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Posts Tagged ‘Don DeLillo’

Under the Skin of History: An Interview with Jonathan Lee

March 4, 2016 | by

Photo: Tanja Kernweiss

Jonathan Lee’s new novel, High Dive, focuses on the events leading up to the 1984 bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton, England, an Irish Republican Army assassination attempt on Margaret Thatcher. Lee follows both sides, moving with ease between the epic and the intimate. The hotel’s deputy manager, Moose, and his daughter, Freya, show one side of the story, while Dan, a young man swept up in the IRA, provides a viewpoint from within the terrorist plot. But High Dive doesn’t rely on historical significance to give the narrative its weight. Lee’s close third-person narration, full of humor and compassion, follows each of the characters as they approach the explosion that we can see coming.

The novel, Lee’s first release in the U.S. but his third in his native England, is already making waves abroad. I spoke to him about the challenges of writing historical events, especially seen through the compacted society of a hotel.

Though High Dive is focused on a specific event in 1984, it felt very current, with its focus on the dwindling power of men and their confusion in coping with this. Was this a theme you chose to take on or was its emergence more subconscious?

I read somewhere that Grace Paley, when younger writers asked her for advice, would say two things—“keep a low overhead” and “don’t live with a person who doesn’t respect your work.” I think all the major characters in my novel—especially the men, as we’re an insecure species—are aspiring, above all, to live with people who respect their work. Moose wants to be respected and promoted in his job at the hotel, and respected and loved by his daughter, who is seventeen but already wiser than him. And in the sections about Dan, a young IRA recruit, there is of course some vengefulness, but hopefully also this air of performance that is shared with hotel life. He wants to be heard and respected within and beyond his own small community. This above all is what leads him toward his fate—standing in a hotel with explosives in a bag, pretending to be someone else, calling himself “Roy Walsh,” fictionalizing himself. High Dive seems to me to be about people in small rooms, plotting. Plotting an attack that will shake them out of their powerlessness, plotting a promotion that will shake them out of their powerlessness, plotting a speech that will secure their position as Prime Minister—or sitting in another small room, mine, plotting a novel about these things. Fiction felt like the right form for this book partly because there’s so much fiction within the actual story—it’s about men and women making things up and pretending to be people they’re not. Read More »

Kilroy Is Still Here

November 12, 2015 | by

In wartime, the walls of the latrine provide a rare opportunity for self-expression.

Photo: Lee Cannon

“It is the soldier, not the poet, who has given us freedom of speech,” as a patriotic poem by Charles Province has it. That presumption is a point of pride among service members, who defend civilian rights and privileges they’re often not afforded themselves. You don’t have the right to foment a strike in the military. You don’t have the right to a trial with a jury of your peers. You can’t sue the military. You don’t have the right to peacefully assemble. There is no such thing as freedom of speech. But self-expression is like hydraulics: plugging one hole only builds more pressure somewhere else. In my own experience as an infantryman in Iraq, the only place where the stress of combat found unfettered freedom of expression was on the walls of the latrine.

You begin to notice it as soon as you hit the staging area in Kuwait. At places like Camp Buehring, a crossroads where battalions came and went on their way to different operating areas in Iraq, American troops are sheltered under the anonymity of massive logistical bureaucracies. A port-a-potty next to a chow hall could be used by any number of soldiers, sailors, airmen, or marines passing through. Unlike a permanent duty station, where bathrooms are assigned to specific companies and any defacement is easily traceable, there simply wasn’t any way to catch someone scrawling on the walls of a well-trafficked latrine. The situation wasn’t very different once one finally got to Iraq, where the bases were just as large and sprawling, and combat outposts were constructed in the half-destroyed hovels of what had been private residences. In the former, the anonymity was conducive to getting away with latrine graffiti; in the latter, no one cared if you wrote on some walls. Read More »

You Like Me, You Really Like Me, and Other News

November 6, 2015 | by

An image by Constant Dullaart, from Carl Röchling’s Attack of Prussian Infantry, 1745.

  • If we’re going to gauge an artist’s success by the number of Twitter and Instagram followers she has, an aspirant artist can and should game the system: don’t wait for the followers, just go out and buy a bunch of fake ones. Constant Dullaart’s art is all about buying your following: “The bots are accepted as part of our social fabric, as long as they don’t spam us, right? But what actually happens to an art practice if you quantify the link between audience reception and market value? What is the quality of the followers, how many ‘managed’ or artificial identities are injected to increase market value? Many other artistic careers are justified in the press through their popularity on social media … My work was meant to comment on the value of audience quantification in the art world, in times when everything, even social relationships (now called social capital), can be defined in monetary terms.”
  • Thirty years later, DeLillo’s White Noise is still the prophetic, funny, deathward-moving classic everyone wanted it to be: “White Noise is bathed in the glare and hum of personal computers and refrigerators and color televisions. Like bulletins from the subconscious, the text is intermittently interrupted by litanies of brand names designed to be pronounceable in a hundred languages: Tegrin, Denorex, Selsun Blue … in 1985, as the world accelerated toward an unrecognizable automated future and nuclear dread had become normalized, even the words Toyota Celica sounded like a prayer.”
  • Today in poop jokes and the royal family: Isack van Ostade’s 1643 painting A Village Fair with a Church Behind has been a part of England’s royal collection since 1810. But this seemingly innocuous work contains the unthinkable: firm evidence that earlier generations of humankind defecated exactly as we do today. “As conservators began to clean the painting, they realized a bush in the painting’s right foreground was not original to the work. When they removed the bush, they discovered a squatting man relieving himself … Curators believe that the man was painted over in 1903 … Dutch artists often include people or animals answering the call of nature partly as a joke and partly to remind viewers of that crucial word ‘nature,’ the inspiration for their art.  Queen Victoria thought the Dutch pictures in her collection were painted in a ‘low style.’ ”
  • Roberto Calasso talks about his new memoir, The Art of the Publisher, and running the Italian publishing house Adelphi: “ ‘At the beginning, we were considered rather eccentric and aristocratic. Then, when we started to have remarkable commercial successes, we were accused of being too populist. That was curious because we were publishing exactly the same books … The word ‘information’ suffers from a kind of verbal inflation, which has confused the minds of lots of people. And that is really worrying. Not the simple fact of digitization, which I’m not scared of, but that in the mind of some people, these two terms conflate. But they are opposites, sometimes.”
  • Pet names Nabokov had for his wife, Véra: “beloved insecticle … his kittykin, his poochums, his mousikins, goosikins, monkeykins, sparrowling, kidlet … his skunky, his bird of paradise, his mothling, kitty-cat, roosterkin, mousie, tigercubkin.” He wrote her hundreds of letters. She rarely wrote back.

