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Posts Tagged ‘William Deresiewicz’

Staff Picks: Misspelled Marven, Messengered Mineral Water

June 12, 2015 | by

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A still from A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence.

Say what you will about Tom McCarthy’s novels: they bring out the best in their critics. Few other writers goad us into asking such broad, terrifying questions as, What should fiction do? Who is it for? And how can it undermine authority? In 2008, Remainder inspired Zadie Smith’s seminal essay “Two Paths for the Novel”; now McCarthy’s Satin Island has landed a series of reviews offering unusually acute observations on the state of the novel. Read Gideon-Lewis Kraus in Bookforum, James Lasdun in the Guardian, Christopher Tayler in the London Review of Books, and William Deresiewicz in The Nation: each unabashedly cerebral, and each proving that seemingly empty-isms—realism, postmodernism, postcolonialism, formalism, antihumanism—have life in them yet. —Dan Piepenbring

marvin-gardens-g-spotThe property names in Monopoly are taken from the boomtown ideal that was turn-of-the-century Atlantic City, with one glaring exception: Marvin Gardens, which does not, as such, exist. If you consider the game a metaphor for the dreams of the middle class, that absence bodes ill: it’s a coveted place you can never hope to get to. John McPhee’s 1972 essay “The Search for Marvin Gardens,” collected in his Pieces of the Frame, uses Monopoly to examine the significance of Atlantic City in the seventies, when it had fallen on hard times. As McPhee and a partner roll the dice, advancing their pieces and buying properties, a ghostly second narrator walks through the real St. Charles Place, Baltic Avenue, and New York Avenue, reporting that they’re all slums; the two players circle the board and the neighborhoods get worse. When McPhee realizes that his “only hope is Marvin Gardens,” his reportorial counterpart learns that it’s not even in the city at all; it’s one town over in Margate, New Jersey, and it’s spelled Marven. Rarely is McPhee’s writing as disjointed as it is in this piece; the essay’s aphoristic, time-traveling, jump-cut style asks so much of its readers that it’s astonishing The New Yorker published it. I haven’t seen anything as boldly form-defying in its pages for a while. —Jeffery Gleaves
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What We’re Loving: Real Struggle, Real Soul, Real Tennis

May 23, 2014 | by

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D’Angelo, right, with Nelson George at the Brooklyn Museum Wednesday night. Photo: Drew Gurian/Red Bull Content Pool

Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle—judging by the half that’s been translated into English—is a tough book for a critic to grapple with: a six-volume autobiographical novel that can spend fifty pages describing a teenage beer run or a second-grader’s first day at school. The book was a sensation when it appeared in Norway, five years ago; since then it has fascinated (and puzzled) many readers in America, from James Wood and Zadie Smith to Jonathan Lethem. Volume Three is my favorite so far, though no doubt the effect is cumulative: I’ve never read such a vivid depiction of ordinary child abuse—the legal, non-sexual kind—from a child’s point of view; I have never seen a writer evoke the world of child’s play so vividly, or the view from the back seat of a car on a long drive. Not everyone feels the love. In The Nation, the irascible William Deresiewicz dismisses My Struggle as a “giant selfie,” wishes Knausgaard wrote more like John Updike or Saul Bellow, and chalks up the enthusiasm of his fans to narcissism: “The spectacle of a fellow author’s self-revelation . . . has obvious professional significance.” It’s rarely a good sign when a reviewer vents his spleen on other readers. For a corrective, see Ben Lerner in the London Review of Books. Lerner notices all the same things as Deresiewicz—Knausgaard’s use of cliche, his digressions, his seeming lack of form or invention—then tries, brilliantly and persuasively, to explain why they work. Lerner places My Struggle in a long tradition of novels at war with novelistic convention, a tradition that he associates with the avant garde and that others might call realism itself. Agree with it or not, this is actual criticism. As Lerner writes: “It’s easy to marshal examples of what makes My Struggle mediocre. The problem is: it’s amazing.” —Lorin Stein

On Wednesday night, I had the great pleasure of seeing an interview with D’Angelo, perhaps the most gifted, elusive artist working in R&B—he’s ascended into the pantheon with Sly Stone and Prince, visionary but inscrutable. With 2000’s Voodoo, D’Angelo made what remains the definitive soul record of the past fifteen years, a languid, earthy tour de force that borrows in equal measure from the church and the street. Since then, he hasn’t released a thing; he’s scarcely even performed in public. So his appearance on Wednesday had a sense of anticipation: would he announce a new album? He didn’t, but he was such a gracious, remarkable, casual speaker that it didn’t matter. NPR has posted a transcript of the conversation, which was held before a sold-out crowd at Brooklyn Museum. It touches on his adolescence in Richmond, Virginia; his painstaking, deeply hermetic recording process; and his gospel-inflected approach to songwriting. Nelson George, the interviewer, put it best when he told D’Angelo, “You’re one of the few people who has mystique, you know that. I mean in the age of TMZ and all that stuff … there’s an aura still about your career. It’s very unusual today for anybody to have any mystery left.” —Dan Piepenbring

I recently unearthed a 1999 LRB review by Edward Said of a tennis anthology edited by the novelist Caryl Phillips. When I think of tennis, I don’t think of Said (nor do I imagine Phillips, for that matter)—all the more reason to give it my attention. I also have a vested interest in tennis. My father grew up in Forest Hills, Queens, and played near the West Side Tennis Club (the club wouldn’t let Jews join, but he did see early professionals such as Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, and a sixteen-year-old Chris Evert play there); his father played competitive tennis into his early nineties (the pool of players in his age group was quite small, as you might imagine); and I grew up watching tennis matches on television with my parents and trying to learn the sport myself. Though I only sometimes watch Wimbledon or the US Open now, I can tell the stakes have changed. As Said bemoans, tennis has largely lost its amateur class, and its league of professional players are “technical specialists” ruined by commercial interests. Federer is lovely to watch, but his recent dominance of the game was boring. The women’s game, Said points out, retains its “human pace” and “inventiveness.” That no single woman dominates the sport makes the matches more fun to watch, more exciting, more … sporting. —Nicole Rudick

In 1934, Oscar Reutersvärd pioneered the modeling of “impossible objects,” two-dimensional figures that project a three-dimensional object when viewed from a particular direction. The puzzle game “Monument Valley,” available on both iOS and Android, is built on this optical illusion—a sort of architectural Sudoku. It allows the player to interact with the isometric environment of dead-end paths and trick doors, moving the game’s protagonist, Ida, through gaps that seem to defy logic. The game is one of the most beautiful I’ve ever played. It’s like, as many have noted, an M. C. Escher drawing brought to life. The game designer Ken Wong told Wired, “We hope players will stay engaged for the same reasons they might enjoy a walk through a museum or an art gallery.” —Justin Alvarez Read More »

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