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Posts Tagged ‘Don DeLillo’

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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Staff Picks: Padded Panels, Pushcart Peddlers, Pommes D’Air

March 13, 2015 | by

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The United States Department of Agriculture Color Standards for Frozen French Fried Potatoes.

According to Don DeLillo, he was surprised when a publisher accepted the “shaggy and overdone” first draft of his first novel, Americana. Almost fifty years—and several revisions—later, the story of Dave Bell, a disillusioned network executive who hits the road to discover America, retains a certain amount of shag. But already DeLillo’s dialogue has its own look and sound. This is speech in the age of mechanical reproduction, the reel to reel, the dictaphone, the transcript. His characters are spirits captured in stuff: “Clevenger’s paleolithic lavender Cadillac was equipped with air conditioning, deep-pile carpeting, padded instrument panel, stereo tape system and a burglar alarm. Behind the wheel he seemed a veteran jockey not at all awed by the magnificence of his own colors. He was about fifty, a small man with a neck of Playa clay traversed by wide deep ridges. Clevenger was a Texan.” The stuff itself has aged, but this only adds to the sense of magical evocation. Americana has aged into a time capsule, deep-pile carpeting and all. —Lorin Stein

I’ve been reading Jean Merrill’s The Pushcart War (NYRB’s fiftieth anniversary edition) to my son every night, a few chapters at a time. It’s often the only way I can coax him out of his Harry Potter books to get ready for bed. In truth, I’m as excited as he is to read it. The tale of New York’s pushcart peddlers waging war against the monstrous, bullying trucks is droll—as are Ronni Solbert’s illustrations—but its message remains urgent; Merrill writes expansively, giving air to the intrigue, to the peddler’s personalities, and to what’s at stake for people who don’t have money or influence. When the peace-loving peddler who sleeps under his cart every night is finally driven to anger and despair—and is forced to sleep indoors for the first time in seventy years—the frustration is nearly unendurable. My son has asked me more than once if the story is real. It’s not, of course, and what a shame, but it’s an entertaining lesson on nonviolent civil disobedience, standing up for the rights and the dignity of the little guy, and how to make a sturdy peashooter. —Nicole Rudick
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When David Foster Wallace Taught Paul Thomas Anderson

January 6, 2015 | by

Paul Thomas Anderson and Dainel Day-Lewis

Anderson in 2007. Photo: Jürgen Fauth, via Wikimedia Commons

In the fall of 1990, years before he published Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace came on as an adjunct professor at Emerson College, in Boston. As D. T. Max writes in his biography, Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story, this wasn’t such a hot time for Wallace. He was mentally unstable in those years, and actively ashamed of his latest collection of stories, Girl with Curious Hair; when the Emerson English department posted an advertisement for it, he tore it down. And teaching offered no reprieve from the problems he had with his writing and the culture at large. In a letter to Jonathan Franzen, he called his students “infants”: “you almost have to cradle their heads to help their necks support the skull’s weight.” Were the youth simply too enamored of TV’s easy charms? Max writes,

The students he was teaching made him feel the problem was worse than he had known. They were the Letterman generation he had imagined in [his short story] “My Appearance,” proud of their knowingness. “They’re all ‘television’ majors, whatever that means,” he complained to [David] Markson, adding that he’d had his wrist slapped by his department for “ ‘frustrating’ the students” with a DeLillo novel (he does not say which) by which he meant to wake them up … Wallace knew he did not want to stay at Emerson long.

Still, because he was fluent in TV, Wallace found himself popular with the students. And at least one of them came away emboldened by that “frustrating” experience with DeLillo: Paul Thomas Anderson, whose latest film, Inherent Vice, is in wide release this week. Read More »

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American Grotesque, and Other News

December 1, 2014 | by

William Mortensen’s L’Amour (1932) doubles as the cover of a new book about him, American Grotesque.

  • Don DeLillo rereads his own opus, Underworld, seventeen years after its publication. (“Great fucking line,” he’s written next to “The subway seals you durably in the stone of the moment.”)
  • In the thirties, William Mortensen was one of the most celebrated photographers in the nation—his pictures were “unabashedly theatrical, bizarre, and often louche.” What sank his reputation: a critical tiff with Ansel Adams.
  • The Chinese State Administration for Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television has moved to ban wordplay “on the grounds that it breaches the law on standard spoken and written Chinese, makes promoting cultural heritage harder and may mislead the public—especially children.” (An example of the now forbidden fruit: “replacing a single character in ke bu rong huan has turned ‘brook no delay’ into ‘coughing must not linger’ for a medicine ad.”)
  • While we’re on censorship: In the quest for G-rated moon landings, NASA used to go to great lengths to scrub astronauts’ profanity from its transcripts. In the case of one particularly salty spaceman, they went further—they had him hypnotized. “A psychiatrist put the idea in his head that he would rather hum when his mind wandered.”
  • On the history of fairy tales: “In the coded language of symbol and metaphor they chart the journey from childhood to adulthood. The Russian commentator Eleaser Meletinksji wrote, ‘It is even possible to say that the fairy tale begins with the break-up of one family and ends with the creation of a new one.’”