I Think I Would Rather Be a Painter

August 10, 2015 | by

At the Guggenheim, writers and artists cross-pollinate.

Carol Bove, Vague Pure Affection, 2012, wood and steel shelves, paper, brass, concrete, and acrylic, 85" x 35 1/2" x 16". © Carol Bove, photo courtesy Maccarone Inc., New York

Writers have always been in love with the visual arts. Just think of Frank O’Hara’s sly poem “Why I Am Not a Painter,” which is actually all about the creative entanglement of the two forms—tinged with yearning and a wry bit of envy:

I am not a painter, I am a poet.

Why? I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not. Well,

And it isn’t just poets. Hemingway, that great champion of muscular prose, credited Cézanne as one of his masters—a guy who painted pictures of rooftops. More recently, Don DeLillo has haunted the outer edges of the art world in novels such as The Body Artist, Falling Man, and 2010’s Point Omega, which begins and ends with a description of Douglas Gordon’s video installation 24 Hour Psycho. Read More »

Five Questions for Ishion Hutchinson

July 6, 2015 | by

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Ishion Hutchinson.

Ishion Hutchinson’s poem “The Difference” appears in our Summer issue. Hutchinson, who was born in Port Antonio, Jamaica, teaches at Cornell University.

In “The Difference,” the speaker bridges a divide between the reader and the “they,” the poem’s unspecified subjects. Can you talk a little about the genesis of the poem? Do you often see the role of a speaker as a kind of mediator?

The poem’s opening contains its genesis. I overheard two men, it could have been more, talking one early winter morning in a café. Their words weren’t clear but, to my ears, there was a doomsday tone about them, very grave. I had been reading Halldór Laxness’s great novel, Independent People, too, a very masculine book, full of scenes of men gathering in winter to talk iron, as it were, and I think that permeated the poem. I do not see the role of a speaker as a kind of mediator at all, perhaps only to the extent that the speaker is listening to voices, yes, but the speaker’s motive is to speak for and to himself. Read More »

Staff Picks: H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, Apocalyptic Dry-humping

April 3, 2015 | by

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A still from Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y.

The hysteria and mystery surrounding the Germanwings crash have led me back to Johan Grimonprez’s Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, a 1997 film collage that traces the history of plane hijackings—and, just as important, the media fixation on those hijackings. When Tom McCarthy presented Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y at Film Society of Lincoln Center last month, he praised its presentation of “media as a crypt from which history is leaking out” and “terrorism as a theological condition.” The film’s macabre footage captivates, in no small part because of Grimonprez’s shrewd, ironical editing. In one sequence, a grinning boy just rescued from a hijacked plane tells reporters, “I had a good time, I guess”; in another, a girl, still violently crying, is hustled off a recuperated aircraft only to be led into the klieg lights of a press junket. As McCarthy pointed out, the project hasn’t aged well—it came before 9/11, after all, and its focus on television can feel quaint in the age of the smartphone—but as a meditation on the codependency of media and terrorism, it remains invaluable. Sprinkled throughout the film are spoken excerpts from DeLillo’s Mao II, which feel, whenever they’re incanted, truer than ever: “In societies reduced to blur and glut, terror is the only meaningful act.” —Dan Piepenbring

Someone who has “a lasting liking for the cryptic and the ambiguous and the incantatory and the disconnected and the extravagant and the oracular and the apocalyptic” might turn out to be pedantic and self-absorbed, but chances are, they’re the sort of person you want to know deeply but are never able to. The person in question here is Joseph Mitchell, the rather enigmatic subject of a new biography that is itself the subject of a review by Janet Malcolm in the latest New York Review of Books. (See also our series “Big, Bent Ears,” which takes Mitchell as a subject.) Malcolm is an obvious choice for the assignment, but that doesn’t detract from how fun it is to read her on Mitchell. “Where the hell is this going?” she asks about a rambling conversation between Mitchell and one of his subjects. “As in all of Mitchell’s pieces everything is always going somewhere, though not necessarily so you’d notice.” Malcolm is admiring of Mitchell’s work, reverential even, but astute. When Thomas Kunkel, Mitchell’s biographer, discovers that his subject invented portions of his nonfiction stories and makes excuses for these fabrications, Malcolm puts him in his place: “Few of us have gone as far as Mitchell in bending actuality to our artistic will. This is not because we are more virtuous than Mitchell. It is because we are less gifted than Mitchell.” —Nicole Rudick
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