Staff Picks: Miners, Mauretania, and Melancholy


This Week’s Reading

Chris Reynolds. Photo: Chez Blundy. Courtesy of New York Review Books.

Mauretania is a mood. Spend some time with Chris Reynolds’s The New World: Comics from Mauretania and you’ll feel it. Stark illustrations will envelop you in their contrasts—the blanket blacks of the foreground, the impossible star-bright skies—and you’ll find yourself thumbing anxiously for the uncertain medium of shadows. The characters will elude you—transient, distant, largely muted in their emotions—and their struggles will become your own as you search for meaning in an increasingly mysterious world. We tend to use the terms creepy or uncanny to describe such a mood. I’ve always liked the German word unheimlich. But that describes only a piece of the feeling that permeates these comics. For those moments when life is relatively fine and yet you can’t seem to shake the unease that manifests in everything from the building across the street to the sunlight that “roars across the fields” to the nearly programmable behaviors of the people around you, when you can’t remember why you entered a room, or when you’ve finished solving a problem only to realize you are just as confused as when you began, I propose the word Mauretania. An example: My local grocer no longer requires customers to wear masks, and the CDC says it’s all right, but it still feels a bit Mauretania in there. Things somehow feel Mauretania more and more. —Christopher Notarnicola 

A lot has been said about Bennington College, with its unique educational model and the various well-known writers among its alumni (seriously, a lot has been said, and most of it is kind of wild). In “Bennington Girl,” however, Jill Eisenstadt explores the archetype of “the B girl,” a figure overrepresented in cultural production but underrepresented in discussions surrounding the college itself. (“Though the college still receives outsized attention,” Eisenstadt writes, “the focus is more on the school than the girl. Blame or credit the spread of progressive ed, #metoo or the achievements of B boys,” chief among them Jonathan Lethem and Bret Easton Ellis.) The B girl, Eisenstadt claims, is everywhere once you start looking for her. She is an “artistic, sexually bold, brilliant or flaky, monied, spooky (probably communist) free spirit.” She is an archetype, a trope—a caricature, really. The essay is incredibly well researched, diving into a wide array of B girls in literature and film and seamlessly drawing from Eisenstadt’s own experience at Bennington (she is, along with Donna Tartt, one of the non-male-identifying members of the so-called Literary Brat Pack that emerged from the college). After reading Eisenstadt’s essay, I returned to Tartt’s The Secret History. You may recall Camilla, one of the only women in the book and certainly the lone central female character. I’d argue that she is not a B girl, even if she is portrayed as humorously nymphlike. The (very few) other female Bennington students, however, largely fit the B girl profile. Take Judy Poovey, Richard Papen’s generally reviled neighbor, as a case study, with her red Corvette, her seemingly endless supply of any number of drugs, “a spandex top which revealed her intensely aerobicized midriff,” and her vocal desire to sleep with Richard (which she, our resident B girl, of course puts in “less delicate terms”). Like Eisenstadt says, once you start looking, B girls are everywhere. This is cheating, perhaps, considering that The Secret History’s Hamden College is an overtly fictionalized Bennington—but there’s Judy, B girl archetype, plain as day. —Mira Braneck


Brian Dillon. Photo courtesy of New York Review Books.


I’m late to Brian Dillon’s Essayism: On Form, Feeling, and Nonfiction, which was published in the U.S. in 2018, but luckily, when it comes to a book this profoundly thoughtful about the relationship between text and mood, there is no deadline or time limit. In a series of chapters that examine the essayistic writing of Elizabeth Hardwick, Virginia Woolf, Walter Benjamin, and more, Dillon slowly unspools paragraphs, sentences, and phrases until he is left with the thread of emotion, a personal story of depression that interweaves it all. The relationship between writing and depression is a long-standing and famous one, but Dillon adds new shades and colors, transforming a familiar palette into one both strange and thought-provoking. —Rhian Sasseen

It’s been a good month or so for readers of Natalia Ginzburg. Two novellas, Family and Borghesia, were released as a single volume by New York Review Books in April, and earlier this month her novel Voices in the Evening was reissued by New Directions, with an introduction by Colm Tóibín. Family, in a broad sense, is a through line in Ginzburg’s body of work, and all of these delight in the same wry observational humor that’s at the beating heart of her autobiographical novel Family Lexicon. For being closer to pure fiction, Voices seems in some ways a franker account of everyday life under and after Fascism than Family Lexicon is, perhaps finding a footing in being a step removed from reality. The novel is set in a “nutshell of a town,” where the dramas of several couples unfold around the village’s recent memory of a young man’s murder at the hands of Blackshirts, while yet another member of their close-knit socialist community is casually accepted as a Fascist sympathizer—a tension that rings true with how personal relationships muddle political lines. As for the novellas, one couple is at the center of Family, a relatively lighter tale that pokes fun at bourgeois notions of marriage, and the only relationships in Borghesia are between a widow and her many cats. All three of these stories have a subtle power that catches you at the end, and each sings with the characteristic wit and piercing clarity of prose that holds you rapt when you read her work. —Lauren Kane

One shouldn’t come to Jia Zhangke’s Artist Trilogy—a series of documentaries about painting (Dong), fashion (Useless), and literature (Swimming Out till the Sea Turns Blue)—with too many expectations of gleaning concrete information about the subjects at hand. Jia offers little explanation to the uninitiated viewer. Instead, the films are elaborate swerves, at first centering artists before exploding outward to encompass the more unexamined reaches of modern life in China: the day laborers who live and die on the job in Dong, the coal miners who scrub their bodies down after every shift in Useless, the farmers who toil amid endless fields of grain in Swimming Out till the Sea Turns Blue. These drifts in focus may frustrate the more impatient among us, but they serve to eradicate any barriers between artists and the material conditions within which they create. In setting out to pursue the truth of other art forms, Jia reveals mastery of his own: the images he captures are rich and indelible. —Brian Ransom


Still from Jia Zhangke’s Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue, 2020. © Xstream Pictures.