Staff Picks: Misspelled Marven, Messengered Mineral Water


This Week’s Reading


A still from A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence.

Say what you will about Tom McCarthy’s novels: they bring out the best in their critics. Few other writers goad us into asking such broad, terrifying questions as, What should fiction do? Who is it for? And how can it undermine authority? In 2008, Remainder inspired Zadie Smith’s seminal essay “Two Paths for the Novel”; now McCarthy’s Satin Island has landed a series of reviews offering unusually acute observations on the state of the novel. Read Gideon-Lewis Kraus in Bookforum, James Lasdun in the Guardian, Christopher Tayler in the London Review of Books, and William Deresiewicz in The Nation: each unabashedly cerebral, and each proving that seemingly empty-isms—realism, postmodernism, postcolonialism, formalism, antihumanism—have life in them yet. —Dan Piepenbring

marvin-gardens-g-spotThe property names in Monopoly are taken from the boomtown ideal that was turn-of-the-century Atlantic City, with one glaring exception: Marvin Gardens, which does not, as such, exist. If you consider the game a metaphor for the dreams of the middle class, that absence bodes ill: it’s a coveted place you can never hope to get to. John McPhee’s 1972 essay “The Search for Marvin Gardens,” collected in his Pieces of the Frame, uses Monopoly to examine the significance of Atlantic City in the seventies, when it had fallen on hard times. As McPhee and a partner roll the dice, advancing their pieces and buying properties, a ghostly second narrator walks through the real St. Charles Place, Baltic Avenue, and New York Avenue, reporting that they’re all slums; the two players circle the board and the neighborhoods get worse. When McPhee realizes that his “only hope is Marvin Gardens,” his reportorial counterpart learns that it’s not even in the city at all; it’s one town over in Margate, New Jersey, and it’s spelled Marven. Rarely is McPhee’s writing as disjointed as it is in this piece; the essay’s aphoristic, time-traveling, jump-cut style asks so much of its readers that it’s astonishing The New Yorker published it. I haven’t seen anything as boldly form-defying in its pages for a while. —Jeffery Gleaves

António Lobo Antunes’s novels feature billowing prose in which past, present, and future all overlap and reality is inseparable from delusion. An Explanation of the Birds, first published in Portuguese in 1982, is no exception—Antunes creates a complex, polyphonic story unraveling the suicide of a defeated scholar, Rui. A series of relatives and acquaintances are called upon to offer their perspectives on Rui’s life; they conjure a rather pathetic portrait of a mediocre man. Rui himself explores repression, regret, and denial as he hurtles toward death. Antunes excels in anatomizing both the fragmented self and a shattered Portuguese society. His disappointment and outrage at everyone—from the former followers of the dictator Salazar to the intellectual leftists of Lisbon—animates his compelling satire of postrevolutionary Portugal. —Charlotte Groult

tumblr_mhdimebnhW1qbn461o1_1280I’ve been rewatching John Berger’s 1972 BBC miniseries, Ways of Seeing, which through the miracle of mechanical reproduction you can now find on YouTube. In each of the series’ four parts, Berger confronts Western aesthetic culture with a contrarian spirit, taking on everything from the insanity of advertising to the visual hegemony of the male gaze. Berger later adapted the series into a book of essays, but I prefer the pleasures of the moving image, not least of which is Berger himself: his wide eyes, his unerringly grave gestures of address, his haircut. The clarity of his criticism becomes the series’ deeper argument. The realm of the simple, the obvious, even the emotional—this is not where criticism goes to die, Berger reassures us, it is where true criticism begins.  In a favorite scene, a gaggle of schoolchildren crowd around an image of Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus, speaking over one another, calling out their interpretations of the painting’s central figure. Berger, sitting among them, grave as ever, inclines his shaggy head and listens. —Oliver Preston

Roy Andersson’s new film A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence unfolds like a lighter take on Lynch’s Blue Velvet. Andersson’s grim, slapstick comedy is marked by diorama-like sets and pauses held to the point of anxious humor; his bloated, bourgeois characters, made spectral by white face paint and shell shocked from humanity, seem born from the same ilk as Velvet’s Yellow Man. Andersson’s characters are ciphers: lonesome diners, befuddled captains trying to make impossible or unplanned appointments, purposeless urbanites moving like chess pieces around comfortable apartments. The film’s bursts of surrealism make it so daring. We see a mass brigade of anachronistic Swiss royal soldiers streaming by a seedy bar, with a weary King Charles XII asking by messenger for a mineral water, then hitting on the shop boy; later there’s a hellish organ straight out of Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony” that runs on slaves being roasted alive, watched by tired aristocrats drinking champagne. —Casey Henry

Calling-Card-_-Mezzanine-EP-575x575It’s mid-June, and so we’re obliged to ask: What will be the song of the summer? CNN nominates Wiz Khalifa’s “See You Again”; Jezebel, Prince Royce’s “Back It Up”; Vulture, Fetty Wap’s “Trap Queen.” I’m casting a vote for The Galleria’s “Mezzanine,” the slinkiest piece of bubblegum R&B this side of Nu Shooz’s “I Can’t Wait.” It’s not exactly a major-party contender. The Galleria, a collaboration between the producer Morgan Geist and the vocalist Jessy Lanza, is maybe the first group I’ve ever heard of to take their name, and their thematic inspiration, from a shopping mall; a brief statement from the duo clarifies that the mall in their hearts boasts “a full arcade and food court. Shopping floors are color-coded and accessible from glass elevators and interconnected walkways. Escalators are temporarily out of order and our anchor store has gone out of business. Strawberry lip gloss is on sale. These are your sticky years.” That they are. —D.P.