He’s a Giant Gorilla, and Other News


On the Shelf

Nicholas Monro’s King Kong, Manzoni Gardens, Birmingham, England, 1972. Photo: Arnolfini Archive at Bristol Record Office/Courtesy the artist, via NYRB.


  • Growing up near Baltimore, I remember when, in 2004, a massive aluminum sculpture called Male/Female was installed outside the city’s beautiful Beaux Arts train station. Passions were inflamed. I recall a pair of women walking by the sculpture and one saying to the other, I hate that fuckin’ thing, and the other saying, Well, duh. What I’m trying to say is, it’s rough being a public sculpture. People shit on you. Birds shit on you. And it’s always been rough: looking back to the seventies, Jon Day has revisited England’s “City Sculpture Project,” in which sixteen sculptors received grant money to liven up the nation’s public space. One of the few surviving works is Michael Monro’s King Kong, which is, you guessed it, a massive fiberglass gorilla first installed outside a brutalist shopping mall in Birmingham. Day writes, “Monro thought obviousness was what the people wanted. ‘In this case they will like him won’t they?’ he said at the time. ‘Because they can understand it and appreciate it. He’s a giant gorilla’ … Though children enjoyed playing on King Kong, and a pair of disgruntled builders climbed it as part of a protest for better compensation and working conditions a few months after it was installed (placing a trowel in its hand and a hardhat on its head), the public didn’t seem to warm to it particularly. At the end of the six months there was a half-hearted campaign and public collection to keep King Kong in Birmingham, but only one person, a crossing guard named Nellie Shannon, gave any money to the cause. Her £1 donation was later returned.”
  • Tim Parks got an e-mail from J. K. Rowling. Can you believe it? The J. K. Rowling! She was full of stirring words about the value of a free and open society, and she told him, “We will not go quietly and we are Louder Together!” But she’d sent that e-mail to thousands of people through PEN; it was a plea for donations. And for Parks, it’s the symptom of a confused culture, one that conflates the most honest art-making with the high dudgeon of political protest: “I have been drawn, almost against my will, to notice the intensifying politicization of the literary world and, hand in hand with that, a predilection for melodrama, for prose that stimulates extreme emotions—in good causes of course. The cause justifies the melodrama. The melodrama serves the cause … In the months ahead this debate will heat up. Both as readers and as writers, each of us will react in a way congenial to our temperament … My own position is this: Let us by all means defend our freedom of speech when and if it is threatened; but let us never confuse this engagement with our inspiration as writers or our inclination as readers. Above all, let us not get off on it.”

  • A new collection of Hemingway’s letters elaborates on the circumstances surrounding what might be his most forgettable book, a parody of Sherwood Anderson called The Torrents of Spring. Phillip Lopate writes, “Anderson had been one of his staunchest supporters, and Hemingway had learned a lot from the older writer. As he wrote to Owen Wister in March 1929: ‘He wrote some stories that I thought were lovely—all the time he was working as an advertising writer but he wrote simply and to me, anyway, very beautifully—about people and the country and, it’s true, best of all about adolescence—he went to New York and a number of Jews—Stieglitz, W. Frank, Paul Rosenfeld got hold of him and turned his head with praise.’ Leave it to the Jews and New York to corrupt a pure adman’s soul. Hemingway thought Anderson’s 1925 novel Dark Laughter was mediocre, so he took it into his head to dash off a parody in a week … ‘About the Torrents—I never could figure out what happened to it—I was very fond of it—but nobody else seemed to like it … ’, Hemingway wrote to an admirer, perplexedly. He sent Anderson a self-justifying letter when it came out. ‘You see I feel that if among ourselves we have to pull our punches, if when a man like yourself who can write very great things writes something that seems to me (who have never written anything great but am anyway a fellow craftsman) rotten, I ought to tell you so.’ ”
  • Sasha Chapin is fully against bad lyrics, but much more in favor of stupid lyrics: “Stupid lyrics are an unexpected moment of eloquence from a concussed person. They’re an emotionally resonant thought that’s too dumb to say out loud. They’re the lyrical equivalent of sweet baby talk or despairing mumbles. Bob Dylan loves dumb lyrics: one of his main literary tricks, and it’s a good one, is writing vivid images that turn into total applesauce. From ‘Visions of Johanna’: ‘The fiddler, he now steps to the road / He writes everything’s been returned which was owed / On the back of the fish truck that loads / While my conscience explodes.’ The deliberate overextension of the rhyme and the goofy image of the fish truck transforms the scene into a bizarre metafictional Japanese game show.”