Staff Picks: Constellations, Cartography, Costanza


This Week’s Reading

Exhibition of the Laughing Gas, a wood engraving, ca. 1840.

We’ve been closing the Fall issue of the magazine this week, so I haven’t had much of an opportunity for outside reading (there are a couple long poems in the issue I’m particularly keen on). No matter what, though, I’ve spent an hour each night watching the new Netflix show Stranger Things. Set in eighties Indiana, the smart and thrilling eight-part series is indebted to much of what was great in eighties horror and youthful sci-fi and fantasy—PoltergeistE.T., Stephen King novels, D&D—and shows its influences appreciatively, without seeming imitative or derivative. The tautly drawn plot centers on three adventuresome boys, dorks of the Goonies variety, who lose a friend to a monster-populated parallel world and who befriend a telekinetic girl, named Eleven, to help bring him back. It manages to combine everything I want from my science-fiction entertainment: it’s funny and frightening, doesn’t take the science for granted, and is as much about how people relate to one another as it is about supernatural doings. And of course, John Carpenter–style synths. —Nicole Rudick

A few years ago, Benjamin Breen wrote for the Daily about the literature of laughing gas, focusing on the psychedelic poetic yield of William James’s encounters with the drug. (“Agreement—disagreement!!,” James wrote. “Emotion—motion!!!”) Now the Public Domain Review has put out Oh Excellent Air Bag, an eye-opening compilation of writing about, on, or under the influence of nitrous oxide: an enthralling look at the range of responses laughing gas brought about before the culture began to dictate our reaction to it. Beginning in 1799, when Humphry Davy embarked on a systemic effort to chronicle the effects of the gas, the book goes all the way up an unsigned piece from 1920, in which the writer’s routine tooth extraction sends him on a voyage to the edges of consciousness: “I drifted out among star-ways, and a galaxy of saffron constellations whirled about my head. In some outer void of space I took my station on a base of infinite nothingness … Eventually there was to come, in the wake of all, a world white and lucent, gleaming like the plumage of an angel’s wing.” Something to keep in mind before your next root canal. —Dan Piepenbring 

From the cover of Cartographer

I heard the poet Kei Miller read from his collection The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion a few months ago at Calabash, a biennial literary festival on the island of Jamaica. I stayed up one evening this week reading the book through; it was even better than I’d remembered. The Cartographer comprises an imaginary quibbling, in verse, between a mapmaker, whose job it is to “to show / the earth as it is, without bias,” and a Rastaman who, in patois, shows his friend what he cannot see, that the lines he draws are of things that “shoulda never exist,” like borders and conquests, the touch of imperialism. The book artfully challenges the history that Babylon has written for Jamaica. And strewn throughout are other poems, too—of a mother and the dolls she asks her children to bring home from their travels (“as if glass eyes could bear sufficient / witness to where she has not been, / the what of the world she has not seen”); of the other maps that are made, like the ones guiding bees from hive to hibiscus. Miller is harrowingly poignant and oddly tender. His is a voice I hope to hear again. —Caitlin Youngquist

Even better now that they’re off the air.

For years, Twitter accounts like Modern Seinfeld and Seinfeld2000 have been helping humankind in one major creative endeavor: imagining what Seinfeld would be like if it were still on TV. But no one has taken the joke as far as Billy Domineau, a comedian who recently debuted a pitch-perfect, full-length Seinfeld spec script that’s funnier than many episodes of the show that actually aired. Domineau’s episode is set just after 9/11, and it finds Jerry, George, Kramer, and Elaine reacting with typical tastelessness to New York’s darkest hour. (When Costanza is mistaken for a hero who saved people from the World Trade Center, he runs with it.) I don’t know how Domineau mastered the show’s tone, pace, and character tics, but they’re all here. It’s the single most impressive piece of fan fiction I’ve ever read. It makes me wish the Seinfeld writers’ room still existed to offer him a job. —D.P.

Still from 3 Women.

Last night I rewatched Robert Altman’s 1977 film 3 Women, an atmospheric masterpiece about, yes, three women whose personalities bleed together until their identities are nearly indistinguishable. The first time I watched 3 Women the magnitude of my discomfort made me wonder if the film’s premise (women fluidly exchanging identities in the course of normal social activity) could be cynical or even sexist, but the truth is that 3 Women is much more complex. Altman’s characters turn out to be contradictory and unknown even to themselves. Their behavior is sometimes purposeful and sometimes unconscious, their motives shift between sinister and benevolent, and they react to their changing selves with alternating joy and despair. In a way, this view of the self is a metonymy for the film overall: a collection of powerful and contradictory parts that add up to an inexplicable whole. I can’t tell you what it is that the dreamy atmosphere, atonal score, and odd characters conspire to produce in 3 Women, but I feel compelled to watch it again and again.  —Sylvie McNamara