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Posts Tagged ‘John McPhee’

Staff Picks: Misspelled Marven, Messengered Mineral Water

June 12, 2015 | by

A_Pigeon_Sat_on_a_Branch_Reflecting_on_Existence

A still from A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence.

Say what you will about Tom McCarthy’s novels: they bring out the best in their critics. Few other writers goad us into asking such broad, terrifying questions as, What should fiction do? Who is it for? And how can it undermine authority? In 2008, Remainder inspired Zadie Smith’s seminal essay “Two Paths for the Novel”; now McCarthy’s Satin Island has landed a series of reviews offering unusually acute observations on the state of the novel. Read Gideon-Lewis Kraus in Bookforum, James Lasdun in the Guardian, Christopher Tayler in the London Review of Books, and William Deresiewicz in The Nation: each unabashedly cerebral, and each proving that seemingly empty-isms—realism, postmodernism, postcolonialism, formalism, antihumanism—have life in them yet. —Dan Piepenbring

marvin-gardens-g-spotThe property names in Monopoly are taken from the boomtown ideal that was turn-of-the-century Atlantic City, with one glaring exception: Marvin Gardens, which does not, as such, exist. If you consider the game a metaphor for the dreams of the middle class, that absence bodes ill: it’s a coveted place you can never hope to get to. John McPhee’s 1972 essay “The Search for Marvin Gardens,” collected in his Pieces of the Frame, uses Monopoly to examine the significance of Atlantic City in the seventies, when it had fallen on hard times. As McPhee and a partner roll the dice, advancing their pieces and buying properties, a ghostly second narrator walks through the real St. Charles Place, Baltic Avenue, and New York Avenue, reporting that they’re all slums; the two players circle the board and the neighborhoods get worse. When McPhee realizes that his “only hope is Marvin Gardens,” his reportorial counterpart learns that it’s not even in the city at all; it’s one town over in Margate, New Jersey, and it’s spelled Marven. Rarely is McPhee’s writing as disjointed as it is in this piece; the essay’s aphoristic, time-traveling, jump-cut style asks so much of its readers that it’s astonishing The New Yorker published it. I haven’t seen anything as boldly form-defying in its pages for a while. —Jeffery Gleaves
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A Sincere Mustache, and Other News

March 6, 2015 | by

mustaches

From a 1902 newspaper advertisement.

  • John McPhee on writing, illumination, and mustaches: “Robert Bingham, my editor at The New Yorker for sixteen years, had a fluorescent, not to mention distinguished, mustache. In some piece or other, early on, I said of a person I was writing about that he had a ‘sincere’ mustache. This brought Bingham, manuscript in hand, out of his office … A sincere mustache, Mr. McPhee, a sincere mustache? What does that mean? Was I implying that it is possible to have an insincere mustache? … Across time, someone came along who had ‘a no-nonsense mustache,’ and a Great Lakes ship captain who had ‘a gyroscopic mustache,’ and a North Woodsman who had ‘a timber-cruiser’s guileless mustache.’ A family practitioner in Maine had ‘an analgesic mustache,’ another doctor ‘a soothing mustache,’ and another a mustache that ‘seems medical, in that it spreads flat beyond the corners of his mouth and suggests no prognosis, positive or negative.’”
  • Pop music is heralded as one of life’s simple pleasures: a chance for pure escapism. Why, then, are so many pop songs really, really, really sad? “Love songs have always been more likely to deal with the yearning for love, the complications of love, love’s betrayal, or the loss of love (or even, sometimes, the loss of life) than the fancied bliss of love fulfilled … a strain of sadness has long been laced through the popular songbook. Music listeners’ likes have never been restricted to things that make them happy.”
  • On Kingsley Amis’s misanthropic masterwork, Ending Up: “The finished product is short and brutal, a series of cackling vignettes of man’s cruelty to man, all conveyed in Amis’s crisp, beady prose. It is also very funny, growing funnier with each fresh misery, mishap and atrocity. The blurb on my Penguin edition draws attention to its ‘humanity,’ but it might more accurately have highlighted its inhumanity: few novels have ever been quite this bleak, quite this nasty.”
  • The impressionists are often derided as “the painterly equivalent of easy listening,” but they still have much to teach us: “While Degas was in America in 1872 he was much taken with the Southern Creole women, feeling they had ‘that touch of ugliness without which no salvation.’ Let’s not get too politically correct here. His remark has a general application. It speaks to a shared aesthetic disposition. By ‘ugliness,’ Degas means ordinary life—a girl having her hair combed on a beach; women unperturbed, unself-conscious at their ablutions; a laundress stretching, yawning, another one ironing. They are the painters of modern life, in Baudelaire’s encapsulation. As modern as T. S. Eliot’s woman who yawns and draws her stocking up in ‘Sweeney Among the Nightingales.’ ”
  • “Jane Austen’s earliest writings are violent, restless, anarchic, and exuberantly expressionistic. Drunkenness, female brawling, sexual misdemeanor, and murder run riot across their pages.”

