- Our culture’s obsession with design has led to a lot of useless flash, especially on the Internet, where things glide, slide, swoop, pulse, and occasionally dance across the screen. The artist Peter Quinn parodies user interfaces and their ornaments, including “such high-action gibberish as ‘nice, but useless circle,’ frenetic ‘pointless graphs,’ ” and other such forms of “flickery nonsense.”
- Before Thomas Pynchon there was William Pynchon, his ancestor, who was also stirring up literary trouble of a sort: in 1650 he published a pamphlet, The Meritorious Price of our Redemption, which “was not in full agreement with the Reformed position on Christ’s atonement … the Massachusetts Bay General Court took notice of the book, describing it as ‘containing many errors & heresies generally condemned by all orthodox writers that we have met with’ and ordering ‘the said book to be burned in the market place, in Boston, by the common executioner.’ Pynchon was forced to issue a retraction.”
- Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth is a novel, and an essay, and an attempt at a new kind of collaboration—written with factory workers at Grupo Jumex, a juice factory in Mexico City. “Luiselli constructed the book as … a serialized fiction that invited the input of the factory workers. The process was simple. She wrote an installment of the novel, and the factory workers organized a space to read and discuss it. Recordings of their commentaries, as well as images of local landmarks, were then sent back to Luiselli, who would listen to their notes and view the pictures before writing the next section. The formula for the novel, as Luiselli describes it: ‘Dickens + mp3 ÷ Balzac + jpeg.’ ”
- In which Andrew O’Hagan attempts to cross the street: “For some weeks now I’ve been standing at St Giles Circus—the junction of Tottenham Court Road, Oxford Street, New Oxford Street and Charing Cross Road—watching people try to pass from one side of the road to the other … People set out when the green man appears and before they get halfway they are running on red, and very few of them know there are cars about to stream onto the crossing from three blind corners, and many of the drivers are quite unaware of the existence of a crossing twenty yards ahead … We might forget that living in a big city means submitting to a lot of rules about how to live in a big city. You can’t park, you can’t wait, you can’t cross, you must queue, you’re being filmed. There are rules, zones, fines. People in the country don’t have that, and urban dwellers might, at some level, always be looking for strategies that could justify their basic refusal to conform. I thought of that as I watched a man in a business suit climb over two sets of barriers to cross the road. He just wouldn’t walk the extra few meters to be told what to do by an electronic system.”
- My dad was named Gary. Gary Sernovitz is also named Gary, and he’s not happy about it: “To watch television or movies as a Gary is to know pain. When writers can’t think of a joke, when they want to quickly convey character—or chinless lack thereof—they reach to my punchline first name for the bad blind date, the sad sack, the noodge. Garys rarely even rise to the level of real characters, in our culture, but when they do, they don’t lose their essential pathetic Garyness … Gary is a box of day-old donuts on the grab bag table, sitting among the names favored by rising immigrants groups, fearless parents, and people who should be prosecuted for Naming Under the Influence.”
