From They Live, 1988.
We published Padgett Powell’s “Boris Yeltsin Spotted in a Bar” in our Summer issue. It spoke to me, but I don’t know why. It’s basically a list of items you’d find in a well-stocked hardware store, followed by a meditation on a drunk spouse, followed by the appearance, in an American bar, of someone who may or may not be the deceased Russian statesman. But its narrator, with his digressive style, is lonely in a way that makes him obsessed with everyday mysteries, and he felt very alive to me, in his mania. That story is from Powell’s new collection, Cries for Help, Various, where—be still my beating heart—it sits among a Yeltsin trilogy, rounded out by “Yeltsin Dancing” and “Yeltsin and Canaries.” As with the rest of Cries for Help, these stories are at once absurd and plaintive; they generate the kind of curiosity you feel when you see one boot sitting in the middle of the street, or the same stranger in three different neighborhoods in a day. Critics sometimes dismiss Powell’s fiction—as with Barthelme’s before him—as directionless riffing, but these aren’t non sequiturs: his sentences gather pathos as they accumulate. He’s hidden a lot of sadness in such a funny book. —Dan Piepenbring
Last weekend, I rewatched John Carpenter’s 1988 film They Live, a subversive and satirical take on capitalism. Midway through the film, with the planet in jeopardy, two protagonists engage in an exhausting six-minute fight; one has insisted that the other don sunglasses that allow him to see Earth’s invading aliens. I see now that the scene is an astute comment on human nature: even when the future of the planet is at stake, people can’t be trusted to make the right decisions. This realization comes only from having read Lee Billing’s essay at Nautilus about digging into Stanislaw Lem’s early sixties philosophical tract, Summa Technologiae. The book—which sounds dense but also brilliant—examines questions about our relationship with technological advances, such as “Where are the absolute limits for our knowledge and our achievement, and will these boundaries be formed by the fundamental laws of nature or by the inherent limitations of our psyche?” In Lem’s appraisal, the potential obsolescence of the human race will be determined by the unpredictability of human behavior—an unpredictability he experienced firsthand as a Polish Jew in World War II: “We were like ants bustling in an anthill over which the heel of a boot is raised … Some saw its shadow, or thought they did, but everyone, the uneasy included, ran about their usual business until the very last minute, ran with enthusiasm, devotion—to secure, to appease, to tame the future.” —Nicole Rudick