Staff Picks: Yeltsin and Yelling


This Week’s Reading


From They Live, 1988.

We published Padgett Powell’s “Boris Yeltsin Spotted in a Bar” in our Summer issue. It spoke to me, but I don’t know why. It’s basically a list of items you’d find in a well-stocked hardware store, followed by a meditation on a drunk spouse, followed by the appearance, in an American bar, of someone who may or may not be the deceased Russian statesman. But its narrator, with his digressive style, is lonely in a way that makes him obsessed with everyday mysteries, and he felt very alive to me, in his mania. That story is from Powell’s new collection, Cries for Help, Various­, where—be still my beating heart—it sits among a Yeltsin trilogy, rounded out by “Yeltsin Dancing” and “Yeltsin and Canaries.” As with the rest of Cries for Help, these stories are at once absurd and plaintive; they generate the kind of curiosity you feel when you see one boot sitting in the middle of the street, or the same stranger in three different neighborhoods in a day. Critics sometimes dismiss Powell’s fiction—as with Barthelme’s before him—as directionless riffing, but these aren’t non sequiturs: his sentences gather pathos as they accumulate. He’s hidden a lot of sadness in such a funny book. —Dan Piepenbring

Last weekend, I rewatched John Carpenter’s 1988 film They Live, a subversive and satirical take on capitalism. Midway through the film, with the planet in jeopardy, two protagonists engage in an exhausting six-minute fight; one has insisted that the other don sunglasses that allow him to see Earth’s invading aliens. I see now that the scene is an astute comment on human nature: even when the future of the planet is at stake, people can’t be trusted to make the right decisions. This realization comes only from having read Lee Billing’s essay at Nautilus about digging into Stanislaw Lem’s early sixties philosophical tract, Summa Technologiae. The book—which sounds dense but also brilliant—examines questions about our relationship with technological advances, such as “Where are the absolute limits for our knowledge and our achievement, and will these boundaries be formed by the fundamental laws of nature or by the inherent limitations of our psyche?” In Lem’s appraisal, the potential obsolescence of the human race will be determined by the unpredictability of human behavior—an unpredictability he experienced firsthand as a Polish Jew in World War II: “We were like ants bustling in an anthill over which the heel of a boot is raised … Some saw its shadow, or thought they did, but everyone, the uneasy included, ran about their usual business until the very last minute, ran with enthusiasm, devotion—to secure, to appease, to tame the future.” —Nicole Rudick

Cassandra-at-the-Wedding_2048x2048My mother is getting married in a few weeks, so I thought I’d finally read Dorothy Baker’s 1962 novel, Cassandra at the Wedding. The book, which spans a couple of days in the Sierras, is about a set of twins: Jude, the more conventional of the two, is to be married, and Cass, a gay, crass, slightly unhinged academic, is determined to set the whole thing aflame. (Don’t worry, I didn’t get any ideas.) What unfolds is a cocktail of witty banter, asphyxiating neurosis, and the absurd effects of love. My favorite moments are the small caesuras from all the commotion—the ones where Cassandra thinks of her childhood cat, Tacky, “how understanding, how feline, peaceful and deep” he was; where she remembers all the sex she had as her “Rimbaud phase”; where she imagines how pleasurable it’d be to have a bat caught in her hair: “I’d talk to it in a low, calm voice, tell it to relax, and trust me … It would lie there resting, probably reflecting that peoples’ hair isn’t so bad as bats have always been taught to believe.” Baker thought her own work was “not quite good enough,” this book proves the very opposite. —Caitlin Youngquist

Several months ago I stumbled upon John Berger’s slim volume of essays and poems, And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos. Like an earworm, the title worked its way into my mind, and I knew I had to read it. The book is divided into two parts, “Once” and “Here,” the two poles around which Berger’s meditations about time and place revolve, propelled by memory and a sense of homesickness. His writing—restrained but always tending toward the lyrical—walks the borderland between poetry and prose. Reading news of the waves of migrants reaching Europe has reminded me of Berger; he’s written extensively on migration in books like A Seventh Man and the trilogy Into Their Labours. “In a railway station,” he observes, “the impersonal and the intimate coexist.” As I read articles like the dispatches from Anemona Hartocollis’s reporter’s notebook in the New York Times and picture the German railway stations welcoming those who’ve made the arduous trek through Hungary, I recall what Berger writes in And Our Faces: “To the underprivileged, home is represented, not by a house, but by a practice or a set of practices. Everyone has his own. These practices, chosen and not imposed, offer in their repetition, transient as they may be in themselves, more permanence, more shelter than any lodging. Home is no longer a dwelling but the untold story of a life being lived.” —Hannah LeClair

Fat_City_2048x2048I’d put Leonard Gardner’s Fat City, newly reissued, in my mental TBR pile despite having never seen an actual copy; I guess I just liked the title. With aspects of western and noir, it centers on two men in a small boxing circuit in Stockton, California, in the late 1950s: one is a young, promising newcomer, and the other (you guessed it) a washed-up old-timer who drinks more than he boxes and hopes to get one more break so he can use the money to win back his ex-wife—then everything will be okay again. The two, and rest of the book’s characters, are shitty to everyone—to women, to minorities, and above all to themselves—but Gardner has a lot of love for these people, who seem to have rarely felt it. The plot is predictable, but Gardner is adept in certain modes. He does self-reproach especially well: you feel it often with his characters as they yell at girlfriends, drink themselves to sleep, and generally squander the brighter future they spend so much time hoping for. They seem exactly like folks I’ve known: not characterizations of folks I’ve known, but those exact folks. Fat City is a dismal testament to blind endurance. —Jeffery Gleaves