All Roads Lead to Death, and Other News


On the Shelf

Still from Manchester by the Sea.

  • After the trials of Margaret—a brilliant movie written in 2003, filmed in ’05, released in compromised form in 2011, and rereleased in less compromised form in 2012—Kenneth Lonergan is back with a new film, Manchester by the Sea. Rebecca Mead spoke with him, and boy, is he looking on the bright side: “It’s good to have a forward-thinking attitude—and I wish I had more of one—but I don’t think it’s so bad that some people can’t. ‘Oh, well, my mom’s dead. She was nice, that’s O.K.’—it just makes me sick … ‘It’s fine, I’m dying.’ ‘It’s fine, your mother’s dying, it’s no problem, it’s just life. It’s just a circle of life.’ What fucking circle of life? It all goes in one direction—toward death.”
  • Or does it? Wang Deshun, an eighty-year-old runway model known as “China’s hottest grandpa,” has such vim and vitality that he seems, on the catwalk, to defy death itself: “Determined to avoid mental and physical stagnation, Mr. Wang has explored new skills and ideas while devoting ample time to daily exercise. Last year, he walked the runway for the first time, his physique causing a national sensation. He takes obvious joy in subverting China’s image of what it means to be old … Mr. Wang has not escaped being called grandpa—he has two children and a two-year-old granddaughter—but the honorific is accompanied by accolades for his vigor and his embrace of the new.” 

  • Revisiting The Omni-Americans—Albert Murray’s 1970 debut, “an astute, if searing, riposte to both black complacency and black militancy”—Douglas Brinkley writes that it’s forever changed his view of race in America: “What Murray flat-out objected to in the Moynihan Report of 1965 was the ‘sociological’ ghettoizing of the black experience. While Murray accepted the idea that the report offered a window into Harlem dysfunction, it was extremely limited in pedagogical approach. Where were the elegance of Duke Ellington’s ‘In a Sentimental Mood’ or the flashing colors of Romare Bearden’s The Block in this respect? Murray rejected the notion that all blacks felt beaten or victimized. Murray preferred celebrating Negro excellence in the arts than woeful factoids pertaining to high black prison incarceration rates. To Murray black folks could—and had—achieved their individual excellence under repressive conditions. ‘What Louis Armstrong had been doing in popular songs all these years,’ Murray argued, ‘is an infinitely more accurate index to fundamental U.S. Negro attitudes toward “white culture” than are some of the embarrassingly superficial and contradictory gestures of alienation currently so popular among some black nationalists and “Afro-Zionists.” ’ ”
  • James McWilliams is into the idea of bibliotherapy: Why not use novels to cure what ails us? But he’s quick to acknowledge the potential pitfalls: “More interesting would be to reverse the bibliotherapeutic premise altogether. Instead of asking ‘what’s wrong with you?’ and assigning a book, assign a book and ask ‘what’s wrong with you?’ When I lend books to friends outside of therapy, this strategy (upon reflection) is basically what I’m testing. I’m not trying to solve a person’s problem. I’m trying, in a way, to create one. I want to shake someone out of complacency. Great novels (and sometimes not so great ones) jar us, often unexpectedly. Ever have a novel sneak up on you and kick you in the gut, leaving you staring into space, dazed by an epiphany? Yes. Novels do this. They present obstacles that elicit the catharsis (from katharo, which means clearing obstacles) we didn’t think we needed. We should allow books to cause more trouble in our lives.”
  • And China Miéville is rereading Thomas More’s Utopia: “The fact that the utopian impulse is always stained doesn’t mean it can or should be denied or battened down. It is as inevitable as hate and anger and joy, and as necessary. Utopianism isn’t hope, still less optimism: it is need, and it is desire. For recognition, like all desire, and for the specifics of its reveries and programs, too; and above all for betterness tout court. For alterity, something other than the exhausting social lie. For rest. And when the cracks in history open wide enough, the impulse may even jimmy them a little wider. We can’t do without Utopia. We are all and have always been Thomas More’s children.”