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Posts Tagged ‘William Faulkner’

The Literate Pigeons, and Other News

September 21, 2016 | by

He thinks he’s people!

  • I used to take such pride in my literacy. “Look at me!” I would shout, running down the street in my I’M LITERATE T-shirt. “I can read!” But now the pep is out of my step, because apparently even pigeons can learn to read: “Through gradual training, the birds moved from learning to eat from a food hopper, to recognizing shapes, to learning words … After narrowing down to the four brightest birds out eighteen, over eight months of training, the advanced-class pigeons were taught to distinguish four-letter words from nonwords. They were even able to tell the difference between correctly spelled words and those with transposed characters, like ‘very’ and ‘vrey,’ or words with different letters included to make them completely misspelled.”
  • And that means it’s only a matter of time until the pigeons will be texting, too, because that’s what everyone does now. What do you think the pigeons are gonna do, use the telephone? The phone call is dead. Don’t even bother making a friendly call, unless you’re a needy loser. Timothy Noah tells us, “The phone call died, according to Nielsen, in the autumn of 2007. During the final three months of that year the average monthly number of texts sent on mobile phones (218) exceeded, for the first time in recorded history, the average monthly number of phone calls (213). A frontier had been crossed. The primary purpose of most people’s primary telephones was no longer to engage in audible speech … Calling somebody on the phone used to be a perfectly ordinary thing to do. You called people you knew well, not so well, or not at all, and never gave it a second thought. But after the Great Texting Shift of 2007, a phone call became a claim of intimacy. Today if I want to phone someone just to chat, I first have to consider whether the call will be viewed as intrusive. My method is to ask myself, ‘Have I ever seen this person in the nude?’ ” 

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Staff Picks: Fever Dreams, Tragic Spells, and In-betweens

July 22, 2016 | by


Detail from the cover of Jesse Ball’s How to Set a Fire and Why.

Carole Firstman’s ambitiously titled debut, Origins of the Universe and What It All Means, is an essayistic memoir about her relationship with her estranged, eccentric (read: undiagnosed Asperger’s) scientist father, but it’s really a thumbed nose at binary argument and an objective romp through subjectivity’s headspace. Throughout the book, Firstman sets up oppositional arguments in order to force them apart and marinate in the liminal in-between. Is her chauvinistic, mostly absent father good or bad? Firstman thinks it’s hard to say, but it doesn’t stop her from examining the relationship through myriad philosophic and scientific lenses. (I doubt there has ever been a book about family in which one learns more about science and the history of thought.) Though the father does and says things that would make even the least feminist, or simply decent, among us cringe, Firstman’s characterization of family dynamics is pitch-perfect: her own impatience and frustrations with her father balance his foibles and thoughtlessness—and her humor softens the lot. This is a very endearing book, a summer read for the curious mind. —Jeffery Gleaves

The Guggenheim’s recent exhibition “Photo-Poetics: An Anthology” made a huge impression on me; the show featured works by ten photographers—nine women, including Erica Baum—who all work closely, sometimes exclusively, with the printed page. So I was delighted to discover Dog Ear, a book of twenty-five exquisite photographs by Baum. For the series, she dog-eared pages in mass-market paperbacks, then photographed the intersection of words at each fold to create a text of her own. In each tiny piece, bits of sentences read horizontally (“skirts, bee-stung lips,” “It’s a funny thing”) and vertically (“made up her face,” “itchiest dresses”). Part photo, part poem, the results vary in tone, from longing to manic, minimal to marvelous. In “Bear,” which feels like a Tomi Ungerer picture book, where animals scheme and smoke cigars, a polar bear is drunk on schnapps and “pawing” “the birds.” A new, limited edition of Dog Ear comes courtesy of Ugly Duckling Presse. Fittingly, the book jacket doubles as a poster. —Jessica Calderon

It may be based on a British procedural, but the new HBO series The Night Of is unmistakably shot in New York and, just as unmistakably, written by Richard Price. The premise: a studious Pakistani American kid sneaks out of the house with the keys to his father’s cab, then ill-advisedly picks up a passenger, a distraught beauty headed to the Upper West Side. It’s classic noir, with John Turturro as the boy's schlubby but dedicated defense attorney; and because it’s a Richard Price script, even a desk sergeant (the excellent Ben Shenkman) can steal a scene. Two episodes in, it’s the best TV I’ve seen this summer. —Lorin Stein  Read More »

More Than a Blender, It’s a Way of Life, and Other News

November 24, 2015 | by

Peter Muller-Munk, Waring Blendor, model B, 1937. Private collection. Photo: Dallas Museum of Art, via Carnegie Museum of Art

