Biblioasis is reviving an apparent tradition of reading ghost stories at Christmastime through a quintet of booklet-size publications, each containing a spooky story and designed and illustrated by the cartoonist Seth. It’s a lovely little set, with tales by Dickens, Wharton, A. M. Burrage, Marjorie Bowen, and M. R. James, but I haven’t saved them for Christmas (no one tells me what to do). I’ve already torn through the Burrage and Bowen, and while they aren’t bloodcurdling, they’re lots of fun. Burrage’s One Who Saw relates the tale of a man lured by the specter of a desolate woman in an ominous hotel garden. He describes his irresistible attraction to her as being akin to “starting on a voyage, feeling no motion from the ship, and then being suddenly aware of a spreading space of water between the vessel and the quay.” Bowen’s tale, The Crown Derby Plate, involves a dumpy, smelly spirit who won’t relinquish his beloved china collection. It’s not exactly a nail-biter, but Bowen manages an eerie description of wasted wintry marshes—“olive-brown broken reeds were harsh as scars on saffron-tinted bogs”—that bears the uncanniness of a Charles Burchfield landscape. —Nicole Rudick Read More
The Crime of Father Amaro, by Eça de Queirós, imagine a Trollope novel—early 1870s, cathedral town, church politics, Tories v. Whigs—except that everyone’s super Catholic, and sex crazed, and with the added difference that the author can’t ever quite decide whether he’s writing a bawdy comedy or a satirical tragedy, and so ends up writing both. This wavering tone must have been hard to translate, but Margaret Jull Costa’s 2002 translation makes it look easy. The Crime of Father Amaro is the best novel I’ve read this year. —Lorin SteinAlmost a year ago, old friends gave me a big fat Portugese novel I’d never heard of, which promptly burrowed its way under a stack of old New Yorkers and stayed hidden until a month ago. It was a buried treasure. To get an idea of
- Since David Foster Wallace committed suicide in 2008, Infinite Jest has undergone a dramatic change in its cultural significance: once merely the mark of a curious reader, it’s become a totem for bros, who see in its massive size and brainy reputation a chance to show off their own massive size and brainy reputations—and who have no intention of really grappling with it. “How did poor David Foster Wallace go from dissecting the pretensions and shortcomings of mid-century men of letters to holding a central place in the pretensions of their heirs? … [Jest’s] irrefutable bigness is a dare … For these men, Wallace stands as a challenge to be confronted, just as the paperback brick of Infinite Jest stands as a challenge to the guy hauling it on the G train.”
- Alexandra Kleeman, whose debut short story “Fairy Tale” appeared in our Winter 2010 issue, discusses her new novel, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, and the altogether surreal experience of seeing ads on TV for the first time after a long break from the medium: “They’re these little pockets of weirdness … You get these characters who so fervently believe in the power of a certain product, they’re so fervently wanting to fix this one problem. You have these weird extreme emotions like jealousies and affections for things that no normal person would, so I find them really interesting and almost beautiful in that way, like surrealist films. You can feel how much money goes into commercials by how swiftly they act on your mind. And they’ve got like a hypnotic quality to the way they present their products. I can feel myself taking on a desire for that thing, or at least like feeling the desire they want me to feel, when I see a beautifully done eye, or makeup, or the softness of some cotton fabric bouncing up and down.”
- And Lydia Davis looks at the life and work of Lucia Berlin, who died in 2004, and whose story “B.F. and Me” appears in our Summer issue: “We have, most of us, known at least some part of what she went through: children in trouble, or early molestation, or a rapturous love affair, struggles with addiction, a difficult illness or disability, an unexpected bond with a sibling, or a tedious job, difficult fellow workers, a demanding boss, or a deceitful friend, not to speak of awe in the presence of the natural world—Hereford cattle knee-deep in Indian paintbrush, a field of bluebonnets, a pink rocket flower growing in the alley behind a hospital. Because we have known some part of it, or something like it, we are right there with her as she takes us through it.”
- It’s time to make food a permanent part of the cultural canon: “We have traditionally regarded cuisines as pop or folk art at best—cherished but ephemeral, beginning as peasant food forged from the local landscape and naturally disappearing as people emigrated and landscapes changed … ‘There is a group of us who want to know the deep flavors of what has endured longest. Those ingredients that mattered for so long that they became “the taste” of the time, the points of reference against which all innovations were measured. For me, those ingredients constitute the canon, and the dishes of the time frame them.’ ”
- Step aside—Joyce Carol Oates is asking the big questions about inspiration and art. “Why do we write? What is the motive for metaphor? … Is inspiration a singular phenomenon, or does it take taxonomical forms? Indeed, is the uninspired life worth living? … ‘Inspiration’ is an elusive term. We all want to be ‘inspired’ if the consequence is something original and worthwhile; we would even consent to be ‘haunted’—‘obsessed’—if the consequence were significant. For all writers dread what Emily Dickinson calls ‘Zero at the Bone’—the dead zone from which inspiration has fled.”
Richard Price and the evolving role of pseudonyms.
Richard Price’s new novel, The Whites, isn’t by Richard Price, except that it is. It’s by Harry Brandt, Price’s pseudonym, but it’s also not really by Brandt—Price’s name is on the cover, too, and so Price is Brandt, obviously, and it follows then that Brandt is Price, and thus, uh …
Let’s start over.
Richard Price’s new novel, The Whites, is by Richard Price writing as Harry Brandt. It says so right there on the cover. Big deal, you might say; another author slumming it in genre fiction by creating a false identity for himself. But by publishing both his name and his pseudonym on the cover, Price has parted with centuries of pseudonymous convention. He hasn’t just pulled back the curtain. He’s brought up the house lights and waved to the audience. And he did it all, according to the New York Times, because he got sort of annoyed. Read More
The hard truth is that not everyone has a novel in them. “I have no gift for invention,” I say to anyone who ever asks after my own ambitions—and why do people ask? For that matter, is my response even appropriate? I’m not sure what that means, “a gift for invention”: certainly I’ve never visited the Genius Bar without concocting some elaborate and gratuitous lie to explain the condition of my computer.
