Staff Picks: Surveillance, Silence, Pseudocide


This Week’s Reading

From Will You Dance with Me?

Our colleague Bobby sent me back to Edith Wharton’s novel of 1870s New York, The Age of Innocence. What struck Bobby (I’m paraphrasing) was the air of heavy surveillance: the action begins in an opera box, under the scrutiny of hundreds of eyes, and basically stays there. It feels oddly contemporary. At the same time The Age of Innocence is, very self-consciously, an historical novel. That’s what struck me: it appeared in 1920, almost fifty years after the events it describes, and belongs to that fun subgenre of novels—e.g., A Journal of the Plague Year, Middlemarch, Swann’s Way—that imagine what the grown-ups were actually up to when the author was a kid. —Lorin Stein 

When City Lights was preparing to publish the first edition of Julio Cortázar’s poetry in English in 1997 (it’s number fifty-three in the Pocket Poets series), Ferlinghetti wanted to produce a lean volume. In doing so, he cut the essay “For Listening Through Headphones,” which Cortázar begins by mourning the “pre-echo” on some records that mars “the brief night of the ears as they get ready for the fresh irruption of sound.” It’s funny that an essay that more than once uses the play of light and darkness to illuminate sound would be omitted from a book titled Save Twilight. But this month, City Lights is reissuing the volume, now heftier, thanks in part to the restoration of “For Listening” (and other poems that were left out from the original). In addition to being mesmerizing and utterly gorgeous (“now the needle / runs through the former silence and focuses it / in a black plush … a phosphene silence”), the essay links the experience of hearing music through headphones to poetry’s innate intimacy: “How not to think, then, that somehow poetry is a word heard through invisible headphones as soon as the poem begins to work its spell.” —Nicole Rudick 

“As I looked round the white box of my cell,” Patrick Leigh Fermor writes in A Time to Keep Silence, “I suffered what Pascal declared to be the cause of all human evils.” He’s referring to the adage that man’s problems come from our inability to sit quietly in a room alone. It’s sometime in the fifties, and Leigh Fermor is writing about a visit he took to the Abbey of Saint Wandrille de Fontanelle, in Normandy, France, where he’d retreated to work on a book. Complete silence in a rural monastery seems like the ideal creative circumstance, but he finds himself overwhelmed by “gloom and accidie,” struck by the loneliness of living among silent monks. The book is short, but there’s a lot to learn here, even for those who don’t follow the cenobitic (or even a religious) practice. By observing the monks—their gentleness, patience (“lack of haste”), and their general serenity as a community—Leigh Fermor eventually finds expansive freedom. For those of us who can’t trek to the monastery to escape the “toxic” urban situation, as he calls it, it’s up to us to find our own ways to quell the “anxieties and trivialities that poison everyday life.” —Caitlin Love

From the NYRB reissue of A Time to Keep Silence.

In Will You Dance With Me?, the 1984 Derek Jarman film playing this weekend at the Metrograph in Manhattan, a handheld camera trolls about a gay dance club for seventy-five minutes in 1980s London. It has narrative in the same way a dance floor at a wedding has a linear trajectory: the first twenty minutes of not-dancing are painfully awkward, but a playlist of Diana Ross and Marsha Raven galvanizes some brave singles into taking the floor—and so on, until the movie’s crest, when nearly everyone in the club is dancing spectacularly to the tune of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Relax.” Between all that, Jarman haunts the bar, and what was once a loose, drunken experience of lights and blurs and bodies in the periphery becomes sober and stationary; we become uncomfortably aware of all the harsh forms—the angularity of the human skeleton and the chunky meat of skin and muscle, the uniform geometry of cigarette packs and currency and the metal of the cash register. We’re reminded that people dance as a way of escaping the various chains of the human form. As Jarman raves with strangers, everything and everyone dissolves into fluid streams of light. —Daniel Johnson

I remember reading Tom Sawyer as a kid and being jazzed at the thought of faking my death and attending my own funeral. Elizabeth Greenwood’s Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud has renewed that dream—and, better still, it’s shown me the deep well of creativity and ingenuity beneath so many of our efforts to disappear. Greenwood, who’d looked to pseudocide as a way to bail on six figures of student-loan debt, profiles the (mostly male and psychologically fragile) people who’ve searched high and low for a way out of this vale of tears. Her subjects are colorful—the guy who staged an elaborate kayak accident is especially well rendered—but Playing Dead is at its best when it sweats the logistics. It’s the most literally escapist summer read you could hope for. —Dan Piepenbring


This week, a colleague was surprised to hear me describe my day as “grand” with an air of indifference. Welcome to the wonderful world of Hiberno-English, where grand means okay, to give out has no overlap with to put out, and yoke is just a common placeholder word for an indescribable person/thing. To acquaint oneself with this wonderful vernacular, try Lisa McInerney’s The Glorious Heresies, a debut novel that details life in post-crash society Ireland. The book opens with an accidental murder committed by Maureen, an elderly lady, who clobbers a burglar with a holy ornament. She turns to her estranged gangster-son to help dispose of the body. The narration also dips into the lives of Ryan, a teenage drug dealer; his alcoholic father; and a troubled prostitute called Georgie. What could be a grim tale is lifted by McInerney’s eye for black comedy, something that Irish writers are particularly good at. Without sounding twee, it evoked a sense of nostalgia for the old country—and I would highly recommend it for the sheer musicality of the language, so much more than “grand.” —Nollaig O’Connor

The title story of April Ayers Lawson’s collection Virgin and Other Stories, out this November, appeared in the Review in 2010; another entry, “The Way You Must Play Always,” has me thinking about character. It follows the fourteen-year-old Gretchen, whose parents force her into piano lessons after they catch her making out with her cousin. Offhand observations—Gretchen describes the eyes of her piano teacher’s terminally ill brother as “the color of mint leaves submerged in bourbon”—reveal the precocious intensity with which Gretchen notices the world. Without Lawson saying so, it’s clear that the humiliation Gretchen endured with her cousin has permeated her life; the incongruity between her luminous thoughts and her self-presentation (she refuses, for instance, to play piano well because she’s ashamed to display her emotions) tells us all we need to know. It’s a testament to Lawson’s achievement that what’s memorable isn’t her plunges into the strange, but the care with which she has drawn her characters. —Sylvie McNamara