Staff Picks: Bitterness, Blindness, Backing Vocals


This Week’s Reading

A still from Notes on Blindness.


This week I read Teddy Wayne’s Loner, an impressively creepy novel of first love, specifically the unrequited, unwelcome, male dork variety. With a straight A student for his antihero—a Harvard freshman who connives his way into the life of a glamorous classmate—Wayne satirizes the teenage male gaze from within. And he does it without ingratiating himself to the reader. At a moment when so many young writers want to join the ranks of the angels, Wayne’s unfashionable wit, bitterness, and tight focus are a gift. —Lorin Stein 

This week I’ve been reading Terrance Hayes’s most recent collection, How to Be Drawn, which was published last year. Hayes is also a painter and has said that language is unrelated to the physical act of painting, but in this collection, he lets the two brush up against one another to see what comes of it. Some poems are formally adventurous and most are visually expressive in the way the words jostle and play—“The ladies wear wigs of nots, / knots of nots: would nots, do nots, cannots.” They are Mayakovskian in their gusto, though less extravagant and celebratory; on many occasions, his nimble wordplay and punning slow for moments of clear-eyed observation, as when he says of a friend, “A man can be / so overwhelmed it becomes a mode of being, / a flavor indistinguishable from spit.” Many of Hayes’s artworks appear to be portraits, and I imagine that language isn’t absent from the act looking, even if it’s a deeply internal process. Perhaps the best argument for the overlap between poetry and painting comes when he writes, “I care less and less / about the shapes of shapes because forms / change and nothing is more durable than feeling.” —Nicole Rudick 

I recently plopped myself in front of Peter Middleton and James Spinney’s first feature documentary, Notes on Blindness, and was mesmerized. Following John Hull, a theologian at the University of Birmingham who went blind in his midforties, the film is a study of what it’s like to be swallowed by darkness. But Hull doesn’t appear in the movie himself; instead, he’s portrayed by the bearded Dan Skinner, an actor who lip-synchs along with recordings of Hull’s voice pulled from an audiocassette diary he kept for three years after having lost his sight. The film traces Hull from paralyzing despair to gradual acceptance and triumph. At first, he agonizes—over not being able to watch his children open Christmas gifts, how dreams become the only way of ever seeing anything again, how routine becomes the only way of ever knowing where he is. The scene I love most, though, is when he’s caught in a rain shower; the sounds, he says, “bring out the contours of what is around you,” thunder “puts a roof over your head,” and Hull begins to think of his blindness as a gift: “Not a gift that I want, but a gift nonetheless.” —Caitlin Youngquist

A still from Tetsuo: The Iron Man.

When a friend and I couldn’t decide on a movie, we settled for something we were both afraid of: Tetsuo: The Iron Man, Shinya Tsukamoto’s 1989 industrial-grade mindfuck. It’s a kind of hell, but I’m so glad we put ourselves through it. A cult favorite among the Eraserhead set, Tetsuo follows a salaryman as he turns (violently and anxiously) into a monster made of scrap metal. That’s all there is to it, really—no character development, no heavy-handed allegory, just sixty-seven minutes of a man consumed by wires, pipes, shafts, and raw edges, shot in the grainy sixteen millimeter of a snuff film. Tsukamoto has dredged up the cesspool of his subconscious, and the results are masterly. As disturbing as it is, Tetsuo’s imagery is utterly sui generis—unless you can name another movie where a guy’s penis turns into an enormous, lopsided drill bit, whirring with impunity. Why watch it now? Well, the holiday season, with its treacly canon, is upon us: when It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Story have worn thin, bear in mind that Tetsuo is a brutally effective tonic. —Dan Piepenbring

My favorite line from the David Bowie version of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf seems, at first, a totally useless speech act: “Now just imagine … Just imagine the triumphant procession!” Bowie intones between two endearingly cartoonish and slow musical passages. I love his repetition of “just imagine,” the absurd unavoidability of that directive. But I also like the descriptive laziness he allows in order to let the music swagger on and do its work. After all, the whole project superimposes word-based storytelling onto pitch- and rhythm-based storytelling, a technique that melds precision with abstraction. The combination is strange and moving, building not an image but a feeling. Listeners need to fight for the story, filling it in for themselves as they mark variations in the aural motifs. The LP version that I own includes a performance of Benjamin Britten’s wordless Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra on side two, and it’s pretty difficult to not continue an unspoken narration upon flipping the record, though the sides are unrelated. Still, from the boisterous horns that begin Britten’s piece, I can almost intuit the swallowed duck’s triumphant escape from the wolf’s cavernous stomach or, in a sadistic moment, the slaying of the wolf himself. —Taylor Lannamann

Bowie’s Peter and the Wolf.

This year has claimed many a super-famous musician, but I want to pay my respects to the late Colonel Abrams, a singer whose death last week, at sixty-seven, didn’t even rate a mention in the Times. (The Daily News ran an obit; most reports indicate, sadly, that he died homeless in New York.) In the eighties, the Colonel—that’s his real name—paved the way for house music with his own club sound: elaborate layers of syncopated synth funk decked out with gospel-style backing vocals. His voice, husky but always on edge, was the Mr. Hyde to Teddy Pendergrass’s Dr. Jekyll. To put it differently, imagine being Rickrolled with such crazy zeal and passion that you got Stockholm syndrome for Rick Astley: that’s what listening to the Colonel is like. Echoes of his two hits—“Trapped” and “I’m Not Gonna Let You”—can still be heard in today’s Top 40, and as their titles suggest, they’re fitting anthems for these Trumped-up times. —D.P.