Which is not to say I’ve never written any fiction. I have, under duress. It was a requirement for my degree. The instructor was an older lady in caftans and arty jewelry with pumpkin-colored hair who had at one point written an epic women’s best seller with a lurid, seventies-style jacket. She’d also written a book of cat poetry. I didn’t mind any of that; the problem was that every detail of the class was as lazy and clichéd as that constellation of characteristics.
A few people in the class were predictably pretentious. They turned out derivative takes on macho writers and they were unnecessarily confrontational when discussing others’ submissions. One guy’s work was disturbing, but tritely disturbing. A few in the class spoke and wrote poor English. One girl was writing a fantasy novel; she was my favorite. Read More
It’s been almost fifteen years since Akhil Sharma published his first novel, An Obedient Father. This terrible, improbably funny book—about a single mother forced to share an apartment with the father who raped her as a child—won Sharma a PEN/Hemingway prize, a Whiting Award, and praise from the likes of Jonathan Franzen and Joyce Carol Oates. (I remember because it was the first novel I had the honor of editing.) Now Sharma is back with Family Life, the tale of an Indian American boy coming of age in the shadow of a family disaster. It too is terrible and improbably funny, and is excerpted in this week’s New Yorker. With acid, deceptively artless prose and a faultless ear for dialogue, Sharma strips his characters bare from page one and dares us to love them in their nakedness. I cannot think of a more honest or unsparing novelist in our generation. —Lorin Stein
Michael Hofmann is the only translator whose work I would read no matter what he decided to English—if only I could keep up with him! In the excellent new issue of Asymptote, he tells a story about interviewing Wolfgang Koeppen in 1992, four years before the German novelist’s death. (“With my English reticence and youth, I met Koeppen halfway: in other words, we were both barely out of our shells.”) He also writes of the Joseph Mitchell–like silence that Koeppen fell into after the publication of Death in Rome (1954) and lauds the still-untranslated last book, Youth (1976)—giving us reason to hope he might be at work on an English version. The final remarks on Koeppen’s sentences—continually “sidestepping into freedom,” “scrupulously managed, supple, cadenced, sumptuously lexical, expressive prose”—double as a description of Hofmann’s own writing. —Robyn Creswell
Poetry’s January issue contains a thirty-page feature on Jane Freilicher: her artwork and her close friendships with a number of poets, among them Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, and James Schuyler. The section is adapted from Tibor de Nagy Gallery’s wonderful exhibition, last summer, “Jane Freilicher: Painter Among Poets” (it’s currently on view at the Poetry Foundation, in Chicago). I remembered having glimpsed the show’s catalogue in Lorin’s office. I liberated it, and I’m not sure I’ll give it back. It’s like having a scrapbook made by the people whose work you most admire, and it shows that they had as good a time in one another’s company as you’d imagined. “Some little gremlins seemed to have popped loose in my idea factory and I think they may have been sent over from Koch’s brassiere factory,” writes Freilicher to O’Hara. And in what may be my favorite letter in the whole book, from Jane to Frank on a poem of his: “it just don’t seem to have that real low-down smelly sexy everyday Olympian quality your admirers depend upon.” —Nicole Rudick Read More
I met cartoonist and musician Matthew Thurber six-odd years ago somewhere in Prospect Park (a séance? a picnic?), and then saw him play alto saxophone in his Muzak-jazz-punk trio Soiled Mattress and the Springs at the New York Art Book Fair. We kept running into one another in odd places; or, since New York City is now lacking in odd places, at places where subculture obsessives go to convince themselves there’s still oddness in the world. Soiled Mattress broke up in 2008, but Thurber’s “Anti-Matter Cabaret” act Ambergris has continued, and sometimes he plays with artist Brian Belott as Court Stenographer and Young Sherlock Holmes. In 2011, after years of publishing minicomics, zines, and books on tape, Thurber collected his serial 1-800-Mice in graphic-novel form. It’s about a messenger mouse named Groomfiend, a peace punk named Peace Punk, and a cast of thousands. More recently, Thurber wrote a culture diary for this blog, and started Tomato House gallery with his girlfriend, Rebecca Bird, in Ocean Hill, Brooklyn.
Thurber’s new graphic novel, Infomaniacs, is about the singularity and the end of the Internet; it’s also the final book from the great comics publisher PictureBox, which serialized parts of Infomaniacs online starting in 2010. The book’s heroine is Amy Shit, a punk rapper who sometimes lives off the grid—in a subway tunnel, even. Her brother’s a neo–Ned Ludd who goes around smashing iPhones. Meanwhile, Ralph is an Internet addict who escapes from reality rehab, then embeds in an immortality cult run by a libertarian oligarch who wants to eat the brain of the last man who’s never seen the Internet. A horse and a bat, both intelligence agents for the ATF (Anthropomorphic Task Force), wonder what the singularity will look like—a 1950s computer, a crystal, a cell phone, a tree branch?
Thurber’s video trailer offers a sense of the comic’s raucous hugger-mugger and subterranean surrealism, but doesn’t touch on its Underground Man againstness. For that, perhaps this quote, from an early, uncollected strip: “All bundled up and no place to go … The man who hates the Internet is a man who hates the world.”
Thurber and I met in the office I share with a puppet theater, near the Barclays Center. Giant heads hung from the walls. I don’t have Wi-Fi and don’t know anyone’s password. Read More