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Posts Tagged ‘Tom McCarthy’

Staff Picks: H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, Apocalyptic Dry-humping

April 3, 2015 | by

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A still from Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y.

The hysteria and mystery surrounding the Germanwings crash have led me back to Johan Grimonprez’s Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, a 1997 film collage that traces the history of plane hijackings—and, just as important, the media fixation on those hijackings. When Tom McCarthy presented Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y at Film Society of Lincoln Center last month, he praised its presentation of “media as a crypt from which history is leaking out” and “terrorism as a theological condition.” The film’s macabre footage captivates, in no small part because of Grimonprez’s shrewd, ironical editing. In one sequence, a grinning boy just rescued from a hijacked plane tells reporters, “I had a good time, I guess”; in another, a girl, still violently crying, is hustled off a recuperated aircraft only to be led into the klieg lights of a press junket. As McCarthy pointed out, the project hasn’t aged well—it came before 9/11, after all, and its focus on television can feel quaint in the age of the smartphone—but as a meditation on the codependency of media and terrorism, it remains invaluable. Sprinkled throughout the film are spoken excerpts from DeLillo’s Mao II, which feel, whenever they’re incanted, truer than ever: “In societies reduced to blur and glut, terror is the only meaningful act.” —Dan Piepenbring

Someone who has “a lasting liking for the cryptic and the ambiguous and the incantatory and the disconnected and the extravagant and the oracular and the apocalyptic” might turn out to be pedantic and self-absorbed, but chances are, they’re the sort of person you want to know deeply but are never able to. The person in question here is Joseph Mitchell, the rather enigmatic subject of a new biography that is itself the subject of a review by Janet Malcolm in the latest New York Review of Books. (See also our series “Big, Bent Ears,” which takes Mitchell as a subject.) Malcolm is an obvious choice for the assignment, but that doesn’t detract from how fun it is to read her on Mitchell. “Where the hell is this going?” she asks about a rambling conversation between Mitchell and one of his subjects. “As in all of Mitchell’s pieces everything is always going somewhere, though not necessarily so you’d notice.” Malcolm is admiring of Mitchell’s work, reverential even, but astute. When Thomas Kunkel, Mitchell’s biographer, discovers that his subject invented portions of his nonfiction stories and makes excuses for these fabrications, Malcolm puts him in his place: “Few of us have gone as far as Mitchell in bending actuality to our artistic will. This is not because we are more virtuous than Mitchell. It is because we are less gifted than Mitchell.” —Nicole Rudick
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Poor Judas, and Other News

April 3, 2015 | by

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Giovanni Canavesio, The Remorse of Judas (detail), 1491.

  • Poor Judas. He just can’t seem to catch a break—his is perhaps the most reviled name in history, even though he’s the only one of the apostles who has any identifiable human qualities. “At the ancient French Catholic shrine of Notre-Dame des Fontaines, Giovanni Canavesio’s 1490s fresco was undoubtedly the most horrifying depiction of the traitor I came across … Judas hangs from a rope, looking deranged, eyes flashing madly, half in fear, half in threat, his hair a spiky mop … As he breathes his last, a stream of sweet-potato-like entrails spills out of his open stomach, as well as (with Christianity’s usual scant regard for science) a miniature adult. A golden-winged demon is on hand to catch the newborn, with the implication that it will continue to sow the seeds of Judas’s treacherous legacy into future generations.”
  • A refutation of yesterday’s claim that thrillers are conservative and crime novels leftist: “Consider the supreme master of the spy thriller, John le Carré. His cold war novels stood against the mindless jingoism of the period, resisting the Manichean equation of east-west with evil-good … that kind of fury is typical of the fuel that burns through many thrillers. This is a genre whose most frequent theme is injustice: the urge to right a wrong.”
  • “Lewis Carroll, like many other Victorian ‘innocents’, was obsessed by the beauty and incorruptibility of young girls. The camera was a fairly recent invention. He used it to make images of girls dressed as princesses or beggars or—the clearest image of innocence—naked … Carroll’s maneuvers were awkward on the edge of innocence. In 1880 he mistakenly kissed the daughter of one of his Christ Church colleagues who turned out to be seventeen years old. His amusing ‘apology’ to her mother was ill-received, and not long after that he gave up taking photographs.”
  • Mark McGurl on Tom McCarthy and the convergence of avant-garde fiction and lyrical realism: “To produce genre effects is to send up a flare to distracted readers, reminding them of fiction’s capacity to produce its version of the richly artificial pleasures on offer everywhere else in contemporary mass culture. It is to show off the sheer power of fiction to alter the real, to brighten, re-order and re-color it, as in a children’s book. Ironically, this is especially true of the ubiquitous postapocalyptic variant, which imagines profoundly awful, even starkly depopulated worlds … It turns out to be easy for a novelist to kill off almost everyone. This clears the way for the apparently much harder task of rebuilding the social world in terms other than straggling, incipiently fascist authoritarianism. In this mode, every novel is epic again.”
  • Adventures in surreal estate: talking to the developer of a new luxury condo building in Canarsie, at the far end of Brooklyn. “We call it Loft 87 because it’s a little bit more contemporary-sounding … It’s obviously a regular apartment … I’m bringing everything you would see in Bushwick for half the price.”

