Staff Picks: Mammoths, Magazines, and Mysterious Marks


This Week’s Reading

João Gilberto Noll. Photo courtesy of Nectar Literary.

This past week, when my roommate asked me about the plot of the João Gilberto Noll novel I was reading, Harmada, I struggled to even begin. “A man wakes up in the muck and encounters a child. He spits on the child’s wound to cure it, then walks away, eventually happening upon a play featuring two actresses. Then he has a threesome with the actresses, which eventually turns into a foursome with the company’s director, and by the way, one of the actresses is a single mother and has a baby, don’t forget. Then the man is in some kind of asylum or halfway house, remembering his life before, when he was a director and his wife abandoned him after he proved to be infertile. Then this baby, who’s now a teenage girl, is also there, and he helps her become the most famous actress in the city of Harmada. Eventually there’s a celebration, and I think this all might be a metaphor for the creative process and also Brazil, but maybe not … ” I’m still not entirely sure, but what I do know is that Harmada, translated from the Portuguese by Edgar Garbelotto, made me laugh out loud as much as it perplexed me, its boisterous absurdity and dreamlike logic making for a delightful way to spend an afternoon. —Rhian Sasseen 

There is a wide variety of work in “Weeping Willows, Liquid Tongues,” a show by Shahzia Sikander at Sean Kelly Gallery: massive, rough-edged mosaics; graphite drawings; videos; even a sculpture in bronze, in which a devata modeled on one in the Met balances atop a Venus based on a Bronzino painting. This could have lapsed into chaos, but the works are bound together by the idea of mixture, mingling, boundaries—between places and eras, between languages or media, between people or within them—made porous. One particularly striking work is titled simply X, and I’ve looked at it on my computer for hours now, trying to figure it out. The painting is made up of text, neatly printed Urdu (and I think I see some English in the back) written over and over to form a red X on smoky black, the words legible in places but lost in others. The shape and the colors appear to indicate “stop,” like a warning or something being forbidden, but the separations seem a trick of the eye. So maybe it is another kind of X—strips of tape holding something together, or bandages, or perhaps the X that marks the spot. The text, a quote from Ghalib, points in that direction: “If the divine lives within earthly instruments and the music they produce, where is then the locus of divinity?” —Hasan Altaf


César Aira. Photo: Nina Subin. Courtesy of New Directions.


This week I took a look at Katherine Silver’s translation of César Aira’s Artforum, which immediately enchanted me with its farcical combination of comically obsessive narrator and hyperfixation on the mundanity of things. Most of the chapters concern themselves with one man’s religious, relentless search for new issues of the titular art magazine or his anxieties as he irrationally hopes for missing issues to arrive at his doorstep after many months’ postal delay. In between, Aira sprinkles a few equally comical short stories about other objects—like coins and clothespins—and the forms and meanings they take on through personal or societal perceptions. Ultimately, what are these objects but tools? And what is Artforum (the magazine) but a simulacrum of art? But perhaps they are art as well? This novella leaves a lot of these theoretical questions unanswered, but they’re all enriched by Silver’s wonderful, tongue-in-cheek translation. —Carlos Zayas-Pons

The pile of books designated “read next” is reaching precarious heights at my bedside, scaling up the wall, a thin mosaic of pink, blue, yellow, and white, hardcovers and paperbacks alike. New additions arrive frequently, and the unread from months ago remain, a catalogue of things I almost had time for taunting me in semi-chronological order, saying, Remember April? September? June? Hovering at the top these days, however, is a mammoth volume of the collected stories of William Faulkner, which I’ve been parsing my way through for, admittedly, years. But I’m coming back to it more earnestly now, more intentionally. Between the few finished books that make it off my bedside and onto the bookshelf, I come back to the dense latticework of Faulkner’s prose. There’s not much to be said about Faulkner that doesn’t feel reiterative and not much praise I could give that Faulkner didn’t give himself, but reading his stories is a practice in patience that I appreciate. When I finally reach the back cover—which will be years from now, I’m sure—I see myself starting again. And if I don’t, I’ll likely try a similar exercise in slowness. Usually one to barrel through books in the middle of the night, sacrificing sleep and sense, I’m glad I pulled out the book from the bottom of the pile, where it had lain almost abandoned, earlier this summer. Being forced to savor each sentence and watching my postcard-turned-bookmark slowly make its way closer to the last page are small joys, but they delineate the days a little, and I savor that feeling, too. —Langa Chinyoka

Returning home for the holidays (somewhat early this year) also means returning to familiar bookshelves. A few books glare at me, a reminder that I placed them there last winter and have yet to read them. Most of them, however, are in their usual, comfortable spots, and these make the best company. Late last night or early this morning (interminable jet lag), I took one down and sat with it for a while. It was Peter Levi’s debut collection, The Gravel Ponds, from 1960. I wanted to find a poem I’d remembered, one in which a narrator reflects on an imagined apocalypse. (Apocalypse stuff is a bit of a draw these days.) The poem opens: “Three counties blacken and vanish, / rivers run unlighted and silent, / lamp by lamp of the city came, went, / into the utter dark, which was my wish.” Ah, and here’s the line I was looking for: “Leaves fall. Blood runs cold in the wrist.” I hadn’t remembered it was the last line—an odd thing to forget. And here’s another misremembered thing: I had thought the title was some riff on guillotine, but no, it’s “L’Aurore Grelottante,” or “The Shivering Dawn.” Which clearly illustrates that I never understood this poem at all, because despite the malevolent speaker visualizing the destruction of everything he sees, dawn is coming. Despite that in his “scarred thought this city / burns to ruin under the visiting air,” dawn is coming. Whether he likes it or not. Yes, given the state of the world right now, that seems worth remembering. And what’s more, the poem was first published in The Paris Review. Worth remembering, too. —Robin Jones