A still from Fifty Shades of Grey.
Among the more consistent sets of questions to appear in Paris Review interviews are those regarding one’s influences. It’s a funny line to track throughout the Writers at Work series—and one, I’d venture, that often says a lot about a given writer’s ego. (Watch, for example, as Robert Frost bristles at the suggestion of an affinity between his work and that of Faulkner or Wallace Stevens, or as Nabokov denies having learned anything from James Joyce.) But aside from allowing for the pleasure of watching certain writers shift in their seats, these kinds of questions can also introduce me to writers I haven’t heard of, or writers I should have paid more attention to. In her soon-to-be-published Art of Fiction interview, Lydia Davis cites her discovery of Russell Edson’s stories—“He would call them poems,” she says, “but I wouldn’t”—as a major turning point in the development of her style. I couldn’t help but dart off to find a few myself, much to my enjoyment. —Stephen Andrew Hiltner
When Fifty Shades of Grey was first published, it was a cheap thrill to watch the critical bons mots pile up—we had the book reviewers’ equivalent of a home-run derby, with zingers for dingers. I remember Andrew O’Hagan, writing in the LRB, taking aim at the novel’s arrantly vanilla kinkiness: “I suspect the book has taken the world’s mums by storm because there’s no mess on the carpet and there are hot showers afterwards. Everybody is comfortable and everybody is clean: they travel ﬁrst-class, the rich give presents, the man uses condoms, and everything dark is resolved in a miasma of cuddles.” Now the film is out, and another team of critics is at bat. It’s too early to declare a winner, but surely bonus points should be awarded to those who manage to trash the book and the movie in one fell swoop, as Anthony Lane has. “We should not begrudge E. L. James her triumph,” he writes, “for she has, in her lumbering fashion, tapped into a truth that often eludes more elegant writers—that eternal disappointment, deep in the human heart, at the failure of our loved ones to acquire their own helipad.” —Dan Piepenbring
William Vollmann’s piece in this month’s Harper’s, “Invisible and Insidious,” focuses on the fallout, both nuclear and financial, of the Fukushima radiation leak. The media wants big, explosive stories, but that’s not the way nuclear fallout works, as evident by the climbing numbers, “one or two digits per day,” on the dosimeter Vollmann keeps in his house in Sacramento, California. On several trips to Japan, Vollmann ventures near the “Forbidden Zone,” the twenty-kilometer radius around Plant No. 1, whose level of radioactive contamination makes the area “unlivable.” Most striking, as always, is Vollmann’s attention to the poor people in the area surrounding Fukushima—those whose businesses are failing, those on the hook for mortgages, and those among the 150,000 nuclear refugees. When NPR asked him about his extreme form of immersion journalism and whether he was worried about the radiation he’d exposed himself to, Vollman said, “I’m an older person … I’m going to die in any event, so I have less to fear. And I would really like to try to do some good in the world before I die and, you know, if I get cancer as a result, it’s no real loss. The more I see of, you know, the disasters that nuclear power can cause, the more I think I would really like to describe this and help people share my alarm.” —Jeffery Gleaves
I can’t play it cool: I’ve been waiting for Elisa Albert’s After Birth since it was excerpted in Tin House last winter. Back then, I read the excerpt aloud to anyone who would listen—I wondered if Albert would be able to sustain the acerbic, obsessive voice of her protagonist, Ari, for the length of a novel. After Birth’s is fairly narrow in scope—it chronicles a few wintery months of Ari’s life as a new mother in upstate New York—but I admire its emotional range. Ari’s voice is ferociously funny, confrontational, and dark; Albert uses it to tackle feminism, Holocaust memory, inherited traumas, motherhood, and marriage. —Catherine Carberry
Luis Buñuel’s surrealist classic That Obscure Object of Desire makes for strangely perfect Valentine’s Day viewing. The film follows Mathieu, an old and wealthy widower, in his obsession and pursuit of Conchita, a Spanish dancer. It’s a classic cat-and-mouse game—Mathieu tries to bed her, she continues to elude him—and to complicate matters, two different actresses, whom Mathieu hilariously fails to distinguish, take on the role of Conchita. The film asks whether it’s really eros we want or if it’s only the pursuit that holds our interest. —Lynette Lee
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