- Breaking news: Bram Stoker’s great-grand-nephew has rejected a scholar’s recent claim that Dracula hailed not from Transylvania but from Exeter. “People will be surprised and sometimes shocked by my findings, as most of what they now hold true will be proven to be false,” the scholar said humbly. “It’s a bit like finding out who Father Christmas really is.” Dacre Stoker retorts: “Everyone tries to find something a little bit new or different about Dracula, even now, 118 years after it was published, which is wonderful … But to me it is a bit of a stretch to argue that Dracula came from Exeter.”
- Maurice White died last week, prompting Sam Lipsyte to remember “some odd family history”: “In 1975, when I was eight, a film called That’s the Way of the World was released in America. Harvey Keitel starred in the story of a hotshot record producer’s struggles with art and mammon. The screenplay was written by my father, the sports journalist and fiction writer Robert Lipsyte, and the soundtrack was by Earth, Wind and Fire, who also appear in the movie as the Group, a band with a groundbreaking sound but not enough commercial appeal … White called my father a few years ago and asked him to write the liner notes for a reissue of That’s the Way of the World. They had some long conversations my father cherished.”
- Today in improbable connections between Oscar contenders and classic American lit: Mark Mangini, the sound designer for Mad Max: Fury Road, says he put together the film’s aural palette with Melville in mind: “I had this notion that the truck itself was an allegory for Moby Dick … We wanted to personify it as this giant, growling, breathing, roaring beast … It had to be grounded in reality, but we wanted it to be more than that, so we designed whale sounds to play underneath all those truck sounds to embody the real sounds and to personify it … We go into a beautiful ballet-like slow motion sequence as the War Rig upends and turns on its side and crashes. All those sounds, there are no realistic sounds there. Those are all whale sounds and actually slowed-down bear sounds,” He said. “What we wanted to say to the audience was, ‘This is a death. This is the death of the great white whale.’ All you hear as it rolls over in slow motion is the final death rattle of a dying creature. It just felt like the right sound to use.”
- A. O. Scott’s new book Better Living Through Criticism provides critics with an unprecedented, mouth-watering opportunity to review criticism itself. Christian Lorentzen is up to the task, so much so that he went on a road trip with A. O. Scott just to talk about it: “ ‘To the extent that there’s a polemical thrust that this book has,’ Scott told me, ‘it’s a fairly simple one: in favor of thinking. It’s against the notion that we’re just supposed to have fun. Turn off your brain and eat your popcorn. I’m offended by that. If someone is spending $200 million to make and market a movie, there’s no way you can say, “That’s just nothing.” Plus, it’s two hours of your own life, $15 of your own money, and all the dreams and emotions you bring into the theater with you. Why empty out your own experience? Why be passive about it? Why accept it on the terms that it’s given to you? The book is a plea to be more active, more engaged, and more thoughtful.’ ”
- Remember when Malcolm McLaren released an opera record? I don’t either, but Stephen Akey does, and he remains really fond of the thing: “If on the radio that day I hadn’t heard Malcolm McLaren’s gleefully debased six-minute version [of Madame Butterfly]—identified by the disc jockey as the first of six workings of Puccini on an album by McLaren called Fans—I might never have known grand opera at all … Fans survives McLaren’s brazen talentlessness because the concept animating it is so ingenious and because McLaren was smart enough to hire accomplished musicians to execute the concept … It may be that Fans is little more than a clever novelty item with classical pretensions, but I think that McLaren’s cleverness points to a profound intuition about opera, namely, that it is (or at least can be) a music of the masses.”
- Punctuation was once the stuff of radical experimentation; today it tends to be the site of tired grammatical debates, the kind that feel antiquated a mere decade or so after they first got people riled up. David Crystal’s book Making a Point hopes to assuage our punctuation anxiety: “In Old English manuscripts, punctuation is idiosyncratic; to denote word divisions, writers tried a variety of strategies: dots, spaces, ‘camel case’ (that is, using capital letters rather than spaces ToMarkTheBeginningsOfNewWords). Then the rise of printing created the demand for a standardized system … A 2007 Daily Mail article titled ‘I h8 txt msgs’ had declared that ‘SMS vandals’ were ‘pillaging our punctuation; savaging our sentences; raping our vocabulary. And they must be stopped.’ Crystal rebuffed these drastic claims: the supposed ‘innovations’ of texting, he notes—abbreviations, omitted letters, ideograms, nonstandard spellings—have been features of the language for centuries.”