“Grammatico-political Monstrosities,” and Other News

March 31, 2015 | by

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From Puck Magazine, 1900.

  • In which Tom McCarthy, Rachel Kushner, Paul Muldoon, and other writers are photographed in their offices: “Helicopters, the L.A.P.D.’s crazy hobby, thunder overhead, chasing some guy who stole a Honda Element,” Kushner writes of her home office in LA. “The whoop-whoop of sirens comes next. I sit at my desk, less than a mile from the criminal courts and the jail, structures of human sacrifice, where people’s lives get wrecked.”
  • “I talked about the times he had slapped me and the times he had locked me in the cellar, and the point of these stories was always the same: his fury was always triggered by some petty detail, some utter triviality, and as such was actually comical. At any rate we laughed when we told the stories. Once I had left a pair of gloves on the bus and he slapped me in the face when he found out. I had leaned against the wobbly table in the hall and sent it flying and he came over and hit me. It was absolutely absurd!” A new excerpt from the long-awaited fourth volume of Knausgaard’s My Struggle.
  • A strain of occultism runs through Yeats’s poetry—“do-it-yourself religion,” as Seamus Heaney called it—and sure enough, “as a young man, according to the scholar Kathleen Raine, Yeats had a pack of Tarot cards among his ‘few and treasured possessions.’ In London, in 1887, he was initiated into the Hermetic Society of the Golden Dawn, one of those secret societies that tend, as Raine remarks, ‘to relate everything with everything—letters with numbers, with cycles of months, years, and the signs of the zodiac, with parts of the body, celestial and infernal hierarchies of angels, with minerals, metals, plants, and animals.’ ”
  • On Obadiah Slope, the “calculating curate” at the center of Trollope’s Barchester Towers: “Isn’t Slope just a man seeking a better job and, into the bargain, a wife with a comfortable income? What exactly does he do, and why is he so disturbing? Ruthlessly fawning, constantly trying to wriggle his way into favor with the rich and powerful, and in the process tread on the heads of others, Slope is a particularly poisonous example of the kind of creep that haunts almost any organization or social group.”
  • Reports by the World Bank are torturing the English language like never before—these “grammatico-political monstrosities” amount to a new form of expression, “Bankspeak.” “In the world of ‘management’, people have goals and agendas; faced with opportunities, challenges and critical situations, they elaborate strategies. To appreciate the novelty, let’s recall that, in the 1950s–60s, issues were studied by experts who surveyed and conducted missions, published reports, assisted, advised and suggested programs.”

Sublime, Subversive Sappho, and Other News

March 9, 2015 | by

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Simeon Solomon, Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene, 1864.

