That Ship Has Sailed, and Other News


On the Shelf

From a foreign edition of Zama.


  • One of my favorite reissues last year was Zama, a 1956 novel by the Argentinean writer Antonio Di Benedetto. It opens with a description of a dead monkey, “still undecomposed,” drifting aimlessly in a “writhing patch of water”—and the fun doesn’t let up from there! As Benjamin Kunkel writes, Zama depicts frontier life as a leap into an abysmal chasm of anxiety and unknowing: “Here is a white man whose whiteness fails to yield any providential good fortune, and a sojourner in the wilderness of himself confronting the cipher of the universe with religious dread. Americans—in the sense of the word that covers Alaska and Tierra del Fuego alike—live in a hemisphere that was conquered and settled by people who saw it as a place in which to realize their dreams. Zama is, among other things, a ringing statement of this hemispheric condition, in an unaccustomed key of defeat: ‘Here was I in the midst of a vast continent that was invisible to me though I felt it all around, a desolate paradise, far too immense for my legs,’ Zama tells us. ‘America existed for no one if not for me, but it existed only in my needs, my desires, and my fears.’ ”
  • And reader, you’re in luck: the notes of existential alarm in Zama have seldom resonated as they do this week, with the coronation of America’s first orange president just days away. It’s a great time to ponder the connection between being and suffering. But don’t lose hope, and don’t stop reading. Adam Kirsch makes a compelling argument for the relevance of fiction at a time when almost nothing and no one feels relevant: “From its beginning, the novel has tested the distinction between truth, fiction and lie; now the collapse of those distinctions has given us the age of Trump. We are entering a period in which the very idea of literature may come to seem a luxury, a distraction from political struggle. But the opposite is true: No matter how irrelevant hardheaded people may believe it to be, literature continually proves itself a sensitive instrument, a leading indicator of changes that will manifest themselves in society and culture. Today as always, the imagination is our best guide to what reality has in store.”

  • Richard Prince, meanwhile, is doing his part to muddy the waters of that “reality,” which, as you’ll recall, were not so very clear to begin with. The artist has returned the thirty-six-thousand-dollar payment he received from Ivanka Trump for one of his Instagram paintings of her, which he hopes to render valueless through his disavowal: “Mr. Prince first announced his decision in a series of tweets, saying that he was disavowing the work. In language that echoed Mr. Trump’s rhetoric, he called his own work ‘fake’ and added, ‘I denounce’ … ‘It was just an honest way for me to protest,’ Mr. Prince said. ‘It was a way of deciding what’s right and wrong. And what’s right is art, and what’s wrong is not art. I decided the Trumps are not art.’ ”
  • Sometimes being an effective campaign staffer means becoming a method actor and a performance artist. Last summer, Philippe Reines, who worked under Clinton in the Senate and the State Department, took on the role of a lifetime: he played Trump in the practice debates. As Annie Karni writes, he took to the part with relish: “Reines purchased four podiums on Amazon, two for his home and two for the secret office the Clinton campaign lent him at the Perkins Coie law firm in Washington, D.C. He searched eBay for a 2005 Donald J. Trump signature collection watch, which he purchased for $175. He experimented with a self-tanning lotion on his face. Before prep sessions, Reines began suiting up with velcro knee pads (to keep his legs straight), a posture enhancer (to keep his arms back), and dress shoes with three-inch lifts (to match Trump’s 6-foot-1-inch frame). His longtime tailor fit him for a loose-fitting suit with large cuffs … Hoping to fully become the character he had been cast to play, Reines briefly went off his meds … Reines bought a bag with combination locks to store his prep materials while shuttling between his home and his temporary office. He became so anxious about accidentally leaving the bag in an Uber that he put a GPS locator on it and then shackled the entire contraption to his wrist.”