- Melville must’ve been an intimate of punctuation anxiety; Moby-Dick has a hyphen that seems to disappear and reappear at will. Where did it come from? What does it mean? Did he intend to put it there at all? “Thomas Tanselle writes that Melville’s brother, Allan, made a last-minute change to the title of the American edition. ‘[Melville] has determined upon a new title,’ his brother wrote. ‘It is thought here that the new title will be a better selling title … Moby-Dick is a legitimate title for the book.’ The American edition went to press, hyphen intact, despite the fact that the whale within was only referred to with a hyphen one time … It’s still unclear whether Melville, who didn’t use a hyphen inside the book, chose a hyphen for the book’s title or whether his brother punctuated the title incorrectly. Whether you chalk it up to typographical error, long-obsolete custom or authorial intention, the hunt for the true story behind Moby-Dick’s hyphen continues.”
- Living life on the Gregorian calendar is okay—the days go by, the weeks go by, the months go by, the years go by. Break up the tedium by overlaying some other markers on your worldly existence: by reading fiction, say. “Memorable novels have a way of affixing a secondary story to themselves, a plot that touches tangentially, if at all, upon the plot of the book. Sometimes you recall a novel chiefly for the circumstances under which it was absorbed … It’s one of the keenest and least replaceable pleasures I know—the sense, native to a capacious novel, of existing simultaneously inside two calendars. One plot steadily proceeds and it is called Your Life; it’s the old, ongoing, errand-filled business of your datebook. The other plot is new; it’s called The Novel You’re Reading, and it unfolds with its own errands, its own weather and its own zodiac.”
- Today in cover judging: hats off to our art editor, Charlotte Strick, whose design for the reissue of Flannery O’Connor’s Everything That Rises Must Converge is among the New York Times’ twelve best covers of the year.
- China’s approach to film ratings (it doesn’t have them) and censorship (plenty of that, though) reflects a nervous ideological tension—and it results in some programming choices that feel frankly bizarre to a Western audience. “Its constraints on what may appear on screen represent a laundry list of the state’s anxieties. Content must not ‘endanger’ China’s unity, security or honor. It also should not ‘twist’ history, feature explicit sex or gambling, advocate ‘the supremacy of religion’ or ‘meticulously describe fortune-telling.’ Playing up violence is prohibited, in theory … A Chinese film released in 2006, Curse of the Golden Flower, was given a rating in America that required those under seventeen to be accompanied by an adult because of its violent scenes. But these scenes were left uncut when it was screened in China. Viewers were given no warning about them. On TV The Patriot (Yue Fei), a popular historical drama, commonly features long fights with bloody swords, arrows through the heart and dripping corpses. It currently airs on one channel in the early afternoon.”
- Houellebecq’s Submission features many an excursus on Joris-Karl Huysmans, the nineteenth-century French writer of whom Houllebecq himself has said, “I think he could’ve been a real friend to me.” What was Huysmans’s MO? His novel À rebours, which tells of “a nature-hating aesthete named Jean des Esseintes,” has an approach to desire and spiritual malady that feels strikingly on point, even in 2015: “Subtitled ‘A Novel Without a Plot,’ the narrative concerns des Esseintes’s attempts to furnish and decorate a country home where he will be able to live without ever again having to deal with the outside world … He gets turned on by locomotive engines: their steaming, sweating loins girdled in glittering copper corsets; their disheveled manes of black smoke; their horns’ muffled, impassioned cries … Huysmans’s prose isn’t just purple: it’s ultraviolet. Everything in À Rebours is tumefied and syphilitic, damasked with ennui, liver-spotted with arcane longings.”
- In which Gay Talese slips on a pair of virtual-reality goggles, and balks: “But this doesn’t interest me in the least! … You know why? You know why? It’s the sort of stuff you see in a documentary, but there’s no insight into the situation, into the characters … It’s just a bunch of scenes … Television is driven by imagery … There will be a lead on a slow night, the networks will lead with a forest fire in Topanga California—great visual scenes—or a bombing of Baghdad. Anything that shows you color, smoke, fire, bullets, dodging gets on because it’s visual, but you don’t get anything … There has to be face to face confrontation between the writer and the subject, and the writer has to be able to cultivate something from the subject to get something approximate to the truth of the subject.”
- What does a debate about the abridgment of Moby-Dick tell us about reading on the Internet? Oh, nothing terribly encouraging: “Countless readers have run aground on Melville’s mountain of details on the art of whaling, or have been left behind as he plunges, like his Catskill eagle, into philosophical realms, but it is precisely in these passages where his real appeal resides … It is rather quaint to locate the manifestation of our collective ruin in a British publisher of abridgments, which have been around nearly as long as novels themselves … Thanks to the oceanic expanses of the web, there is no need to condense or abridge anything anymore, at least not for want of space … This would appear to be a problem. And it is one that is likely to get worse.”
- Today in techno prophesy: a bunch of smart interdisciplinary types got together and decreed that by the year 2100, “libraries will be both highly distributed and deeply connected, sharing a single collection as they work to meet the emerging demands of their individual communities.” As for the physical books in the libraries, they’ll probably disappear, but only a fuddy-duddy would mourn their loss. “Library isn’t etymologically related to books at all, deriving instead from a Latin word for the smooth inner bark of a tree. It was, in this sense, a thing on which one might write rather than a storehouse of what had already been written. Whatever they become … libraries will retain that original implication, always ‘spaces for creation or curiosity,’ even if they leave the books behind.”
- Meanwhile, in a concrete bunker seventeen feet underground, the New York Public Library is preparing to store vast, high-density reserves of print: “a new retrieval system [will] ferry the volumes and other materials from their eighty-four miles of subterranean shelving, loaded into little motorized carts … Books will be stacked by height and tracked by bar code rather than by a subject-based system, making for some odd bookfellows … The climate-controlled repository encompasses more than 110,000 square feet … It stretches from beneath the back wall of the main building, which fronts Fifth Avenue, a full block west to Sixth Avenue, and from 42nd Street to 40th Street.”
Andrés Barba’s August, October, now translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman, should bring him the wide Anglophone readership he’s long deserved. The novel follows the fourteen-year-old Tomás as he travels to the coast with his affluent family on their summer vacation. He’s at a point in his life when everything feels distant and strange: friendships, sex, the alluringly lawless behavior of the lower-class kids he meets. Tomás ends up becoming complicit in the sexual assault of a local girl, the central event from which the narrative unspools, and back in Madrid, assailed by guilt, he tries to plot a path toward atonement—one that shines at times with an uneasy air of self-interest. The reader becomes trapped in a story of immaturity and transgression that leaves no room for the usual reassuring tropes of coming-of-age novels. The prose moves on constant commas, swaying between arousal and revulsion, and in its subject matter August, October brings to mind the early work that earned Ian McEwan the nickname “Ian Macabre”: First Love, Last Rites; The Cement Garden.
Barba is the author of twelve books in Spanish. Besides literary fiction he has written essays, poems, books of photography, books for children, and translations of De Quincey and Melville. We discussed his obsession with aloneness, the difficulties of capturing Moby-Dick in Spanish, and why certain “pompous utterances” in literature are “only useful insomuch as Justin Bieber can get them tattooed across his ass.” Barba is fluent in English, but felt more natural discussing his craft in Spanish. Cecilia Ross kindly translated his answers. Read More
- Fact: there are men still walking the earth who have shared a meal at Denny’s with Orson Welles. “One day in 1974, Orson Welles, John Huston, and the comedian Rich Little were sitting in a Denny’s near Carefree, Arizona, about to order a meal … A waitress approached the table where the three men sat. She recognized Little right away. After bantering with the impressionist for a bit, she nodded toward Welles and asked Little, ‘Who’s your fat friend?’ Huston, saving the day, answered for Little with a straight face. ‘You know, we don’t actually know this man,’ he said, indicating Welles. ‘We picked him up on the highway and he seemed undernourished. We’re going to feed him and then send him on his way.’”
- Today in the sex lives of whalers: few things speak to the hardships of a whaler’s life than dildos, which were ubiquitous (or, okay, maybe just not uncommon) in the New England homes such men abandoned for the seas. At least one such dildo survives to this day, all plaster and memories. “By 1830, the average length of a whaling voyage was thirty months, but they were often longer—Nantucket wives were dubbed ‘Cape Horn widows,’ because their husbands might be gone for eight years. In Moby-Dick, Captain Ahab tells his first mate, Starbuck, that of the past forty years of ‘making war on the horrors of the deep’ he’d only been ashore three, leaving only ‘one dent in [his] marriage pillow.’ ‘[W]ife?’ Ahab rages, ‘wife?—rather a widow with her husband alive!’ The dildos, called ‘he’s-at-homes’ in some books on the history of the Yankee whale fishery, were meant to be some insurance of fidelity for a husband who was rarely present.”
- Halloween is coming, which means it’s time to practice an age-old ritual: reading online essays about books bound in human skin. Bonus points if you go on to give them to trick-or-treaters. “The earliest examples of books bound in human skin date from the seventeenth century and were produced in Europe and the United States … Many of the earliest examples relate to punishment. England’s Murder Act of 1751 stipulated that those convicted of murder would not only be executed but, as an additional deterrent, could not be buried … making items out of criminals’ skins provided yet another way to ensure the body stayed aboveground. A famous example of such punishment was the body of William Burke, who, with his accomplice William Hare, killed sixteen people in a ten-month period in 1828 in Edinburgh, Scotland, and then sold the bodies to medical schools. After being caught, executed, and dissected, some of Burke’s skin was used to make a pocketbook as a final—and lasting—humiliation.”
- Back in the sixties, Kaiser Steel, IBM, Hewlett-Packard, RAND, and Lockheed Aircraft started a program to match artists with corporations—a kind of late-model patronage system. “Some of the collaborations resulted in successful projects. Working with the magazine publisher Cowles Communication Inc., Andy Warhol created holographic photographs of daisies … Claes Oldenburg’s Giant Ice Bag (1969) was produced in collaboration with WED Enterprises, the design and development branch of Disney. The pink sculpture was designed to undulate and twist as it deflated and inflated, in accordance with Oldenburg’s interest in objects that broke and then reconstituted themselves … Richard Serra, who was matched with the Kaiser Steel Corporation, created stacked sculptures that did not differ radically from his usual output. In contrast, Robert Rauschenberg, who collaborated with the industrial company Teledyne, created an installation that split from his best-known assemblage work but was consistent with his later interest in viewer-activated spaces.”
- Andrew DeGraff’s Plotted: A Literary Atlas makes maps from great literature, allowing you at last to visualize, say, every nook and cranny of the bleak terrain in Waiting for Godot. Hours of fun await. “DeGraff’s book … raises the question of the way we tenuously hold fictional universes in our minds. Absent anything concretely visual to latch onto, we create messy, complex maps to maintain a grip on the disorienting profusion of information coming at us. If we could transcribe these mental representations, they would probably look less like DeGraff’s thorough, well-executed images and more like those medieval maps, with small pockets of knowledge surrounded by huge swaths of emptiness. In literature, as in life, we can’t see everything. We can’t keep track of all the details, nor can we truly envision specific geographies, even ones we’ve visited before.”
On the relatively short list of authors and artists who have collaborated on multiple books, there are few who so perfectly mirror one another’s sensibilities that it becomes difficult to imagine art and word as separate entities. I’d place Aleksei Kruchenykh and Olga Rozanova, A. A. Milne and E. H. Shepard, Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake in that select group. And now I’d add author Robert Kloss and artist Matt Kish. The pair have, to date, worked together on two novels (Alligators of Abraham and The Revelator), a hybrid novel written with Amber Sparks (The Desert Places), and an ongoing project they call the “Bestiary.”
The two have published work independently—Kish, notably, has illustrated every page of Moby-Dick and Heart of Darkness—but their joint efforts are of a different order, primarily because, being of like minds, one’s work influences the other’s in the course of making. The Revelator, which was just published this month, is a psychologically brutal tale about an itinerant zealot in nineteenth-century America. In the opening paragraphs, a group of forlorn sailors, “their faces blistered and their minds bleached and weary,” espies a mountain: “some named it the ‘Finger of the Evil One,’ and some called it a tower of soot, dreamed it an ancient citadel misshapen by flame, the horror of all trapped within.” Kish’s illustrations, sprinkled throughout, are correspondingly prophetic, alien, and apocalyptic.
Kloss recently moved from Boston to Boulder, Colorado; Kish lives in Ohio. The two have never met. Earlier this month, they conducted a conversation via online chat about the nature of collaboration and working in the shadow of Melville.
Kish: I’ve been thinking about this conversation for some time, alternately veering between excitement and intimidation. Aside from our numerous e-mails, this will probably be the most in-depth communication we’ve shared, at least on a sustained level.
Kloss: Let’s start with Melville then, since I don’t think we would be having this conversation without his work. Read More