Staff Picks: Codes, Contracts, Coffee Stains


This Week’s Reading

From Terms and Conditions.


In his new book, the pop-conceptual curiosity Terms and Conditions, R. Sikoryak reproduces the styles of more than a hundred other cartoonists—including Marjane Satrapi, Steve Ditko, Raina Telgemeier, Edward Gorey, and Peyo—one per page, to adapt the text of iTunes’ Terms and Conditions, “the contract everyone agrees to but no one reads.” I can’t say I read it in this form either, but it does make the text occasionally more intriguing, if not readable, highlighting certain phrases in the document that would otherwise remain a haze of letters. Given its own caption box, the line “To agree to these terms, click ‘agree.’ If you do not agree to these terms, do not click ‘agree,’ and do not use these services” reads like a middle finger to the (potential) user. A turtlenecked Steve Jobs populates each comic in the style of the page (as Popeye, Homer Simpson, Ziggy, Wolverine); Sikoryak, too, disappears into these other idioms, and though the parody is impressive, each style remains a simulacrum, lacking the soul of the original. But maybe this is partly the point. Even if it were Ernie Bushmiller at the pen, is it still Sluggo if he tells Nancy, “You may not rent, lease, lend, sell, transfer, redistribute, or sublicense the Licensed Application”? Sikoryak hasn’t attempted to match the action in the panels to the language, so the legalese can’t leech significance from the art. The text becomes a lorem ipsum—placeholder copy that is seen but never read. —Nicole Rudick

After reading Fleur Jaeggy’s “Agnes” in our current issue, I got ahold of her collection I am the Brother of XX, out in July. Gini Alhadeff, who translates it from the Italian, does a wonderful job binding these twenty-one fictions about family life into a cohesive psychology: each offers a dark, uncompromising perspective on the covenants of mother-, brother-, and sisterhoods. In the title story, a young brother claims his sister’s concern for his academic well-being is the work of obsessive espionage; in “The Heir,” an old woman adopts a homeless girl and redrafts her will so that her daughter will receive her entire estate, only to be burned alive by this new heiress: “She wanted the destruction of that woman who was good to her. To destroy for the blasted glory of it. She doesn’t want money. But to destroy. Should she have to answer to a ridiculous why?” And that’s only the first time we see a daughter burn down her parents’ house in XX. This book is twisted and hypnotizing and, somehow, downright lovely. Reading it is not unlike diving naked and headlong into a bramble of black rosebushes, so intrigued you are by their beauty: it’s a swift, prickly undertaking, and you emerge the other end bloodied all over. —Daniel Johnson 

“The whole situation seemed to me essentially one of those where you just clench the hands and roll the eyes mutely up to heaven and then start a new life and try to forget. I said as much, while marmalading a slice of toast.” It was at this moment, exactly thirty-six pages into The Code of the Woosters, that I started to wonder, Does Bertie Wooster actually get … smarter? We all know that couples tend to grow alike over time. In school, we learned about the “Sanchification” of Don Quixote, and it’s a known fact that dog owners begin to resemble their dogs, but in all the years I’ve been rereading the Jeeves books, I’d never noticed how, in the later installments, Bertie starts to soak up some of Jeeves’s brainpower, to be more and more in on the jokes—you could even say, to have found his intellectual calling, as the most appreciative audience Jeeves has. I suspect I owe this realization to Tom Sandoval, the childlike bartender on Vanderpump Rules, who over five seasons of fashion experiments and frowny-faced attempts at consecutive thought, has begun to displace Hugh Laurie as my own living image of young Bertie and who, when he’s “a bit lit at routs and revels,” has begun to deliver himself of home truths, notably on the marriage of Tom Schwartz, that might win the plaudits of the Drones Club. —Lorin Stein

Though I’ve drooled plenty over Guy Davenport’s essays—see my scratched-up, coffee-stained, dog-eared pages of “On Reading,” “Finding,” and “The Geography of the Imagination”—I’ve always, with little exception found his fiction essentially impenetrable. It’s a limb of his writing I’ll pick up in flights of intellectual whimsy (a stupid way to tunnel into Davenport), only to drop them, defeated, feeling woefully unstudied enough to clamber through the narratives. But Brian Blanchfield’s essay on Davenport in the newest Oxford American bores through his short stories with a sharpness that, for the first time, makes them feel accessible. Did you know that Davenport was completely obsessed with nouns? The guy can’t get enough out of hammering nouns into the page, apparently. “Davenport’s was a ‘fiction of nouns,’ ” Blanchfield asserts; it is substantively obsessed with “objecthood … while most contemporary writing is all verb, event as verb not noun, collecting no moss of existence.” It’s by considering “The Aeroplanes of Brescia” (“one of Davenport’s more nounish stories”) and “Gunnar and Nikolai” or “1830” as solid, hulking walls of objects and detail that they actually make more sense to me. Nouns sprinkled with participles, collaged into narratives that resorb and reimagine history. Blanchfield again: “This is the method of the majority of Davenport’s stories: they zero in on a detail—in his case not from myth but from history—to lift out and amplify and elaborate inventively an incident from the recorded annals.” —Caitlin Love

This morning, only hours before I heard that Derek Walcott had died, I was reading Julian Lucas’s insightful review of Morning, Paramin, a collection that pairs fifty-one poems from Walcott with paintings by Peter Doig. “Each pair is a meditation on privacy and possession, transience and belonging, youth, mortality, inheritance—and how all of these disclose themselves in landscape,” Lucas writes in The New York Review of Books. He can’t have known, of course, how far his appraisal of this single volume would come to ramify, but even so, rereading the review now—so soon and yet so much later—it serves as an elegant summation of Walcott’s career: “Across his work Walcott has sought a rectification of vision, a way of contending with those who, inverting the crime of Lot’s wife, sin by refusing to look … Silence, indolence, and awe are not characteristic of the art of our time. But they are values in which Derek Walcott, who so powerfully embodies them in these poems for Peter Doig, has never lost faith.” —Dan Piepenbring