Staff Picks: Sisters, Scary Sex, “Sivilization”


This Week’s Reading

From Sisters by a River.


Barbara Comyns (1909–92) grew up one of five girls in an old house on the banks of the River Avon. When she was seventeen, her father died; the family was ruined and dispersed. Her first novel, Sisters by a River, is about the lost paradise of their country childhood—a paradise that is often indistinguishable from hell. It is, in other words, a realistic treatment, written (for her own daughters, originally) in a kind of well-bred nursery patois, with the cold gaze of an actual child: “Quite suddenly Chloe and I got a craze for throwing perfectly good things away, it started in the holidays when our other games were rather suppressed. It was always Chloes’s things that were distroyed, we would burn her books slowly, page by page, break her dolls heads off and distroy toys she was really fond of, an awful gleam would come into our eyes and we would tear a teddy bear’s head off, burn it, then throw the body in the river.” —Lorin Stein

I snuck away from the office to catch MoMA’s new exhibition “A Revolutionary Impulse: The Rise of the Russian Avant-Garde.” This show doesn’t make any new claims, and I’ve seen a good bit of the work before, but I never miss a chance to see it again. And each time I do, I’m awed by the exuberance, energy, and freshness in the artists’ approaches to materials and ideas and to the physical and psychic environments of revolutionary Russia. I also never fail to find new connections with more contemporary art. In her linoleum-cut prints from 1917 to 1919, Lyubov Popova layered collage-like, colored shapes to suggest movement and spatial interaction (what she called “painterly architectonics”): I instantly thought of Lee Krasner’s large, hard-edge canvases from the early seventies, where seemingly cutout curvilinear forms dance around one another. In El Lissitzky’s Proun lithographs from 1920—in which various three-dimensional geometric shapes float around one another as though in a group space walk—I see Rammellzee’s “Letter Racers” from the late eighties and early nineties, his galactic graffiti language writ in sculptures composed of found objects spray painted and mounted on wheels and skateboards. “The artist is transformed from reproducer to builder of a new world of forms, a new world of objects,” El Lissitzky wrote. I’ll bet Rammellzee would agree. —Nicole Rudick 

El Lissitzky, Troublemaker, 1923.

Over the holiday, I read Arlene Heyman’s debut story collection, Scary Old Sex. Heyman, a psychiatrist on the Upper West Side, took thirty years to finish the book; her medical career always came first. The finished product is dark and heartbreaking. Some of these stories are so dense with the interior registers of her characters that they feel like photographs oversaturated with color: they’re older, anxious folk, and they grapple with their mortality by flooding each moment with desperate consciousness. Much of their anxiety is dedicated to disrupting their routines with sex, but this somewhat backfires. Sex becomes routine, even if it still enlivens them: “It has become a little like brushing and flossing,” one woman thinks, “something almost hygienic, good for you. Yet there is passion in it, too, it erupts right out of the schedule. You do it with regularity to show you are a human being, that you are civilized and can still become ecstatic.” For them, sex (and everything else) is about defying death. They face their abysses with passion, hilarity, and a very real, quiet terror. But they are alive, alive, alive—they won’t let you forget it. —Daniel Johnson

Ask me if I’d like to read a sequel to Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and I’ll tell you no, unless, of course, it was written by the puckish myth-puncher Robert Coover. He begins Huck Out West during the Civil War, several years after Twain’s Adventures ends, when Huck and Tom Sawyer head west from Missouri in search of adventure. The two work for the Pony Express; they end up scouting for the Union and Confederate armies alike before Tom leaves Huck, choosing marriage and “sivilization” over their free, loose life. Huck stumbles into every Western myth imaginable—he drives cattle, prospects for gold, and is held in captivity by Indians. It’s fitting that Coover channeled Twain: neither holds the human race, as a group, in high esteem, and both use a kind of burlesque to describe our worst inclinations. Coover’s Huck is understatedly wise, hilarious, and loveable; Tom, on the other hand, is a hellion who “love[s] a good hanging.” In an early part of the book, he tells Huck that an out-and-out lynching is “only a kind of participatory democracy”: a grimly satirical statement that, looking at the year to come, may retain a startling prescience. —Jeffery Gleaves

The philosopher Derek Parfit died this week. Courtesy of his two-part 1998 essay in the London Review of Books, I spent my morning wrestling with fundamental questions of ontology: “Why anything? Why this?” I won’t pretend to have digested the finer points of his arguments, but as he made various inquiries into the existence of the universe—the All Worlds Hypothesis, the Null Possibility—I found that I’d never considered the ramifications of nothingness in such detail. Even if there were nothing, Parfit writes, “there would still have been various truths, such as the truth that there were no stars or atoms, or that nine is divisible by three … But why would nothing have existed? Why would there have been no stars or atoms, no philosophers or bluebell woods?” He offers a compelling defense of asking such questions in the first place: “I am reminded here of the aesthetic category of the sublime, as applied to the highest mountains, raging oceans, the night sky, the interiors of some cathedrals, and other things that are superhuman, awesome, limitless. No question is more sublime than why there is a Universe: why there is anything rather than nothing.” —Dan Piepenbring