There’s something pleasingly matter-of-fact to the many off-kilter moments found in Ha Seong-nan’s short story collection Flowers of Mold (translated from the Korean by Janet Hong). When problems arise for her characters—a potential intruder in a woman’s farmhouse bedroom, a woman’s loss of memory following the arrival of a new neighbor, a group of tenants faced with eviction by a spoiled and wealthy landlord—their approaches to solving them are no-nonsense, even as the stories themselves border the surreal logic of dreams. The tenants hatch a plan to kill their landlord; the woman’s memory loss betrays her own place within her family; the intruder may exist and may be buried in the orchard. Ha lends a critical eye to capitalism, advertising, and gender in contemporary South Korea, and in each story, she combines the ordinary with the extraordinary to truly disquieting effect. —Rhian Sasseen Read More
In Valerie Stivers’s Eat Your Words series, she cooks up recipes drawn from the works of various writers.
The English writer Elizabeth Jane Howard (1923–2014) is best known for the Cazalet Chronicles, a series of family dramas set around World War II that overflow with scenes of meals being prepared for a large English country estate. Published between 1990 and 2013, the books are five floral-covered bricks totaling nearly three thousand pages and centered on the children and grandchildren of a rich English timber merchant, known as “the brigadier,” and his Edwardian wife, “the duchy.” The story concerns the Cazalet family at large as well as their lovers, spouses, children, governesses, great-aunts, cooks, and cousins, all of whose struggles for love, fulfillment, and a place in the world make for page-turning reading.
It was the opinion of Howard’s contemporaries that this was not great literature, and though she hung out in elevated literary circles—most notably as the second wife of Kingsley Amis and the stepmother of Martin Amis—she was often dismissed as a writer of “women’s fiction.” But Howard’s books hold up. She has a dazzling ability to depict a character at a moment of crisis, catching a young woman midstream as she gives up one dream for another or drilling in on a telling lie, a glint of cowardice. It also takes enormous technical virtuosity to keep her huge cast of characters distinct in the reader’s mind, and a master class could be taught from the timing of her interlinked plotlines. Read More
Jill Talbot’s column, The Last Year, traces the moments before her daughter leaves for college. It ran every Friday in November, and returns this winter month, then will again in the spring and summer.
Childhood is full of fictions, at least it should be. When my daughter, Indie, was little, her favorite game to play in the pool was Turtle, Turtle. She’d climb on my back, and I’d swim around saying “Turtle, Turtle,” the way you’d say “Ribbit, Ribbit” for a frog.
We found him in my parents’ backyard pool, all four of his legs flipping. Indie was seven that summer. She and I had been taking one last swim before heading back to Oklahoma, four hours north. While I dove down, Indie stood on the steps of the pool. The turtle, a red-eared slider, was tiny, about the size of my palm. Indie named him Flipper.
We lived in a duplex those four years in Oklahoma. We had a little garden patch beneath our front window. There were four units in all, so we shared a sidewalk with an opera singer who worked at the grocery store, a large, loping Marine who had done two tours in Afghanistan, and a frumpy student who mostly wore brown and sat outside to study in a chair from his kitchen. I had a visiting professor’s salary, and there wasn’t a month when we made it to the thirtieth or thirty-first before we ran out of money. Read More
In Susanna Forrest’s Écuryères series, she unearths the lost stories of the transgressive horsewomen of turn-of-the-century Paris.
In Berlin, the old patches of wasteland left by the bombings of World War Two are vanishing, replaced by shiny glass and granite luxury apartments. But sometimes, the remaining squares of grass and cracked concrete will throw up white tents, brightly painted caravans, and swirls of colored light bulbs, moth-eaten camels grinding hay in their teeth—the unmistakable children’s-book shorthand for the circus. Scarlet and yellow posters sprout on neighborhood lamp posts offering matinee performances and promising that the animals are well kept (“Doesn’t your dog like driving in a car?” asked one poster I saw. “Our dogs are no different.”) At least once a Christmas season, a zebra escapes and gallops through a German town. Despite the animal-welfare restrictions and Netflix, the circus endures.
I wasn’t a child who liked clowns, and, barring a large and sticky red lollipop, I barely remember being taken to the Moscow State Circus when it visited my British hometown, but for the last nine years I’ve been scratching up the time and funds to immerse myself in another circus—that of nineteenth-century Paris—for days at a time. I’m looking for fragments of lives, for women who lived at the center of public attention while simultaneously being marginal. They dealt with racism, misogyny, abuse, and great physical danger but, like the circus, they endured.
As a contributing writer for The New Yorker, Anna Wiener files dispatches from San Francisco that home in on the Silicon Valley’s human stories with a subtlety elided by consumer data sets and algorithmic models. Contextualized by her own professional experience at a succession of Bay Area internet platforms, she’s plumbed LinkedIn-friendly headlines about earnings reports and funding rounds in order to interrogate the culture: the restrictive gatekeeping of seed accelerators and venture capital, the unlikely marriage of California bohemianism with corporate libertarianism, and the lonely homogeneity of modern, online cities. By analyzing the structures behind the tech industry’s most valuable and ubiquitous products, she conveys these phenomena as natural, if not inevitable, byproducts.
