Staff Picks: Mandolins, Meaning, Mr. Cui


This Week’s Reading

René Magritte, photographed by Duane Michals.

The Surrealist painter René Magritte apparently dressed like a banker (dark suit, tie) but under these “innocent allures,” a friend recalled, he “was a very revolutionary personality.” That makes him rather like the subject in his 1964 painting Le fils de l’homme, in which an apple obscures the visage of a man dressed in a suit and bowler: we see him but do not see him. Such is the sense I have of him throughout the newly published Selected Writings, a collection of unpublished bits and bobs written between 1922 and 1967. Of his own paintings, he observes, “What I paint does not imply that the invisible is superior to the visible: the visible is rich enough to create a poetic language, evoking the mystery of the invisible and the visible.” Though he withholds full meaning, his meaning is there. And when he writes, “It is difficult to think while thinking of nothing,” I know exactly what he means. —Nicole Rudick

Yesterday, after Rita Dove was named a finalist for this year’s National Book Award for Poetry, I read her 1986 collection Thomas and Beulah, a harrowingly gorgeous book that traverses the earlier half of twentieth-century America by way of Dove’s maternal grandparents. Comprising two parts—Mandolin, for Thomas, and Canary in Bloom, for Beulah—its forty-four elegiac poems reimagine the couple’s past, beginning on a Mississippi riverboat and moving effortlessly through the years from courtship to curtains, kneading in the somber truths of the era: the suicides of the Great Depression, the lynchings of black Americans. We see Thomas sleeping in his work barracks, wooing Beulah with his tater-bug mandolin, walking under the viaduct where men have jumped. Of all the poems, though, I find Beulah’s to be the most beautiful, her sorrow subtle yet profound. From “Daystar”: “Later / that night when Thomas rolled over and / lurched into her, she would open her eyes / and think of the place that was hers / for an hour—where / she was nothing, / pure nothing, in the middle of the day.” (You can listen to Rita Dove read from Thomas and Beulah here.) —Caitlin Youngquist 

Peter Cain, Untitled, 1990, oil on linen, 57 7/8″ x 70 1/8″.

Peter Cain, who died in 1997, painted images of cars with their cabins and midsections excised. What remains, after the elision, is pure machine: contoured metal and rubber, a display of angular force with no room for people. His paintings, showing this month at Matthew Marks Gallery, are so sleek and sinewy that they should feel anodyne, especially since some of them have their genesis in collaged advertisements. Instead, their streamlines probe at something volatile and virile in the American id. Seeing them in sequence feels like flipping through a depopulated issue of an automotive magazine, Car and Driver minus the Driver. As Roberta Smith wrote in Cain’s obituary for the New York Times, the central image of his career was “an odd, Cyclops-like fusion of hood, trunk and a single wheel that reduced the automobile’s seductiveness to its essence, while giving it an almost human sense of vulnerability and nakedness.” His work presages a driverless, passengerless future filled with gleaming, automated garages. —Dan Piepenbring

Ge Fei’s small, quiet novel The Invisibility Cloak begins in Beijing in late autumn. The narrator, Mr. Cui—a taciturn sound engineer—has arrived at a client’s building to install an amplifier. His life may be unraveling: he’s broke, and he’s just received a desperate call from his sister asking him to move out of the apartment she’d been letting him stay in for free. His beautiful wife, Yufen, left him long ago, and he still feels the sting. He’s close to falling out with his one good friend, a wealthy entrepreneur. In hopes of improving at least his financial situation, Mr. Cui takes on a mysterious new client who commissions him to build “the best sound system in the world.” The Invisibility Cloak delights in the argot of the hi-fi industry and classical music, and it’s deliciously sensory, as in this passage, where Mr. Cui remembers the neighborhood of his youth: “The scraping of the tree branches against the roof; the moon in the leaves; the whirr of cicadas and the crash of rain … ” It’s not surprising that an audiophile would have an ear for the old sounds of home. —Caitlin Love


With Halloween around the corner and talk of the new Shirley Jackson biography in the air, I decided to read The Haunting of Hill House this week: a stunning book, both for what it tells and what it withholds. Jackson treats the hauntings with an ambiguity that allows the smallest intimation to take on a life of its own. But the more immediate chills come from the subtle emotional thread she unfurls as Eleanor, her naive protagonist, becomes more and more affected by the house’s menacing phenomena. Hill House entraps Eleanor less by its evil than by its promises; Eleanor has never known a happy home, and Hill House, in a sense, seduces her. When she lies about having left behind a small, carefully furnished apartment, she transposes the stone lions outside of Hill House’s gates into miniature statues on her imaginary mantle. Were the novel simply an escalating progression of fright ending in devastation, its thrills might seem cheap, but instead Jackson’s treatment of Eleanor elicits a sad understanding of why she stays at Hill House even as it destroys her. It also made me sleep at least one night with the light on. —Sylvie McNamara

I recently got around to Stephanie Dickinson’s Heat: An Interview with Jean Seberg, an imaginary dialogue with the sixties actress best known for her roles in French New Wave cinema (especially as the American girl in France in Godard’s Breathless). Hailing from the “green corn desert” of Marshalltown, Iowa, Seberg fell victim to the FBI’s blacklisting operation for her ties to the Black Panther party. The lengths they went to in slandering her name had a devastating effect on her psyche; she eventually committed suicide at age forty. “J. Edgar Hoover prances through my dreams in a black satin off-the-shoulder dress and a string of long white pearls,” Dickinson has her say. The exchange has a poetic, ethereal quality—there are few of the interrogatory particulars of a real interview—and it offers darkly fascinating insight into the life of an actress who died far too young. —Nollaig O’Connor

Michael Chabon’s forthcoming novel, Moonglow, chronicles the life of his maternal grandfather, who told his story to Chabon on his deathbed over the course of his last week alive. Among the best moments are his personal accounts of patriotic disillusionment during World War II and the Space Race thereafter. In 1941, for example, when Chabon’s grandfather was training for the Army Corps of Engineers, he strapped homemade explosives to the chassis of the Francis Scott Key Bridge just to prove a point: even after Pearl Harbor, the United States didn’t take its enemies seriously enough to buttress its own capital. Chabon’s grandfather raged against these sorts of national hypocrisies—most notably the unsettling discovery that Wernher von Braun, a Nazi scientist, built the U.S. rocket that landed on the moon with the same schematics he’d used to construct German warheads during the war. Chabon’s grandfather has a twentieth-century engineer’s fascination with rocketry; in perhaps the book’s finest sequence, he briefly forsakes his countrymen on the German front in an effort to hunt Von Braun down himself. Moonglow seems like a departure for Chabon, but it’s still a study of his great theme, magic—this time, the kind that grants humanity the ability to transcend the Earth. —Daniel Johnson