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Posts Tagged ‘Jesse Ball’

Staff Picks: Fever Dreams, Tragic Spells, and In-betweens

July 22, 2016 | by

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Detail from the cover of Jesse Ball’s How to Set a Fire and Why.

Carole Firstman’s ambitiously titled debut, Origins of the Universe and What It All Means, is an essayistic memoir about her relationship with her estranged, eccentric (read: undiagnosed Asperger’s) scientist father, but it’s really a thumbed nose at binary argument and an objective romp through subjectivity’s headspace. Throughout the book, Firstman sets up oppositional arguments in order to force them apart and marinate in the liminal in-between. Is her chauvinistic, mostly absent father good or bad? Firstman thinks it’s hard to say, but it doesn’t stop her from examining the relationship through myriad philosophic and scientific lenses. (I doubt there has ever been a book about family in which one learns more about science and the history of thought.) Though the father does and says things that would make even the least feminist, or simply decent, among us cringe, Firstman’s characterization of family dynamics is pitch-perfect: her own impatience and frustrations with her father balance his foibles and thoughtlessness—and her humor softens the lot. This is a very endearing book, a summer read for the curious mind. —Jeffery Gleaves

The Guggenheim’s recent exhibition “Photo-Poetics: An Anthology” made a huge impression on me; the show featured works by ten photographers—nine women, including Erica Baum—who all work closely, sometimes exclusively, with the printed page. So I was delighted to discover Dog Ear, a book of twenty-five exquisite photographs by Baum. For the series, she dog-eared pages in mass-market paperbacks, then photographed the intersection of words at each fold to create a text of her own. In each tiny piece, bits of sentences read horizontally (“skirts, bee-stung lips,” “It’s a funny thing”) and vertically (“made up her face,” “itchiest dresses”). Part photo, part poem, the results vary in tone, from longing to manic, minimal to marvelous. In “Bear,” which feels like a Tomi Ungerer picture book, where animals scheme and smoke cigars, a polar bear is drunk on schnapps and “pawing” “the birds.” A new, limited edition of Dog Ear comes courtesy of Ugly Duckling Presse. Fittingly, the book jacket doubles as a poster. —Jessica Calderon

It may be based on a British procedural, but the new HBO series The Night Of is unmistakably shot in New York and, just as unmistakably, written by Richard Price. The premise: a studious Pakistani American kid sneaks out of the house with the keys to his father’s cab, then ill-advisedly picks up a passenger, a distraught beauty headed to the Upper West Side. It’s classic noir, with John Turturro as the boy's schlubby but dedicated defense attorney; and because it’s a Richard Price script, even a desk sergeant (the excellent Ben Shenkman) can steal a scene. Two episodes in, it’s the best TV I’ve seen this summer. —Lorin Stein  Read More »

Different Ways of Lying: An Interview with Jesse Ball

April 3, 2014 | by

Jesse Ball

Photo: Joe Lieske

Jesse Ball writes novels and stories in the vein of Kafka or Daniil Kharms—surreal, often hyperpolitical constructions from contemporary life. His 2011 novel, The Curfew, whirls around an absurd dystopia, an uncanny avatar of our own. It’s home, but not quite. The Way Through Doors (2009) and Samedi the Deafness (2007) are set in neighborhoods at once eerily similar to and foreign from our own. To read Ball, who won The Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize in 2008, is to step into a kind of liminal space. And his new novel, Silence Once Begun, contains his most beguiling sleight of hand yet.

Silence Once Begun begins in a Japanese fishing town where eight people have recently disappeared from their homes. At a bar, Oda Sotatsu, an unassuming, lonely young man, wagers on a card game and loses to the mesmeric Jito Joo—Sotatsu signs a document that says he’s responsible for the recent disappearances. Jito Joo takes this confession to the police, and soon rumormongering and hearsay consume the town. Throughout his trial and imprisonment, Sotatsu remains almost completely silent, refusing to testify on his own behalf in court and barely engaging with the relatives who appeal to him. At the center of the novel, framing its various narratives, is a divorced investigative journalist named Jesse Ball.

