Staff Picks: Sinister Clowns, Ferocious Beasts, Pigs


This Week’s Reading

Walton Ford, Gleipnir, 2012, watercolor, gouache, ink, pencil on paper, 69″ x 120″.

My favorite chapter in Valeria Luiselli’s wonderful, unusual new novel, The Story of My Teeth, is “The Parabolics,” in which the book’s protagonist, Highway, wakes to discover that all his teeth are missing and that he is in the midst of the supremely creepy Ugo Rondinone video installation Where Do We Go from Here; that is, he finds himself confronted on four sides by a quartet of lethargic, staring, “sinister” clowns, “a hell worse than the one that had installed itself inside my mouth.” A disembodied, rather unkind voice relates a series of parables to Highway throughout the chapter, so it seemed safe to assume that the chapter title referred to these. But Highway doesn’t understand any of the stories, and in fact his thoughts seem to circle around the idea expressed by Rondinone’s title. “Where am I supposed to go?” he queries the voice. “Parabolics” might also refer to “parabolas,” a series of curves—or perhaps (attempted) leaps over “the schism between the perception you have yourself and the perception other people have of you.” Maybe I’m taking a leap myself. But: “I’ve always thought that hell is the people you could one day become,” Highway thinks. “And there I was, toothless, lying on a bench in front of videotaped projections of enormous buffoons, dozing … being mistaking for one of them.” —Nicole Rudick

A recent piece in the Times on Walton Ford made me remember: I really enjoy the work of Walton Ford. His paintings, which I first saw at the Brooklyn Museum in 2006, depict ferocious animals doing ferocious things, ferociously; they’re set in a welter of copulation and violence at the edge of human society, and in a lot of them, nineteenth-century aristocrats are on hunting trips gone seriously awry. I’m envious of anyone in Paris who gets to see his fifteen new works at the Musée de la Chasse, a museum dedicated to hunters and animals that “essentially documents our historical fear of being eaten alive,” as Matthew Rose puts it in the Times, and thus a perfect venue for Ford’s work. In one new painting, Representation Véritable, a massive black creature based on the Beast of Gévaudan has a wolf by the jugular; in the background, two women are at rest (maybe forever?) in an idyllic meadow. Ford’s paintings are musky, unsparing allegories for colonialism, industrialism, and a host of other noxious -isms, and no one should discount their formal ingenuity—but none of it would matter if they weren’t, at their most literal level, so terrifying. —Dan Piepenbring 


Reading The Paris Review’s 1985 interview with Elizabeth Hardwick led me to revisit her autobiographical novel, Sleepless Nights. In the interview’s opening exchange, Hardwick is playfully accused of not liking to talk about herself. “Well,” she replies, dodging a confession, “I do a lot of talking and the ‘I’ is not often absent.” True to form, in Sleepless Nights, Hardwick reveals the facts of her life with dreamlike reticence. When I read it for the first time, I hadn’t known that she was married to Robert Lowell. So it was only later that I understood what “the torment of personal relations,” as Hardwick puts it in the novel, might have meant to her. Sleepless Nights is not really—or not only—the story of a marriage, though. We learn about Hardwick’s Kentucky childhood and how she arrived in New York, but along the way, she haunts and is haunted by the lives of other women: by the drudgery of Josette and Ida, by Louisa’s boredom, by Billie Holiday’s “luminous self-destruction.” Toward the end of Sleepless Nights, Hardwick writes, “Sometimes, I resent the glossary, the concordance of truth, many have about my real life.” At the same time, she admits, “Otherwise I love to be known by those I care for.” —Hannah LeClair

At the Windham-Campbell Festival in New Haven this week, Michael Cunningham moderated a discussion on the art of fiction with Helon Habila, Teju Cole, and Ivan Vladislavic. Vladislavic made two comments that brought to mind one of his early works, The Restless Supermarket. Reflecting on the “purpose” of fiction, he said, “fiction reveals to you the shape of another life, and the texture of language.” Later, he mused on how the spatial dynamics of race and class in South Africa impressed themselves on his authorial signature: “I started writing in a place where space was profoundly engineered, profoundly structured. Apartheid was essentially spatial. From the moment I began to write I was interested in the human being in a particular context.” In The Restless Supermarket, the protagonist, Aubrey Tearle, confronts Johannesburg in the early 1990s, in the thick of South Africa’s belated transition to democracy. A conservative, retired proofreader of the telephone directory, he displaces his anxiety about an uncertain future, in which his own relevance remains concealed, onto the “corrigenda” he begins to see all around him—from spelling errors in menus to toppled supermarket marketing symbols. Vladislavic creates a playful and telling vignette of social and political change as it arises in everyday life. —Joshua Maserow

From Black Mirror.

The best response to David Cameron’s alleged porcine indiscretion appears in the London Review of Books, in Nick Richardson’s remembrance of the club’s druggy, orgiastic parties past: “Fucking a pig’s head is not what makes David Cameron a rubbish prime minister.” But the most bizarrely prescient anticipation of the act came four years ago, in the great British TV satire Black Mirror, a harrowing fun-house examination of the profoundly personal consequences of overreaching, alienating technology. In its first episode, “The National Anthem,” a fresh-faced, earnest prime minister confronts an impossible decision—which, coincidentally, is pig related. I won’t spoil it further. I’ll only say that it manages to fashion, from a rude joke, a perverted moment of the world-historical, giving us a portrait of the contemporary political climate at once bleak, poignant, and devastatingly funny. —Henri Lipton