Staff Picks: Tricksters, Transmogrifications, and Treacherous Beauty


This Week’s Reading

Marie NDiaye. Photo: © Francesca Mantovani.

No one is condemned to being human in the world of Marie NDiaye. People become birds, skulk home as canine omens, as vapors, or transmogrify into logs. What a relief such transformations can be, since consciousness, for NDiaye, is a fraught and painful thing. Even when writing in the third person, she has an extraordinary ability to trap readers in the heads of her characters, leaving us to rattle around in their skulls, crouch in the dark confines, and peek out to witness their humiliation. In the face of a painful reckoning with the world, the mind often gives way. Perhaps the cruelest element of her work is not that her characters suffer but that they are so often left unable to perceive it. That Time of Year, first published in 1994 and elegantly rendered in English by her veteran translator, Jordan Stump, will appear this September from Two Lines Press. Herman, a Parisian, extends the family holiday past August, the end of tourist season. It is abruptly fall—a deluge begins, and his wife and son have vanished. The inhabitants of the village have no interest in the case. Herman, too, finds himself unwilling to break social codes, to plead for help or for their return. He lingers, coming to note certain details: the web of surveillance (run fast); everyone’s exceedingly blonde hair (run far). Roots peek out beneath the dye and give away the newcomers; Herman learns he is not the first to have lost his family. The only way to find them, he is told, is to stay and become one with the village. “You can’t very well change your skin in two days, can you?” There is no distinction between assimilation and dissolution: to find your family, “you have to lose every last bit of yourself.” Rain, brain, go away; the downpour continues, and Herman’s memory and body seem to dissolve. In this self-annihilation, he finds “a timid sort of pleasure.” There is a strange pleasure, too, in losing oneself in this remarkable tale. It feels true even as it is utterly unreal; it seizes the brain like a very bad dream. —Chris Littlewood 

Readers of Halle Butler’s novel The New Me will notice many of the same reactions while reading her debut, Jillian, which was reissued this week by Penguin Books. Those feelings are: secondhand dread, secondhand embarrassment, a cringe every so often at an unsettlingly familiar character flaw or moment of the bodily grotesque. Jillian flips between the lives of two women who work admin at a gastroenterologist’s office. Twenty-something Megan’s bitter depressive spiral careens out of control while she obsesses over the happy women in her life, namely Jillian, her colleague and a single mother, whose rosy disposition at the office is masking a breakdown that would put Megan’s to shame. While The New Me pokes fun at the follies of yuppie striving, Jillian is a little rawer, a little darker, while still laying bare the devastating inner lives of deluded and aimless people. —Lauren Kane


Miles Okazaki. Photo: Dimitri Louis.


The pandemic has made it hard for jazz musicians, like other artists who depend on a steady flow of gigs, to make ends meet. The label Pi Recordings is working to help artists through its This Is Now series, a line of digital-only albums and EPs on Bandcamp from which the label takes no cut of sales and instead lets the artists use or donate the proceeds as they see fit. So far, they’ve released wonderful and sometimes unusual recordings by Steve Lehman (solo sax works recorded in his car); Vijay Iyer (an instrumental version of his hip-hop collaboration with Mike Ladd); Liberty Ellman (an excellent trio EP); and last week, Trickster’s Dream, a remarkable “live” album and film by the guitarist Miles Okazaki and his band Trickster. Beyond the music—which is drawn from the band’s most recent studio recording, The Sky Below—what makes this album so remarkable, and the reason why I put live in quotations, is that all four musicians recorded their parts at home, layering them atop tracks sung by Okazaki, which were used to sync the performances and then deleted. Okazaki is a wildly versatile musician, freakishly precise, but also full of emotion. Trickster, an aggressive but not ear-splitting blend of contemporary jazz and rock styles, is his best band, and Trickster’s Dream is an ideal way to sample their music. The album only gets better if you keep its making in mind as you listen. —Craig Morgan Teicher

It’s difficult to describe what kind of book Moyra Davey’s Index Cards, newly out from New Directions, is. Ostensibly, it’s a series of essays that meander through subjects as varied as the writings of Vivian Gornick and Natalia Ginzburg, Davey’s own photography and video work, New York in the early aughts, and Quebecois separatism. There are also excerpts from Davey’s diaries and an essay-script for her film Les Goddesses. The overall effect is one of rifling through someone’s notebooks, figuring out what exactly makes them tick—always a thrilling feeling. As Davey says early on, in a paragraph about the work of Ginzburg and Peter Handke, “I wanted to write this without ever saying ‘I feel’ or ‘I felt,’ with Handke and Natalia Ginzburg as my models.” This goal of precision is a fascinating one, and one that I think Davey achieves. —Rhian Sasseen

Talking about poetry—I never thought this would be something I’d miss in quarantine. I miss discussing poetry over the seminar table at school or while congregated around someone’s desk at The Paris Review’s office in Chelsea. I miss that moment in conversation when a puzzling verse suddenly gives way to meaning. I was delighted, therefore, when the professor and scholar Elisa New introduced me to Poetry in America, the documentary series she produces and hosts on PBS. For each episode, New chooses a single poem to examine, discussing its technical intricacies with a variety of guests, always to arrive at some broader emotional question or truth. I was especially moved by the episode on “You and I Are Disappearing,” by Yusef Komunyakaa, veteran and unofficial poet laureate of the Vietnam War. The poem is composed as a catalogue of similes, resurrecting the memory of seeing a young girl burning alive and bringing to mind Nick Ut’s famous wartime photograph. Komunyakaa reads aloud in a deep baritone, accentuating the organic musicality of the verse:

She burns like foxfire
in a thigh-shaped valley.
A skirt of flames
dances around her at dusk.

She burns like a shot glass of vodka.
She burns like a field of poppies
at the edge of a rain forest.

As the composer Elliot Goldenthal observes in conversation with New, this elegy for an unknown girl sounds a lot like the blues. Its rhythms convey something dangerously sensual about war, capturing what Komunyakaa calls, in his own words, a “treacherous beauty.” —Elinor Hitt


Elisa New. Photo: Rose Lincoln/Harvard University.