What We’re Loving: Marionettes, Ducks, and Connell


This Week’s Reading


I was about to describe Barbara Comyns’s hyper-vivid little novel Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead (1954) as Ivy Compton-Burnett on acid. Then I googled Comyns. Top result: “Barbara Comyns Is Not Anyone on Acid.” Thank you, Emily Gould. But why do so many readers reach for the same cliché? Who Was Changed is trippy from sentence one: “The ducks swam through the drawing-room windows. The weight of the water had forced the windows open; so the ducks swam in. Round the room they sailed quacking their approval; then they sailed out again to explore the wonderful new world that had come in the night.” The real trippiness of the novel—about an English village struck by a mysterious epidemic—lies not just in its eye-rubbingly bright details, but also in its moral sensibility. Flood, fire, madness descend on Comyns’s characters without any of the usual narratorial handwringing, occasionally accompanied by ducks. Comyns is so matter-of-fact as to be surreal, and irresistible. —Lorin Stein

Until recently, I had never read Evan S. Connell; quite the faux pas when you consider that Mrs. Bridge originated as a short story in the Fall 1955 issue of The Paris Review. In this, his first novel, Connell paints a brilliantly handsome and moving portrait of a woman by the name of India Bridge and her unspectacular Kansas City family. We follow the quotidian concerns of a woman plagued by upper-middle-class luxury, and while her obsession with all things bourgeois lends humor to the novel, Connell refuses to pass any sort of judgment on his protagonist. And yet we feel the muted despair of a family divided by perpetual boredom, isolation, and the complete inability to connect. We ache for a mother’s attempt (and failure) to mother, a wife’s desperation to be loved, a woman’s unending struggle with herself. Connell’s prose is decisively, and artfully, quiet; yet the silence he weaves into the novel’s 117 chapters brims with the same fervor and frustration buried in his characters. —Caitlin Youngquist

The instructions seemed clear enough: “Read A Tale of Two Cities. Think about Breaking Bad when you read it.” This was my first assignment in John Freeman’s class at Columbia University. Freeman had strolled into the room wearing torn blue jeans and a blazer; within minutes he shed the jacket to reveal a white tee. “I’ve never written a novel,” he said, “so if that’s a problem you’re free to go.” As he scribbled diagrams on the white board and considered various metaphors for the structure of stories, all the while pacing the room, an image of a mind emerged, like a real-time MRI. It was a mind that had thought deeply about the architecture and accelerants of stories. A former editor of Granta, and, before that, a prolific book reviewer, Freeman has seemingly read everything and interviewed everyone, and now he has collected fifty-five profiles in How to Read a Novelist, newly published in a handsome volume by FSG. I’ve been reading with delight his lucid and curious descriptions of writers ranging from Philip Roth to Ayu Utami; each profile begins with a biographical note and then sets the scene of the interview—he meets Toni Morrison at her apartment “nestled between SoHo and Tribeca” and Aleksandar Hemon while walking amidst a looming ice storm in Chicago. Freeman begins the book with a cautionary tale of idolatry in which he arrives late to meet John Updike at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and proceeds to break every rule of interviewing. He says it is his intention to “reinstate some atmospheric context into the legend of a writer’s life and work.” This is not another lecture on so-called craft. —Adam Winters

I think it was Jude Law who said that conscience makes cowards of us all. Unfortunately, conscience can also turn us into boring dancers. This occurred to me yesterday night after I failed to include even a single pelvic thrust in a karaoke performance of Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark.” Perhaps it was the close quarters, or the presence of new colleagues, but I was too self-conscious to give my choreography a Boss-worthy flourish. For a more sophisticated take on the detrimental effects of consciousness on dancing, I recommend Heinrich von Kleist’s short essay “On the Marionette Theater.” The premise of the piece is that a marionette can be a purer (and thus, superior) dancer than even the world’s most accomplished virtuoso, because a marionette will never be guilty of affectation; where there is no thought, thought cannot get in the way. According to Kleist, us poor, postlapsarian folks will always be playing second fiddle to puppets unless we attain a state of God-like knowledge, which would be “the final chapter in the history of the world.” Until then, we will all just have to be, well, dancing in the dark. —Fritz Huber

The stories in James Salter’s Last Night end as soon as I start to realize that there is more to them than I realized, as though dodging my scrutiny. “There was not much more to her than met the eye, but that was always enough,” Salter writes of the modelesque Kathrin in “Such Fun.” Adele nudges her husband Phil (“Casanova Here”) to tell dinner-party companions how he left his first wife for his retarded son’s twenty-year-old tutor. Lovers pile up like Bergdorf coats. Caviar (beluga) on crushed ice is eaten alone. Of rotund, Malibu-vacationing Teddy in “Eyes of the Stars: “She had a one-piece black bathing suit, the same one every day, and an abortion that fall. Tragedy, like cruelty, is casual. —Nikkitha Bakshani