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Ideas of Heaven

March 23, 2015 | by

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The Bobbsey Twins series.

“If there’s a heaven,” my mom said recently, “I imagine it’s filled with brand-new Barbara Pym novels I’ve never read.” 

There’s a particular desolation to finding you’ve reached the end of a beloved author’s body of work. Just as discovering a writer can give you a where-have-you-been-all-my-life thrill, it’s easy to feel bereft when you’ve exhausted the trove—especially if the author in question has been dead for some forty years. 

In an era of easily accessible books, this poses certain questions. Once, you might have had to put yourself on a list at the library, wait for a call, or line up at a bookstore at midnight—now the next title can appear on your phone the moment it’s available. Do you take the glutton’s approach—binging, immersing yourself—or do you mete out the treasures carefully? Read More »

Books

Dear Mr. Jarecki

March 23, 2015 | by

How Gordon Lish’s first novel anticipated The Jinx.

DearMrCapote

From the paperback cover of Dear Mr. Capote.

Like every other sentient being with an HBO subscription, I’ve been riveted by the layers of mendacity, hypocrisy, voyeurism, manipulation, deception, dysfunction, and psychopathology on display in The Jinx. Robert Durst is as compelling a creep as has ever appeared on an LED screen; he seems like a character sprung from Patricia Highsmith’s dark imagination. (The Talented Mister Durst?) Andrew Jarecki, with his distinctly Mephistophelean facial hair, gives off his own aroma of brimstone. As I watched the series—rapt, but with a queasy feeling of complicity—I felt I’d encountered something like this before. Then I remembered what it was: Gordon Lish’s skilled, twisted, and exceptionally prophetic first novel, Dear Mr. Capote (1983).

The self-proclaimed “Captain Fiction,” Lish is most famous and/or notorious today for his writing classes, which more resembled EST sessions than workshops, and his hyperactive editorial pencil—which, depending on your point of view, either butchered or rescued much of Raymond Carver’s fiction. By 1983, Lish was riding high as an editor at Knopf, but through most of the seventies he’d been the fiction editor of Esquire, where he had almost single-handedly engineered a sea change in the style and substance of American short fiction, publishing the work of such minimalists as Carver, Joy Williams, Mary Robison, and Amy Hempel. Lish also convinced Truman Capote to publish the first two installments in his long bruited-about novel-in-progress, Answered Prayers. Capote had bragged that it would be his American answer to Proust, and the first of the chapters to appear, in June 1975, “Mojave,” received rapturous praise. Buoyed by this response, he gave Esquire another chapter to publish later that year, the incendiary and staggeringly impolitic “La Cote Basque, 1965,” which spilled a dump truck’s worth of dirt on his high-society friends and exiled him from the fancy circles and acquaintances he had so assiduously cultivated. Its publication sent Capote’s career into a terminal tailspin, perhaps the most disastrous miscalculation by a major writer in our literary history. Lish, too, has his Mephistophelian side. Read More »

On the Shelf

Glitch Art Goes for Broke, and Other News

March 23, 2015 | by

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Max Headroom, which marked glitch art’s entry into the mainstream. Image via Daily Dot

  • The word glitch “may derive from Yiddish words conveying slippage”—and glitch art explores the grating moments of slippage in our technology. It is, depending on whom you ask, new, old, incisive, crass, “beatified violence, “ “the product of an elitist discourse and dogma widely pursued by the naïve victims of a persistent upgrade culture,” or just kind of neat to look at.
  • If the art world is consumed by the effects of the Internet on our synapses, literary fiction is just the opposite: much of it seems unwilling—or unable—to engage with the texture of networked life. Novelists prefer to set their stories in technological vacuums, and it disadvantages them: “I don’t see these elements of contemporary life as destructive of narrative possibilities, but as sources for new. I’ve become something of a collector of fictional moments in which networked life matters. Not the simple inclusion of emails and other ‘found texts’ in a novel, nor casual mentions of characters owning phones and computers, but scenes in which these technologies allow writers to show something distinctly now.
  • Does a “safe space” have any chance of functioning as a truly intellectual space? “While keeping college-level discussions ‘safe’ may feel good to the hypersensitive, it’s bad for them and for everyone else. People ought to go to college to sharpen their wits and broaden their field of vision. Shield them from unfamiliar ideas, and they’ll never learn the discipline of seeing the world as other people see it.”
  • Readers (or book buyers) in the UK have expressed a seemingly inexhaustible desire for nature writing—it sells well, it gets good reviews, it questions “the values of our current society.” “I know of nature books that are being released this year on the last Thursday in July, when [Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk] was released. It’s now seen as the new magical date in publishing.”
  • Mario Vargas Llosa on the state of literature: “The function of the critic was very important in establishing categories and hierarchies of information, but now critics don’t exist at all. That was one of the important contributions of the novel, once, too. But now the novels that are read are purely entertainment—well done, very polished, with a very effective technique—but not literature, just entertainment.”

