After the jump, a recap of Tuesday night’s softball game against The New Yorker. Read More
What we’ve been reading.
I’ve been fascinated by Popular Science‘s articles on robots. First there’s Larvabot—Hiroshi Ishiguro’s new telepresence robot meant to “transmit the presence” of people in other places by mimicing their voice, face, and movements. Imagining people hugging these “minimalist humans” that pretend to be their friends makes me feel weird and lonely. What would David Foster Wallace have to say about this? Then I see that another robot is updating its Twitter account. I wonder: will robots ever start writing memoirs and short fiction? —Natalie Jacoby
Over the weekend I tore through Style—a series of lectures given in 1955 by the witty English critic (and code-breaker) F. L. Lucas. The book addresses such topics as rhythm, urbanity, and brevity—and has them all. —Lorin Stein
While on vacation, I read All the Living, C. E. Morgan’s début novel, in under a day. She told The New Yorker, after being named a “20 Under 40,” that it took her just two weeks to write the first draft, then another two semesters (while in graduate school!) to polish it up. Fast read, fast write. But damn, what a book. —Thessaly La Force
Julia Whitty writes equally beautiful prose about the ocean and the horror of the BP oil spill. We published her dispatch from the North Atlantic in our summer issue. Her new piece in Mother Jones on the BP cover-up is a must-read. —Caitlin Roper
E.B. and Katherine White’s Subtreasury of American Humor is so much better than it sounds. The stories here aren’t humor pieces as such, but writing that has a sense of humor—a chapter of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (which actually is funny) next to a chapter of Babbitt (which isn’t, and isn’t trying to be, but also is). Perfect for bed. —L. S.
I’ve been marveling over these short reflections on Jane Austen, filmed during a recent Morgan Library exhibition devoted to her work. And I can’t stop sharing Robin Hanson’s brief meditation on detail. —David Wallace-Wells
Ariel Dorfman’s Nelson Mandela lecture (on the importance of remembering and, occasionally, the convenience of misremembering) is still the talk of South Africa. Us humble non-attendees can read it here. —Anna Hartford
S. G. Dunn, in the preface to a beautifully crafted (and tiny) collection of Coleridge’s poetry, lent me these words (written in 1918) for a week’s worth of reflection: “For some time there has been evident, in England as elsewhere, an increasing distrust of modern civilization. The huge frame of it, we feel, is not ‘constructed right’. We have sought our happiness in material wealth; we have looked for peace from industrial prosperity; and the result of our endeavors has been not peace, but war. […] We need to remember that the soul of a nation, the true ideals of its civilization, are expressed in its poetry; that the poets are the legislators, though ‘unacknowledged’, of mankind.” —Stephen Andrew Hiltner
Also, though it is such a meme it might be a bit futile to add it here, Christopher Hitchens’s cancer announcement in Vanity Fair. A memento mori if ever there was one. —A. H.
Franzen on the cover of Time. Yes. —L. S.
This is the second installment of Als’s culture diary. Click here to read part 1.
I finished watching There Will Be Blood, hours after I’d returned from visiting an actor friend in Brooklyn. She had a terrible accident while filming an episode of SVU (or SUV—I never know what that show’s called). An actor shook her too hard, hurting her neck, so, in order to see my friend, I have to go to her. Despite her pain, my friend was herself, which is to say a real raconteur, one of the last of the best. She punctuates her story-telling with peals of laughter, knowing pauses, and concern. Her presence is part of what makes New York itself, a city filled with jumpy and funny and paranoid people—particularly in the summer. Before I left my friend’s house we talked about how scary we both find Hemingway’s short story, “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.”
Then I got on the subway, which is far from my house; I had to walk past the Brooklyn Hospital to get there, perhaps my least favorite walk in the world, since my mother spent a great deal of time in that hospital when I was a kid, thus instituting my continual anxiety about separation, and my need to be alone so it doesn’t happen. No one leaves if no one is invited in.
After I got home, I saw gothic everywhere—such was There Will Be Blood‘s continuing sway over my imagination. Paul Thomas Anderson in no way obscures the gothic tone in Upton Sinclair’s book, Oil!—the source material for his movie. Indeed, I started thinking about one of my favorite American authors, Nathaniel Hawthorne, during Blood’s end credits. Is Hawthorne not one of the architects of our American interest in a world peopled, say, white-collared, circle girls screaming twice-told tales from a morally divided heart?
Back to the issue of time. One way to measure it’s passing is by watching porn. Before you know it, yesterday’s semi-twink is today’s suited, inscrutable Daddy. While gay porn actors generally make the transition less disfigured by cosmetic surgery than female actors in straight porn, for instance, one sometimes senses what plastic surgery can, at least in part, disguise: exhaustion.
