Staff Picks: Splorts, Seers, and Sentences


This Week’s Reading

Brian Dillon.

I would have been happy to read Brian Dillon’s Suppose a Sentence at any time, but that the book came out in this overwhelming, apocalyptic year made it particularly welcome. The focus here is narrow—twenty-seven essays about twenty-seven discrete sentences by twenty-seven different writers—and entirely idiosyncratic: he offers no “general theory of the sentence” and no advice or suggestions about writing a good or great or beautiful one. He examines sentences that interest or move him and writes, as he says, not necessarily about them but toward them. The book has a lot of what I can only call pleasure—of the kind that I imagine athletes or dancers experience when they are doing what they do, which is then communicated to those watching them do it. I share with Dillon some misgivings about general theories and overarching ideas, but in thinking about the writing I enjoy most, this quality feels like the one constant: that the author takes some pleasure in using these muscles and finding them capable of what they are asked. That delight is evident both in the sentences Dillon looks at and in those he writes himself. —Hasan Altaf 

Last week, I had to laugh when I came across Cameron Awkward-Rich’s Dispatch in a way that felt peak 2020: a recommendation over Zoom private messages. I rushed to respond before the meeting ended and the messages disappeared—yes, I knew Awkward-Rich’s earlier work, and yes, I’d check out his latest book—and then, still laughing, I bought the collection. Rogue beginnings aside, I have been making an effort to dive into the full collections of poets I used to know one poem at a time, whether in anthologies or on the internet. It has been a good exercise, sitting with the voice and thoughts of one writer, especially with such an embodied body of work as this. Dispatch is a collection worth reading in full, preferably in one sitting, and then coming back to again, which I have already done only a week removed from my first visit. The world according to Awkward-Rich is not a happy thing. But it’s not entirely a sad thing either. The poems in this collection offer a way to live. In “The Cure for What Ails You,” there is the desire for comfort, but none comes. Awkward-Rich writes: “Like a child I just want / someone to touch me with cool hands / & say yes, you’re right, something is wrong / stay here in bed until the pain stops.” The whole collection is contained within this unfulfilled wish to have the wrong thing if not righted then at least recognized. But what does it mean to be recognized, the poet asks, and who gets to be seen with good intentions? Dispatch delivers on the promise of its title: it is a message sent onward. And it’s the process of moving forward, as the final poem ends, “until we are all free.” —Langa Chinyoka


Elfriede Jelinek. Photo: G. Huengsberg. CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons.


There’s no writer quite like Elfriede Jelinek. From the first work of hers I ever read—the 1989 novel Lust—I’ve been fascinated with her formally adventurous, always acidic explorations of power, gender, money, and politics. Her latest work to appear in English, the 2017 play On the Royal Road: The Burgher King (translated from the German by Gitta Honegger), is no exception. As the pun in the title suggests, this is a work about greed; written in the three weeks after Donald Trump’s 2016 election, it’s a monologue told from the perspective of a female seer who takes the form of Miss Piggy, her eyes blinded and bloodied à la Tiresias. The king that she describes sounds eerily similar to the U.S. president, down to the wall, the debts, and the crown of hair. Frankly, Jelinek is better at writing about the present moment in U.S. politics than most American writers; she understands that we exist in a time typified by its dishonesty and that America is no exception to the rules. The truth, the seer observes, can be bought “on credit, like everything else.” I haven’t the vaguest idea what will happen in the next week and a half before the U.S. presidential election—I’m no seer—but at least I have Jelinek’s sharp insights into contemporary capitalism and the global rise of right-wing populism beside me. —Rhian Sasseen

Emily Wilson’s English translation of the Odyssey—the first ever by a woman—has been greatly celebrated. Her criticism, it transpires, is no less captivating. In the October 8, 2020, issue of the London Review of Books, Wilson reviews three new translations of the Oresteia. She makes quick work of the elite academic hand-wringing that is taking a small eternity elsewhere. “Many published ancient Greek and Roman translations, by women as well as men, share a pedestrian, archaizing, clunky style–regardless of the stylistic diversity of the original texts. Conversely, it is quite possible, in theory, for elderly white men to offer original ideas and fresh perspectives. But in this particular case … ” I’ll imagine for a second that those words aren’t the pulse quickener for you that they are for me. But Wilson’s review presents the full roster of muses that the best LRB reviews do. There is poetry: “Whatever’s burned and poured and wept on alters.” There is history. There is drama: “Clytemnestra bares her breast to remind [her son] that the body he threatens to kill is the source of his life.” There is also politics. Wilson proposes that the Oresteia is about “the subordination of female to male, of moral right and wrong to the making of expedient speeches and the passing of laws for what Plato would later call the ‘advantage of the stronger.’ ” If this is the season we look, clear-eyed, at our monuments—and I hope it is—I would like to have Wilson as a guide. —Julia Berick

My latest obsession is perhaps one of the most difficult works I’ve had to explain. Blaseball is essentially an absurdist fantasy baseball league where its creators and fans alike collaborate to shape a fictional world. Part game, part social experiment, part existential horror, and entirely bizarre, Blaseball simulates a season of baseball every week at a rate of a game per hour. At the end of the week, the top teams move on to a postseason, and a champion emerges. Although that all might sound fairly standard, keep in mind that some of the weather conditions under which the games take place include “blooddrain,” “reverb,” and black holes. The players have ridiculous names like Blood Hamburger and Peanut Bong, blood types like “grass,” and numbers of fingers that usually amount to far more than ten. This is entertaining enough on its own, but the real magic of Blaseball comes from its community, which aims for equal parts chaos and delight. Because Blaseball itself is almost entirely text-based, fans regularly give visual manifestation to the various players and write their backstories, only for the creators of Blaseball to turn around and incorporate the fan material into the league’s canon. It’s a collaboration unlike anything I’ve ever seen. This push-and-pull between the producers of Blaseball and its audience creates some spectacular moments, such as when a group of fans exploited the in-universe rulebook to exercise necromancy and bring a dead player back to life, only for that player (named Jaylen Hotdogfingers) to in turn claim the lives of four opponents as recompense for her resurrection. You see, Blaseball is a deadly “splort” (the official term). Season 11 is coming to a close this weekend, and the Grand Siesta (a short hiatus for the producers) is set to begin. But when Blaseball returns, I can’t recommend it enough. Born out of the absurdity of quarantine in a year like 2020, Blaseball is the most entertaining and unique event on the internet right now. —Carlos Zayas-Pons


The league standings as of Season 11, Day 97 of Blaseball.