Staff Picks: Corner Booths, Skate Shoots, and Ghosts


This Week’s Reading

Kate Zambreno. Photo: Heather Sten. Courtesy of Columbia University Press.

Kate Zambreno’s To Write As If Already Dead just might be the first truly great book about the coronavirus pandemic. Ostensibly a study of the French writer and photographer Hervé Guibert, who died of AIDS in 1991 and became famous for work such as the 1990 novel To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life, To Write As If Already Dead divides itself into two distinct parts, both focused on questions of intimacy, interpersonal relationships, and the human body. In the lightly fictionalized first half, a woman working on a study of Guibert ponders an old internet-based friendship that ended abruptly after her anonymous friend deleted her blog. In the second half, Zambreno writes of Guibert, the book’s “ghost, the projected shadow, the echo,” and also her second pregnancy, the failures of the American health care system, correspondences with friends, and the frightening early days of the coronavirus pandemic. “I worry to her,” Zambreno writes of a conversation with a friend, “I’m not cosmopolitan enough or queer enough to write about Guibert, that I would never have been included in Foucault’s circle. I am a mom on a couch!” But literature is slippery; To Write As If Already Dead, in its pairing of fact and fiction—a technique that Zambreno has used before, most notably in Screen Tests and Drifts—elides these boundaries, instead working to create parallels between relationships, spaces, and historical moments. “I wonder if death is the ultimate betrayal, not writing,” she questions near the end. “Writing as a way to mark an ‘I’ before it is extinguished.” —Rhian Sasseen 

Since watching Davonte Jolly’s GODSPEED, I have become an advocate for the restorative powers of the skate video. I don’t skateboard. I can’t even name most of the tricks these guys pull off. And fans of The Paris Review, Bret Anthony Johnston excepted, might not revel in Kevin White’s buttery flow or Alex Midler’s back three off the car wash (if this language doesn’t quite land, try Owen Wilson’s take, from the inventive and playful Yeah Right!). But for me, the best parts of GODSPEED are skate adjacent: Nico Hiraga’s energy after landing a trick for his mom, the cocksure hype of a close friend group, or the look on Zach Saraceno’s face after a close call with traffic. Baker 3 is particularly good at highlighting such human moments, featuring a relentless board recovery by Jim Greco, who dropped his own artful skate video more than twenty years later. Greco’s Jobs? Never!! is like skate through the eyes of Werner Herzog, though Herzog has suggested that if he were to set his cinematic sights on skateboarding, his soundtrack would be a bit more ethereal. GODSPEED delivers on the music, opening with Frank Ocean’s song of the same name and somehow complementing the subsequent tracks with the clatter of a kickflip or the resounding ping of a rail kiss. Whatever ails, maybe the rhythm and laughter and rapturous thrill of the skate video will prove a salve. For best results, play in the background on a workday, volume way up. —Christopher Notarnicola


RE Katz. Photo: RE Katz. Courtesy of Dzanc Books.


Needless to say, the first line of And Then the Gray Heaven—“I married my electric dishwasher”—grabbed my attention. But what follows, a sincerely beautiful yet devastating story of queer love and grief, held on and didn’t let me go until the final page. RE Katz’s novella, out from Dzanc Books next week, is the story of Jules, whose partner, B, has recently died in an accident. We meet Jules, completely unmoored in their mourning, as they embark on a daring mission to honor B’s memory. Rendered in luminous prose, the novella oscillates between Jules’s grief-filled present and the past, from their difficult childhood in the Florida foster care system to their wonderful life with B. Katz balances these cinematic vistas of recollection with astonishing specificity, dreamscapes, and deep dives into Jules’s inner life. Moreover, Katz manages to sustain a soft haze through the entirety of the novella and, in doing so, captures the surreality of grief. Finishing this book felt like emerging from a dark movie theater into the afternoon sun. I surfaced from the world of And Then the Gray Heaven blinking against the light, with a renewed anger at how the medical system bars queer people from their loved ones in the most difficult of times, a renewed belief in the systems of care that we uphold for one another in the face of suffering, and a renewed faith in the amazing, altering effect that love can have on our lives. —Mira Braneck

I have held a sword—a real sword—once, maybe twice in my life. I don’t remember where I was or how this happened. It was probably a field trip. What I do remember, though, is the surprising heft of the weapon in my hands. Among the many, many admirable aspects of FromSoftware’s sleeper hit Demon’s Souls, which received a loving remake from Bluepoint Games this past year, is its commitment to honoring this weight. Most action games opt for effortlessness, entombing the player within a hollow fantasy of their avatar’s strength. In Demon’s Souls, however, each swing proceeds with the inalterable arc of prophecy: once the button has been pressed, there’s no going back. The game’s most harrowing moments involve a delicate negotiation with the stamina meter, a green bar that depletes with every combat maneuver. A successful run through any of the game’s levels requires another negotiation, though, this one with something not measured on the screen: the player’s own confidence. The overzealous player of Demon’s Souls will find themselves launched back to the Nexus, their progress lost, time and again. The crushing humiliation of defeat—there’s a surprising heft to that, too. —Brian Ransom

The word storyteller gets tossed around a lot these days, often on LinkedIn, but the late Spalding Gray, who would have been eighty this past weekend, was the real, rare thing. Sitting behind a plain desk on an otherwise empty stage, dressed in a plaid button-down, he related the small and large events of his life growing up in Rhode Island, moving to New York, making his way in the downtown theater scene, marrying, divorcing, parenting. In some cases, the stories are fairly mundane. In others, they are profound reflections on world-changing events. Yet somehow each performance is riveting from start to finish. There’s an old piece of advice about writing, that you should think about telling the story to someone in a bar, which I’ve always taken to mean a friend (not, say, a romantic prospect) with whom you are meeting in a relaxed setting. Watching Gray’s monologue “concert films” feels a bit like being that friend, settling into a corner booth with open ears. That’s the key to Gray’s magic—he recognized and reached us not as a distant audience but as trusted members of his own circle, for whom he made his material as entertaining as possible. If you are not yet ready for a real corner booth this weekend, consider pouring a drink and hanging with Spalding. Unfortunately, some of his work is outside the streaming universe, but the Criterion Channel and YouTube offer a nice sampler. —Jane Breakell


Spalding Gray in Steven Soderbergh’s Gray’s Anatomy, 1996. Courtesy of the Criterion Collection.