Take Zak Spears for instance. While Spears often took on the “butch,” role in early films—the Spears character has always been critical, hard to read, slow to commit to the action but, once engaged, insatiable—one never got the sense that his interest in his partner was diminished by performing scripted sex. Now, in his latest movie, Unsuited, Spears is in full Daddy mode. But behind the gruff instructions to his young “boy,” during their table top assignation, one senses Spears’ boredom with the entire enterprise. Does time erode our ability to find surprise in most situations? As we grow older, do we spend more and more time sitting in craters of boredom?
This is the kind of exegesis—porn as a metaphor about time connection—that one could express without a qualm to the late and lamented editor, Barbara Epstein. As one of the founders of The New York Review of Books, Barbara’s profound gift—among many—was for seeing what her writers could not, and not insisting on a change during the editing process that would derail your thought, but enhanced it. She was a real world saint who was familiar enough with this common place that she knew humor was not a character trait, but a saving grace. And among the graces, she was the most graceful. Read More
Notes From the Night is a memoir about Taylor Plimpton’s many years frequenting New York night clubs. (His father is, of course, George Plimpton, a man of many hats—illustrious New York personality, founding editor of The Paris Review, pioneer of participatory journalism.) Despite or perhaps because the club scene might be, in Plimpton’s words, “the worst place in the world” to look for life’s answers, the after-hours arena of dreams, excess, and potentialities turns out to be the perfect place for him to begin.
How would you describe your book?
It’s partly a memoir of my life out in the New York night, and partly a guidebook on how to live that life as best as one can: how to avoid its pitfalls and savor its sweetnesses.
You once described your book as “the kind of book moms don’t like.” Would you endorse that statement?
Not at all. On one hand I understand, to hear about your son or any kid destroying himself out at night is not something a mom wants to read about. But it’s a fact of life, in your late teens and early twenties, that’s just what people do: they go out. But I wanted to give people the tools to recognize the nonsense and look past it toward the things that do matter.
Were you concerned with creating your own style, your own distinct voice?
I wanted it to read like I was writing a letter to a good friend—as open and honest and natural as possible. I feel like that’s my duty as a writer, because in memoir, if you’re not being honest, what’s the point? I guess the hope is that if you’re really honest about your own madness, it actually turns out that other people can relate to it, too. In terms of being influenced by other writers, I love the long rambling sentences of Kerouac, and of some of Marquez—the three-hundred-word sentence that rushes on.
How long did it take you to finish writing?
About six years. Part of the reason it took so long was that I needed a little distance from that life before I could fully capture what it was about. Trying to write about it while in the midst of it was good for research, but it wasn’t good for finishing it—
Right, for clarity of mind—
—Very little clarity of mind. You know, you go out and you have a good time and take some good notes, and then you wake up the next morning and you’re utterly hung-over—the last thing in the world you want to do is sit in front of a computer to write. Read More
There is not enough time for anything, ever. The point was to start this journal yesterday, a Monday, since everyone’s “official,” week begins then—back from the weekend, off to MOMA, what’s at the Frick, that kind of thing—but I didn’t. And this has nothing to do with my general tardiness as much as it does my ambivalence about keeping a record of anything that can’t be contained in a photograph; sometimes I sit in my underwear in my house in despair over how paltry a thing words can seem, particularly when I’ve written them. But challenge is my middle name, and this journal, this record of my life in culture that I meant to begin at the start of the week but didn’t, is my attempt to meld experience and memory with words and see what we come up with.
As it happens, my week in culture began not today or Monday, but Saturday, when I was standing on a train platform in Jamaica, Queens, and I saw a beautiful older man in a sky-blue Mao jacket; he was fine-boned, as though drawn out of thin air by Ingres, or David Hockney. Bill Cunningham, of course, the great documentary photographer who, for over fifty years, has been chronicling the hem-lines and moral fashions of any number of New York-based women. Bill was on his way to Bridgehampton to cover an event for The New York Times, but he wasn’t staying overnight. “I never do,” he said, silently wondering. He’s an incorrigible romantic, in love with Manhattan, a city the poet Marianne Moore described as being home to “the savage’s romance.” Bill is a former hat maker from Boston, and his pictures finds a forum where female beauty plays itself out, gladiator fashion: who will win in the world of trend? Ever trendy, I was off to Sag Harbor to visit some fashionable friends.
