glass conference-room table. (“Will it play in Peoria?” Hollywood bigwigs used to ask, which amounts to the same concern.) But art and literature aren’t, or shouldn’t be, in the thrall of commerce. Why, then, do so many readers, including nominally intelligent ones like Ira Glass, insist that relatability is a valuable metric? “To demand that a work be ‘relatable’ expresses a different expectation: that the work itself be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer,” Mead writes; “the notion implies that the work in question serves like a selfie: a flattering confirmation of an individual’s solipsism.” Is this all we want from our artists—affable, familiar depictions of everything we already recognize? If you’re a reader who treasures relatability above all else, I can’t relate to you at all. This may mean I should read a novel about you, but let’s continue not to be friends. —Dan Piepenbring
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What We’re Loving: Algiers, Aliens, Adulthood

July 25, 2014 | by

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George Saunders talks to an alien. Detail from an illustration by Thomas Allen, in O, the Oprah Magazine.

I went on vacation planning to read Tristram Shandyat last. Instead I read Frank Kermode on “Modernisms,” most of The Rise of the Novel (including the chapter on Tristram Shandy), and half the Selected Poems of Howard Moss. Total reading time: not much. But it was choice. Then I got home and found The New Yorker in my mailbox. Greg Jackson’s “Wagner in the Desert” is the best fiction debut they’ve published in years. The story belongs to an ancient genre: young, rich people hole up in a country house to avoid the plague. In this case, the country house is a rental in Palm Springs, the plague is adulthood, and the hosts are a Hollywood couple about to start fertility treatments, hoping to get their ya-yas out in a mindful, caring way. Jackson knows his antecedents. He has metabolized Ben Lerner and David Foster Wallace. He can throw in a blank verse, like Melville, to heighten a scene. He even steals, without attribution, from Kenny Rogers. I read “Wagner in the Desert” my first night back, fell asleep, and dreamed I was in the story (and also back in elementary school, getting a lesson in the story) then woke up and read it again, with no diminution of enjoyment. —Lorin Stein

I’ve been reading Adam Shatz’s very smart account of how reporting on the Middle East cured him of political romanticism. I suspect he’s not alone in this experience: “When I finally began to spend time in the place about which I had pontificated for so long, I discovered that I was much more interested in what the people I met had to say than in my own views.” My favorite parts are Shatz’s trips to Algiers—“a city I knew mostly from Gillo Pontecorvo’s film”—and his interview with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. It’s a sobering essay, and a timely one for this low point (after a very high one) in the history of the region. —Robyn Creswell

In this month’s O, The Oprah Magazine, George Saunders explains to a space alien what it means to be human. His explanation takes the form of a series of short-story recommendations, of course. Drawing on diverse selections from Chekhov to Hemingway to Lahiri, he covers the basics of love, loneliness, greed, kindness, death, and empathy. The essay’s a gem, a genuine love letter to reading as a noble pursuit. Saunders says it best: “Short stories are the deep, encoded crystallizations of all human knowledge. They are rarefied, dense meaning machines, shedding light on the most pressing of life’s dilemmas. By reading a thoughtfully selected set of them, our alien could, in a few hours, learn everything he needs to know about the way we live. Except how it feels to lose one’s car in a parking garage and walk around for like three hours, trying to look as if you know where you’re going, so the people driving by—who have easily found their cars, having written the location on their wrists or something—don’t think badly of you. I don’t think there’s a short story about that yet.” —Chantal McStay

Another thing I did on vacation was see The Shining for the first time in a couple of decades. This, unfortunately, was the director’s cut, in which Jack Nicholson has several long, boring conversations with ghosts. But even the scary parts weren’t scary anymore. To hear J. D. Daniels tell it in the new issue of Flaunt, I’d rather have seen the documentary Room 237—at least, if I got to see it with J. D. Daniels: “Room 237 is about unhinged Stanley Kubrick fanatics … Each of them thinks The Shining is a coded message. One participant believes The Shining is Kubrick’s confession that he helped NASA fake the Apollo 11 moon landing. Have you seen The Shining? It’s about an axe murderer. It’s about 145 minutes long.” —L.S.
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