Staff Picks: Pinkies, Pain, Plays


This Week’s Reading

From And She Would Stand Like This. Photo by Ahron R. Foster.


Lately, our Southern editor, John Jeremiah Sullivan, has been researching the early formation of the blues, in the years 1870 to 1910. His studies led him to an old newspaper from his own town in North Carolina, but nearly every edition of the paper had vanished. Now he and his colleague Joel Finsel have organized a group of middle schoolers to find and transcribe surviving copies. In John’s words: “The Wilmington Daily Record, a seminal African American newspaper (the offices of which were torched during a violent white-supremacist uprising here in 1898), has always been known to history and considered important, either inspiring or infamous depending who was talking. But for all practical archival purposes, it didn’t exist. You couldn’t read it, even if you had access to the fanciest academic databases and things. That was a very specific historical problem that we set out to solve. And we did find some copies. The most exciting moment was when Jan Davidson, the historian at our local historical museum, realized she had three copies of the paper in the basement of the museum!” John’s discoveries haven’t been limited to Wilmington. He recently struck gold in Indiana, too: “I knew that the songwriter Paul Dresser had once been in love with a woman named Sal, an Indiana madam, and that she’d inspired his famous song ‘My Gal Sal,’ which I wanted to know more about for a piece about Dresser that ran in the Sewanee Review. Anyway, as I’m reading around in the Evansville Courier and Press for the 1870s and eighties, I start seeing references to ‘bagnios,’ one of the period euphemisms for brothels, and then to a person called Sallie Davis, who supposedly kept the nicest one in town, and finally to ‘Sal’s place,’ as shorthand for the same establishment. On further inquiry, the woman’s real name turned out to be Annie, just like Paul Dresser’s brother had always said it was, the brother being Theodore Dreiser.” —Lorin Stein

Friday night, I was in the presence of realness, fierceness, and royalty. I sat front row for And She Would Stand Like This, a theatrical retelling of Euripides’s The Trojan Women by Harrison David Rivers. Making use of drag and ball culture, the play, directed by David Mendizábal, reimagines the Trojan women as black and Latinx queer men and transgender women. It is set in a hospital waiting room, where an unnamed virus ambiguously fills the role of the warring Greeks, pitiless and destructive. By leaving the virus unnamed, Rivers renders timeless the early days of AIDS, reminding those who need reminding that there are still waiting rooms where doctors face queer and transgender populations with uncertainty, especially when these patients are people of color. The play beautifully complicates the essential trauma of kinship, love, and belonging with several times the body glitter and melanin of Judith Butler’s Antigone’s Claim. Rivers and the talented cast use chorus, repetition, and performance to their highest level of impact. The play turns masterfully on its platform stilettos, delivering triumphant choreography by the supreme Kia LaBeija and somber tragedy worthy of, well, the ancient Greeks. Performances are through Sunday, but RuPaul has already tweeted an endorsement, so act fast. —Julia Berick 

Marcus Wicker is a name I’ve been hearing a lot lately. So when I was given his forthcoming collection of poems, Silencer, I promptly moved it to the top of my reading list. Though only sixty-nine pages, the book is a force to be reckoned with. In it, Wicker writes—at times with fury, at others with tenderness and sorrow—of his America. As a black man in his thirties living in Indiana, he contends with the underhanded racism of fellow partygoers (“Gosh, you’re / just so well spoken!” says a moneyed woman from Connecticut), conjures the latent, historical threat of trees (they “fuck with me / Something gnarly”), wrestles with his faith in God (“If in his image made are we, then why / the endless string of effigies?”). Over and over, Wicker’s rage alchemizes into a stunning rhythmic lifeblood that gives pulse to every verse. And yet, woven throughout the collection are gentler lines, too, ones of warmth and of love, that will break your heart twice over. From “Plea to My Jealous Heart”: “When my lover locks our pinkies in a crowded art gallery, I praise the body, praise / every kissable knuckle, every painstakingly etched wave in a fingerprint.”  —Caitlin Youngquist

After Fernando Pessoa died on November 30, 1935, the text that would become The Book of Disquiet was found on scraps of paper in a trunk alongside thousands of poems, letters, and journals attributed to various authors. Pessoa spent his lifetime inhabiting the minds of and writing as his various alter egos—or heteronyms, a kind of personae—but this “autobiography,” written under the name Bernardo Soares, is his most striking. Since its first publication, in 1983, editors made their own decisions about the order in which the fragments should appear and even which to include. New Directions will publish the first English translation of the entirety of The Book of Disquiet in chronological order, or, as close to the real Pessoa’s biography as possible. It seems a chance worth taking. —Jeffery Gleaves

So Many Olympic Exertions—the debut novel by our “mollusk correspondent,” Anelise Chen—is out this month from Kaya Press. The narrator, a graduate student trying to piece together a dissertation on sports, has just learned that a brilliant friend from college has committed suicide. She’s preparing for an academic conference, and the winter Olympics hum in the background. Though she and the friend had lost touch in recent years, his death agonizes her and she begins to wonder about the point of life, and how someone builds a good life in the first place. The metaphoric stitching in a book about sports and grief is, naturally, pain—and how humans endure so much of it. “Take this dyad,” she writes early on. “There are those who can endure pain (athletes), and those who cannot (non-athletes). Those in the first category are sanguine and indestructible … Those in the latter category lose something—a competition, say, her keys, a friend—and remain lying in a prone position for many hours.” When do people decide to give up? How can “one throw oneself confidently down a mountainside … for the fulfillment of one, deeply meaningful goal?” Where does our meaning lie? These are just a few questions our narrator—named, winningly, Athena—wants to answer in this small, excellent book. —Caitlin Love

I’ve never been the type of person who pays attention to translators, but Megan McDowell, whom we interviewed last week on The Paris Review Daily, changed that. Her translation of Alejandro Zambra’s Multiple Choice reads incredibly smoothly, an impressive feat considering the acrobatic and electric nature of Zambra’s style. The book looks like a gimmick—a send-up of standardized tests, the story is told in a series of questions and bubbled answers—but is actually a slim volume crammed full with linguistic jokes and chillingly beautiful vignettes. Multiple Choice is the literary equivalent of a procession of ants carrying an elephant: tiny stories punching at the weight of novels a thousand times their size. —Brian Ransom

As Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk continues to captivate moviegoers across the nation, I thought I’d venture back into his career to see Following, his first feature. The hour-long film follows Bill, an aimless man “in between jobs” who eventually becomes involved with a dangerous crew. We first meet Bill talking to a police officer about his habit of following people. “I just wanted to see where they went, what they did,” he tells the officer innocently. Bill imagines this activity as a pursuit of knowledge; he seeks to understand how all sorts of people live their lives, like the character studies of a young writer. As odd as it seems, the viewer (or this viewer, at least) sympathizes with him, with the loneliness evident in his speech and demeanor. Things take a turn when the mysterious Cobb confronts him in a café, bringing Bill under his sway. The film is eerie and tight, evidencing the development Nolan had to undergo as a director to create the grand-scale narratives he is known for today. It’s also nostalgic, at times more reminiscent of Hitchcock than some of Nolan’s more recent work. As the comically outdated description on Rotten Tomatoes puts it, “This first feature heralds in Christopher Nolan a promising new talent at the indie film scene.” A promising talent, indeed—though perhaps Nolan’s sights were already set far beyond the indie scene. —Joel Pinckney

Jeremy Theobald as “The Young Man,” in Following, directed by Christopher Nolan.