As a matter of fact, my week with culture didn’t begin until several days before that, when I went to visit beauty editor Jean Godfrey June at Lucky Magazine. Jean is the best writer in the fashion business, but I don’t consider beauty fashion since beauty has less to do with the fluctuations—and insecurities—of fashion as it does with wanting to put a nice face on most things, not to mention people. In any case, Jean was very excited by Rodarte’s latest foray into trying to make fashion and beauty fit their world view: cosmetics they’d designed for
MAC. Eyeshadow that looked like shimmering, electrified goldfish circling in black vials; “gothic” colors that felt like the best color field painting I’d seen in a while. Read More
Last Wednesday at around 9 PM I sipped bourbon in Hoboken and waited for Michael Rother to take the stage. That is not something I thought would ever happen.
Rother is co-creator of the influential seventies German band Neu!. (Though talking about them is indeed exciting, that exclamation point is actually part of the band’s name.) Neu! hasn’t been an active band for some time now: they recorded their fourth and final album in 1986, though for various reasons it was finally released just a few weeks ago. In 2008 the other Neu! co-creator, Klaus Dinger, died. So the idea of ever seeing Neu! music live seemed unlikely.
Yet there I was last Wednesday at Maxwell’s. I was alone, because no one I’m interested in is interested in Michael Rother. This is not music you can drag your girlfriend to, or at least I can’t—mine said that the show would just be people standing there bobbing their heads forward in 4/4 time. (Which was true.) Most Neu! songs are completely instrumental, perhaps the biggest hurdle for many people. I also tried to persuade a high school friend to come (he’d never heard of Neu!) but even after we’d had a few drinks, and even after I’d offered to pay for his ticket, I found myself going it alone.
Given the resistance of both girl- and high school friends to seeing one half of a band they don’t care about, it was perhaps no surprise that the place wasn’t full. I was leaning on the bar with my bourbon, half-listening to the ethereal opening act, when I noticed Michael Rother standing next to me.
Of course, when you see an artist you admire, your first thought is, “What should I say to him?” To which the answer is: nothing. Because there’s rarely anything to say to someone you don’t know, except perhaps “They say on Monday it’ll cool off” or “Milk, no sugar.” Yet music (like books, or movies) gives us the strange impression that this person is anything other than a stranger.
I went up to Michael Rother and said, rather lamely, “You’re Michael Rother?” “Yes,” he said. “I just thought I’d shake your hand,” I said, and I did, and he laughed. Our meeting wasn’t much—these things generally aren’t—but at least I made Michael Rother laugh. Then I ordered another bourbon.
Right before the show began I walked straight to the front of the crowd. At a general admission show this is sometimes a difficult and rude thing to do, but it’s not as if the venue was at capacity. The room had filled by now, though not with girls—I counted seven in total. The crowd was almost completely white and in their thirties. I saw many pairs of glasses and one-and-a-half violations of the first rule of concert going: don’t wear a shirt featuring the performer you’re going to see. (A guy in a Kraftwerk shirt was the half-violation—Michael Rother was an early member of that group.) I stood in front of where Rother would be. The table which supported Rother’s laptop—not a Mac, surprisingly—rested for some reason on four paint cans.
They began. I won’t describe the show at length. I once heard that describing music is like doing card tricks on the radio, and that’s true. I will say that it was arguably the best concert experience I’ve ever had. Last year’s Leonard Cohen show was incredible; Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks in concert had quasi-religious power. But I couldn’t believe the intensity of being in such a small room with this music, with its booming, propelling drumming, its repetition, repetition, repetition, and then playful, slight variation. The music’s power is so primitive that in theory all humans should love it, but as we have seen this isn’t the case. To say that the music of Neu! has held up well over time is like saying the same about the ocean: it’s so obvious that even mentioning it seems silly. This is music that doesn’t sound like it was created decades ago—it sounds like it is created the second it is played, or maybe even a moment or two in the future. The name Neu! (“new” in German) couldn’t be more appropriate.
During the show the only time a microphone amplified voice was when Rother introduced the band. Then he quickly began another song, saying, with Teutonic terseness, that he didn’t want to “waste so many words.” He’d used maybe fifteen.
When it ended I hung around for a few minutes, snagged the setlist from the stage, and walked to the PATH train. I’d never witnessed such a perfect concert. If only I could’ve found someone to go with.
Towards the end of my trip home I ran into another high school friend. He’s someone who knows a thing or two about music and I expected him to have heard of Neu!. He hadn’t. I thought of telling him to go to Michael Rother’s free Lincoln Center show on Friday.
But no. I didn’t want to waste so many words.
Josh Lieberman lives in Brooklyn, New York.