The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘fiction’

The Backside of the Painting, and Other News

July 29, 2016 | by

Vik Muniz, Verso (Illha de Itamaraca), 2016.

  • The hatchet job isn’t what it used to be. To read Tobias Smollett’s book reviews from the eighteenth century is to discover, as J. H. Pearl writes, ever-higher concentrations of venom: “Smollett, who helmed The Critical Review from 1756 to 1763, never minced words in his judgment of whether a particular text was worth the paper it was printed on … All Smollett needed, it seems, was a target for his wrath. And as the pages of the Review attest, targets abounded … Specific reviewers remained anonymous, the better to create the impression of a unified voice, but writers of badly reviewed books tended to blame Smollett, returning their fire on him. It’s easy to understand that anger. Would you want your book called ‘a very trivial, insipid, injudicious and defective performance, without plan, method, learning, accuracy, or elegance; an unmeaning composition of shreds, rags, and remnants … a patched, a pie-bald, linsey-woolsey nothing’? (That was the assessment of a book called A New and Accurate History of South-America.)”
  • Because people excel at finding new ways to waste other people’s time, a small but vocal faction of conservative educators and politicians have called on our schools to start teaching cursive again. Tamara Thornton, the author of the 1996 book Handwriting in America, sees the reactionary anxiety at the center of their argument: “Learning cursive has never been just about learning how to express yourself in writing … In the early twentieth century, it’s about following models and suppressing your individuality … We get very interested in cursive when we feel that our morals are in a state of decline, all hell is breaking loose, people are doing whatever they want … And I don’t think it’s that much of a stretch that the sort of people who believe in the standard model of the family get very nervous when we depart from the standard models of the cursive script. So there have been periodic bouts of hysteria about the decline of cursive. And it’s always when we feel that as a society, we’re going down the tubes.”
  • At the White Plains Annual Reptile Expo, Madeline Cash dissects the strange bond between lizard and lizard keeper: “That unspoken connection no one else could understand, which maybe didn’t even exist, echoed all over the Convention Center. A lizard’s inhuman qualities are its appeal. They are whatever you need them to be—loving, smiling, a good listener — because the relationship is all a projection … When I saw the bearded dragons, my heart swelled. The gold-breasted beasts had the same long mouths carved across their faces that, as a child, I’d understood to be a smile. The vendor handed one over in an attempt to make a sale off my nostalgia. It cocked its head up at me with that permanent grin and it all flooded back.”

Flannery’s Farm

July 21, 2016 | by

Andalusia and the ache of identity.

Joe McTyre/ Atlanta Constitution, Flannery O’Connor in the driveway at Andalusia, 1962.

Flannery O’Connor in the driveway at Andalusia, 1962. © Joe McTyre/Atlanta Constitution.

You can judge how far outside of Atlanta you are by the gasoline prices. My parents kept calling them out every few minutes as we drove from their house toward Milledgeville to the farm where Flannery O’Connor once lived. Gas that was $2.26 in town became $2.11 just outside the city limits. The weather was less hot than usual, which is to say that while it was still awful and sticky, there was a breeze every now and then. Prices hovered around two dollars as we drove south, and the landscape shifted from tony suburbs to farmland. Soon forests of tall slender pine trees began filling our periphery, and my mother actually gasped when we encountered $1.96 a gallon. At $1.95, we reached Andalusia Farm. Read More »

The Mind in Solitude: An Interview with Claire-Louise Bennett

July 18, 2016 | by

Photo © Conor Horgan

Strange things happen when you live alone. When youre no longer required to eat dinner at a particular time, or to close the bathroom door to shower, your relationship to the space around you changes. All of a sudden it is things, rather than other people, that seem to direct your thoughts.

In the most literal sense, the twenty stories that make up Claire-Louise Bennett’s debut, Pond, record a series of moments in the life of an English woman living alone on the west coast of Ireland. The woman eats fruit, tries to replace a broken dial on her Salton mini oven, and wonders if the cows in a nearby field believe she is Jesus. What makes the book unique is the voice in which those moments are described—unfolding in a bird-like language that feels closer to thought than public address.

