- It is possible that Radiohead was inspired by William Blake in the writing of OK Computer. It is probable that Thom Yorke donated a copy of Songs of Innocence to a local Oxfam thrift store and it had “Airbag” lyrics in it. Either way: good score.
- Ruth Goodman, who lately taught us how to be Victorian, has undertaken Tudor living for her new book—including hygiene. In the interests of verisimilitude, she duly avoided unwholesome baths and donned linen underthings. The results? “No one noticed! It helps, of course, if you wear natural-fibre clothes over the top of your linen underwear. I used a fine linen smock, over which I could wear a modern skirt and top without looking odd, and I wore a pair of fine linen hose beneath a nice thick pair of woollen opaque tights (these, of course, did contain a little elastane). I changed the smock and hose daily and rubbed myself down with a linen cloth in the evening before bed, and I took neither shower nor bath for the entire period. I remained remarkably smell-free—even my feet. My skin also stayed in good condition—better than usual, in fact. This, then, was the level of hygiene that a wealthy person could achieve if they wished: one that could pass unnoticed in modern society.”
- Georges Simenon: enigmatic, prolific, and seemingly nihilistic. But was the creator of Maigret as grim as all that? Writes John Gray, “It is true that he holds out no prospect of redemption, whether for his characters or for humankind. Yet there is nothing in Simenon’s work of the horror at the human condition that is expressed in some of the stories of Guy de Maupassant—in other respects a comparable writer. Those of Simenon’s protagonists who are not destroyed in the course of attempting to escape their lives return rid of their illusions and readier to enjoy what the world has to offer.”
- On the other hand, László Krasznahorkai isn’t called apocalyptic for “letters; then from letters, words; then from these words, some short sentences; then more sentences that are longer, and in the main very long sentences, for the duration of 35 years. Beauty in language. Fun in hell.”
- 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.”
- In which Justin Taylor dissects a paragraph of Sam Lipsyte’s story “This Appointment Occurs in the Past,” in the name of pedagogy: “The only higher-order claims I wish to make today are, attention to language at the molecular level is valuable in itself; second, that anyone can learn it, in or out of the classroom; and third, that once it becomes assimilated as instinct it will enhance your writing as much as your reading, irrespective of whether you ever choose to write or read this way again.”
- Witness the rise of the smarmonym, a living reflection of our passive-aggressive use of language. What is it? Any word that we’ve “ironized and de-meaninged and re-meaninged”: “Pal, which often connotes enemy … And tolerance—which, when selected as a noun, often suggests its own absence. And classy. And sincerely, whose presence in a sentence is often evidence of, you know, total insincerity. Honestly, for the same reason. Respectfully, too. And, of course, literally …
- Today in interdisciplinary skirmishes: Simon Critchley remembers his teacher Frank Cioffi, whose philosophy had scientism in its crosshairs. “His concern was with the relation between the causal explanations offered by science and the kinds of humanistic description we find, say, in the novels of Dickens or Dostoevsky, or in the sociological writings of Erving Goffman and David Riesman. His quest was to try and clarify the occasions when a scientific explanation was appropriate and when it was not, and we need instead a humanistic remark. His conviction was that our confusions about science and the humanities had wide-ranging and malign societal consequences.”
- Paper is obsolete. Paper is wasteful and silly. And pages! Pages are ridiculous. The future of books is glass. Say it with me: the future belongs to glass.
- Garth Greenwell read Michael Nava’s The Little Death, a mystery novel with a gay Latino hero from an immigrant family in California’s Central Valley: “Henry Rios is a defense attorney whose hardboiled bona fides—world-weariness, wit, a penchant for erotic entanglement—are accompanied by a hyper-attentiveness to class and a commitment to the poor. In a genre that had used queer people primarily as figures of ridicule and contempt, the Rios books offer a vista on gay lives extending from the closet-lined corridors of power to cruising parks and leather bars.”
- The Paris Review Parisians didn’t fare too well this summer in New York Media Softball League. But you know who did? The High Times. They beat us. They beat pretty much everyone. “The Bonghitters remain an industry powerhouse. They’re the defending league champions … and they’ve been blazing through opponents since forming in 1991 … For the Bonghitters, the first key to winning is showing up.” The second key is getting stoned.
- Two centuries ago, book critics were a reliably truculent bunch, their knives always sharpened, their authority indisputable—what happened to journals like Blackwood’s, which had what Karl Miller later called “squabash, bam, and balaam”? “Parody, personality, and headlong jollity summed up the Blackwood’s manifesto, while imitation, masquerade, and double bluff lay at the heart of its personality. The contributors, who hid behind noms de plume, imitated both one another and themselves, and passed themselves off as sometimes real and sometimes fictitious characters.”
- When you’re next inclined to wring your hands over the state of mass media, don’t—it’s always been full of down-market sensationalism, and it’s always appealed to our inner morons. Yes, even the New York Times: “Here’s a story from July 7, 1884 that has all the Facebook-ready hyperbole and anthropomorphism of ‘15 Llamas Who Just Do Not Give A Damn’: ‘THE PARROT’S LITTLE JOKE.; HE HIDES HIMSELF FROM HIS MISTRESS AND THROWS HER INTO A FIT OF ANGUISH.’ ”
- The Bloomsbury Group has inspired new novels, a ballet, a TV series, exhibitions, and—lest we forget—an economics prize; it sometimes seems the group’s reputation has never been higher. “But it is not long since the most recent round of Bloomsbury-bashing, a century-old sport often said to have started when the painter Wyndham Lewis fell out spectacularly with Roger Fry, over (of all things) a commission to create a display for the Daily Mail’s Ideal Home show … By the 1950s, Bloomsbury’s unfashionableness was a fact. Writings by the survivors took on an aggrieved and defensive tone: literary critic and broadcaster Desmond MacCarthy dismissed the term Bloomsbury as a ‘regional adjective’; Clive Bell claimed they had never been more than a group of friends; Vanessa suggested Bloomsbury was finished before the first world war.”
