Staff Picks: Man-boys, Musicals, Multimillionaires


This Week’s Reading


From the cover of Sphinx.

thirlwell“In one corner of the room there was a television, and I find it difficult to avoid a television—not because I am so intent on the game shows and confessions, but just because a moving image is very difficult to ignore. If I’m trying to read on one of those ancient planes where they silently display the film on a screen at the front, I keep looking up at it and losing my concentration, just as in the airport lounge already I will have been distracted by the silent news, and the mini frenzy of its montage.” Usually when we say that something sounds like a translation, it’s a bad thing, but Adam Thirlwell’s new novel Lurid & Cute sounds like brainy colloquial English translated into some slightly brainier (more formal? more poetic? more European?) idiom. We don’t go around talking about “ancient planes” or “the game shows and confessions,” but Zeno might. That interplay between banality and beauty—between the merely cute, or merely lurid, and deep ironic observation—kept me hurrying back to the book. It is, as James Wood might say, “unreliably unreliable”—either a parody or else the end point of a certain kind of wide-eyed man-boy narrator, like Jonathan Safran Foer on crystal, with a gun. —Lorin Stein

“The incident was really quite typical, but still curious … And that’s all.” Most of Daniil Kharms’s writing could be summed up this way—this is, in fact, the way he began and ended a certain forty-five-word story. Several of his stories end with “And that’s it, more or less” and plenty more do so in spirit. They’re so casually, almost indifferently, related that they read like fables—inexhaustible, with an underlying wisdom or moral that, in the case of Kharms’s work, is difficult to pinpoint. That’s because, as Ian Frazier points out in his wonderful recent essay in The New York Review of Books, Kharms’s work falls into a “subgenre of cheerfully moronic writing” that rejects any form of rationality. It’s a kind of humor that can easily get lost in translation (or not—I wonder how many Russians get it). Frazier’s piece sent me running back to my own copy of Today I Wrote Nothing, a selection of Kharms’s writing. I find that reading his prose and poetry requires a kind of release, a letting go of expectations and a faith that the nonsense will pay off. And it does. A man pummels another man with his dentures. A man meets another man who’s bought bread. A succession of women fall out the window until the narrator gets tired of watching. And that’s it, more or less. —Nicole Rudick 

In a recent conversation with our editor, Lorin Stein, the cartoonist Chris Ware talked about an image he used in his latest book, Building Stories: he drew a pollinating bee in a panel that connected four disparate narratives. It was the kind of thing, he said, that would never fly in prose. I’ve been thinking about that in regard to Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Fun Home, a book I very much love, which has now been made into a Broadway musical. The adaptation makes sense. As media, comics and musicals share an advantage in that they can be more dramatic, their metaphors more prevalent, than your average work of prose; what would be too purple in a novel may feel just right in a graphic work. A musical, with its dance numbers, emotive solos, and general grandiosity, might be the perfect new form for Fun Home. Ben Brantley of the  New York Times said, “I can’t think of a recent musical—or play, for that matter—that has done a better job at finding theatrical expression for the wayward dynamics of remembering.” Staged at the intimate Circle in the Square Theater, the show has a set design that allows the audience to look into Bechdel’s childhood home from all sides, as if surrounding the house and peering into its windows. The older Alison, a narrator of sorts, does the same thing with her memory: she haunts and considers every scene along with us. —Jeffery Gleaves

issue-22-coverI’ve found myself returning to Jordan Kisner’s “Thin Places,” an essay on obsessive-compulsive disorder in n+1’s Spring issue. Kisner begins with a short description of DBS (deep brain stimulation), an experimental approach to reversing neurosis of varying degrees: a woman, in this case one with an obsessive fear that she will kill a stranger, lies naked on a gurney, her head fastened to a cage-like brace that keeps the wires in place. Electrodes pass through her brain to Area 24, the ventral anterior cingulate. The hope is that DBS will alter her experience of reality—will bring her closer to it—so she’s no longer plagued by her worries. Kisner reminds us that obsession began as a term of warfare—but she also gestures toward OCD’s somewhat romantic and fantastical hold on the mind, even going so far as to call the disorder “gorgeous.” Here she is on the clinical psychologist Ian Jakes’s observations in Theoretical Approaches to Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: “D. S. was 29 and afraid that she might lose possession of her own thoughts, that they might travel from her head down her arms and escape through her fingertips into the world. She worried that she would leave a trail of ideas and images in her wake, clinging like residue to everything she touched.” I’m with Kisner here: “I love this young woman with anxious fingers.” —Caitlin Youngquist

Anne Garréta’s debut novel, Sphinx—published in French in 1986, and now available in English—is just as cryptic as its title suggests. Garréta is part of the famous Oulipo group, created by French writers and mathematicians to produce literature under constraints. For Oulipian writers, books become fictive labs and literary experiments, inspiring riddles between authors and readers. In Sphinx, though, the constraint becomes much more than a mere game; I would even venture to call it political. Sphinx is a genderless love story: every linguistic structure that could have revealed the gender of its two main characters has been withdrawn from the novel. Merciless and androgynous, this sphinx-like love soon renders gender stigmas pointless, even though, if you’re as devious as I am, you can’t help looking for some mistake Garréta might have made along the way. Emma Ramadan generously undertook the project of translating this pure Oulipian trick into English. —Charlotte Groult

wealthgeniusI’d always wanted my very own billionaire, and this week I got one. Her name is Randa Williams. She’s an oil heiress from Houston. At the launch party for Wealth Genius this week, I drew her name from a hat, so she is mine, all mine, and I want to tell the world about her. The people at Genius, the tech start-up that hopes to “annotate the world,” realized that very few of us know much about the world’s richest people, despite their outsized influence on our lives. There are energy-drink billionaires and social-media billionaires and Panda Express billionaires, many of them as eccentric as the narrator of Barthelme’s “I Bought a Little City”—and hardly a one of them rubs elbows with the hoi polloi. Who are these people? The Wealth Genius project invites us to research the superrich and annotate their Wikipedia pages, thus closing the knowledge gap—and maybe, eventually, the wealth gap, too. I’ve learned precious little about Ms. Williams beyond her taste in fragrances (Laura Mercier L’Heure Magique) and lotions (Yoo-Shea Whipped Shea Butter Crème), but I’m relishing the chance to do some sleuthing. Feel free to join in; there are more than enough billionaires to go around. —Dan Piepenbring