Staff Picks: Bears, Bellies, Blackmail


This Week’s Reading

Mickalene Thomas, Lovely Six Foota, 2007, color photograph.

Mickalene Thomas, Lovely Six Foota, 2007, color photograph.

The first entry in New York Review Books’s new comics series is Mark Beyer’s Agony, a graphic novel about two regular working people just trying to get by and the ceaseless horrors visited on them. Amy and Jordan endure acid baths, bear and monster attacks, unemployment, boring friends, prison beatings, armed robbery, an apartment flooded with blood, and deaths in the family, among other cataclysms; they bear it all with the same gaunt, anxious expressions, and usually they speak only in affectless expository sentences. E.g.: “I’ve been swallowed by the same fish that ate Amy’s head, and my legs have been bitten off. I’ve got to get out of here!” As Colson Whitehead writes in the introduction, how hard you laugh at all this depends on “how you feel about relinquishing the logic of realism in favor of the logic of undying despair.” I couldn’t get enough of their misery: I finished it in one sitting and flipped back to the beginning. —Dan Piepenbring

My traveling companion these days has been the late poet Frank Lima and his newly collected Incidents of Travel in Poetry. The book, beautifully culled by editors Garrett Caples and Julien Poirier, comprises the breadth of Lima’s work, from his early poems written as a heroin-addicted New York School outsider to his later surrealistic ones informed by freewriting. Many are autobiographical, making this one of the heavier, more affecting collections I’ve read in a while. His poems are laced with incest and smack and guns: he writes of his stay on Hart’s Island, where he tries to get clean, and of his mother who, “when I awoke … was a warm mist hovering, suspended over me, / naked, / … sweeping my body away / into the cumulus clouds / of black pubic hair.” Lima’s verse is uninhibited and unafraid; he writes with pungent frankness. My favorite lines, though, are the playful, tender ones. From “morning sara”: “I am hungry and go thru your underwear / give me some hot soup or / I’ll suck on the curtains!”; from “Mi Tierra”: “When I touch you / I see Utah / your flat white sandy belly / the powdered dust devils in your navel / the white nipples of the Rocky Mountains.” —Caitlin Youngquist

When I was twenty-two, spending all day at the local Barnes & Noble to avoid the computer at home, I used to judge novels by whether I’d die to have written them. (As in, type the last word and keel over.) I called this game Lucky Jim, after the book that first gave me the idea. Now, thanks to New York Review Classics, I’ve found a Kingsley Amis novel I like even better. Take a Girl Like You is about a sexually innocent schoolteacher who falls in love with a creepy, alcoholic Casanova. Or maybe it’s the other way around: Amis inhabits both protagonists with a kind of double vision that can make you laugh on one page and leave you queasy on the next. One doesn’t ordinarily think of Amis as a feminist writer, but like his friend Philip Larkin, he seems deeply at home in the soul of a lonely young woman. I don’t play Lucky Jim anymore—I’d forgotten all about it—but Take a Girl Like You brought it rushing back. —Lorin Stein

Pages from Mark Beyer’s Agony.

Pages from Mark Beyer’s Agony.

Mickalene Thomas is one of my favorite artists at work today—I can’t resist her baroque of textures, patterns, and color—and Aperture has just opened a humdinger of a show: a selection of Thomas’s photographs, collages, and Polaroids, as well as a tableau that serves as the setting for many of her images; plus, a mini exhibition, called “tête-à-tête” and curated by Thomas, that features the work of ten other artists (including Carrie Mae Weems, Latoya Ruby Frazier, Malick Sidibé, and Zanele Muholi) who together produce a kind of call-and-response around notions of sexuality, race, and culture. There’s plenty of playacting in Thomas’s work: blaxploitation, black power, and Ebony, but also Édouard Manet, classicism, and studio portraiture. A Jesus Christ Superstar album sits in the background of the large photograph La leçon d‘amour, in which one woman is draped dramatically across another woman’s lap. It’s a pietà in which “Mary” dons a white Afro and pumps, and “Jesus” is a sultry, supple lady who looks unequivocally at the viewer and is very much alive. That gaze between subject and viewer, which is a hallmark of Thomas’s work, is what she describes as “recognition and acknowledgement and validation: you see me and I see you.” It can be difficult to tear yourself away from those gazes. But then, why would you want to? —Nicole Rudick

Amber Sparks’s new collection of stories, The Unfinished World, is a welcome foray into Kelly Link territory: the outlandish and the otherworldly. In “The Cemetery of Lost Faces,” the book’s most devastating story (and my favorite), a father mentors his impassive daughter in his lifelong passion of taxidermy because he requires someone “who would remain impartial in the face of accurate observation, for without it, what did we have but the terrors of the imagination?” So many of these stories read in this spirit: as observational field notes for Sparks’s characters, with narratives that arise only from the delicate reportage of their eccentricities. Every scene is, almost always, softly and meticulously arranged, like tableaux of preserved butterflies. And yet, as real as these characters are, everything about The Unfinished World remains somehow fantastic, dreamed up in Sparks’s own terror of an imagination—like the librarian who’s dedicated her life to studying and archiving human fevers. At the beginning of “Lost Faces,” the parents argue over what it might mean to train their children in taxidermy, strange as it is. They conclude such an art is as much a lesson in how to live in this world as it is in learning to leave it. So, too, are the best parts of Sparks’s collection. —Daniel Johnson

When I was younger, I secretly aspired to make a grand, sweeping film inhabited by big-name celebrities with a marketing budget to match—and I wanted the film to be about nothing. No real plot, no moral convictions, nothing. I wanted to create something huge that, at its core, had nothing to do with anything at all, that made viewers unsure whether to demand a refund. But after watching the Coen brothers’ 2008 film Burn After Reading, I realize it’s been done. A spy comedy chock-full of the kind of a priori humor for which the Coens have become famous, Burn features Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand as a pair of personal trainers trying their hand at blackmail in Laurel-and-Hardy fashion. Their target is a former spy played by John Malkovich, a casting decision that plays out on the screen as ridiculously as it looks on this page. Rounding out the cast is George Clooney, exuding the kind of self-assured idiocy that has become a Coen brothers staple. What follows is a chaotic ballet of nihilistic incompetency that refuses to aspire to anything—any philosophy, principle, even plot. It is hilarious and not much else, which is okay, because humor is all that Burn After Reading pursues. I think. —Rakin Azfar