Staff Picks: Big Fish, Bombay, and Busted Pinkie Toes


This Week’s Reading

M. F. Husain, Sprinkling Horses, ca. 1975, oil on canvas, 43 1/4″ x 92 1/2″.

While the Guggenheim is rewriting the narrative of twentieth-century art history, with revision inked in pages upon pages of critical revelation, a quieter disruption is occurring down the street at the Asia Society, where an ambitiously comprehensive exhibition populates two floors with paintings by the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group. After India’s independence in 1947, the PAG—a collective of headstrong, dynamic men—was formed as a way of shaping Indian culture and society for the new modern world. The social purpose of these paintings looks forward by looking inward, and therein lies their genius. The range and variety are evidence of an energetic originality; every painting is fresh and exciting, a refraction of the artist’s central vision, which is steadfast and zealous in its innovation. I found myself captivated by the characters that emerged from each cluster of work: F. N. Souza, the radical virtuoso whose work is arguably boldest in its imagination, is fearless in his often gruesome depictions and also in his liberal use of bold black lines and shapes (and is also perhaps my favorite). The prolific M. F. Husain marks his canvases with rough strokes of muted earthy browns and reds depicting Cubist renderings of scenes from Hindu tradition. S. H. Raza becomes obsessed with the Bindu, the motif of a black orb, which appears time and again, as a black sun in the sky or as a sparse mandala—a hypnotic, primordial symbol both auspicious and ominous. And the list could go on. As we change how we think about the influence of women in modern European abstractionism, so should we take time to reconsider the evolution of the avant-garde with respect to influence beyond the West. —Lauren Kane 

I don’t read enough new books to declare anything “the nonfiction literary event of the year,” but that’s my experience with Kembrew McLeod’s The Downtown Pop Underground. In the late fifties, tax breaks on the West Coast had sucked most of the industry out from under the Big Apple, allowing people like the Village Voice film critic Jonas Mekas to rent an entire floor on Orchard Street for what would today amount to around a hundred dollars. The city was so cheap that working was almost optional, and the area south of Fourteenth Street became a playground for freaks and creative geniuses who poured their talent equally into their lives and their art. Reading about the now vanished downtown bohemian culture will no doubt fill you with joy (the playwright Harry Koutoukas shattering a mirror and gluing it to his suit, Joe Cino determining if you could stage your play based on your astrological sign), but there’s something sad about it, too. What happened to the freedom of the Village, where success and approval from cultural gatekeepers were eschewed and replaced with liberation of mind and body? It seems so impossibly distant from our city today, and yet I thought of a remark from the queer performance artist Vaginal Davis: “If you’re seeking a scene, you have to first envision it, and then it can become a reality.” Going on about the decline of New York is a tired old tune, but McLeod’s work is an authentic social history, neither an elegy nor a eulogy. Drugs, often erroneously considered a secret ingredient to the magic of old New York, appear in this book as the poison they really were. “In came drugs,” the La MaMa playwright Paul Foster tells McLeod, “and out went creativity.” What comes through is the cosmic consciousness of the era that, for better or worse, made drugs attractive. This book should be required reading for anyone—which I think is almost everyone—who wants an alternative to their “career” aspirations or strategies to expand their “network.” If there can be another underground, there will be. As the giant from Twin Peaks says: “It is happening again.” —Ben Shields

Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival is in full swing, and while programing continues through November 18, you have only a few days left to see Druid’s production of Waiting for Godot, on through Tuesday at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College. The Galway-based company knows its Beckett, with the four-and-a-half-character cast (the Boy actor is closer to a quarter of the size of Rory Nelson’s Pozzo) nailing not only the dialogue but those strange stage directions, bowler hat blowing and all. By the end of the two acts, I felt like I’d known Gogo and Didi, played by Aaron Monaghan and Marty Rea respectively, for many more moons than the two that rise onstage—it’s a testament to the pair’s ability to perform the challenging script, which is at once existentially wrought and physically demanding. Both are taken to their logical extremes with the actors’ emphatic delivery (there are squeaks, whispers, shouts) and physical feats (there’s a good moment of shoe-tugging that looks more like partners’ yoga). Pozzo and Lucky, in their own manic extremes, redouble the central question of play with their entrance, crisis, and defeat/retreat. Perhaps watching the pair await dusk as daylight saving time came to a close—how dark it was outside, how early!—and with an injured foot of my own (Gogo’s poor foot could be read as painful all the way up in the balcony) made Waiting for Godot’s existentialism particularly resonant with this viewer, but the strange sense of urgency wrapped in never-ending limbo that compels Beckett’s play is bigger than my busted pinkie toe. It echoes across the “muddy” scenery and into all of our lives. Well? Shall we go? —Emily Nemens


Vince Staples.