Wiener’s memoir Uncanny Valley maps her own coming-of-age during the Valley’s 2010s rush, as well as the industry’s simultaneous loss of innocence. Frustrated at her dead-end assistant job with a New York literary agency, she jumps at the opportunity to join a short-lived ebook start-up, then sets west to work at a series of big-data SaaS (Software as a Service) companies that promise excitement and equity in exchange for cultish devotion. As a support specialist, she inadvertently finds herself witness to Gamergate, Pizzagate, data breaches, and the ad-tech surveillance boom that fed the 2016 election. The Bay Area, and soon the nation, are seized by palpably unsustainable wells of funding, and the visible indicators of gaping income inequality in the city itself are viewed as markers of progress. Eschewing the caffeinated, self-referential keenness that defined the decade’s online writing, Wiener is cerebral and diagnostic in her observance of escalating corporate surveillance.
I first emailed Anna in early 2016 to express my appreciation of her n+1 story on start-up burnout; at the time I’d been pulling eighty-hour weeks at a doomed Flatiron District data start-up, and her portrayal of infantilizing conformity, circular marketing speak, and opaque executive boys’ clubs seemed remarkably true to my own experience. In December 2019, we met at a bar in her native Brooklyn neighborhood, which, like San Francisco, has been transformed by coworking spaces, fluorescent fast-casual chains, and a shiny new arena that houses a professional basketball team owned by a consortium of local tech czars.
I’m interested in the idea of a professional meritocracy. You write about, on the one hand, being conditioned by traditional liberal arts values, and then landing in Silicon Valley where the “meritocracy” is almost flipped. It’s less about degrees and accomplishments than hustle, ambition, and the ability to sell oneself. Looking back, which of those, if either, do you find more empowering?
I wouldn’t call either one empowering. I think they just have their own rules, their own networks. In practice, the two value systems aren’t that different—it seems to come down to marketing. Publishing has a ton of problems. Gatekeeping, tiny networks, compensation low enough that, when combined with the emphasis on cultural capital, is prohibitive and exclusive. I’m a beneficiary of this—I went on five networking coffee dates, a chain of referrals, before being sent the job listing for the assistant position I took in publishing.
Both industries are pretty homogeneous. In tech, meritocracy seems to be used as a cover story for social inequities. Not everyone has the opportunity to prove themselves in the same way. My sense is that underrepresented minorities in tech don’t get a pass so easily—I think you’ll tend to find that those groups are heavily credentialed. At the first start-up I worked for in San Francisco, the job listing for customer support representatives came to read, “Relevant work experience or a degree from a good college.” The CEO, it’s worth mentioning, had left college to found the company at age nineteen or twenty. It’s like the difference between someone who went to Yale and someone who dropped out of Stanford. I think both of these industries inherit the problems of a larger social landscape.
Something that’s really valuable in publishing is the idea of taste. The concept of taste is riddled with sexist, racist, classist assumptions. But for a lot of people, it comes down to an individual feeling, an individual orientation toward a form of cultural production. It’s not measurable. Like you said, in tech it’s more about your capacity for hustling, less about who you are than what you say you can do, what you generate or say you’ll generate. Both strike me as forms of storytelling, in the branding sense.
Gertrude Stein said remarks are not literature. But hers are. Wittgenstein’s are.
And the cases are related. Both are perverse. Perverse as anything. She, on purpose; he, not.
They exploit the incongruity between their coolly rational tones and the content of what they’re saying. She has play in view; he, clarity.
His sense of humor was stunted. He thought the British use of the expletive “bloody” was the most amusing thing ever. He sprinkles it in postcards. The effect is chilling.
Yet all his books are laugh-out-loud funny. Not on every page, but often.
Stein had a vast and all-pervading sense of play and pleasure. It touched her every move. She’d say anything, as long as it gave pleasure.
She discovered something. There’s a small set of operating principles that, if followed, result in aphorisms, stanzas, lectures, novels. Anything you like. The author does not have to have a meaning in view; the work will mean something by itself.
It’s like what I tell my students: “Don’t you write the paper. Find the paper that will write itself.” It’s all about finding the angle.
If you find the right angle, anything in the kitchen will do. Put the oven mitts themselves into the magic pot, it’s fine. A glass doorknob, a pretzel, anything. Voilà. But part of the magic is you have to pretend you’re serious while you’re cooking.
Wittgenstein really was serious. Just the same, he tells you to imagine someone searching for something in an empty drawer. The person pulls out the drawer: empty. Closes the drawer. But perhaps the thing has materialized in the drawer now? So the person opens it. Empty. Closes again; considers. Opens again. Empty. And now once more. Forever.
Wittgenstein remarks: “We would say the person has not yet learned to search for something.”
Then he tells you to imagine someone going to the store to buy five red apples. In order to make sure the apples are red, the person takes a color chart. Holds the apples up to the square marked “red.” Counts the apples as they are placed in the bag. “One… two… three…”
That color chart is funny. “One, two, three” is funny. I’m not the first person to say these scenes are straight out of Beckett. Clov at the beginning of Fin de partie. But the remarks are funny. Look at the deadpan ending of this: