Staff Picks: Absolution, Antipodes, Air Raid


This Week’s Reading

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From the cover of the new translation of Alexander Kluge’s Air Raid.

Last night, I finished Gerald Murnane’s The Plains, and this morning I started reading it again. It’s the story of a filmmaker who travels from the coast of Australia into the plains of the interior, where instead of flyblown pit stops he encounters a society of vast estates—latifundia meets British manor house—whose culture is based on avant-garde poetics and the art of heraldry. The plainsmen are melancholy philosophers whose koans would have made T. S. Eliot proud: “I’ve spent my life trying to see my own place as the end of a journey I never made,” one says into his beer. Murnane is a careful stylist and a slyly comic writer with large ideas. I know it’s the antipodes, but it’s hard to fathom why he isn’t a little better known here. —Robyn Creswell

I’ve been caught up in Alexander Kluge’s masterpiece Air Raid (1977), finally available in English—an unsettlingly oblique remembrance of the events of April 8, 1945, when Americans carpet bombed Halberstadt, a German town of no particular significance to the war effort. Eighty percent of the place was destroyed and thousands died; Kluge, who lived there, was thirteen at the time. Air Raid is composed of fragments: diagrams, photographs, interviews, vignettes of survivors. In Kluge’s affectless prose, the manager of a bombed movie theater watches as her patrons’ corpses are boiled by the hot water gushing from an exposed pipe; a confused cemetery groundskeeper goes to sleep in an open grave. The book is part fiction and part reportage, but Kluge makes no effort to say which is which; in fact, many of its more explicitly documentary sections, such as a long interview with an American brigadier, are entirely fabricated. It’s an affecting puzzle about the destabilized narratives of war. The reader has to construct some semblance of a story from the rubble. —Dan Piepenbring

While everyone is talking about Serial, you should be listening to another This American Life alum’s podcast, StartUp, in which Alex Blumberg attempts to launch his podcast start-up. (He’s aware of how meta this is.) Blumberg makes a failure of a pitch to venture investor Chris Sacca; he compares the search for a business partner to the awkwardness of the dating world. The podcast is a fascinating and insightful look at the nature of business. As Blumberg reflects, “You think it’s about numbers and bottom lines—but really it’s just about raw feelings?” —Justin Alvarez

Scott McClanahan has a new essay on The Fader’s Web site about how his love for Little Jimmy Dickens, and his wife’s dislike for the diminutive country star, broke up their marriage—or at least he should have taken her antipathy for Dickens as a sign. The essay traces his understanding of an aspect of his life through the filter of music, but it’s not the kind of autobiographical piece that retrospectively bestows wisdom and clarity on one’s life—the artificiality that ruins so many memoirs. McClanahan’s writing, both fiction and nonfiction, has the feel of real storytelling and often of catharsis; he writes a kind of ballad (or, in this case, maybe an antiballad) that country music does so well. Of Dickens’s most famous song, “May the Bird of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose,” McClanahan writes, “It was a song not interested in telling you about the mind of the insane, but one that wanted to produce that state of mind in the listener. It was a spell, a fever, a curse.” That’s a good description of the way McClanahan crafts a tale, too. —Nicole Rudick

As a kid, I would watch Forrest Gump every day. I don’t remember why, but I do remember the day the VHS tape started to deteriorate: as Forrest ran out of the football stadium, the crowd yelling for him to stop, the sound morphed out of sync with the image. I enjoyed this: it was a kind of personal imprint, like a folded page in a well-read book. I thought of this moment as I made my way through Nicholas Rombes’s excellent and nightmarish The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing, about a writer’s search for a lost filmmaker. Through various conversations between the writer and filmmaker—who has destroyed many of his own films—Rombes explores the thin line between fiction and reality, “something there, in between the frames, something that wasn’t quite an image and wasn’t quite a sound … an impossibility that, because it expressed or represented a new way of being, had to be destroyed.” As my copy of Forrest Gump further deteriorated, I would have to describe the missing scenes whenever my friends and family watched the tape. Over time, my descriptions transformed into something much different than the scenes themselves had been, as a DVD copy later proved. Rombes’s novel is a love letter to this art of misremembering: these “destroyed films” become as real as any film playing in a theater near you. —J.A.