Staff Picks: Deadened Hues, Deer Boys, Dullard Fiancés


This Week’s Reading

From The Electric Pencil.

I spent this week madly reading Idra Novey’s Ways to Disappear, not wanting to put it down until I’d finished. The novel concerns the search for Beatriz Yagoda, a Brazilian novelist who was last seen climbing into an almond tree with a suitcase, but of course it’s really about the characters who take up the pursuit: Yagoda’s two adult children, her bygone publisher, and her ardent American translator. The translator, Emma, runs to the aid of her missing author (“as if there weren’t anyone as reliable in a kidnapping as a devoted translator”), while also running away from her stale life and dullard fiancé in Pittsburgh. Yet even in Brazil, amid the excitement and chaos, she finds herself existing on the margins of a story in which she is also a central actor, returning again and again to the solace and structure of her author’s invented worlds: “And wasn’t the splendor of translation this very thing … To arrive, at least once, at a moment this intimate and singular, which would not be possible without these words arranged in this order on this page?” —Nicole Rudick

“Your book hurts me,” writes Julio Cortázar to Alejandra Pizarnick in the letter that opens her final collection of poems, A Musical Hell. The slender compilation, published before Pizarnik’s suicide in 1972 and translated from the Spanish by Yvette Siegert as part of the New Directions Poetry Pamphlet series, had escaped me until last weekend, when I found it nestled on the shelf of my local bookshop. Saddle stitched and no more than sixty-four pages long, it’s an intimate coup d’oeil of a mind tormented by depression, paranoia, and genius. In it, Pizarnik breathes a sort of hushed devastation into every verse, believing, as she once said, that “to write is to give meaning to suffering.” Her poems are at once gentle and macabre, with tremors of madness and nightmarish whimsy: Pizarnik writes of the nuns that nip like crows between her legs, she makes a list of all that dead lovers leave behind, she talks of suicide as beautiful. Hers is an indelible art, one I’ll revel in for a while. From “Mortal Ties”: “That savage room was made up in the deadened hues of repressed desire; its light was the color of a mausoleum for infants.” (NB: a new collection of Pizarnik’s poetry will appear this month.) —Caitlin Youngquist 


From the cover of Ways to Disappear.

At age twenty-five, having gone at his brother with a hatchet and attempted suicide by guzzling antifreeze, James Edward Deeds, Jr. landed in State Hospital No. 3, a Missouri mental institution. During his thirty-seven years there, he made elaborate, fanciful drawings in pencil and crayon on the hospital’s ledger: steamboats, hot-air balloons, early automobiles, tigers, peacocks, ladies in plumed hats, men in waistcoats. He numbered and collated the pictures in a scrapbook, which he gave to his mother; she passed it off to his brother; he let it sit in his attic; when he left the house, in 1970, the movers tossed the book in a pile of garbage on the side of the road; a fourteen-year-old kid happened to find it and then held onto it until 2006, when he sold it to a collector; and now, finally, it’s been published as The Electric Pencil. It’s hard to describe the eerie, tranquilized quality of Deeds’s drawings, and the shadowy story they tell about mental health in the age of electroshock therapy and Thorazine. The nostalgia that animates his work is alternately enchanting and depressing; his faces, whether they belong to people or animals, have eyes large and vacant enough to make Margaret Keane shudder. The cumulative effect is of a dream that’s always at risk of curdling into a nightmare. —Dan Piepenbring

Having been an infantry medic, Luke Mogelson writes his debut collection, These Heroic, Happy Dead, out in April, with the palpable authenticity of the American soldier-storytellers that came before him: O’Brien, Ackerman, Herr. His stories explore the strange, sad ways war-zone trauma manifests itself in their characters once their tours are over. In “Peacetime,” we inhabit an EMT with knickknack kleptomania; “To the Lake,” which first appeared in the Review, shows us an abusive amputee obsessed with Christmas lights. There’s an undeniable pathology to the peace these small things bring to the veterans; it’s within such compulsions where readers understand their wars still rage. It’d be reductive to frame any reading of Dead and its protagonists strictly within the confines of Mogelson’s history as a soldier, though. These stories are often as funny as they are grave, their characters believable but bizarre. The men and women in These Heroic, Happy Dead are object lessons in what makes a book haunting and unforgettable. —Daniel Johnson

From the cover of A Musical Hell.

Though it’s by no means a recent discovery, I’ve been going back to the elusive UK songwriter Jai Paul’s unfinished, unmastered, and unrivaled debut album. It’s technically contraband: when it was inconspicuously uploaded to Bandcamp three years ago, it was greeted with buzz and speculation only to be renounced by Paul almost immediately, and soon it was impossible to find. The party line is that someone stole Paul’s laptop and leaked the album, but many clues point to an unsanctioned self-release by Paul himself. Regardless, the hype was justified. Its production is a thick whirlwind of split-second samples, with breaths, moans, and laser guns deployed as impedimenta, completely supplanting the sense of rhythm. In one track, a cover of Jennifer Paige’s 1998 hit “Crush”, Paul’s breathy singing is completely drowned out by his lo-fi instrumentals. “Jasmine” and “BTSTU” fulfill the album’s pop ambitions, but the strongest cuts are the irreverent “Genevieve” and “Str8 Outta Mumbai,” the former seeming to pledge an explicit allegiance to Prince. The album is a difficult find today, but it’s unequivocally worth the search. —Rakin Azfar