This summer we’re introducing a series of new columnists. Today: cartoonist Vanessa Davis.
This summer we’re introducing a series of new columnists. Today: cartoonist Vanessa Davis.
The first time I remember lying about why I was crying was in second grade. I’d burst out sobbing in the middle of social studies and, rather than admit I’d been thinking about the plot of “The Little Match Girl,” I claimed vaguely that there was some problem at home, prompting a humiliating private lunch with my teacher and a parent-teacher conference. You’d think that would have cured me.
But being upset about nothing is galling. It’s hard to explain to a stranger on the subway that no, tears are actually rolling down your cheeks because of an episode of The People v. O. J. Simpson, or a piece of music you’re not even listening to. Read More
Whenever someone talks about how they never meet any native New Yorkers—this is an odd cliché people are given to—I want to tell them, just go to Fairway Market on a Saturday with no makeup on. You’ll see everyone I went to high school with, and their parents. Read More
- Man, being a beat poet must’ve been pretty far out if you were a man—I mean, the drugs, the politics, the … roads, and the being on those roads. But what if you weren’t a guy? Lynnette Lounsbury writes, “I loved the beat generation and the men in it. I loved how they shared themselves with each other and their readers, generously. But I always had, and still have, the sneaking and sinking suspicion that there would have been no place for me in that world. There were no Scarlett O’Haras in the beat world. There were women, certainly, but they felt like cardboard cut-outs, something to move around, admire, shift gently out of the way when necessary. In fact, the only women Kerouac and Ginsberg seemed to genuinely respect were their mothers … I found the beat women as outsiders in offside compendiums, as afterthoughts and even instigators, but rarely as the orchestrators and creators of their own place in literature.”
- Advice for famous artists: take photographs, too. It can’t hurt. Ellsworth Kelly did it, and a new show demonstrates the degree to which his pictures influenced his canvases: “The images remain resolutely tethered to the formal concerns of his paintings, illuminating far more about his evolving thoughts on art and abstraction than they do about the time and place in which they were made … Most of the earliest works in the show, all taken in the seaside town of Meschers, in Southwestern France, are studies of timeworn surfaces: the weathered side of a barn, its boards haphazardly cobbled; a mismatched patch job in a wall, where the celestial mottling of old stone is interrupted by utilitarian brick; the side of a striped canvas beach cabana, mended enough times that it looks like a Japanese boro blanket … In both his photographs and his shaped canvases, Kelly was engaged in building an idiosyncratic visual alphabet, with each letter chiseled down to the bedrock of form, color, and scale.”
- And advice for novelists: keep it snappy. I don’t got all day. Cynan Jones advocates for the very short novel: “Great short novels stay in the mind as objects, whereas, often, novels are ornate boxes with objects inside. Equally valid, but a different thing altogether, with a different mechanism of engagement … For years after my first short novel, The Long Dry, came out, and even though it worked, length was the chief reservation from publishers. They wanted a ‘full length novel’ … Well, as Beckett said, in response to criticism that his play Breath was short: “All of my works are full length, some are just longer than others.” It’s extraordinary that the term ‘full length novel’ still abounds. If the novella exists, purely based on length, then the novellissimo must exist … Anything that will hold a heavy door open should be a novellissimo; anything that can be used to right a wobbly table, a novella.”
- One of the main reasons I never cry, apart from an ill-advised inclination toward rugged stoicism, is that it fucks my face up. I look bad. But I see now that I should let it rip. The concept of the “ugly cry” comes, especially for women, with a shameful subtext: “American culture nurtures a robust association between our emotional expression and shame. We’re warned against tearing up in professional settings … We imply that untethered grief, by virtue of its excess, does not hew to the cultural expectation that beauty be placid and symmetrical, fundamentally unthreatening. Sometimes the very notion of the ugly cry seems, more than anything else, an inside joke: What woman has not been schooled in the doctrine of Western patriarchal standards of beauty? We know when we have transgressed—when we have become more than men can fathom … The hysterical woman’s power—for power she does possess—lies in her refusal to cry inside the lines, and from her dismissal of a westernized emotional doctrine that condemns passion as excess.”
- In Ciro Guerra’s new film Embrace of the Serpent, Nathaniel Rich sees a skillful departure from the norms of what he calls “jungle quest films”: “There was a boomlet of jungle quest films during the eighties and early nineties, not all of them set in the Amazon, reflecting a dissatisfaction with what Jimmy Carter called the ‘moral and…spiritual crisis’ of modern society. The heroes of these films come to the jungle with predatory or utopian intentions, only to discover the folly of their ways. The plot tends to resolve with the explosion of a forest-clearing project: a river dam in The Emerald Forest, a logging road in Medicine Man, a missionary camp in The Mosquito Coast … Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent, a finalist for best foreign film at this year’s Oscars, features the familiar fever-addled explorers, of vigilant jaguars and snakes baring their fangs, long pans of the jungle canopy, and indigenous tribesmen imparting portentous wisdom (‘The jungle is fragile; if you attack her, she’ll fight back’). But the film is strange enough to resist the worst of the old clichés, which is to say it resists moral certainty.”
I was asked recently to write about my favorite love song, and I debated what to say. It wasn’t that I didn’t know which song to pick. I did. But I knew it was a weird choice.