Among the more consistent sets of questions to appear in Paris Review interviews are those regarding one’s influences. It’s a funny line to track throughout the Writers at Work series—and one, I’d venture, that often says a lot about a given writer’s ego. (Watch, for example, as Robert Frost bristles at the suggestion of an affinity between his work and that of Faulkner or Wallace Stevens, or as Nabokov denies having learned anything from James Joyce.) But aside from allowing for the pleasure of watching certain writers shift in their seats, these kinds of questions can also introduce me to writers I haven’t heard of, or writers I should have paid more attention to. In her soon-to-be-published Art of Fiction interview, Lydia Davis cites her discovery of Russell Edson’s stories—“He would call them poems,” she says, “but I wouldn’t”—as a major turning point in the development of her style. I couldn’t help but dart off to find a few myself, much to my enjoyment. —Stephen Andrew Hiltner
When Fifty Shades of Grey was first published, it was a cheap thrill to watch the critical bons mots pile up—we had the book reviewers’ equivalent of a home-run derby, with zingers for dingers. I remember Andrew O’Hagan, writing in the LRB, taking aim at the novel’s arrantly vanilla kinkiness: “I suspect the book has taken the world’s mums by storm because there’s no mess on the carpet and there are hot showers afterwards. Everybody is comfortable and everybody is clean: they travel ﬁrst-class, the rich give presents, the man uses condoms, and everything dark is resolved in a miasma of cuddles.” Now the film is out, and another team of critics is at bat. It’s too early to declare a winner, but surely bonus points should be awarded to those who manage to trash the book and the movie in one fell swoop, as Anthony Lane has. “We should not begrudge E. L. James her triumph,” he writes, “for she has, in her lumbering fashion, tapped into a truth that often eludes more elegant writers—that eternal disappointment, deep in the human heart, at the failure of our loved ones to acquire their own helipad.” —Dan Piepenbring
William Vollmann’s piece in this month’s Harper’s, “Invisible and Insidious,” focuses on the fallout, both nuclear and financial, of the Fukushima radiation leak. The media wants big, explosive stories, but that’s not the way nuclear fallout works, as evident by the climbing numbers, “one or two digits per day,” on the dosimeter Vollmann keeps in his house in Sacramento, California. On several trips to Japan, Vollmann ventures near the “Forbidden Zone,” the twenty-kilometer radius around Plant No. 1, whose level of radioactive contamination makes the area “unlivable.” Most striking, as always, is Vollmann’s attention to the poor people in the area surrounding Fukushima—those whose businesses are failing, those on the hook for mortgages, and those among the 150,000 nuclear refugees. When NPR asked him about his extreme form of immersion journalism and whether he was worried about the radiation he’d exposed himself to, Vollman said, “I’m an older person … I’m going to die in any event, so I have less to fear. And I would really like to try to do some good in the world before I die and, you know, if I get cancer as a result, it’s no real loss. The more I see of, you know, the disasters that nuclear power can cause, the more I think I would really like to describe this and help people share my alarm.” —Jeffery Gleaves
Sozzled novelists (aka, lit lit) seems to be the thing to write about lately, but it’s more fun to read great writers making fun of great writers drinking a lot. In one of his short pieces originally written for The New Yorker’s Notes and Comment section (more quotidian than Talk of the Town and funnier than Shouts and Murmurs, it’s a section I wish they’d revive), Donald Barthelme describes having received a questionnaire from Writer’s Digest that inquired about his drinking habits. Asked if he’s a light, medium, heavy, or “other” drinker, Barthelme says medium: “Light is sissy and Heavy doesn’t go down so well with Deans, Loan Officers and Publishers, and who in the world would want to be Other?” Only a few days before reading this gem, I’d discovered Niccolò Tucci’s essay on drunkenness in issue 19 of The Paris Review. Tucci starts by recounting a pop-sci study on the hangover. We’d do well to heed one of its findings: “Alcohol itself is perfectly harmless. It cannot be blamed for anything … not even for death. What kills you is malnutrition. Drinkers forget to eat. If they ate more, they could drink more. In fact, obesity kills more people than alcohol. People should eat much less.” —Nicole Rudick
Steve Jobs famously quipped, “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them”—which is often how I feel about the content I find on Reddit, the Internet’s ultimate rabbit hole. Mastering the abbreviated jargon can take some time, but it’s well worth the plunge; I tumbled in, head first, after The Paris Review’s recent AMA. Take, for instance, /u/backgrinder’s response to the very reasonable, if incalculably arcane, question, “How hard was it to supply arrows to archers in ancient battles?” (TL;DR: Surprisingly hard.) —Stephen Andrew Hiltner
