- With Zero K out, Don DeLillo is doing that most un-DeLillo of things: giving interviews. He told Mark O’Connell, “The novel still exists. And to my mind it still can be called a flourishing form. There are so many good younger writers. It’s clear people are drawn towards the form—people who want to write are drawn toward the novel. It’s the most accommodating form, certainly within fiction, and the most challenging. And it’s very heartening to see so many good young writers. Don’t ask me for names. But I do know the work of some of them, and I do know the opinions of people I respect who read more than I do. So I don’t feel any dismay concerning the form itself … I find that being active as a fiction writer propels one toward the future, in a way.”
- While we’re on DeLillo: it’s comforting, in some small way, to know that Ben Rhodes, the nation’s deputy national-security adviser for strategic communications, has or has had DeLillo on his mind. “He saw the planes hit the towers, an unforgettable moment of sheer disbelief followed by panic and shock and lasting horror, a scene that eerily reminded him, in the aftermath, of the cover of the Don DeLillo novel Underworld … He was in the second year of the M.F.A. program at NYU, writing short stories about losers in garden apartments and imagining that soon he would be published in literary magazines, acquire an agent and produce a novel by the time he turned twenty-six. He saw the first tower go down, and after that he walked around for a while … ‘I immediately developed this idea that, you know, maybe I want to try to write about international affairs,’ he explained.”
- The Crucible is sixty-three years old, and for all its heavy-handedness it’s still a great way to rile yourself up about despotism, especially when it’s set, as a new production is, in a contemporary elementary school: “For viewers around the globe, the play evokes frustrations with tyrannical, violent political leaders. As election season engulfs us, Ivo van Hove’s production urges us to consider our country’s currently campaigning personalities … Times never really change, Van Hove suggests. We’re all still schoolchildren, feuding and petty and hesitant to admit our mistakes. There’s a thin line between theatrics and rabble-rousing and the human inclination to follow spectacular reasoning, regardless of its truth. What matters more is what’s being taught and what’s been learned.”
- Optical illusions can save your life, man. And your soul. India’s transport ministry has used some sleight of hand to make their crosswalks seem to levitate from the street, which reminds Kelly Grovier of a memento mori from the sixteenth century: “When it was unveiled in 1533, the double portrait The Ambassadors by the German and Swiss artist Hans Holbein the Younger must have struck observers as a road bump for the soul. Looked at straight on from the front, the huge oil-on-oak painting is enigmatic enough, presenting to the observer a pair of distinguished diplomats caught in a clutter of worldly amusements: musical instruments and scientific whatnots scattered about the shelves on which they lean … But pass by the painting at a shallow angle from the left, such that your eye catches the work by chance in the periphery of its vision, and a mystery tucked into the center of the painting stops you cold. Only from that askance vantage do you see the optical illusion Holbein has secretly positioned into the foreground of his work: the cracked cranium of a spooky skull grinning back you.”
- Today in correlations that seem absurd on the face of it, but then you give them a little thought and you’re like, Oh, yeah, that kind of makes sense: Ping-Pong-table sales are tethered to the fate of the tech industry. As goes tech, so goes Ping-Pong. “Is the tech bubble popping? Ping-Pong offers an answer, and the tables are turning … Table buying ‘tracks most closely with start-ups that hit that threshold where they’re taking out office space,’ says Russell Hancock, chief executive of think tank Joint Venture Silicon Valley, which follows economic trends. ‘That’s when you’re going to get your first Ping-Pong table.’ Table sellers seeing a decline include David Vannatta, sales team leader at Sports Authority in San Francisco. The store was getting a ‘good flow of tech companies’ buying tables, he says, but sales have fallen since Christmas.”
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
In wartime, the walls of the latrine provide a rare opportunity for self-expression.
“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
- 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.
At the Guggenheim, writers and artists cross-pollinate.
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
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