Staff Picks: Bas, Beauvoir, and Britain


This Week’s Reading

Damon Daunno as Curly and Mary Testa as Aunt Eller in Oklahoma! © Little Fang.

My junior year of high school, I was not asked to the prom. Bear in mind that my high school had 4,500 students and that although 2,250 of them were eligible to attend this dance, not a single person deigned to be my date. I went, instead, to see Oklahoma! A lovely time, to be sure, but boring as all get-out. While my peers enjoyed a disastrous evening of sex, drugs, and revelry, I watched that bland production from a blurry distance. At Daniel Fish’s Oklahoma! last weekend, I found these two evenings had merged into a marvelous party, to which I had finally, belatedly been invited. Twitter chatter informed me this was “Sexy Oklahoma!,” and while it certainly is sexy, it’s also so delightful I beamed through much of the first act. It’s funny and warm. The house lights are almost always up, and they serve chili during intermission. First, we are primed with tenderness; then, tragedy unfolds, and its arrival is shocking, cold, and truthful. I loved it, and I’m pretty darn sure it loved me back—if only for one night. —Noor Qasim 

I still have my undergraduate copy of The Second Sex, nearly every page dog-eared and underlined enthusiastically. I consult it regularly. The margin notes reflect my mental state at each moment of rereading: there, a starry-eyed student just entering the world; here, an older self, writing the initials of a man who had broken my heart. So it was with great eagerness that I delved into Kate Kirkpatrick’s recent biography of Simone de Beauvoir, Becoming Beauvoir. Kirkpatrick is herself a philosopher, and she brings this background to her incisive portrayal of Beauvoir’s career, writing, and life. Beauvoir was far from simply a companion to Sartre; in fact, Kirkpatrick writes, many of Sartre’s most famous philosophical insights were heavily influenced by Beauvoir’s own work on the ideas of bad faith and freedom—ideas that she was exploring in her diary as early as age twenty. As a fan of Beauvoir’s novels, I found it thrilling to learn how she developed her unique mixtures of autobiography and fiction. It’s both inspiring and sobering to see how Beauvoir grappled throughout her life with the very real concerns of balancing the domestic, the private, and the passionate in her work and public life. In fact, Becoming Beauvoir has me turning to Beauvoir again—I started reading The Woman Destroyed earlier this week. —Rhian Sasseen

I suppose most of the people reading this have already experienced the gut-wrenching despair and confusion that accompanies the result of an election. I imagine most of you felt pretty shit the day the forty-fifth president of the United States was elected. I felt pretty shit that day, too. I also felt pretty shit the day the result of the Brexit vote was announced. But today is a new level of shit, it seems to me, because my compatriots in Britain have chosen to double down and return Boris Johnson to Number 10 with the largest majority since Thatcher. Sometimes, I find this stuff fucking inexplicable. It’s inexplicable to my pals, too, and to most of the writers and artists whose work I admire. Yesterday, the playwright and performer Daniel Kitson emailed his subscribers about the election and described his creative output as one that “emerge[s] entirely from the heart and the mind of a Labour Voter.” His characters are marginalized and, often, forgotten, and his work is profound and poetic and sad. He is a compassionate performer, and we could all do with a bit of that right now. His latest show, Keep, runs until December 19 at St. Ann’s Warehouse. You really, really should go. —Robin Jones


Still from Tales from the Golden Age. © Wild Bunch.


I saw Tales from the Golden Age some weeks ago at Film Forum. Those who didn’t can stream it, and mid-December, the anniversary of the Romanian Revolution, is the perfect time to do so. Here are all the absurdity and horror of late-stage communism in six short, bleakly comic glimpses. A village overextends itself to impress a passing motorcade, but before it arrives, an “inspector” gets everybody drunk and marooned on a carousel rented for the occasion. A family manages to get a pig for Christmas, but they have to kill it themselves—in their apartment. To keep it from their neighbors, the family quietly gasses the pig in their kitchen. A fine Eastern European sense of place winds through the Tales: all the apartment kitchens have doors, all the refrigerators are full of leftovers covered with upside-down plates. Each chapter closes with a legend: “Legend has it that they were all still trapped there when the motorcade did after all pass through.” “Legend has it that the family used what remained of the animal for the seasonal celebrations.” It’s supposed to be funny, and I laughed, but the jokes are pulled from hunger and despair. This year a Romanian friend sent me a picture from her polling station of a trash can with a slit cut in the taped-down lid. She found this hilarious. Made in 2009, twenty years after the revolution, Tales implies that carousel traps, pig gassings, and other horrors are mere legend now, left in the dust by present-day truth. The situation has arguably improved since then, but accusations of corruption are frequent. Legend has it that your vote ends up in the trash can. It is both metaphor and not-too-distant truth—to a certain new-world-order-weary sensibility, as absurdly comic as it is brutal. —Jane Breakell

A man walking his dog past the Lehmann Maupin on Twenty-Fourth Street last week did a double take and stopped by the gallery’s glass door. He had caught sight of a Hernan Bas painting, and after a moment, he (and his basset hound) joined me in front of one of the eight canvases exhibited in “Time Life” (on view through January 4, 2020). How could he not open the door? Bas’s subjects—handsome, effete young men with heavy-lidded eyes and fulsome lips—draw you in with their slight, sullen glance. These paintings are genre art in the sense that they give us a scene in the story of these men’s lives, but there’s nothing quotidian about them. The Occult Enthusiast captures a man nodding off amid a cluttered room of arcane curiosities, a Ouija board on his desk; The Glofish Enthusiast, whose neon accents must be appreciated in person, features a boy alone with his net in a basement aquarium. Neither subject looks enthused; Bas’s men are trapped in their own heads, where their selfhood rages quietly. My favorite painting of the show is The Sip In, which features the interior of Julius’, New York’s oldest gay bar, where three besuited men present unfocused stares as a disembodied hand covers the one beer in front of them (the history of this painting is a fascinating dive into a chapter of LGBT rights in New York). But I come to The Sip In for the fourth figure, a boy sitting alone in a red sweater, making direct eye contact with the viewer and raising his martini. There’s a smile at the corner of his lips. It’s not as bad as it all seems. Have a drink; stay a while. —Lauren Kane

This week, as Christmas trees began to light up street corners around my neighborhood, I recalled a scene from Garth Greenwell’s story “The Frog King,” which I must have reread half a dozen times when it appeared in The New Yorker last fall. In the opening scene, the narrator and his boyfriend, R, decorate a small tree together in their apartment in Sofia, Bulgaria. R—a somewhat sentimental and whimsical character—swaddles the tree in tinsel and gives it a name: Madeleine. “He liked to give things names,” the narrator reflects, “I think it was a way of laying claim to them.” The story, which follows the couple on a romantic trip to Italy, is an excerpt from Greenwell’s forthcoming book Cleanness, which follows the narrator’s love affairs with several different men over a number of years. A tale of tumultuous romances, the book is explicitly—almost incandescently—erotic. In scenes containing both tenderness and violence, Greenwell showcases his powers as a taxonomist of touch, revealing that there are as many ways to put your hands on someone as there are Christmas lights twinkling over Bologna. At one point, the narrator kisses every spot on R’s body, from the soles of his feet up to his scalp. At another, he lies awake in bed and feels R roll over, half-asleep, and curl against him, pressing his face against his shoulder. He thinks to himself, “They could make a whole life … these moments.” —Cornelia Channing


Garth Greenwell. © Bill Adams.