Growing up in the context of no context.
A few years ago, my late friend D. G. Myers and I had a disagreement about the relationship between advertising and literary culture. Myers argued that the ads and articles in the Saturday Evening Post had a bearing on the stories F. Scott Fitzgerald initially published in the magazine, on the grounds that all three came out of the same cultural context. At the time, I was unpersuaded—the ads, I said, were just there to pay the bills—but I have come to see his point.
Last week, I rewatched an episode of Reading Rainbow that I have long cherished. As the episode begins, LeVar Burton, the show’s host, appears alone on a smog-filled dock on Charleston Harbor. Wearing a trench coat and fedora in the style of a hard-boiled detective, Burton is on the trail of Big Mama Blue. Suddenly we hear someone singing opera, and Burton introduces Mystery on The Docks, by Thacher Hurd. The story, narrated by Raúl Juliá, is about an opera-loving short-order cook who saves a famous singer from gangsters. All the characters are rats. Read More
Revisited is a series in which writers look back on a work of art they first encountered long ago. Here, Emma Straub revisits Elliott Smith’s album Either/Or.
For a little while, starting around 1998, Elliott Smith and I were the best of friends. I was a freshman at Oberlin, making myself depressing mixtapes to match my mood, and there was nothing that matched my mood better than Either/Or. I didn’t know anything about lo-fi music—everything else I’d ever truly loved was glossy and studio perfect: Madonna’s Immaculate Collection and Mary J. Blige’s What’s the 411—but all of a sudden, my sadness was so great that I only could have loved Either/Or more if it had literally been covered with dirt. It was street-level misery, whispered and simple. Read More
Greg Drasler’s exhibition “Road Trip” opens tonight at Betty Cuningham Gallery.
I read that a Burger King franchise in Helsinki has opened an in-store sauna, serving Cokes and fries to visitors as they sweat it out, and my first thought was: I want to go there. I don’t mean “go” in the sense of an ironic pilgrimage, the way some people go to Dollywood or the Momofuku Ando Instant Ramen Museum. This is a more disturbing impulse. Even if I recognize the sauna for what it is—a cynical ploy by a multinational corporation to hijack a local tradition, down to the inclusion of BK-branded robes and towels—I have an ingrained affinity for Burger King that resists rational argument. I could hurl a brick through the window of their corporate headquarters, but I know I’d only end up wanting a Whopper as the cops handcuffed me.
I haven’t eaten at a Burger King in years, but I’ve accepted that the Whopper is my madeleine. I guess this makes BK—the world’s second largest fast-food hamburger chain, an amoral monolith helping to drive up the obesity rate by plying a misinformed, increasingly impoverished public with processed foodstuffs—something like my Combray. As sad as it sounds, to sink my teeth through that sesame-seed bun is to activate long-dormant memories of … the sesame-seed buns of my childhood. Read More
- On the streets of English, adverbs are the knockoff Rolex salesmen lurking in the shadows, always ready to sell you something shiny and fake. Christian Lorentzen urges you to stay away: “The adverbs easiest to hate are the so-called sentence adverbs—also known as conjunctive adverbs. Writers who lean on the crutches of moreover, accordingly, consequently, and likewise are declaring a lack of confidence in the sequence of their own logic or a lack of faith in their readers’ ability to follow it. Deploying indeed is tantamount to saying, ‘I’ve just had a thought and, indeed, I’ve just had another.’ Next time you come across the word meanwhile, ask yourself when else all this could have been happening. What is the adverbial phrase of course but a smug duo dropped in to congratulate writer and reader for already agreeing with each other. Nevertheless, nonetheless, and the atrocious however are symptoms of an anxiety over a proliferation of the word but. But you can never have too many helpings of but, and sound thinking will make hay of contradictions.”
- Today in bowel movements: they’re never as good as they used to be. As Maggie Koerth-Baker writes, “Since at least the Renaissance, Western cultures have fretted about their own bowels while looking back to an imagined past where mankind pooped in peace and harmony. According to James Whorton, professor emeritus of medical history and ethics at the University of Washington School of Medicine, modern life has long been considered the ultimate cause of constipation. Take, for instance, a bit of doggerel poetry from mid-1600s England: ‘And for to make us emulate, / The good old Father doth relate / The vigour of our Ancestors, / Whose shiting far exceeded ours’ … More than just nostalgia, though, the belief that modern lifestyles caused constipation was viewed as a medical emergency, on the scale of what we think of the obesity epidemic today.”
- Most historical fiction aspires to verisimilitude—the author hopes to convince readers that she’s conjured an accurate version of the past. But “a handful of recent works of fiction,” Lucy Ives writes, “have taken up history on radically different terms. Rather than presenting a single, definitive story—an ostensibly objective chronicle of events—these books offer a past of competing perspectives, of multiple voices. They are not so much historical as archival: instead of giving us the imagined experience of an event, they offer the ambiguous traces that such events leave behind. These fictions do not focus on fact but on fact’s record, the media by which we have any historical knowledge at all. In so doing, such books call the reader’s attention to both the problems and the pleasures of history’s linguistic remains … restoring historical narratives to what they have perhaps always already been: provoking and serious fantasies, convincing reconstructions, true fictions.”
- When I pass by a beautiful woman, the first thing I think is, God, I hope she doesn’t get tuberculosis. Then I think, She probably already has tuberculosis. I’m especially inclined to believe this if the woman is dressed in a high Victorian style—in the nineteenth century, I have learned, “one of the ways people judged a woman’s predisposition to tuberculosis was by her attractiveness, [historian Carol] Day says. ‘That’s because tuberculosis enhances those things that are already established as beautiful in women,’ she explains, such as the thinness and pale skin that result from weight loss and the lack of appetite caused by the disease. [A 1909 book] confirms this notion, with the authors noting: ‘A considerable number of patients have, and have had for years previous to their sickness, a delicate, transparent skin, as well as fine, silky hair.’ Sparkling or dilated eyes, rosy cheeks and red lips were also common in tuberculosis patients—characteristics now known to be caused by frequent low-grade fever.”
- Pity the Emily Dickinson biographers, for theirs is a life of mystery and suffering: “In the twenty-first century, Emily Dickinson has become very much about our selves, an interpretation that has been allowed to flourish partly because of her anonymity: The bulk of her poems, of course, were published after she died, and she lived with her parents all her life, unmarried and leaving letters that only hint at possible lovers, hardly ever leaving her home. During the last thirty years, it has been many writers’ impulse to try her on, explore the ‘masks,’ as [Jerome] Charyn calls them, that she wore in her poems, and give motive to her writings through more expressive means.”