Our conversations found the real Jesse Ball by turns serious and coy. We discussed the political value of plain speech, his near ascetic desire for isolation, and the necessity of lying.

Silence Once Begun demonstrates the failure of this town’s justice system, a failure to do right by one of their own. Another of your novels, The Curfew, also engages with unjust and inescapable social systems. Do you see your work as political?

Saying almost anything as well as you can say it, or doing anything properly and with your whole being, is a political act. And so I think almost any text that strives to have its own focus, without bowing to contemporary modes of humor or a little commercialism or whatever else—I think that’s very political. As long as everyone decides to hold and contain their own state, things improve.

My books, some of them appear to verge on the political. This one certainly seems to be an indictment of a justice system. In the course of time, many things that appear certain within an epoch or an era seem ludicrous and silly to those in another time. However, plain clear speech, or questions stated within the power of the heart, don’t really become silly. They retain a certain power. In terms of attempts to write clearly, I think that’s the most political act. Read More »

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What We’re Loving: Science, Spicer, Sea Maidens, Sandwiches

February 28, 2014 | by

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Rita Greer, The Scientists, 2007

The Haggis-on-Whey World of Unbelievable Brilliance is McSweeney’s hilarious series of faux-science books. The latest volume, “Children and the Tundra,” is due out in May; it includes such edifying features as “Quick Fixes for the Growing Epidemic of Talking Child Syndrome,” “Snow Druids: Fact and Fiction,” and “Comparing Snow with Presidents Past and Present.” (Snow and Zachary Taylor share the following attributes: cold, white, usually on the ground.) In its tone and design, to say nothing of the sturdiness of its typefaces, Haggis-on-Whey nails the authoritarian aesthetic of 1950s textbooks. Most important, it is very, very silly. —Dan Piepenbring

Wordsworth looked forward to a day when poets would “be ready to follow the steps of the man of Science … carrying sensation into the midst of the objects of Science itself.” Alfonso D’Aquino is one such poet of sensation and science. Fungus skull eye wing, his first collection available in English, is dense with the tropical life of Cuernavaca: root systems, veins of mineral, tangles of foliage. Some of the poems are spookily nonhuman; in others, even the stones seem to speak: “I squint fixedly / and find / in this marvelous density in the hollow of my hand / in its livid insomniac paleness / and in its veins dialogues / that only for a moment crisscross.” Forrest Gander’s translation is another marvel. —Robyn Creswell

You could easily teach a whole seminar on Denis Johnson’s “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” (in this week’s New Yorker). You could prepare students by assigning them “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” and “The Dead,” which seem to me a sort of North and South Pole to Johnson’s story, and shape its beginning and end. Then you could have students compare the two paintings in the story, and the two newspapers called the Post, and the names Elaine and Maria Elena, and you could let those comparisons lead you into the narrator’s habits of mind. Or else you could spend a whole semester reading Denis Johnson, trying to pinpoint the quality of his prose that makes him sound both matter-of-fact and possessed. Or you could dismiss class and send everyone home to read the story again and stare at the wall, because “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” is great and the questions it raises—like, What difference would it make if Whit could say he loved his wife, or that his daughters were beautiful or clever; or, What kind of fairytale is this—are too big for an English seminar to answer. —Lorin Stein

In Seattle, this year’s AWP is off to a rollicking start: picture 15,000 writers and all their attendant neuroses in one sprawling conference center. Madness! Luckily, no one bats an eye if you take a break to read some newly published poetry; that is, after all, what this thing is about. My first AWP purchase was Caroline Manring’s Manual for Extinction, which soothes the overstimulated soul with its lyrical surrealism and extraordinary formal experimentation. And of course one cannot help but see the mass of writers reflected:  “When we are arranged by crop // you can see we are a toothy, / forever naked, rag-tag lot.” —Rachel Abramowitz Read More »

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