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Staff Picks: Pirates, Policemen, Purple Skies

October 17, 2014 | by

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Jane Wilson, Hurricane Watch, 1990, oil on canvas, 35" x 40". Image via DC Moore Gallery.

In 1965, Jane Wilson made a print for The Paris Review. Hers was included in the first group offered by the magazine through its new print series; Wilson was joined in that inaugural endeavor by, among others, Helen Frankenthaler and Jane Freilicher, all of whom were cohorts in midfifties New York. Other than the print, I’ve only ever seen one of Wilson’s works, at a friend’s house—it’s a sizable painting of a landscape—but that’s been enough to make me covet her artwork. DC Moore Gallery has nearly a dozen of these landscapes on view right now, and they’re stunning. At almost six feet square, the paintings are large, and their size is amplified by terrific expanses of sky that take up most of the picture space. And what skies: a full range of purples, golds, blues, and greens—they appear as visions, as though you can see through time while only looking at the clouds.  —Nicole Rudick

If you call Pirate Joe’s in Vancouver during off hours, you’ll be greeted by the store’s owner, Michael Hallatt, on the recording. “We do not sell Trader Joe’s products,” he says. “You might have heard we do; we don’t. That would be unfair to Trader Joe’s, to go down there and buy groceries from them. Say you bought like maybe a million dollars worth of groceries from them over three years, that would be grossly unfair.” But that’s exactly what Hallatt has done. Trader Joe’s doesn’t have a Canadian presence, so loopholes in a gray market allow Hallatt to resell Joe’s groceries. Priceonomics has the full story, from Hallatt’s early stock runs to Bellingham, Washington, and his subsequent ban from Trader Joe’s locations to his ongoing lawsuit with the grocery chain. At the end of the day, this is a love story between a man and a store. “Hallatt’s ultimate goal with Pirate Joe’s is to ‘bring’ Trader Joe’s to Canada—before he had the store he would call them and just petition them, and he has always promised to close up shop if they ever expand north. In many ways, Hallatt would count this as the ultimate victory.” —Justin Alvarez

The Melville House blog introduced me to The Policeman’s Beard Is Half Constructed, a—novella? discourse? medium-length prose work?—composed in the early eighties by an artificial intelligence called Racter (short for raconteur). Racter likely had some editorial assistance from good old-fashioned human beings, but even so, its work is affecting. There are moments when it has an eerily sophisticated grasp of these things we call “emotions,” all the complex longings that come with personhood: love, envy, hunger. And then there are moments when it sounds utterly robotic, almost autistic. A representative sample: “A sturdy dove flies over a starving beaver. The dove watches the beaver and fantasizes that the beaver will chew some steak and lamb and lettuce. The beaver spies the dove and dreams of enrapturing and enthralling pleasures, of hedge-adorned avenues studded with immense pink cottages, of streets decorated with bushes and shrubs. The beaver is insane.” —Dan Piepenbring

I was reluctant to read Don DeLillo’s Falling Man because I don’t remember how I felt on 9/11; I was barely ten. My mom, an EMT, pulled me out of school and dropped me home with my dad before rushing to the train station where first-responders were meeting. I was in McDonald’s eating a Big Mac when the South Tower fell. Eventually my brother and I got tired of watching my dad watch CNN; we went upstairs and watched Dumb & Dumber on a nine-inch television instead. DeLillo shows incredible tact and poise in his navigation of such a delicate subject. The novel is bookended by short scenes that take place during the attacks. The imagery is vivid, horrifying, and pea-soupy with detail. But DeLillo’s voice is strongest in his enigmatic mastery of the domestic. He doesn’t attempt to evaluate fallout and fear on a national level. Instead, he shadows a single survivor who returns to his estranged wife and child. The brilliance of Falling Man isn’t in shoving the reader back through the ashes of American flags but in exploring how the tragedy affected our understanding of memory, faith, and fear. —Alex Celia

In The Guardian’s “The Long Read” this week, Pankaj Mishra critiques The Fourth Revolution, a new book by John Micklethwait and Adrian Woolridge (both editors at the Economist). It’s beyond me how Mishra isn’t completely exhausted from his tireless defense against that most damaging and useless binary, “East/West.” “The twentieth century was blighted by the same pathologies that today make the western model seem unworkable, and render its fervent advocates a bit lost,” Mishra observes. Among the “advocates” he takes to task are “such Panglosses of globalization as Thomas Friedman” and Francis Fukuyama, whose pernicious “inverted Hegelianiam” must stop being consumed by the masses. Deftly showing how ISIS is “the latest incarnation” of “the blood-splatted French revolutionary tradition” and arguing that we must look to “historical specificity and detail” rather than support totalizing ideologies, Mishra provides a much-needed, sober reading of the state of the world today. —Charles Shafaieh

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Where Are They Now? Part Two

August 26, 2014 | by

The second in a week-long series of illustrations by Jason Novak, captioned by Eric Jarosinski.

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