- Norman Rush on “the savage fictions” of Horacio Castellanos Moya and the archetype of the “superfluous man”: “The literary woods are of course as full of superfluous men as they are of unreliable narrators and, these days, really rebarbative antiheroes. Superfluous men make up an illustrious lineage: Goncharov’s Oblomov, Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, Melville’s Bartleby, Robert Musil’s Man Without Qualities, all the way down through Sartre’s Roquentin and the hero of Ben Lerner’s debut novel, Leaving the Atocha Station. Superfluous men respond with disaffection, dysfunction, or withdrawal when they are unhorsed or irritated by the changing fortunes that the social machine spits out. It can be anything—plunging status, national disgrace, political or religious disillusion, extreme boredom … It’s always interesting to pick at the question of why these guys are the way they are. Sometimes the answer is on the surface and sometimes it’s complex and not on the surface at all. First of all, it’s fun to read about superfluous men. I don’t know exactly why. Maybe they offer to overworked and overbooked readers a dream of letting go, enjoying regression. There is learning and pleasure to be got from reading about them.”
- Remember the whole debacle over A Million Little Pieces? That was ten years ago now. On one hand, not much has changed since then: readers still thirst for true stories, outrageous revelation, harrowing redemption. On the other hand, the memoir form has never had more to compete with, William Giraldi writes: “In the decade since the James Frey fiasco, social media has turned untold people into hourly memoirists in miniature. We live now in a culture of incessant confession … The absurdly named ‘confessional poets’ of the mid-twentieth century—Lowell and Berryman, Sexton and Roethke—look a touch constipated compared to your average Facebooker. How eagerly lives become doggerelized. What does it mean for the memoir as a form now that everyone, at any time, can instantaneously advertise his life to everyone else? Mailer never dreamed of such advertisements for the self … In this new ethos of endless self-advertisement, the memoir assumes a renewed responsibility, one that exceeds confessionalism.”
- As music-streaming services come to dictate our listening habits and, to an increasing degree, our taste, we risk losing sight of the enormous emotional variance across genres. What makes sad songs sad, for instance, and how do songwriters from very different molds—Adele, Slayer, Nick Drake, Mozart—inflect their songs with sadness? Ben Ratliff investigates: “What is sadness in sound per se? Nothing. It doesn’t exist. There is no note or kind of note that in and of itself is sad and only sad … The construct of sadness, and the attendant contract that it helps build between musician and listener, has to do with how we might recognize it person-to-person: through silence and dissonant long tones, or through agitation and mania; through closed systems of harmony or phrasing, or through unnervingly open and dark ones. We hear it through voices and through instruments. And as listeners agree to play by the official rules of sadness, so do most musicians, and so do most singers, imitating the sound of instruments … There is a culture around any music, and how you understand that culture influences how you hear. Listening is augmented hearing, hearing through certain layers.”
- “I love you madly … There is never a moment in which I do not adore you.” “I live and exist only to love you—adoring you is my only consolation.” Are these the words of friends or lovers? Hard to say when their authors are from the eighteenth century. These quotations are drawn from letters between Marie Antoinette and Axel von Fersen, the Swedish Count with whom she’s suspected to have had an affair. But with emphasis on that “suspected”—historians have yet to find conclusive evidence of their tryst.
- If you’re bored and looking for your next big project, maybe it’s time to rethink space. All of it, and your relation to it. As George Musser writes, “In the past twenty years, I’ve witnessed a remarkable evolution in attitudes among physicists toward locality … Over and over, I heard some variant of: ‘Well, it’s weird, and I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen if for myself, but it looks like the world has just got to be nonlocal’ … Instead of saying that space brings order to the world, you can say that the world is ordered and space is a convenient notion for describing that order. We perceive that things affect one another in a certain way and, from that, we assign them locations in space.”
I’m mistrustful of year-end lists, especially best-ofs. I didn’t get to all the books I wanted to read (or write about) this year, though a number of the ones I liked have appeared in this column over the past twelve months. For my last selection here in 2015, I’ve chosen a book that’s old (originally published in 1997) and new (reissued this year) and that I’ve only just finished: Gary Indiana’s Resentment. I read the novel with great pleasure and with a kind of deep attention that I can’t summon for all books, though I might want to. In that respect, it has come as a year-end gift, despite the fact that it trolls America’s darker instincts. The novel circles around a murder trial in Los Angeles that is based on that of the Menendez brothers’ parricide in 1994 and follows the peregrinations of Seth, a reporter who is both attending the trial and writing a celebrity puff piece. The swirl of Seth’s various encounters, the details of the trial, and the seediness of wealth congeal into an ugly mass that so aptly captures the tabloid heart of America. Perhaps because this time of year is acutely, sordidly commercial, I found the novel’s every line to be viscerally true. —Nicole Rudick
One book stuck with me all year—Mark Greif’s atmospheric history The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America 1933–73. Alternate subtitles might include “Books Your Parents Studied in College, and Why Nobody Studies Them Now,” “The Origins of the Culture Wars,” or “Are You Serious: The Rise and Fall of the Great American Novel.” None of these screams best seller, but if you grew up equally confused by Jean-Paul Sartre and Henderson the Rain King, this may be the book for you. —Lorin Stein Read More
- Our new Winter issue features an interview with Jane and Michael Stern, “the original culinary road warriors.” A new profile in Eater captures what Norman Rush would call their “idioverse,” i.e., a “private patois made up of shared references and sayings, occasional neologisms, and common words that have taken on new meanings”: “the dyad of Jane and Michael—some four decades in, now—almost surpasses idioverse, and forms a hovering mushroom cloud of collective memory. Spending time with them, I realized that there’s a voyeuristic pleasure in finding yourself submerged in the intimacies of a couple with a complex history. Watching the deepest, strangest way two people communicate made me feel like an intellectual Peeping Tom—one who wanted to stay … They go at it tit for tat, with the rapid-fire speed of David Mamet dialogue, but they’ll linger to enjoy language more when discussing their Roadfood glory days. At times, listening to them talk, it seems that alone neither one can remember an entire story, and that together neither one can remember it the same way. There are tales about botched attempts to donate leftovers that ended in an undercover police sting, and casual references to a strange commune-like group of former Barnum & Bailey performers who live in Bethel and call themselves the ‘frog people.’ ”
- This is a public service announcement. If you, like me, were taught growing up to deploy synonyms for said whenever you wrote dialogue, please stop immediately. To stick to said is to improve the world of prose for all of us. Gabriel Roth agrees: “Replacing the word said with ‘colorful’ or ‘lively’ synonyms is a ubiquitous symptom of bad writing. Individual instances are usually redundancies: ‘I’ll never cheat again!’ is recognizable as a promise without ‘he vowed’ after it. But a procession of she explained and he chuckled and I expostulated—the reporting verbs that clog your dialogue when you follow the ‘never say said’ rule—is worse, because they force the reader’s attention away from the content of the writing and onto the writer’s hunt for synonyms.”
