Staff Picks: Signage, Segel, Cerebral Kisses


This Week’s Reading

Ed Ruscha, Standard, Amarillo, Texas (detail), 1962, black-and-white photograph.

Katherine Silver’s translation of Dinner, by the Argentinian novelist César Aira, found its way to me earlier this week, and I’ve since raced through it. It’s a slender, wacky fun house of a novel—featuring peptide-craving cadavers and intricate wind-up toys, among other oddities—and yet it begins at the most ordinary of places: the dinner table. There our sixty-something-year-old bachelor (who still lives with his mom) sits, having surrendered to an evening of drab gossip with a friend. Soon, and without much warning, Aira tosses us into a zombie-infested town where the dead crawl out of their graves to suck the endorphins from the brains of the living, culminating in what he tenderly calls the “cerebral kiss.” Aira writes with imagination and pith; in an interview with Bomb magazine, he told María Moreno, “In my work everything is invented, and I can go on inventing indefinitely.” I hope he does. —Caitlin Youngquist

Ed Ruscha has always been enigmatic about his photographic work; he has called it a hobby, despite the fact that he has produced a number of photo books (now rare and highly prized), including the famous Twentysix Gasoline StationsVarious Small Fires, and Every Building on the Sunset Strip. Those books have even inspired a book of their own, the recent Various Small Books, which catalogues other artists’ riffs on and homages to Ruscha’s volumes. And now I’ve discovered a photo book about Ruscha’s photographs and photo books—the aptly titled Ed Ruscha, Photographer. Somewhere between wanting to be a cartoonist and a commercial artist and becoming a painter, Ruscha fit in a side interest in photography. The book features not only his hymns to repetition and the midcentury American landscape but also his very early snapshots (taken Europe in 1961) and his more recent photographs, which attest to his abiding interest in highway signage. There is also a smattering of color work—strange, often red-stained still lifes involving liquids and food. Think Marilyn Minter crossed with Takeshi Murata put through an Ed Ruscha filter. —Nicole Rudick

A still from The End of the Tour.

To my shock, I loved The End of the Tour. Jason Segel doesn’t look or sound much like David Foster Wallace—he pantomimes DFW’s complex sentences like castles in the air—but he has built a character who can speak Wallace’s words with depth and understanding. Donald Margulies’s screenplay transcends the crumminess of David Lipsky’s original profile by facing it head-on: Lipsky, as played by Jesse Eisenberg, is such a convincing putz, there were audible gasps in the movie theater when he rifled DFW’s medicine cabinet. (The real Lipsky has said this isn’t a film about journalistic exploitation, but Rebecca Mead is right—that’s partly what it is.) Along the way, Margulies and the director James Ponsoldt capture the excitement surrounding Infinite Jest when it appeared in 1996, at almost the last moment a book could actually appear in physical bookstores across the country and in physical, unignorable newspapers and magazines. Among other things, The End of the Tour is an elegy to print culture, when even a hack could get lost in a book and envy greatness on the page. —Lorin Stein

While we’re on Wallace, anyone who admires his nonfiction should listen to Ruth Reichl on New Books in Food, where she discusses the editorial process behind “Consider the Lobster.” I’d known that the essay’s appearance in Gourmet had caused a kerfuffle—here was a discursive, sometimes strident meditation on bioethics smack in the middle of “the magazine of good living”—but I hadn’t known that the magazine lost advertisers over it; or that the title, a play on M. F. K. Fisher’s “Consider the Oyster,” was Gourmet’s idea, not Wallace’s; or that he disputed literally every edit along the way. In fact he’d resolved to pull the piece, Reichl says, until she reminded him of the audience he’d reach: “If you want the people who are cooking lobsters to read this piece, you will keep it in Gourmet.” She gives an interesting peek at the politics of magazines, for which every issue brokers a new truce between writers, readers, editors, and advertisers. —Dan Piepenbring

Mario Benedetti.

Reading Mario Benedetti’s Primavera con una esquina rota (1982), enthusiastically billed as a “great political novel,” I braced myself for what I imagined would be doggedly committed social realism: the book follows a family’s exile after the 1973 military coup in Uruguay. But I was pleasantly surprised—the book is formally experimental, philosophically subtle, and (above all) funny. In fact, a comment of Benedetti’s from 1953—that the eight hundred pages of Ulysses comprise not a novel but “a short story of monstrous proportions”—might well be applied to the forty-five fragments of Primavera. Brief and intense, each has the quality of a short story; there is something Joycean, too, about their ostentatious variety of narrative modes and perspectives, and the continual wordplay, which offers exile as a linguistic, as well as political, phenomenon. Delightfully weird, Primavera resists being confined by categories—in itself, perhaps, a political act. The book deserves an English translation. —Chloe Currens