  • Peter Muller-Munk, who died in 1967, designed a really nice chromium-plated water pitcher. He also made the most sensuous blender I’ve ever seen. Then there’s his Lady Schick electric shavers, his enameled cookware—and his gas pumps! What can be said about the man’s gas pumps? Muller-Munk was an impeccable industrial designer, and a new exhibition at the Carnegie Museum aims to give him his due: “Muller-Munk was always attuned to the latest trends in European metalwork … But [he] was never predictable, and moved with ease from a round, fluted silver bowl (circa 1928) akin to Josef Hoffmann’s designs for the Wiener Werkstätte, to graceful leaf-like shapes for a footed silver centerpiece (1929–1930) to a severely squared-off silver-plated tea service with tusk-like ivory handles (1931).”
  • Every week brings another successful trip to the literary lost-and-found bin. This time it’s yielded Twixt Lip and Cup, an early play by a young William Faulkner, first published nearly a century ago in The Strand and promptly forgotten by everyone, until Andrew Gulli rediscovered it in an archive at the University of Virginia. Dubbed a “light-hearted jazz age story,” the play “is set in the apartment of a ‘well-to-do bachelor,’ and sees two friends of around thirty, Francis and Jim, each vying to convince the nineteen-year-old Ruth to marry them ... Prohibition is under way, and the friends are enjoying an illicit drink. Ruth’s drinking, however, comes under censure from Jim, who asks Francis: ‘What are our young girls coming to these days? They every one need to be taken by a strong hand,’ adding: ‘I certainly don’t approve of that child chasing all over the known world after a bottle of liquor. It’s disgusting.’ ”
  • Last week we hosted a party at the Jane Hotel to launch The Unprofessionals, our first anthology of new writing in fifty years. The gossip columnists were out in force, natch—by which I mean two of them attended. “An amiable guest of literary note was willing to give me the following quote, anonymously, because, as he confided, he had been expected at another gathering: ‘The porn theme was undeniably hot.’ He also complimented Lorin Stein’s ‘gutsiness in opening up the psychosexual landscape [which] has cleared space for some writing that wanted to get out.’ I thought that was perfectly stated, complimented him on his fine gray flannel suit, and moved on into the evening.”
  • Every writer has an audience in mind. Claire Vaye Watkins writes for that hoary, classic demographic … you know the one, surely? “It was Toni Morrison who pointed out that Tolstoy was not writing for her, who said she was writing toward black women. It makes you wonder, Who am I writing for? Who am I writing toward? Myself, I have been writing to impress old white men. Countless decisions I’ve made about what to write and how to write it have been in acquiescence to the opinions of the white male literati. Not only acquiescence but a beseeching, approval seeking, people pleasing … I wrote Battleborn for white men, toward them. If you hold the book to a certain light, you’ll see it as an exercise in self-hazing, a product of working-class madness, the female strain. So, natural then that Battleborn was well-received by the white male lit establishment: it was written for them. The whole book’s a pander. Look, I said with my stories: I can write old men, I can write sex, I can write abortion. I can write hard, unflinching, unsentimental. I can write an old man getting a boner!
  • Mary Beard’s SPQR, a history of Rome, invites us “not only to ‘meet the Romans,’ but also to acknowledge that we can never really meet them and that, in many ways, we may not want to. The problem goes beyond the limitation of our sources; it lies in the vast cultural gaps that separate us from their world, and the profoundly repellent facts of daily life in ancient Rome: slavery, filth, slaughter, illness, ‘newborn babies thrown away on rubbish heaps.’ Yet Beard finds in Rome, if not a model, at least a challenge … The ancient Romans, Beard shows, are relevant to people many centuries later who struggle with questions of power, citizenship, empire, and identity.”

Asylums Face the Wrecking Ball, and Other News

May 7, 2015 | by


Greystone Park, in an old postcard.

  • In defense of Kim Kardashian’s book of selfies, which is “arguably emblematic of the disruptions in image production and consumption that have taken place over the past decade on a significant, even revolutionary level”: “Though their circumstances are hardly comparable, the Kardashians, like the Brontës, are a family of creative women, in the business of conducting narratives in which men come and go, but female relationships remain constant and meaningful.”
  • Harold Bloom presides over a tour of his stuffed animals: “Well, there’s Valentina, the ostrich, named after Valentinus, second-century author of The Gospel of Truth … this little baby gorilla, well, we call Gorilla Gorilla. And there is that famous original A. A. Milne donkey, Eeyore, and the last of our boys here, Oscar, the duck-billed platypus, named in honor of my hero, Oscar Wilde.”
  • We’re not in the habit of dispensing financial advice—we’re a nonprofit, after all—but if you’ve got 3.25 million quid just lying around, and you’re an extravagant person, you could do worse than buy this old manor house, once featured in Thomas Hardy’s The Trumpet-Major.
  • You could also do better, though. Say, by preserving one of America’s stately, nineteenth-century mental asylums, of which only fifteen remain. New Jersey’s Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital, for instance, built in 1876, is on the verge of demolition, despite its obvious historic significance.
  • Faulkner got the idea for Pylon, his underrated novel about daredevil fliers, from a conversation with Howard Hawks, in Hollywood: “I said, ‘Why don’t you write about some decent people, for goodness’ sake?’ ‘Like who?’ I said, ‘Well, you fly around, don’t you know some pilots or something that you can write about?’ And he thought a while, and he said, ‘Oh, I know a good story. Three people—a girl and a man were wingwalkers, and the other man was a pilot. The girl was gonna have a baby, and she didn’t know which one was the father.’”

Sailing with Faulkner

April 13, 2015 | by

Welty watering in her garden.

Eudora Welty watering in her garden.

A letter from Eudora Welty to Jean Stafford, September 2, 1949. Faulkner and Welty had met once before, when she presented him with the National Institute of Arts and Letters Gold Medal for Fiction.

William Faulkner took us sailing on his sailboat on a big inland lake they’ve cut out of the woods there—waves and everything, big. We were late getting there—got lost and went to Blackjack, Miss.—and then when we found the lake there was Faulkner, cruising around, and headed right for us, through the dead cypresses and stumps and all, pulled down his sail and took the oar, and hollered, “You all better take your shoes off and get ready to wade,” which we did, sinking—got pulled on board and then we all sailed around, all quiet and nice—what a wonderful person he is, the most profound face, something that nearly breaks your heart though, just in the clasp of his hand—a strange kind of life he leads in Oxford, two lives really. We never, either time I’ve been with him, talked about anything bookish of course—it’s his life, not his opinions,—that seems to be with you all the time. He can do or make anything, and can sail beautifully. We got in his 20 year old Ford touring car which he hunts and fishes and goes over the farm in, with holes in the floor (“well, I know where all the holes are”) and when we couldn’t open a back door he said, “There’s a cupboard latch on it,” you ought to see that car.

The Right Kind of Damage: An Interview with Colin Barrett

March 3, 2015 | by


Photo courtesy of the author.

There’s a moment in “Car-Crash While Hitchhiking,” a story by Denis Johnson that first appeared in The Paris Review, in 1989, when a woman learns of the death of her husband and unleashes a terrible scream. The narrator, instead of expressing the expected sympathy, leans out of the page a little to offer this unnerving confession: It felt wonderful to be alive to hear it! I’ve gone looking for that feeling everywhere.”

Reading Young Skins, Colin Barrett’s debut story collection, can leave one with a similar sense of disturbed gratitude. The stories blend moments of horror with moments of hilarity, shocks of joy with shocks of despair, and no matter how grim a given scene by Barrett can get, it’s a thrill to be alive to hear him. In a restroom, under a naked bulb, we find “a lidless shitter operated by a fitfully responsive flush handle.” In a field, “crushed cans of Strongbow and Dutch Gold and Karpackie are buried in the mud like ancient artefacts.” A “big brown daddy-long-legs pedals airily in the sink basin,” its movements ”describing a flustered circle,” and a character named Bat cannot enjoy his dinner because a clan of kids is “eyeing the bulky hydraulics of his jaw.”

The vitality of Barrett’s prosethe special intensity of attention he’s able to draw from details of small-town lifehas already helped win him the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, the Guardian First Book Award, and the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature. To mark the U.S. release of Young Skins this month, I talked with him about his allergy to “lethally competent writing,” the details of character and language upon which he builds a story, and how a work of fictionlike the community it describescan develop “its shibboleths, its customs and codes, its own way of talking to itself.”

Were your earliest efforts as a writer very different to the stories collected in Young Skins?

I wrote and drew lots of gory comic books as a young kid and as a teen. Then I discovered and wrote lots of poetry around college age. Awful, sub-Ashbery, sub-Muldoon, sub-Eliot stuff, but at least it was writing. Then I attempted a few novels—multinarrator, genre-splicing Pynchonian or Foster Wallace sprawlers, usually set in alternate futures, though I never got more than a couple dozen pages in. I only started really writing stories at twenty-five. The early stuff was all, obviously, awful—but awful in a vital way. The wonderful thing about being completely inexperienced is the impregnable purity of your ignorance. You are utterly insensible to any conception of your own crippling and patent limitations, and so you try anything and everything. Read More »