This Week's Reading

Staff Picks: Mendelsohn, Microgravity, Misconduct

March 20, 2015 | by

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A still from Otolith I.

Daniel Mendelsohn’s essay on Sappho has been haunting me since I read last week’s New Yorker. First there’s the history of her poems. We all know these survive today in a few fragments, but to think there were once as many as ten thousand lines—and that these were in wide circulation for a millennium—can make your chair tilt under you a little. Then there are the fragments themselves, a handful quoted by Mendelsohn in his own translation. Maybe it’s the weather, but I’ve found myself going back to his version of Sappho’s most famous surviving poem, the one that begins “He seems to me an equal of the gods— / whoever gets to sit across from you,” as if I’ve never seen a poem like that before. —Lorin Stein

The Otolith Group, founded in 2002, produces films and writings around sound, Afrofuturism, and the archive. I’ve been curious about the group for some time; since it’s based in London and exhibits mainly in Europe, I’ve had only glancing experiences with its work. But this week their first film, Otolith I, is available at Carroll / Fletcher Onscreen, an “online cinema” for experimental films. The Otolith Group’s name comes from a part of the inner ear sensitive to gravity and tilt, and Otolith I could be a kind of manifesto: narrated by a woman in 2103, it explains that prolonged time spent in the “microgravity” of space has deformed the otoliths of those born on the International Space Station. This new kind of human cannot survive on Earth and must rely on archival footage in order to understand life on the planet. Our narrator examines footage of the Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova and of the Iraq war protests in New York in 2003. The former sets up the cosmos as a “zone of peace”; the latter describes a society crippled by collective blindness. “My comprehension erodes under the attrition of American war-speak. Did you know that ‘regime change’ means ‘invasion,’ that ‘preemptive defense’ means ‘attacking a country that is not attacking you,’ that ‘shock and awe’ means ‘military onslaught’?” —Nicole Rudick
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Our Daily Correspondent

Germaine, or the Master Puppeteer

March 20, 2015 | by

“And what is the advantage your puppets would have over living dancers?”

“The advantage? First of all a negative one, my friend: it would never be guilty of affectation. For affectation is seen, as you know, when the soul, or moving force, appears at some point other than the center of gravity of the movement. Because the operator controls with his wire or thread only this center, the attached limbs are just what they should be … lifeless, pure pendulums, governed only by the law of gravity. This is an excellent quality. You’ll look for it in vain in most of our dancers.”

—Heinrich von Kleist, “On the Marionette Theatre”

Besides being World Poetry Day, the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, World Down Syndrome Day, Truant’s Day (in Poland), Harmony Day (Australia), and the Anglican Commemoration of Thomas Cranmer, tomorrow (March 21) is World Puppetry Day. Read More »

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First Person

What Are Songs For

March 20, 2015 | by

Willard Cummings, Barracks Concert (detail), ca. 1942.

This was not quite what I’d expected.

I’d come to the psych wing of Butler Hospital, in Providence, Rhode Island, to present a music seminar or, more properly, a sing-along, as part of a community service requirement for my college. This was in the late seventies. I was in a brightly lit dining hall that smelled of tobacco and medicine. There were twenty-five or thirty folding chairs but only thirteen or fourteen patients, all of them sad and doughy, middle aged or older. I sat facing them on a gray wooden stool and looked out at the assembled not-quite crowd. They looked like retired firemen, metalworkers, or lunch ladies; men with mustaches, pensions, and bad habits; women with secrets; people who rode the bus, who stood in line and then stood in the same line again. I’d read The Bell Jar, some Randall Jarrell, and I had a vaguely romantic, if ill-defined, sense of life on the other side of what passes for sanity. But this was not a good advertisement for crazy. Read More »