Staff Picks: No Conscience, No Hope, No October


This Week’s Reading


Ilf and Petrov.

In the latest London Review of Books, Adam Phillips conducts a restless interrogation of conscience, that most eminent and most frustrating of moral constructs. We take it as a given, Phillips points out, that self-criticism has some purgative or ameliorative influence, that it moves us to better ourselves. But it’s more often an exercise in a kind of self-slavery: “We seem to relish the way it makes us suffer.” Why do we put such stock in our superego, who is, after all, mainly a reproachful asshole? “Were we to meet this figure socially, this accusatory character, this internal critic, this unrelenting fault-finder, we would think there was something wrong with him. He would just be boring and cruel. We might think that something terrible had happened to him, that he was living in the aftermath, in the fallout, of some catastrophe. And we would be right.” There follows a fascinating Freudian reading of Hamlet, a meditation on cowardice, and a careful deconstruction of the superego, from whose ridiculousness Phillips draws an inspired conclusion. “Just as the overprotected child believes that the world must be very dangerous,” he writes, “so we have been terrorized by all this censorship and judgment into believing that we are radically dangerous to ourselves and others.” —Dan Piepenbring

When I saw the first installment of Knausgaard’s travelogue for the New York Times Magazine, I thought of Ilf and Petrov’s American Roadtrip, their account of driving around the U.S. for ten weeks in 1935. But in truth, the two chronicles have little in common. Where Knausgaard is expansive and self-seeking, Ilf and Petrov are witty and concisely observant. “And on a chilly November morning we left New York for America,” they write, later finding the archetype of the American landscape at “an intersection of two roads and a gasoline station against a ground of wires and advertising signs.” Both Ilf and Petrov had experience in journalism—they met while working for the proletariat magazine Gudok—but I hadn’t read this early work until this week, when I saw Steven Volynets’s translation in Asymptote of a 1923 feuilleton by Ilf called “A Country That Didn’t Have October.” It’s an atmospheric recitation of the waves of occupation and retreat in Odessa during the civil war and World War I. Volynets calls it an “atomization” of the city’s fervor, and I was frequently reminded of Mayakovsky’s brash, agitated poems. Of 1917, Mayakovsky writes, “The drum of war thunders and thunders. / It calls: thrust iron into the living,” to which Ilf adds a description of the “worker provinces … where the factory smokestacks and horns ominously billowed and tooted. The [revolutionaries’] gaze fell upon the black depot, on the flurried seaport, on the rumbling, ringing, groaning railroad shops.” —Nicole Rudick

If you liked Leslie Jamison’s Empathy Exams or Charles D’Ambrosio’s Loitering, try Steven Church’s latest collection, Ultrasonica group of essays brought together by the theme of sound. Church at times seems to say, I make noise, therefore I am. He dissects the nature of sound waves in a racquetball court, counts the seconds between lightning and thunder, and listens for signs of life from trapped Chilean miners—and his digressions invariably come back around to sucker punch you. Church uses sound to explore notions of masculinity and fatherhood, love and death. He elaborates on his methods and inspirations in an interview with Jacket Copy: “I did a Google search for ‘blue noise’ … I read a sentence that said, ‘Blue noise makes a good dither,’ and, though I had no idea what it meant, I loved how it sounded. The sentence became a puzzle that I wanted to solve and, before I knew it, something like a book project began to take shape as individual essays, each focused on sound in some way.” —Jeffery Gleaves

I became a fan of Anne Valente after reading her ferocious, elegant essay, “My Body, My Machine.” Her story collection, By Light We Knew Our Names, is full of weird, wild, and finely observed stories that explore questions of identity and longing. In “To the Place Where We Take Flight,” a teenage boy plays Pink Floyd covers at the hospital where his mother is dying; “Dear Amelia” takes the form of a loving and desperate address to Amelia Earhart, expressed by girls who find themselves turning into bears. Valente slides between realism and fabulism, and her imaginative leaps alone are noteworthy—but even more so is the heart that beats throughout these stories. —Catherine Carberry

Tea Obreht once described described the concept of voice as “the pinpointing of something in description where you hear it or you read it and you think, My god, that’s really how it is—there could be no other way of describing it.” James Hannaham’s second novel, Delicious Foods, has voice. It has words and phrases such as “braindancing,” “chunky wallet,” “Mr. Melon fucker,” “hopegasm,” “her heels—roach-stompers,” “drinkahol,” “stranger-hate,” and “thrift-store blouse,” and an attention to craft. It tells the story of a teen named Eddie and his mother, Darlene, who find themselves trapped on a sketchy farm called Delicious Foods. They’re enslaved by the usuals—debt, guilt, drugs—and their travails are captivating in their own right. But what kept me reading was the voice—three of them, actually, as Hannaham juggles a trio of perspectives: Darlene, Eddie, and a drug. Yes: a drug. —Matt Caprioli