Staff Picks: Critical Features and Substitute Teachers


This Week’s Reading

From the cover of Albert Angelo.

One pleasure of living where I do is the giveaway table, where tenants leave unwanted CDs, cassettes, salt-and-pepper shakers, et cetera, and especially books. These tend to be romance novels or thrillers, but the other week someone left the second edition of August Kleinzahler’s Cutty, One Rock—a book I’d given away many times and had eventually forgotten to replace. My wife let me read the title essay aloud, even though I kept slipping into my version of a New Jersey accent (bad, bad). Then, maybe three days later, on the same table, I found a copy of B. S. Johnson’s 1964 novel Albert Angelo. It was crazy—I’d been meaning to read B. S. Johnson for years. If I had come across any of his novels in a bookstore, I’d have bought them. This one’s about a beleaguered substitute teacher in a London slum, a subgenre (the bitter teacher novel) I especially enjoy. Obviously these books—the old favorite and the object of curiosity—have been two clicks away, but serendipity beats intention every time. —Lorin Stein  

The twentieth anniversary of Infinite Jest reminded me of Wallace’s tendency, in interviews, to invoke W. K. Wimsatt’s famous intentional fallacy as a kind of cross against the vampires who wanted to know, not unreasonably, why he’d made certain choices in his fiction. I’ve never understood why the intentional fallacy is so revered, and Michael Wood’s essay in the last issue of the London Review of Books has me questioning it anew. Wood writes on William Empson, a critic who was, in his lifetime, fiercely opposed to “Wimsatt’s Law”; Empson’s work shows what good can come of actually daring to puzzle over an author’s “moment of discovery.” “There is no metaphysical reason,” he wrote once, “for treating the intentions of an author as inherently unknowable”—and Wood adds that “understanding literature is not different from understanding anything else.” True, Empson’s willingness to impute led to some odd criticism—he speculated about which toys Yeats loved as a ten-year-old—and Wood argues that in many ways he wasn’t as opposed to Wimsatt and Barthes as he may have had us believe. But in his objections, Empson demonstrates that effective criticism is never beholden to dogma. —Dan Piepenbring

Empson, whose neck-beard game was strong.

The room I liked best in the Museum of Modern Art’s “Picasso Sculpture” exhibition, which I saw last weekend for its final showing, was the one with the open-work-structured maquettes—monument proposals for the graveside of the artist’s late friend, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire. Walking around them—geometric marvels made of iron wire and sheet metal—I thought of Ron Padgett’s recent translations of Apollinaire in Zone. The selected poems are, like the sculptures, whimsical and bleak, biblical and mythological, traditional and experimental. There are “centaurs put out to stud” and a prayer to the Holy Virgin; Apollinaire writes how the streets of Paris bleat with the sounds of shepherded cars. His shorter poems are by far my favorite; among the lengthier, more embellished ones, they read like delightful, unexpected hiccups, and there’s a matter-of-factness to them that I love. Here’s Padgett’s rendition of “Hotel”: “My room looks like a cage / The sun sticks its arm through the window / But I who want to smoke and makes mirages / I light my cigarette with daylight / I don’t want to work I want to smoke.” —Caitlin Youngquist

Pablo Picasso, Project for a Monument to Guillaume Apollinaire, 1962. Image via the Museum of Modern Art

The narrators in Diane Williams’s story collection Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine—whether they’re doing dishes with canine ghosts or daydreaming about decapitating themselves with loaves of bread—are a complicated bunch, and they offer little help in the way of being understood. Williams’s compressed style means that a single story averages a page-and-a-half in length, forcing readers to engage with a fine-tooth comb. Tricks like the repetition of phonemes and non sequiturs warrant serious consideration; movement between one sentence and the next is frequently violent and unpredictable, and Fine is most enjoyable if you submit to the whiplash. But these stories are more than absurd grammatical puzzles; they address subjects like failed marriages and suicide with surprising warmth. It’s fiction that uses every part of the animal. —Daniel Johnson

J Dilla’s Donuts turns ten this month, and with a mention in Hilton Als’s recent New Yorker profile of Madlib, plus the anniversary of both Dilla’s birth and death in the past week, this seemed a good time to reacquainte myself with it. Released three days before he passed in 2006, the album was in some ways a conventional coda, with its serrated midrange atmospherics, its vocal samples meticulously pitched and chopped. But Donuts also brought something new: it found Dilla, who had a rare blood disorder, facing death frankly, with a blend of dread and cautious optimism. This is, after all, an album that begins with an outro and ends with an intro—listen, too, to the way he selectively cuts a Jadakiss sample, turning “it’s that real” into “Is death real?” A decade on. Donuts is already a canonical record, but it remains a vital listen, created by a talent with possibly the most immersive, unconventional, and expansive sense of rhythm in hip-hop history. —Rakin Azfar