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This Week’s Reading

Staff Picks: A Field in England, A Desert in the Mind

September 12, 2014 | by

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A still from Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England.

Like Nicole, I thrilled to Jed Perl’s essay on Jeff Koons in the current New York Review of Books. I also loved Dan Chiasson’s review of Boyhood in the same issue. In its quiet way this essay amounts to a defense of fiction in the age of social media: “If Boyhood were a documentary, it would involve much more acting, with the subjects self-consciously shaping their on-screen personae (this happens, to an extent, in the Up series). Here, there is nothing to be done: time itself is the real actor.” Both Linklater’s movie and Chiasson’s review reminded me of another experiment with the longue duréeThis Is Autism, the 2011 concept album by Anders Danielsen Lie. American filmgoers know Lie as the brooding lead in Reprise and Oslo, August 31, but he is also an accomplished musician and composer. This Is Autism is a song series built on compositions that Lie made as a kid (starting at the age of ten), then revisited as a grown-up; the music seems to have soaked up a childhood’s worth of listening, mainly to parental vinyl in what Lie likes to call the “autistic” tradition, from Steely Dan and Keith Jarrett to Kiss. —Lorin Stein

For me, the description of Ben Wheatley’s most recent film, A Field in England, was instantly appealing: a handful of deserters from the English civil war traipse across a field; ensnared by an alchemist, they are forced to help him hunt for treasure supposedly buried in the field. Oh, and they’re tripping on mushrooms. The film is moody and spare—it’s shot in black-and-white—and the mind-altering effect of the mushrooms adds another textural layer on the progressing horror, making it strange and abysmal. I kept turning to my husband to ask whether he understood what was going on, thinking that I was missing something. He’d recite the plot, as he’d comprehended it, and I realized that I’d managed to grasp exactly what was going on. It’s just that everything seemed, well, kinda trippy. The setting helps to circumscribe the film’s disturbing events, a theater both expansive and enclosed. (It makes sense that Wheatley’s next film is an adaptation of J. G. Ballard’s High-Rise.) When one character tells another that he cannot escape the field, he replies, “Then I shall become it!” —Nicole Rudick

Last week I noted the excellent epigraph to Roberto Bolaño’s A Little Lumpen Novelita, but I neglected to say that the novella itself is excellent, too: brisk, nervous, and curiously compassionate, with a conceit I can only describe as Bolaño-esque. A young woman loses her parents and, to make money, visits a blind, withered bodybuilder who likes to slather her in oil before sleeping with her. As usual, Bolaño’s characters endure their miseries with unnerving equanimity; there’s no amount of suffering, we’re led to believe, that can’t be shrugged at. And since this is Bolaño, the book has a surreal, tragicomic dream sequence. (As Jonathan Lethem pointed out in his review of 2666, M.F.A. praxis maintains that dreams make for dull fiction—digressive, freighted with easy symbolism—but Bolaño writes them often and well, with skewed logic and foreboding mental detritus.) The narrator, Bianca, dreams of plodding through the desert with a heavy, white, possibly flightless parrot on her shoulder: “He weighed too much (ten pounds at least, he was a big parrot) to be carried for so long, but the parrot wouldn’t budge, and I could hardly walk, I was shaking, my knees hurt, my legs, my thighs, my stomach, my neck, it was like having cancer, but also like coming—coming endlessly and exhaustingly—or like swallowing my eyes, my own eyes … ” —Dan Piepenbring

Given that Chaucer provides us with the earliest example of the verb “to twitter,” it seems appropriate that his Twitter persona, “Chaucer Doth Tweet,” has now attracted an impressive 29,800 followers. And he’s not the only medieval writer to venture into social media, with the Christian mystic Julian of Norwich, the poet John Lydgate, and the author Sir Thomas Malory all joining him in popularizing #MiddleEnglish. Perhaps the most surprising member of this group, though, is the late fourteenth-century mystic Margery Kempe, who has not one, but four rival Twitter accounts. Best known for dictating The Book of Margery Kempe, Margery spent most of her life repenting for her sins “wyth gret wepyng and many teerys,” being abused by her local community and abstaining from the “abhomynabyl” act of sex with her husband. While it may initially strike us as astonishing that a mystic visionary should have more official Twitter pages than Jay-Z, the online world has more in common with medieval Norfolk than you might think—maybe Margery can no longer be imprisoned by angry priests, but slander and public shaming are still ever present on the web. As @tweetyng_teres puts it: “dey seyn this creatur cryin / dey haytin #wepyn.” Plus ça change, it seems. —Helena Sutcliffe
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Staff Picks: Beard-Burdened and Beer-Branded