I burn at a different speed, so of course I’m a year behind on Vince Staples releases. While the rest of the rap-listening public is bumping Staples’s latest, FM!, I’m just now dipping into Big Fish Theory, his truly extraordinary record from last year. The gamble at the heart of Big Fish Theory is this: to fuse hip-hop and electronic music, two genres that share common elements—DJs, heavy reliance on sampling and interpolation, deep ties to dance subcultures and clubs—and have long existed on the margins but exerted outsize influence on the mainstream. They should be a natural fit—but then again, the road to hell is paved with half-baked genre experiments. Rappers such as Azealia Banks and Danny Brown have flirted with electronic music before, but Big Fish Theory is perhaps the only full-length project I’ve heard that successfully capitalizes on the potent possibilities of a hip-hop-electronic-music cocktail. As a personality, Vince Staples is an effusive jokester, always incisive and insightful, even when he’s, say, cracking wise about DMX. On wax, though, the grinning class clown simmers to a cold, clever, streetwise technician. He raps effortlessly, like he has both everything and nothing to prove, and it’s a credit to his versatility that he’s able to thread his quiet menace through the squishy, clicky, whooshing beats that constitute Big Fish Theory’s distinctive sound. These are enormous, cavernous productions; most rappers would be hopelessly lost. (I’m reminded of when Kendrick Lamar tried to freestyle over TNGHT’s monstrous “Higher Ground.”) But Staples darts hither and thither, punching in the shadows, peddling pain, raging against the conventions of hip-hop to create something truly new. —Brian Ransom

At the NonfictioNow conference in Phoenix last week, I had the great pleasure of meeting the author Erica Trabold and reading her debut nonfiction collection, Five Plots. Trabold’s structural technique is to thread together a series of small and often seemingly disparate vignettes of description, intellectual observation, memoir, and personal (and regional) history, and tie those threads into larger essay structures, five in all. Her intellectual moves are as dazzling as they are surprising, as is the style she employs to get at her subject matter. “All rocks are ghost,” she writes early on. And later: “America is Nebraska is Arizona is the heat of summer in any place with a proper swimming hole.” Such moves from the national to the personal are the pistons that drive Trabold’s narratives, ways in which to break the frame and get at her material from new directions (as comparisons to Maggie Nelson, Eliot Weinberger, Lily Hoang, and Elena Passarello all come to mind). The through line here is place, but Trabold’s use of place is not always in the physical topography of the world. Like the rivers she returns to again and again in this book, place for Trabold is a shifty, moving thing, different at each bend. Sometimes it is the Platte. Sometimes it is the body: sometimes the author’s, sometimes your own. Christian Kiefer

My Paris Review colleague Nadja Spiegelman explained how it was going to work when I read Sally Rooney’s Normal People: “You are going to love it, and you are going to finish it in one afternoon.” Fuck me. Rooney writes like she’s shearing through blue silk with a newly sharpened pair of scissors. I had the distinct sensation she was parting the cloud cover over modern Ireland, and in the rain-washed streets, I was able to see all sorts of things, my adolescence and my college experience among them. I’m transfixed by the way Rooney works, and I’m hardly the only one. At first, it seems as though there’s nothing terribly complex about Rooney’s plots or prose, but like any confident couturier, she’s slicing the free flow of words into the perfect shape. Again and again, she hits the perfect phrase and then the ideal restraint. She writes about tricky commonplace things (text messages, sex) with a familiarity no one else has. She is a puer senex, and I hope the spell holds. Rooney’s lack of quotation marks in Normal People quietly makes the digital world convert to the page: “Marianne takes her phone from her bag and writes Connell a text message: Lively discussion here on the subject of your absence. Are you planning to come at all? Within thirty seconds he replies: yeah jack just got sick everywhere so we had to put him in a taxi etc. on our way soon though.” The boy and the girl at the center of the story misunderstand each other over and over again. This misunderstanding ruins their love and their lives and says more gently than most things that the raising of boys and girls and that union of humans is complex and confused. There are monstrous men in the story. Our hero isn’t one of them, but he nevertheless hurts Marianne several times with selfishness, with misjudgment, with reticence. Marianne, within the misery of her life, is a Normal girl who sometimes feels her body is a tidy garment she’s trying on. Their bodies can fit together in the manner of untold centuries, and then: “He leaves. The door clicks shut behind him, not very loudly.” —Julia Berick


Sally Rooney.