It All Started with Algae, and Other News


On the Shelf


  • If I know you, reader, you were about to throw your hands up, abandon your career, move to a small town, and eke out a living as a substitute teacher. But wait! Nicholson Baker spent the first half of 2014 as a sub in Maine, and he wrote everything down, and the outlook is grim. Here’s what he took away from his time in the trenches of our public-education system: “In my experience, every high-school subject, no matter how worthy and jazzy and thought-­provoking it may have seemed to an earnest Common Corer, is stuffed into the curricular Veg-­O-­Matic, and out comes a nasty packet with grading rubrics on the back. On the first page, usually, there are numbered ‘learning targets,’ and inside, inevitably, a list of specialized vocabulary words to master. In English it’s unreliable narrator, or ethos, or metonymy, or thesis sentence. This is all fluff knowledge, meta-­knowledge. In math, kids must memorize words like apothem and Cartesian coordinate; in science they chant domain! kingdom! phylum! class!, etc., and meiosis and allele and daughter cell and third-class lever and the whole Tinkertoy edifice of terms that acts to draw people away from the freshness and surprise and fantastic interfused complexity of the world and darkens our brains with shadowy taxonomic abstractions.”

  • It’s more or less accepted, especially outside of America, that America loves to dominate. It’s just, like, our thing. And yet the critics who hold us accountable for our empire building never seem to critique our literature. Jonathon Sturgeon wonders if American fiction is helplessly beholden to individualism and imperialism: “Today, if a novel is accepted into the American canon, it is as a masterpiece of individualism that subsumes material and social being into the spirit of a lone genius. If a social world is present in a novel of repute, our critics gobble it up and excrete it as imagination. In the early twenty-first century, realism has come to be synonymous, in the blinkered American critical consensus, with a curiously antisocial novel. It never occurs to critics that realism could only seem real because of the dilapidation of collective dreams. Nor do critics worry that the ‘social issues’ presented in our novels rarely attain the complexity of cable television. Or that a novel genuinely concerned with social life (or even the social role of a single person) could itself, against this backdrop, be idiosyncratic. It’s sad, in other words, that the novels of Jonathan Franzen register to most as sociopolitical literature.”
  • Alan Moore elevated the graphic novel with books like V for Vendetta and Watchmen—then Hollywood got ahold of his work and ran it through the movie-magic meat grinder, sloughing off all his imagination and creativity. So in his new book, Jerusalem, Alan Moore is saying fuck all that: “‘The reason I liked comics was that nobody else did, because it was completely unsupervised,’ he said earlier this summer … Now that revisionist interpretations of the superhero genre are the Hollywood norm (in large part thanks to Moore), he has abandoned the form. ‘I would rather do things that nobody wants,’ he said, of his decision to spend the past decade on a metaphysical, postmodern novel. ‘It’s the most interesting thing to do, to find the areas of culture that are not being paid attention to.’ Characteristically, with Jerusalem, he has refused any editorial intervention. ‘What I wanted was to do something that was so completely unmediated and undiluted. I thought, I don’t want anybody making helpful suggestions.’ ”