- Ah, sweet 1.618, the golden ratio, that ancient proportion of aesthetic bliss, that geometric path to pulchritude—there are those among us who hold it up as the sine qua non of artistic appeal. And yet if you rearrange celebrities’ faces according the ratio, you wind up in the realm of sheer disfigured horror.
- Sam Lipsyte on time travel as a chance to right the world’s wrongs: “the do-gooder package tour, the warn-Pompeii-kill-Hitler itinerary. It’s a dicey proposition, messing with the past. But wouldn’t my intrusions cancel each other out if I brought a teen Hitler to Pompeii just before Vesuvius blew? ‘I’ll leave you here,’ I’d say. ‘The new arts academy is just over that ridge!’ ”
New Yorkers: join us tomorrow at McNally Jackson, where our editor Lorin Stein will appear in conversation with Paul Beatty. Paul’s new novel, The Sellout, is out now; the Guardian calls it “a galvanizing satire of post-racial America,” and Sam Lipsyte noted its “spectacular explosion of comic daring, cultural provocation, brilliant, hilarious prose, and genuine heart.”
The event begins at seven P.M. See you there!
In The Program Era, Mark McGurl illuminated postwar American fiction’s inextricable ties to universities and creative-writing programs; his new paper, “The Institution of Nothing,” undertakes a reading of David Foster Wallace in the framework of “the program,” and it’s one of the most thoughtful exegeses I’ve found of Wallace, whose work has enjoyed no shortage of critical insight. (Remember Wyatt Mason on Oblivion?) McGurl finds that the bulk of Wallace’s writing is fixated on institutions—it invokes them as a kind of safe harbor, a respite from the nihilism of the world at large. (This is borne out not just in his books but in his life, which he spent almost entirely in the thrall of institutions of higher learning.) In this light, a certain unnerving conservatism emerges in his work: what should be questions of sweeping political import are recast as matters of individual ethics. McGurl writes, “Clinging to the institutional order, clinging for dear life, Wallace’s commitment is … to a conception of therapeutic community in which what might have become political questions—and, by implication, motives for political contestation—are obediently dissolved.” —Dan Piepenbring
Natalie Lyalin’s poetry collection Blood Makes Me Faint But I Go For It has an intriguing title, but I’ve felt mildly daunted by the illustration on the cover—of a woman who stares straight into my eyes whenever I look at her. It turns out, though, that such feelings of discomfort aren’t inappropriate. Lyalin’s poems are weird, wide-eyed, and bold, and I feel uneasy reading them—in a good way. Like this, from “On the Beaches of Majorca”: “Aboard ships they snapped goodbye to their cities / They sparked like knives / And the oceans took them in with oceanic slurps / In a parallel moment we were on the beaches / Mute pastel puffs / Smoking around a cult-like fire.” Her poems remind me of Karen Russell’s fiction: at once familiar and otherworldly, tame and frightening. Lyalin’s “A Lemon Sweat Over Everything” is almost a poetic version of the title story from Russell’s Vampire in the Lemon Grove:
You can find my bones in the sister mountains
Identify me by the gold fangs
The fangs I showed you in the lemon orchard
almost two hundred years ago
You said they were sexy
The sun blinding you from my mouth
We were both smirking
and then I snarled
It was very foreign
chasing you around the trees
I could write about the addictive nature of Serial, the true-crime podcast from the This American Life team, but millions of others beat me to the punch. Instead, thanks to a recommendation from my friend Josh Lieberman, I advise you to fill these next two weeks until the next Serial episode with Sundance Channel’s eight-part documentary series, The Staircase. The crime saga follows the case of the novelist Michael Peterson, whose wife, Kathleen, was found unconscious at the bottom of a staircase in the couple’s Durham mansion. Was the death an accident, the result of falling down the stairs after consuming alcohol and Valium—or was she murdered by Peterson? While the twists and turns are captivating and the series is filled with a cast of characters so interesting and bizarre it’s difficult to appraise anyone involved, it’s the fly-on-the wall–style of Jean-Xavier de Lestrande’s filmmaking that kept me going from one episode to the next. —Justin Alvarez
You might have heard that Sam Lipsyte used to be in a punk band called Dungbeetle. This Saturday night at Le Poisson Rouge, they’re reuniting—with LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy on drums, no less—as part of the launch party for Radio Silence, a lit-and-music mag that’s just released its third issue. I suspect magic will be in the air. Bring earplugs and a taste for the bizarre. —DP
I had never heard of Lorrie Moore when I tried to sit in on her M.F.A. workshop at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. It was 2009, and I was barely eighteen. She kicked me out pretty quickly. Now, having spent the better part of five years recovering from the embarrassment, I have finally read Self-Help, Moore’s first collection of stories. About two-thirds are written in the second person, and this is both refreshing and compelling. It serves an almost didactic purpose in “How,” as Moore guides us, step-by-step, through the motions of dumping a (maybe) dying boyfriend. In “How To Be an Other Woman,” the second person puts a delightful twist on a recycled story: her protagonist struggles to find herself in (and as a result of) a messy extramarital affair. Witty and deft, Moore demands that her readers believe the story could be about them … not that it is about them, but that it could be. She blends comedy and tragedy so seamlessly that I found myself merrily caught between sadness and mirth, cynicism and optimism. —Alex Celia