  • How does contemporary literature derive meaning in the age of big data? “The rise of corporate capitalism, and the astonishing, almost exponential rate of its recent acceleration, I would argue, present a huge challenge to the writer, forcing him or her to rethink their whole role and function, to remap their entire universe. There is no space outside this matrix … Western literature may have more or less begun, in Aeschylus’s Oresteia, with a lengthy account of a signal crossing space, and of the beacon network through whose nodes the signal’s message (that of Troy’s downfall) is relayed—but now, two and a half millennia later, that network, that regime of signals, is so omnipresent and insistent, so undeniably inserted or installed at every stratum of existence, that the notion that we might need some person, some skilled craftsman, to compose any messages, let alone incisive or ‘epiphanic’ ones, seems hopelessly quaint.”
  • “KAYO IN THE LUNA PARK / FREEZE FRAME ON A DRUNK IN THE PIAZZA / THAT’S WHAT WE HAVE FOR PIGEONS / LUMBERING ON ASPHALT FACEDOWN / LEAPSICKNESS THE LAW OF LIQUIDS.” Basquiat’s notebooks “variously sound like song lyrics, slogans, mantras, fragments of scenarios, of ‘routines’ like those of William S. Burroughs.”
  • Mark Rylance, the former artistic director of the Globe Theatre, said that he’s sometimes cut “unfortunate anti-Semitic things” from Shakespeare—should we censor plays like The Merchant of Venice?
  • Who was Sappho? Scholars and readers have been bickering about her for the better part of three thousand years: “about her work, her family life, and, above all, her sexuality. In antiquity, literary critics praised her ‘sublime’ style, even as comic playwrights ridiculed her allegedly loose morals. Legend has it that the early Church burned her works … Even today, experts can’t agree on whether the poems were performed in private or in public, by soloists or by choruses, or, indeed, whether they were meant to celebrate or to subvert the conventions of love and marriage.”
  • Part two of John Jeremiah Sullivan and Joel Finsel’s essay “on Texas, old newspapers, race music, and two black lives that shaped the history of civil rights.”

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Readers Demand More Grandparents, and Other News

February 11, 2015 | by

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Fiction: A grandparent-free zone?

  • Museums around the world are motioning to ban selfie sticks, those, sleek, obtrusive icons of narcissism. “While its elongated form might have some structural merits and it inspires a devoted gaze just from standing below it, it simply detracts from other pieces in the collection in a rather pedestrian fashion. So, like groundbreaking art forms before it, the selfie stick will just have to patiently wait for times to change before it receives its artistic due.”
  • On Tom McCarthy’s new novel, Satin Island, as a rewiring of avant-garde fiction: “Convergences, nodes and relays, interstices: This is precisely the lexicon of the midcentury avant-garde McCarthy once found so useful and influential. But where this abstract-concrete thinking … once seemed urgent and perhaps even politically salient, now it just seems like cliché. Actually, worse than cliché: commercial and pernicious. The avant-garde’s work has been inherited by the corporation.”
  • This is not your beautiful house. This is not your beautiful wife. This is not your beautiful art: “A retired odd job man and electrician and his wife stand trial on Tuesday, accused of illegally possessing 271 works by Pablo Picasso … Mr. Le Guennec claims that he was given the collection by the artist and his second wife Jacqueline when he carried out odd jobs for them more than forty years ago.”
  • Contemporary fiction is cool and all, but why aren’t there more grandparents in it? Grandparents are cool, too, you know. “Look around current adult fiction and there’s little writing about grandparents as grandparents. You can find forever-young baby boomer grandmas falling in love at sixty and novels about spirited older women finding self-fulfillment, but novels about grandparents’ relationships with their grandchildren seem in short supply.”
  • Philip K. Dick’s work reveals its prescience yet again: in his 1969 novel Ubik, “characters have to negotiate the way they move and how they communicate with inanimate objects that monitor them, lock them out, and force payments.” Meanwhile, in the reality of 2015, Samsung invents a television that captures “personal or other sensitive” information for transmission to a third party …

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Hatchet Job: When Bad Reviewers Go Good

November 19, 2012 | by

In February of this year, Adam Mars-Jones, an English writer not much known in this country, won the inaugural Hatchet Job of the Year award for his review of Michael Cunningham’s Nightfall: “And a two-person epiphany has to outrank the single kind. Two comely young people standing in the lake shallows, ‘looking out at the milky haze of the horizon’—that’s not an epiphany, that’s a postcard.”

Geoff Dyer, another English writer, much better known since 2008’s Death in Venice, Jeff in Varanisi brought most of his strange work back into print, was nominated for his attack on Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending:

Later, after Tony has broken up with his girlfriend, Adrian commits suicide. This would be my first objection. Obviously people commit suicide, for a variety of reasons, but in fiction they tend to do so primarily in the service of authorial convenience. And convenience invariably becomes a near-anagram of contrivance.

The impulse behind good bad reviews is not much understood, and whether understood or not, is usually disliked or dismissed. It’s considered ungenerous, as though generosity could never be misplaced. Read More »

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