The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘characters’

What Our Contributors Are Reading This Fall

September 16, 2016 | by

In place of our staff picks this week, we’ve asked five contributors from our new Fall issue to write about what they’re reading. 


From Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard.

After a long dry spell, my interest in reading renewed recently when I read the opening lines of Rachel Cusk’s forthcoming book, Transit: “An astrologer e-mailed me to say she had important news for me concerning events in my immediate future. She could see things that I could not: my personal details had come into her possession and had allowed her to study the planets for their information. She wished me to know a major transit was due to occur shortly in my sky.” As readers of Outline will know, Cusk absorbs other people’s stories, letting them rest in her mind and retelling them as her own. In one section of Transit, the narrator has a student over to her house. The student is in her late thirties, and has three hundred thousand words of notes about the painter Marsden Hartley, whose work she saw once in Paris. Marsden Hartley and the student are, the student says testily, the same person. After asking a few questions about the student’s research, the narrator asks her what happened the night before she saw the paintings. The next sixteen pages are the story of that night. I admire and envy Rachel Cusk for her maturity and her shameless intelligence, and her coldhearted willingness to steal stories from her students. —Amie Barrodale (“Protectors”)

I’ve been (very slowly) reading and enjoying Richard Brody’s Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard after a recent rewatching of Pierrot le Fou. My girlfriend and I were actually trying to watch a Rohmer movie, but the Internet stream kept cutting out, so we turned to our scattered DVD collection. The low-key charm of Full Moon in Paris gave way to the hyperactive extravagance of Pierrot, and neither of us was at all sure how we felt about the change in tone. We were simultaneously overstimulated and a little bit bored. We wondered how seriously we were supposed to take any of it; somehow it had all made a lot more sense when we first saw it in college. An incident described early on in Everything Is Cinema presages our viewing experience. Before either Godard or Rohmer had made a full-length film, Godard directed All the Boys Are Called Patrick, a short film based on a script of Rohmer’s. “Little in the film suggests that Godard had any particular devotion to the story,” Brody writes. “Eric Rohmer was surprised and dismayed by the changes Godard had wrought upon his script and ended their collaboration.”  —Andrew Martin (“No Cops”)Read More »

Brief Encounter

April 1, 2016 | by

“Polite New Yorker”

Guess who I ran into this morning? Three guesses. And if you guessed Jacob, my neighborhood friend, you’re right! 

I was enjoying a toasted, buttered bialy, a coffee-cart small, and a newspaper on a traffic island, when who should sit down on the bench opposite but my old comrade-in-arms! He was looking very natty in a bright green fedora and tweed jacket. On his lapel was a button that read POLITE NEW YORKER.Read More »

A Boy with No Birthday Turns Sixty

March 3, 2016 | by

The long and tangled history of Alfred E. Neuman.

Norman Mingo’s canonical Neuman.

In a 1975 interview with the New York Times, MAD Magazine founder Harvey Kurtzman recalled an illustration of a grinning boy he’d spotted on a postcard in the early fifties: a “bumpkin portrait,” “part leering wiseacre, part happy-go-lucky kid.” It was captioned “What, Me Worry?”

That bumpkin became Alfred E. Neuman, MAD’s mascot, who turns sixty this year—kind of. The impish, immutable redhead made his official debut in December 1956, when he appeared on the cover of MAD no. 30 as a write-in candidate for president. He’s appeared on almost every MAD cover since: possessing, spoofing, and spooking cultural icons with nothing more than a drowsy rictus. Though MAD gave him a purpose, a permanent home, his origin story remains elusive. It involves, among other things, a plum-pudding advertisement, a dubious lawsuit, and a traveling nineteenth-century farce. Neuman is forever synonymous with the magazine and its infinite irreverence, but the riddle of his real age may be the trickster’s trump card. Read More »

Getting to Know Professor Bhaer, Part 1

February 22, 2016 | by

He isn’t old, nor anything bad, but good and kind, and the best friend I’ve got next to you. Pray don’t fly into a passion; I want to be kind, but I know I shall get angry if you abuse my Professor. I haven’t the least idea of loving him, or anybody else. —Little Women

Literature has known many divisive characters. The dubious morality of Humbert Humbert, the disreputable spikiness of Holden Caulfield, the judgment and snobbery of Emma Bovary—all have pitted readers against one another since time immemorial. That said, there’s one character more controversial than all of these put together: Friedrich Bhaer. Read More »

What Kind of Name Is That?

February 8, 2016 | by

How to name your fictional characters.

Characters in need of names.

To me the most embarrassing part of writing fiction, aside from telling people about it, is naming your characters. Of course, even “real” names are made up, but in life our names are things we can alter only with a great deal of paperwork; in fiction, writers can line up names and identities as they please, dropping or trading them on a whim. Contriving a name for a contrived person seems terribly precious to me, akin to naming a doll. You want your characters to have names that aren’t too convenient but still memorable and meaningful, which isn’t easy. I spent about a year with a manuscript populated by memorable characters like [[ROOMMATE]] and ???????’s dad, swapping dozens of potential monikers in pursuit of the perfectly natural, unforced, graceful name. After rupturing a few blood vessels that way, I tried to figure out what other writers were doing.

The question of what names mean, what they’re for, has been around in the West since at least 500 B.C., when the Pythagoreans developed a few rules of onomancy to divine human traits from things like the number of vowels in one’s name. (Even numbers signaled an imperfection in the left side of the body.) One of the earliest discussions about naming comes from Plato’s dialogue “Cratylus,” in which Socrates oversees a debate about whether a name is “an instrument of teaching and distinguishing natures” or whether it’s just a matter of “convention and agreement.” More recently, psychoanalysts like Wilhelm Stekel and Carl Jung posited that the “compulsion of the name” not only reflects but determines one’s future: that we’re all engaged, from birth, in a nominative determinism. (Anyone quick to dismiss this as Freudian bunk should look at the abundance of Shaquilles now entering professional sports.) Read More »

Sorry, Judy

November 23, 2015 | by

Judy doesn’t even deserve this picnic.

I recently had a thought while reading Marjory Hall’s A Picnic for Judy, a YA book from 1955. The premise was promising: a young woman is forced to move with her family to a rambling old inn on a Maine island. Score! I thought. It seemed like it would combine my favorite fifties YA themes: coming of age, pine trees, and redecorating, with setting to rights into the bargain. Yes, surely this would be the sort of book that Betty Cavanna could whip up with her eyes closed—that I find so comforting and fun.

It’s true, I’d had mixed results with Howell before. Her books have been known to involve inexplicable decision-making, mysterious romantic motivations, and leaden dialogue. But with this setup, how could she go wrong? At the very least, there’d be a picnic scene. Read More »