This Is the Concourse to Hell, and Other News


On the Shelf

Train to eternal damnation, now boarding at gate four. Photo: Kevin Harber


  • If someone published an anthology called Hellscape: Thirty Writers on Why Penn Station Sucks, I would buy that thing in hardcover and pay list price for it. I would buy a whole carton and stand at Penn Station’s Amtrak gates, forcing them on beleaguered travelers. Because: everyone hates Penn Station—I’m talking about the New York one—but good writing on the hatred of Penn Station is hard to find. One must be diligent. Julian Rose, in his review of Wendy Lesser’s new book, You Say to Brick, has made a great discovery: hidden among the pages of this biography of Louis Kahn is an evisceration of Penn. “In a tour de force of architectural criticism, Lesser excoriates this building as ‘something like a living hell,’ using an extended comparison to another major East Coast transit hub, Philadelphia’s Thirtieth Street Station, to underscore Penn Station’s many failures: urban (the elegant approach to Thirtieth Street along one of Philadelphia’s main arteries versus the ignominious midblock descent into the chasm yawning below Madison Square Garden that constitutes Penn’s main entrance); environmental (the flood of warm natural light that fills Thirtieth Street versus the harsh fluorescent glare of Penn’s underground expanse); spatial (the high ceilings and symmetrical plan of Thirtieth Street, so helpful for visitors to orient themselves, versus Penn’s befuddling catacombs); and even social (the implicit democracy of the benches that limn Thirtieth Street’s main concourse versus the explicit hierarchy of Penn’s isolated waiting rooms, which are reserved for ticket holders and divided by class).”
  • Some books have indexes, indices, whatever. No one knows why. But there they are, long lists of words with page numbers after them. In my book, the index will be a single page with the words “Just fucking Google it.” But I’m being churlish. Sam Leith argues, convincingly, that indexers—who somehow write indexes for a living—are doing the Lord’s work: “It would be a cliché to say that indexers are the unsung heroes of the publishing world. But unsung they generally are: no indexer usually expects or receives credit by name in books where everyone from the font designer to the snapper of the author photograph tends to get a solemn shout-out. And heroes they are, too: the index is, in any nonfiction book, more useful than almost anything else in the apparatus. It is a map of the text; a cunningly devised series of magical shortcuts that can in the good case save a scholar many hours of work, and in the bad one save a bookshop-browsing cabinet minister from having to buy a former colleague’s memoirs. A good index is, as Harold Macmillan wrote when inaugurating the society sixty years ago, ‘much more than a guide to the contents of a book. It can often give a far clearer glimpse of its spirit than the blurb-writers or critics are able to do.’ ”

  • In Gerald Murnane’s novel The Plains, Ben Lerner recognizes a kind of geological mastery: Murnane, he writes, has captured “a plain’s paradoxical mix of uniformity and mystery” (very much the opposite of Penn Station, above): “The poet-philosophers of the plains (and every plainsman is one) know that the plains are unknowable in their totality, and are therefore charged with possibility. This is because what at first appears ‘utterly flat and featureless’ reveals, as you learn to look, ‘countless subtle variations of landscape.’ But it is also because there is another plain (or plains) behind this one, ‘always invisible’ even though you’ve ‘crossed and recrossed it daily.’ The Plains is a book about the planes of the actual and the possible, about their interplay, how one haunts the other.”
  • Denis Johnson’s collection Jesus’ Son is twenty-five this month, though it doesn’t look a day over zero. Jenny Offill, Michael Cunningham, Victor LaValle, and others convened to discuss the book’s enduring appeal. John Williams writes of their panel, “All the participants addressed the question of why, to quote Cunningham, ‘so many people want to write this book over again.’ They landed on the idea that the collection’s effects are so potent but seamlessly achieved that they inspire authors to try the same magic trick … LaValle emphasized the way that Jesus’ Son—which is often, on its surface, blunt and violent—is suffused with a questing, spiritual tone. He said the stories contained an idea that he misses in much of contemporary literature, which is that ‘a world beyond this world is something serious to contemplate.’ Offill said: ‘He’s not afraid to risk going straight toward the sublime.’ ”