Staff Picks: Diarists, Dowsing, Dolphin-safe Tuna

January 16, 2015 | by

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Egon Schiele, Portrait of Gertrude Schiele, 1909.

In 1995, on a trip to Australia, the performance artist and writer Kathy Acker met McKenzie Wark, a new-media theorist. They had a weekend-long affair and then, on Acker’s return to San Francisco, engaged in a candid two-week e-mail correspondence—now published for the first time—in which gossip, cultural criticism, daily activities, queer theory, and personal problems are inextricably tangled. A searching discussion of Blanchot, Bataille, and totalitarianism is together with a back-and-forth about pissing and coming at the same time. Very quickly, the gendered sex talk—of butch, femme, and super-femme; straight girls and queer ones; gay guys, straight guys, and just “guys”—becomes confused: Who’s talking about whom? But it doesn’t matter. As Acker says, “Me, straight queer gay whatever and where do nut cakes like me fit in who like getting fistfucked whacked and told what to do?” Wark responds, “I like this idea of a refusal to be called other. As normal as the next human.” Acker died not two years later of breast cancer. This book is a wonderful reminder of her quick mind and remarkable intellect. How lucky Wark was to have gotten it all firsthand. “I forgot who I am,” he writes to Acker. “You reminded me of who I prefer to be.” —Nicole Rudick

“What I love about university libraries,” Susan Howe says in her interview with The Paris Review, “is that they always seem slightly off-limits, therefore forbidden. I feel I’ve been allowed in with my little identity card and now I’m going to be bad.” How bad? Dowsing for buried manuscripts is, she says, a kind of “civilly disobedient telepathy.” Howe’s new book, Spontaneous Particulars: The Telepathy of Archives, is an elegiac essay for the old archives of paper and ink, now being off-sited by digital technologies. The book pieces together Howe’s work on the papers of the eighteenth-century divine Jonathan Edwards with the third book of William Carlos Williams’s Paterson, about the burning of the library. I can’t think of another work that evokes the romance of research in the way this one does. It captures that moment when you find exactly the thing you didn’t know you were searching for. —Robyn Creswell

Keep an eye out for Elliot Ackerman’s first novel, Green on Blue, coming next month. Ackerman, who served five tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, caught my attention in recent weeks with essays in the New York Times Magazine (on skateboarding in Southbank) and The New Yorker (on a visit he paid to a military outpost on the front line of the war with ISIS), both of which betray the informed sensitivity of his observations. (If you dig deeper into ’net history, you’ll find his reflections on Fallujah.) Green on Blue, already on the Times’s Reading List of Modern War Stories, tells the story of a young boy coming of age in Afghanistan—the premise of which, alone, serves as an impressive act of empathy. —Stephen A. Hiltner Read More »

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Stage Struck

September 12, 2012 | by

Most of what I read about professional tennis, particularly the profiles of the game’s biggest names, appears around the Grand Slams, three of which are played over the summer here in the northern hemisphere. This was the summer of Roger Federer, Andy Murray and his new coach Ivan Lendl, and Venus and Serena Williams. Novak Djokovic, the world’s top men’s player when the summer began, had had his moment in Vogue in May 2011, during a season when, at one point, he’d string together forty-three straight victories and lose only six matches.

Near the end of that season, about a month after Djokovic saved two match points against Federer’s serve to win their U.S. Open semifinal, the New York Times Magazine ran an essay by Adam Sternbergh called “The Thrill of Defeat.” The occasion for the piece was the “278 million to 1” odds against the Boston Red Sox’s “epic” collapse during the 2011 pennant race. To a Federer fan looking back to the Open, though, those odds seemed about right. What also seemed right were Sternbergh’s thoughts about the basic absurdity of sports and, my affinity for Bart Giamatti notwithstanding, the “terrible sportswriters” who “argue that sports are a grand metaphor, a stage on which we witness essential narratives about determination, bravery and heart.” Read More »

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