- “Nabisco. Nabisco! / Oreos! Right? / Oreos! I love Oreos! // I’ll never eat them again. OK? / I’ll never eat them again. // No … Nabisco.” This poem, a masterwork of compression and a ludic comment on commodity fetishism, comes courtesy of Donald Trump, whose speeches have been anthologized in a “treasury of oral poetry” called Bard of the Deal. Some are calling “Freedom Tower,” in particular, the most vital and intriguingly cross-disciplinary work of our young century: “Worst pile of crap / Architecture / I’ve ever seen.”
- Hey there, young person: Do you wish to be as successful and as verbally acrobatic as bona-fide geniuses like Trump? Gay Talese has some advice for you: “I don’t think this new generation has the patience or even knowledge of how to get things … You have to get off your ass. Make something happen with your personality, with your goddamn style, your charm, your beautiful clothes, your reassurance, your salesman huckster-ist licorice. Know how to get something and not break hearts or be offensive.”
- Before he embarked on Moby-Dick, Herman Melville paid an inspiring visit to London: “Late at night, he ‘turned flukes’ down Oxford Street as if he were being followed by a great whale, and thought he saw ‘blubber rooms’ in the butcheries of the Fleet Market … Perhaps most importantly, it was here that Melville saw the work of J M W Turner, a clear visual influence on his book-to-be. Turner had painted a series of whaling scenes for Elhanan Bicknell, whose British whaling company was based in the Elephant and Castle; parts of Moby-Dick would read like commentaries to those tempestuous, brutally poetic canvases, not least the painting that greets Ishmael at the Spouter-Inn, ‘a boggy, soggy, squitchy picture’ of ‘a black mass … floating in a nameless yeast … an exasperated whale.’ It is all the more intriguing to note how Melville’s Anglophilia was the yeast out of which this great American novel emerged.”
“75 at 75,” a special project from the 92nd Street Y in celebration of the Unterberg Poetry Center’s seventy-fifth anniversary, invites contemporary authors to listen to a recording from the Poetry Center’s archive and write a personal response. Here, Norman Rush reflects on Saul Bellow, who read from Humboldt’s Gift and Henderson the Rain King on October 10, 1988.
92Y will celebrate Bellow’s centenary tomorrow evening. Martin Amis, Janis Bellow, Jeffrey Eugenides, Nicole Krauss, Zachary Leader, and Ian McEwan will read from The Adventures of Augie March, Henderson the Rain King, Herzog, “Something to Remember Me By,” Humboldt’s Gift, and The Dean’s December.
From “Serious Trouble” to “Wayposts, No Garlic,” pp. 141–165
And so our narrator has entered the desert in search of Denoon’s Xanadu, the village of Tsau. Last time Tim Horvath left us, after an excellent discussion of boredom, at “Serious Trouble.” Our narrator explains the nature of that trouble: it “began on the fourth or fifth day out. It happened because I was doing a thing I had been warned not to do in the desert: I was reviewing my life.”
Isn’t it always this way? The real difficulty begins when we peer into the labyrinth of ourselves. “The trees were clotted with mud nests, weaverbird nests, sometimes six in a tree,” she explains of the desolate scene: Read More
From “Kang” through “Music,” pp. 116–140
This is the sixth entry in our Mating Book Club. (Sorry for the wait!) Read along.
This latest portion might be dubbed “The Critique of Pure Boredom,” especially given that our narrator name-drops Kant in the midst of it. Early on, she declares, “One attractive thing about me is that I’m never bored, because during any caesura my personal automatic pastime of questioning my own motives is there for me.”
Lest we doubt her, she goes on to wonder whether the journey she intends to undertake to Tsau is the byproduct of certain deep unconscious maternal longings, or something else. She dismisses any neo-Darwinian and Freudian interpretation of her behavior, wrangles with the question of that behavior in relation to Denoon’s childlessness (interesting, she notes), and the overpopulation problem, plus her sympathy for abandoned children globally. And she winds up wanting her decisions in the realm of relationships to be not only deliberate, but “deliberative,” which is where Kant enters into it. Slow and steady.
Yet in the world outside her head, she’s on a flatbed truck that’s flying at hair-raising speeds for 250 miles, with cornmeal, mail, and a “fiendish shavenheaded adolescent at the wheel.” Read More