Staff Picks: Panjandrums, Poets, Power Struggles


This Week’s Reading

Still from David Lynch’s The Cowboy and the Frenchman.


I’ve had a thing for reptilian monsters lately, and this week’s no different: I ducked into a theater to see Nacho Vigalondo’s kaiju film, Colossal, and was agape from start to finish. It follows an entitled fuck-up millennial named Gloria who’s seemingly spent much of her adult life running her mouth, partying too hard, and doing it all without consequence. But when her dreamy yet insufferable boyfriend dumps her and she’s forced to move into her unfurnished (and unoccupied) childhood home in upstate New York, things take a turn for the peculiar: a giant lizardlike creature materializes in Seoul—and Gloria somehow controls it. Monster as metaphor is an all-too-familiar trope, but this film—with its mix of dark hilarity, stunning cinematography, and gripping take on the self-infatuation that plagues many of us—is brilliant. What I love most, though, is that it’s a revival of what A. O. Scott once memorialized as “the cheesy, campy, guilty pleasures that used to bubble up with some regularity out of the B-picture ooze of cut-rate genre entertainment,” which was nearly driven to extinction in the early aughts. With Colossal’s low-budget sci-fi feel, it’s wacky, outrageous plot, and its unwavering look at the monsters we harbor inside us, B flicks are back and better than ever. —Caitlin Youngquist

An elderly civil servant comes home from work one evening and finds a young man waiting to see him. This person turns out to be a fan—in fact, the representative of a small fan club—devoted to the old man’s only book of poems, published thirty years before. That’s the premise of Arthur Schnitzler’s chillingly ironic novella Late Fame. Written in the early 1890s, then lost for a century, the story of poor Eduard Saxberger, a washed-up writer lionized for reasons he doesn’t quite understand, has aged much better than its hero, for the power struggle between an artist and his or her admirers is rarely captured with such bitter economy. —Lorin Stein 

I can’t stop turning Samantha Hunt’s beautiful new short story, which appears in this week’s New Yorker, over in my head. Simply called “A Love Story,” it’s narrated by a writer and former drug dealer who is an anxious mother of three, a woman stuck at the bottom of a postpartum well. Every sentence pulses with anxiety: the narrator has dark fantasies of her babies being eaten by coyotes, speculates on the many reasons she and her husband have stopped having sex, projects her insecurities onto women she encounters in her domestic, maternal life. Her most amplified worries remind me of the sensation—something akin to but not exactly like dread, anxiety, the loss of self—that Lila describes in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, the feeling she sometimes gets of her boundaries dissolving. Hunt admits that her story meddles in what happens when “the boundaries between bodies fail.” This happens with lovers, Hunt says, when their bodies come together, and with children, by virtue of their being made by and in the female body. But these borders can be shut by that thick, dark twin of anxiety: fear. “When fear comes,” Hunt says, “we shut down the boundary to our body, creep our shoulders up the neck, fold in around the heart. It would be wiser to turn to another body for help, but it’s not what we do.” —Caitlin Love

From the cover of The Songs We Know Best: John Ashbery’s Early Life.


There’s a moment in the new Twin Peaks when David Lynch, reprising his role as the near-deaf FBI panjandrum Gordon Cole, shouts out an irascible “What the hell?!” It reminded me of another short film by Lynch, one that might hold you over while you wait for new Peaks episodes: The Cowboy and the Frenchman, a 1988 oddity created in response to a prompt from Figaro magazine that asked the directors of many nations to depict their impressions of the French. Lynch went full-on pastiche with it: in his movie, a mustachioed, beret-wearing artiste wanders across the plains only to be apprehended by a trio of cowboys who can’t make heads or tails of him. In a climactic moment, the cowboys rifle through the Frenchman’s leather satchel, expressing bewilderment at each successive object they pull out: bottles of wine, a baguette, snails, little replicas of the Eiffel Tower. Harry Dean Stanton—playing the lead cowboy, Slim—seems like a prototype for Gordon Cole. He, too, is profoundly deaf, and he exclaims “What the hell?!” on no fewer than six occasions. His performance makes The Cowboy and the Frenchman the most gloriously stupid movie in Lynch’s catalog. —Dan Piepenbring

Forrest Gander’s Core Samples from the World, a travelogue-cum-poetry-collection-cum-photo-essay-cum-meditation on belonging, is clearly about syntheses of discrete impulses. Gander’s subjects are culture, language, and foreignness—notions that do not readily lend themselves to reconciliation—and each section in the book is written about a place to which Gander has traveled. Of Mexico, he considers, “And maybe the relative ways our cultures experience time has something to do with the ways we construe eros … Mexican time is another form of curiosity—An opening within an / opening, the event of a night- / blooming cereus.” His visits to foreign locales are undertaken explicitly as a poet and as a foreigner; he identifies himself as such. This is significant, as Gander also actively wonders about identification with place and about normalized art forms. He writes, from and of Bosnia, “At the front doors, a plaque memorializes the library’s destruction by ‘Serbian criminals.’ On the side of the library, vivid in the moonlight, graffiti announces Braco Voli Bedra, Braco Loves Thighs.” Gander pushes into contrast and difference. The writer, as a pair of eyes and as a traveler, holds all of these discrete events together. Considering a Bosnian analogue to enthusiasm and offering evidence of his own unflagging curiosity, Gander writes, “The Bosnians use a similar word, oduševljenje, for those moments when, as poet Dijala Hasanbegovic says, ‘energies converge and you become all soul.’ ” —Noah Dow

Take a few minutes this weekend to read Matthew Bevis’s appreciation of John Ashbery—more specifically, his appreciation of Karin Roffman’s biography, The Songs We Know Best: John Ashbery’s Early Life—in the latest issue of Harper’s. No other American poet has been more confessional and concealing at once than Ashbery, and that discombobulation—one that, if you’re like me, you feel personally in some way every day—is key to his oeuvre. As Bevis puts it, “To live with bafflement is itself to arrive at the personal because, for Ashbery, you are most truly yourself when you are put in touch with your disorientations.” Bask in the absurd this weekend—you’ll be surprised what you find there. —Jeffery Gleaves