There are many songs that are almost too painfully emotive to listen to. We all have them. Some—“Exotic Arcade” or “Night and Day” for me, or “To Here Knows When” or “Naomi”—are too bittersweet. Others are simply too tied up with being young, like “Black Car” or “Frenesi” or “Autumn Sweater.” In some cases, it’s pretty obvious why a song carries bad associations: after one breakup, all I did was lie on the floor and play “Walk a Thin Line” on a loop, forever. One that almost brings me to tears with its sheer, surprising beauty is “The Love of the Princess,” the romance theme from The Thief of Baghdad. All these are some of the best love songs I know. But the one song that reliably makes me cry, every single time I hear it, is “Little Deuce Coupe.”
It’s a great song: Brian Wilson said it was the favorite of the Beach Boys’ car oeuvre, and Frank Zappa praised its “progression V-II.” But that’s not why I love it so much. Rather, I consider “Little Deuce Coupe” to be the purest love song about a boy and his car ever written, and as such the purest love song ever written.
Now, I don’t care about Ford Model B’s. I don’t care about the flat head mill or the pink slip or the competition clutch with the four on the floor. I don’t really know what any of that means—hell, I can’t even drive—although obviously 140 miles per hour is fast and I guess really useful for drag-racing circumstances, when some loud braggart tries to put you down and your girl has to look in your eyes and tell you everything will work out all right.
And of course I recognize on some level that Pet Sounds is the better album, and that “God Only Knows” and “Don’t Worry Baby” are two of the most beautiful love songs ever written. But even they can’t touch me like “Little Deuce Coupe.” Is it crass and consumerist? Of course. Was it all a part of the cynical sun-and-fun PR machine that my dad still bitterly blames for luring him to Pomona? Sure. Was the fragile young Brian Wilson being browbeaten and bullied by his tyrannical father during the recording of Surfer Girl? Obviously! And that’s leaving aside a lot of things you could say about male aggression and the glorification of competition and danger, to say nothing of penis substitutes. I mean, to some degree all this goes without saying.
But we know love when we hear it, and the love in “Deuce Coupe” is a love that will never, ever die—a love that’s both fresh and based on care and hoping and probably saving up and restoring, too. Maybe a song about a horse, or a dog, could approach the power, but to my mind nothing has. Brian Wilson said in the notes to Surfer Girl’s reissue, “We loved doing ‘Little Deuce Coupe’. It was a good ‘shuffle’ rhythm, which was not like most of the rhythms of the records on the radio in those days. It had a bouncy feel to it. Like most of our records, it had a competitive lyric. This record was my favorite Beach Boys car song.” It has all the joy and pain of youth, but none of the associations. Just pure sweetness.
I’ve listened to the song twice to write this—and so I’ve cried twice, too. You don’t know what I got.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.
- New York in the late seventies was not exactly a utopia: crime was soaring, graffiti was ubiquitous, mace was a must-have accessory. But a certain set of novels and films has made the era something to yearn for: “This was the last moment when a novelist or poet might withdraw a book that had already been accepted for publication and continue to fiddle with it for the next two or three years. This was the last time when a New York poet was reluctant to introduce to his arty friends someone who was a Hollywood film director, for fear the movies would be considered too low-status … these works express a craving for the city that, while at its worst, was also more democratic … where not even money could insulate you. They are a reaction to what feels like a safer, more burnished and efficient (but cornerless and predictable) city.”
- Today in writing advice that isn’t total shit, even if it’s about shit: “I preach the radio. I do not preach thinking you must know what you are about. Faulkner had good drugs and a big radio. I recall having heard my own little radio at times. It is rare, yes, and it is, now, rarer. But you are young and have your juice, you’re still full of poop, which is the necessary requisite to tuning the radio. Got to be some poop out there, on the airwaves, or in there, in you, for you to tune it in. Cherish the poop you are full of, and work on excreting it with sound fundamentals.” That’s Padgett Powell, being correct.
- On procrastination and art: might there be something heroic, or at least admirably resistant, in the idea of putting off one’s writing? “Bartleby is my hero, endlessly preferring not to, but though I find him sympathetic, he—along with all the ‘writers of the no’, writers who turned their backs on writing, Rimbaud and Walser among them—is not in the same game as me. Or if we are in the same game, I’m not playing it right. I don’t turn my back on writing. I don’t say no. I say yes and fail to follow through. I sit suspended between preferring not to and not preferring to enough—I’m hung on a peg.”
- Kenzaburo Oe’s A Personal Matter is “a compressed, unflinching portrait of the turmoil that envelops Bird, an alcoholic, after his son’s birth.” The novel has a new champion: none but Jonathan Franzen, who adores its disturbing elements, its comic elements, its vomit elements: “I don’t know of a more compelling description of throwing up than the ones that occur in this book. He’s sweating, he looks at himself in the mirror, and there’s bad sex. It’s partly that—the really, really tight focus on Bird’s body. There’s nothing like a microscopic view of your body to evoke shame.”
- While we’re on shame—it’s time for men to cry again. They have much to cry about, being men, and yet they shed no tears … why, when male weeping has been treated as normal in almost every part of the world for most of recorded history? In fact, it was exalted for a while: “ancient Greeks saw it as a model for how heroic men should behave … 20,000 knights swooning from grief were considered noble, not ridiculous … there’s no mention of the men in these stories trying to restrain or hide their tears … They cry in a crowded hall with their heads held high. Nor do their companions make fun of this public blubbing; it’s universally regarded as an admirable expression of feeling.”