I have Bob Dole’s voice in my head, and it’s Richard Ben Cramer’s fault. “Dole’s voice was made for the empty distance and mean wind of the prairie,” Cramer writes in What It Takes: The Way to the White House, his thousand-page opus on presidential politics, published in 1992. Cramer died last year, and I’ve been meaning to delve into this book ever since—for once, the promise of the flap copy is no exaggeration. “An American Iliad in the guise of contemporary political reportage, What It Takes penetrates the mystery at the heart of all presidential campaigns: How do presumably ordinary people acquire that mixture of ambition, stamina, and pure shamelessness that makes a true candidate?” In writing about it here, I’ve bitten off more than I can chew; there’s no way to convey how exhaustively researched it is, how lovingly chronicled, how immaculately well-written. All I can say is that it drove me not just to feel a deep kinship with someone like Bob Dole but to watch the entirety of a Dole debate from the eighties, and to enjoy it. Publishers always like to claim that a given work of nonfiction “reads like a novel,” and it’s so seldom true—but What It Takes has the scope, pace, style, and psychological acuity of the best fiction. —Dan Piepenbring Read More
In the last month, thanks to some timely advice from Sam Lipsyte in the Oslo airport, I’ve gone back to two books that I could never get through as a kid: Blood Meridian and Sense and Sensibility. Blood Meridian still defeats me, though I got about halfway through. Does every pueblo have to be ruinous, every puddle some shade of crimson? Will the Judge ever shut up about Darwin? The book it keeps comparing itself to is Moby-Dick, but Moby-Dick doesn’t compare itself to anything, and isn’t—or doesn’t feel—anywhere near as long. Sense and Sensibility, on the other hand, was just my speed. The last two pages are so good, I tore them out and pinned the sheet over my desk as a talisman. (The airport paperback had a painting of Spanish Gibson girls on the cover, and had to be thrown away.) —Lorin Stein
First published in 1957, the late Daniel Anselme’s On Leave chronicles one week in the lives of three soldiers, furloughed in Paris. Anselme, a resistance fighter and journalist, interviewed many conscripted men while researching the novel, and its unflinching look at the horrors of the Algerian conflict meant it was initially ignored by critics and never reprinted or translated. A new edition by Faber & Faber brings this “lost novel” to a whole new readership, and that’s a good thing. While it’s not a light or easy read (although David Bellos’s translation is spare and clear), it remains deeply affecting and, needless to say, relevant. —Sadie O. Stein Read More
The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe is Andrew O’Hagan’s fourth novel. It details the star’s final years in New York and L.A. as seen through the eyes of her frighteningly learned Maltese terrier, who was born on a Scottish tenant farm. Reporting from the intellectual, artistic, and political epicenters of America in the ’60s, Maf is uniquely positioned to chaperone us not only through Monroe’s private decline but also through the romance and turmoil of her era. On the phone, O’Hagan is soft-spoken and gallant, his Glasgow lilt similar (one imagines) to Maf’s.
You were born in Scotland and spent much of your life in London. What drew you to Marilyn Monroe and this particular scene in America?
I grew up on the West Coast of Scotland. We looked across the sea to Ireland, where my ancestors had come from, and beyond that, to the bigger-seeming civilization that was America. We always felt that we somehow had a strong relationship with the United States. We were very ready to accept American culture. There was, for instance, a great love of movies in my family. And the women all sang songs, not folk songs or Scottish ballads, but the songs of Frank Sinatra and Sarah Vaughan. You might not immediately think of Glasgow as a world propagation center for glamour, but it is, and it was, and I feel the benefit.I realized a few years ago that I wanted to write about some of the less obvious ghosts of my childhood. I knew Marilyn Monroe had been given a dog by Frank Sinatra, and I started to look for evidence of this dog, feeling that, if I found him, he would prove a very reliable and possibly diverting witness to a culture that had influenced our lives. When I went to New York in 1999, I attended a sale of Marilyn Monroe’s personal belongings at Christie’s. I was writing a piece at the time for The London Review of Books and intended a second piece for Barbara Epstein at The New York Review of Books, so I went to the auction and waited and waited and then my waiting was rewarded when six little Polaroids of Maf the dog were auctioned for $222,000. As I was watching all the people frantically waving their paddles and trying to get a hold of this seemingly crucial piece of art from the twentieth century—that’s how they behaved—I felt I could hear the dog’s voice. I went back to my hotel that night thinking, If I can capture this dog, I’ll have accessed something special, something that really matters to me—and, hopefully, to my readers.