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Posts Tagged ‘neighbors’

Mending Wall

September 23, 2014 | by

Broken_Fence_on_White_Hill_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1218674

Photo: Nigel Mykura

Colette once wrote that it’s impossible to write about love while you’re in it. (I’m paraphrasing.) I think the same is true of depression, although for different reasons. Love is too euphoric; depression is too tedious. It is not dramatic, it is not romantic. It is boring—to experience, to be around, to recollect. The rest of the time, when one is well, it is interesting only to the extent that a structurally unsound house is interesting to live in—you don’t think about it most of the time, and then occasionally you’re reminded to be careful, or to shore it up. (I can’t continue that metaphor because I have no idea how one goes about strengthening buildings. Mortar? Supports, probably.)

In the house where we grew up, the garage had a series of long cracks running up the stucco of its back wall. No one ever fixed it, but we were told sternly not to play near that wall. Instead, I would climb about twenty feet up a nearby pine tree, crawl onto the roof of the garage, and read there, or sometimes just run up and down the shingled peak, although I wasn’t habitually a physical risk-taker.

The only times my state of mind worries me are those times when Elves fails. Elves is the one thing that can always make me laugh—well, smile, anyway. The elves I mean are the ones in “Mending Wall,” wherein Frost’s speaker, walking the length of a crumbling fence with his hidebound neighbor, speculates  about the forces that tear it down. “I could say ‘Elves’ to him.” I love the idea of someone saying “Elves” to someone else; having the thought of it.

When I would get sad and grim and joyless and my college boyfriend would see a cloud cross my face, he would sometimes lean over and whisper, “Elves.” He would say it in a very stentorian way, often at the strangest moments—on the Cyclone at Coney Island, or in the quiet car of a commuter train. It was always enough to jolly me out of myself for the moment. Often, just thinking it is enough. While that’s in the world, we’re okay, or we will be. Read More »

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Thomas Berger, 1924–2014

July 22, 2014 | by

The Times has reported that Thomas Berger died a little more than a week ago, on July 13, just shy of his ninetieth birthday. Berger wrote twenty-three novels, the best-known of which is 1964’s Little Big Man, a western picaresque that was later adapted into a movie starring Dustin Hoffman.

The Times obit finds a through-line in his work: “the anarchic paranoia that he found underlying American middle-class life.” “It was Kafka who taught me that at any moment banality might turn sinister, for existence was not meant to be unfailingly genial,” Berger said in a rare interview. He enjoyed a cult readership throughout his prolific career, and his books bear blurbs from the likes of John Hollander and Henry Miller; in 1980, The New York Times Book Review proclaimed, “Our failure to read and discuss him is a national disgrace.”

Today, his most outspoken advocate is probably Jonathan Lethem, who discusses an early (and démodé) fondness for Berger in his Art of Fiction interview: “When I got to Bennington, and I found that Richard Brautigan and Thomas Berger and Kurt Vonnegut and Donald Barthelme were not ‘the contemporary,’ but were in fact awkward and embarrassing and had been overthrown by something else, I was as disconcerted as a time traveler.” And Lethem effused in an essay for the Times a few years back,

Berger’s books are accessible and funny and immerse you in the permanent strangeness of his language and attitude, perhaps best encapsulated by Berger’s own self-definition as a “voyeur of copulating words.” He offers a book for every predilection: if you like westerns, there’s his classic, “Little Big Man”; so too has he written fables of suburban life (“Neighbors”), crime stories (“Meeting Evil”), fantasies, small-town “back-fence” stories of Middle American life, and philosophical allegories (“Killing Time”). All of them are fitted with the Berger slant, in which the familiar becomes menacingly absurd or perhaps the absurd becomes menacingly familiar.

Berger, who spent most of his life diligently removed from public life, seemed to submerge himself in a goulash of genre fiction, emerging every few years with something new and piquant. The variety of his books is borne out by their incredible first-edition jacket art, some of which I’ve gathered above—vibrant pastiches of everything from noir to Arthurian legend, many of them with a unabashed lowbrow strangeness that’s anathema to jacket designers today. As the author himself put it: “I am peddling no quackery, masking no intent to tyrannize, and asking nobody’s pity.”

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Proust Says “Pipe Down,” and Other News

June 3, 2014 | by

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Will you please be quiet, please?

  • In which Penguin Random House unveils its new logo and “brand identity.”
  • Proust’s letters to his noisy neighbors: “It seems almost too perfect that Proust, the bedridden invalid, would have sent notes upstairs, sometimes by messenger, sometimes through the post, to implore the Williamses to nail shut the crates containing their summer luggage in the evening, rather than in the morning, so that they could be better timed around his asthma attacks.”
  • Where are erotica writers having sex? In the doctor’s office. At the Louvre. On the Haunted Mansion ride at Disney World.
  • Making an unlikely appearance in the Times Op-Ed section this morning: our Art of Nonfiction interview with Adam Phillips.
  • “When I find myself having to defend the narrative force of video games, I like to give the example of a real experience I had in my childhood involving the game Metroid. In this science fiction adventure, we guide a bounty hunter called Samus Aran … he wears armor which covers his whole body, until, at the end, after finding and destroying the Mother Brain, Samus … removes his helmet to reveal that he is really a woman … I had controlled a woman the whole time without knowing … Narrative sublimity is possible in the medium of electronic games.”

 

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Self-Help

February 4, 2014 | by

dark street

Photo: Iain Cuthbertson, via Flickr

For several years, I lived in a neighborhood that worried my parents. But I liked my neighbors, I could afford the rent, and, in the grand tradition of fools, I lived a blissfully oblivious existence. I never once felt unsafe.

Well, that’s not strictly true. My boyfriend and I had been living in the apartment for about two years when I acquired a job that necessitated my commuting to an office, and oftentimes returning after dark.

“I don’t like it,” he said grimly of the fifteen-minute walk from the subway. There had been a recent spate of rapes in the area, he pointed out. “Call me when you get on, and I’ll meet you and walk you home.”

Naturally, I did no such thing. Instead, I walked home every day like a normal person and felt completely safe.

Until, one especially late night, I noticed footsteps behind me. I tried to shrug it off and picked up my pace. The person behind me started walking more quickly, too. I crossed the street; the steps followed me. I made a turn; he was right behind me. Now I felt real fear. I walked as quickly as I could without breaking into a panicked run, and fished my keys out of my pocket, holding the sharp point between my fingers for use as a weapon, as we had been taught in freshman orientation. The steps behind me never faltered. My heart was hammering by the time I made it into our building and threw the deadbolt. Read More »

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