These are not stories in the traditional sense—neither are they essays, monologues, prose poems, letters or diary entries—but a series of improvisations on each. “Pond is the way it is,” Claire-Louise told me recently when we chatted over email, “because of the way I am, more or less.” Most essentially, Pond is an account of the mind as it exists in solitude. It attempts to engage with the universe at its fullest and not just the little portion of it we identify as human. I began our conversation by asking Claire-Louise where she was writing to me from. 

BENNETT

I’m in an apartment. And since I pay the rent on it each month and have a key to its door and the codes for the two entrance gates it’s reasonable to say it’s my apartment. I don’t feel much for it though. It seems thin, insubstantial, and often when I sit at the table, to eat, and at the desk, to write, I have the sensation the furniture and me are going to fall right through the floor into the thin, insubstantial, flat beneath. It’s raining, of course it is, it’s always raining. My dapper striped deckchair is swollen stiff with rainwater and will probably never close now. I can’t think why I ever opened it here, on a balcony on the west coast of Ireland. Read More »

Guarding His Eyes

July 13, 2016 | by

The current issue of The Paris Review features an excerpt from Gerald Murnane’s novel Border Districts. It opens with a remarkable sentence:

Two months ago, when I first arrived in this township just short of the border, I resolved to guard my eyes and I could not think of going on with this piece of writing unless I were to explain how I came by that odd expression.

What makes this sentence remarkable may not be immediately apparent. It touches on many of Murnane’s main preoccupations: seeing, the peculiar specificities of language, the outer reaches of a landscape. But the phrase “to guard my eyes” also reminded me of a peculiar moment I’d shared with the author when I interviewed him in 2012. Read More »

“Bad Behavior”: An Interview with Alexia Arthurs

July 6, 2016 | by

Photo of Alexia Arthurs by Kaylia Duncan.

Photo of Alexia Arthurs by Kaylia Duncan.

Bad Behavior,” a short story by Alexia Arthurs in our new Summer issue, follows Stacy, the teenage daughter of Jamaican immigrants living in Brooklyn. After a series of troubling events at home and school, she’s sent to live with her grandmother in Jamaica. 

Arthurs, a graduate of Hunter College and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, was born in Jamaica and moved to New York with her family at the age of twelve. She wrote to me about her story by e-mail. 

INTERVIEWER

Where did “Bad Behavior” come from?

ARTHURS

I wondered what an immigrant mother sacrifices when she raises her children in America—so many of her energies are directed toward survival and providing. I babysat to pay for my undergraduate education in New York City, and I noticed that women who were more financially settled—who could afford expensive childcare and someone to clean for them—were particularly concerned with the anxieties of their children. It’s interesting to consider which mothers have that privilege, to be present in a vigorous way. “Bad Behavior” deals with this—“Not all mothers could afford to be kind.” Also, once I knew of a young girl who was dangerously reckless, and I remember that someone suggested sending her to Jamaica as a last resort. I don’t know what became of the girl. Read More »

The Trouble of Rational Thought

June 10, 2016 | by

How Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai cultivates ambition in its readers.

The first edition of The Last Samurai.

Watch Helen DeWitt discuss The Last Samurai in our My First Time video series.

In the late nineties, Helen DeWitt, a then-unpublished writer with a Ph.D. in classics from Oxford, got an offer on her first novel, The Seventh Samurai. It had been seventeen months since her agent had indicated she would be able to get an advance based on the first six chapters of the manuscript—which, in the absence of a contract, DeWitt had diligently been attempting to finish. After she received the offer, she wrote to her agent; she felt she was likely to commit suicide if she had to continue working with her. Looking over her editor's comments, she scarcely felt more hopeful. When a contract arrived, she decided not to sign it.

Some time later, a friend showed the manuscript to Jonathan Burnham, then at Talk Miramax Books; he immediately offered her $70,000. At the Frankfurt Book Fair, the novel caused what can fairly be called a sensation; but the enthusiasm of foreign houses did not make English-language publication any easier. DeWitt spent months battling her copy editor, who had ignored DeWitt’s edits and imposed hundreds of standardizing changes of her own. It was, DeWitt told the Observer in 2011, as if they were trying to “kill the mind that wrote the book.”

In 2000, DeWitt’s novel was released as The Last Samurai. (DeWitt was forced to change the title, only to see its Google results buried, three years later, beneath the Tom Cruise movie of the same name). In The New Yorker, A. S. Byatt hailed it as “a triumph—a genuinely new story, a genuinely new form.” Read More »