September 5, 2014 | by

History of Bluebeard

The Jeff Koons show has a little more than a month to go in its run at the Whitney Museum, and it’s been perplexing to see critics fall in with an artist whose work is the archetype of the money-driven art production about which many of them complain. To me, Koons’s work is all surface—literally and figuratively—and he seems to avail himself of Duchamp’s and Warhol’s legacies in order to promote, in art, wily marketing strategies gleaned during his years as a Wall Street commodities trader. It was a pleasure, then, to read Jed Perl’s assessment in The New York Review of Books. Perl rebuffs the idea that Koons’s work critiques middle-class values, concluding instead that it is the “apotheosis of Walmart” and “a habit-forming drug for the superrich” and that Koons is a too-confident exhibitionist. I find something immensely powerful in Perl’s tracing of the tradition of doubt in art—from Pliny to Michelangelo to Chardin—and in his conclusion that “where there is no doubt there is no art.” —Nicole Rudick

The story of Bluebeard, the wife-murdering aristocrat made famous in Charles Perrault’s seventeenth-century folktale, has captured the imagination of writers from the Brothers Grimm to Angela Carter. But William Thackeray’s lesser-known sequel to the hero’s bride-butchering, Bluebeard’s Ghost, tells the story through new eyes—specifically those of the final Mrs. Bluebeard, who escapes her husband’s clutches and goes on to inherit his estate. Pursued by numerous suitors, she opts for the equally hirsute “Captain Blackbeard, whose whiskers vied in magnitude with those of the deceased Bluebeard himself.” In true Thackeray style, he manages to transform a famously macabre narrative into a comic and playful study of human foibles, with the subjects inflated into caricatures of their former selves. Fittingly, September 5 marks the day that Tsar Peter the Great issued his “beard tax” of 1705, presenting those men determined enough to protect their hair with a hundred-rouble fee and a token bearing the words “the beard is a superfluous burden.” Thackeray’s tale is surely the other side of this coin: although his take on one of the most famous beards in literature is undeniably far-fetched, it is by no means a superfluous addition to the original. As he puts it himself, “Psha! Isn’t it written in a book? And is it a whit less probable than the first part of the tale?” —Helena Sutcliffe

If you’re looking to become productively, righteously, vindictively angry, read this piece in the Times about Crested Butte, Colorado, a town that will become, this weekend, an advertisement for Bud Light. Yes, entirely: “The town’s main thoroughfare, Elk Avenue, has been adorned with outdoor hot tubs, a sand pit, concert lights and a stage. Restaurants and hotels have been stripped of many local markings and given beer-branded umbrellas and signs instead. When the filming starts, drinks will be unlimited, access to the main street will be restricted to people with company-issued bracelets, and beautiful, mountain-ringed Crested Butte will be rebranded as ‘Whatever, USA.’ ” The mayor made the deal in secret, for $500,000; his name is Huckstep. The whole thing seems like an episode from a lesser George Saunders story. One can react only with scorn, and then one must trot out that shopworn but ever more vital statement of Philip Roth’s, from 1961: “The American writer … has his hands full in trying to understand, describe and then make credible much of American reality … It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s own meager imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents.” —Dan Piepenbring

I could write about how much I’ve been watching the U.S. Open: how captivating the sport’s collision of intelligence and athleticism is, with its displays of raw emotion every time a player lunges to return a serve. But after reading Ben Rothenberg’s excellent essay on what it takes to be a line umpire, I’ve found my eyes veering toward the edges of the television set. While the task seems simple—“to sit or stand around the perimeter of the counter and monitor one specific line”—the preparation is intense. Understanding the patterns of each specific player helps to ensure no sight goes obscured. What’s even more fascinating is just as players advance through the tournament, so do line umpires. As Rothenberg writes, “By the final, the cream of the crop remains.” —Justin Alvarez

I was excited to see that the NYRB unlocked an essay, from 1985, by Umberto Eco on Krazy Kat and Peanuts. He’s good on the former, but on the latter, I found him to be inadvertently hilarious in his too-Freudian approach. He refers to Charlie Brown and the gang as “monster children,” distillations of modern industrial society’s neuroses. Poor Chuck is perhaps the most victimized: “This is why he is always on the brink of suicide or at least of nervous breakdown: because he seeks salvation through the routine formulas suggested to him by the society in which he lives (the art of making friends, culture in four easy lessons, the pursuit of happiness, how to make out with girls—he has been ruined, obviously, by Dr. Kinsey, Dale Carnegie, Erich Fromm, and Lin Yutang).” —N.R.

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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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