- “If there is a politics of the white-collar novel in the United States, it is this: office fiction is deliberately and narrowly construed as being about manners, sociability, gossip, the micro-struggles for rank and status—in other words, ‘office politics’—rather than about the work that is done in offices.”
- Jane Smiley on her absent father and her upbringing: “A girl who is overlooked has a good chance of not learning what it is she is supposed to do. A girl who is free can grow up free of preconceptions. Sometimes, from the outside, my work and my life look daring, but I am not a daring person. I am just a person who was never taught what not to try.”
- The farmers-market scene in Madame Bovary reminds of how the social function of such markets has evolved: “If Emma Bovary were alive today in the small town where I used to make my home, she might be scanning the crowd on market day, but she wouldn’t be thinking ‘yokels.’ She might have a thing for the guy who sells microgreens, the one with the gray ponytail and the lingering smile who used to do something in tech.”
- Shirley Temple as a troubling icon of the Depression: in the thirties, “the child became both commodity and consumer. And Shirley was the ultimate product, her managers capitalizing on the mania for cuteness … Children wanted both to have and to be Shirley. In addition to coveting the dolls and dresses, girls from Iowa to Bombay entered look-alike contests. But just what possessive desire did Shirley arouse in adults? The objects of her attention were almost invariably adult men. There was … scarcely a male lap she did not climb into on or offscreen, and there was an extravagant amount of manhandling in the films.”
- Bemoaning the increasing role of the dystopian in science fiction, Neal Stephenson has started Project Hieroglyph: “The concept at the core of Project Hieroglyph is that science fiction creates potent images of scientific progress, images that Neal Stephenson dubs hieroglyphs, and that by making more positive and optimistic hieroglyphs, [sci-fi] can help make a better world.”
In his 1971 novella The Futurological Congress, the Polish science-fiction writer Stanisław Lem describes a group of futurologists who have gathered at the Hilton Hotel in Costa Rica to stave off planetary disaster. Overpopulation and resource depletion are at crisis levels; famine and political collapse are just around the corner. Even before the conference begins, events take an ominous turn. Guerrillas kidnap the American consul and start mailing in body parts, demanding the release of political prisoners. As Professor Dringenbaum of Switzerland explains how humanity will soon resort to cannibalism, rioting breaks out in the streets. In response, the Costa Rican government deploys new types of chemical weapons, intended to make the rebels docile and peace-loving. They induce feelings of empathy and euphoria, and come with names like “Felicitine” and “Placidol.” Planes barrage the city with LTN, or “Love Thy Neighbor” bombs.
Among the conference attendees is Ijon Tichy, an unflappable cosmic adventurer with the habit of getting into outlandish scrapes. Having inadvertently received a premature dose of the drugs through the hotel’s tap water, Tichy has the foresight to take refuge from the bliss-inducing crackdown in the building’s sewer system. Nevertheless, he winds up inhaling a near-lethal dose of psychotropic chemicals and tumbles down a dark rabbit hole of hallucinations. When he finally wakes up in the year 2039, after having been cryogenically frozen for decades, he finds a world where such substances have ceased to be used for crowd control and have become, instead, a way of life.
The novella—masterfully translated by Michael Kandel and recently adapted as The Congress, a part-live action, part-animated movie by the Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman—is more a satire than a poker-faced dystopia. Rather than solving its problems, humanity learns to mask them using comically sophisticated pharmaceuticals. In the “psychemized” future, you can take drugs like “gospelcredendium” to have a religious experience, and “equaniminine” to dispel it. Books are no longer read but eaten; they can be bought at the psychedeli, a kind of one-stop psychem superstore. For a friendly conversation there’s “sympathine” and “amicol,” for an unfriendly one “invectine” and “recriminol.” Even acts of violence and revenge are sublimated into ingestible form.
Folman’s movie adopts this premise, but reframes it as a critique of the entertainment industry. Instead of Ijon Tichy, the movie’s main character is the actress Robin Wright, who plays a fictional version of herself. At first, studio executives want to scan her to create a digital avatar that will take over all of her roles. Twenty years and a switch to animation later, they want to produce a drug that will enable anyone to “be” Robin Wright, or at least to believe that they are. The Congress itself is a Hollywood bash celebrating the new age of chemical entertainment, rather than an academic conference on humanity’s doom. As in Lem’s novella, however, this future promises not social and scientific progress, but technological hedonism and senescence. Read More
- Trend alert: “Dystopian fiction is passé now,” says Lois Lowry, the author of The Giver.
- This blog post about life on a commercial whaling ship is kind of long, but boy, it’s a fucking masterpiece!
- Is there a writer with a reputation more complicated than Martin Amis’s? “Amis occupies a really peculiar position in our national life. He is the object of envy, contempt, anger, disapproval, theatrical expressions of weariness—but also of fascination. Has there in living memory been a writer whom we (by which I mean the papers, mostly) so assiduously seek out for comment—we task him to review tennis, terrorism, pornography, the state of the nation—and whom we are then so keen to denounce as worthless? … It’s as if, and in answer to some inchoate public need, we demand of Amis that he say things in public so we can all agree on what an ass he is.”
- There’s a kind of brinksmanship at work in the language of menus, which use verbose descriptions to confer status to food. According to new research, “every increase of one letter in the average length of words describing a dish is associated with an increase of sixty-nine cents in the price of that dish.”
- “The subject of fashion friendships is intriguing … I’m struck by two divergent realities—one conveyed by social media and one I know at close range. They are not one and the same, despite how a photo of two pals (or two enemies) might appear. Because the most meaningful stuff in fashion occurs in private places, and some degree of trust is vital to getting inside.”
- Who needs the titillations of Page Six and entertainment media when we have the fifteen hottest affairs in literature?
- Who needs a soul deadening nine-to-five when we have the ten worst jobs in literature?
- … And, for that matter, “a site that perfectly captures the existential despair of the conference call?”
- Victor Hugo: poet, novelist, playwright, furniture designer.
- At last, a map that lets you take that dystopian walking tour of Manhattan you’re always going on about.
- On Goliardia Sapienza’s The Art of Joy, an erotic seven-hundred-page doorstop now available in English: “the novel reads less like a handbook on happiness than like a sadomasochistic Italian novelization of The Joy of Sex.”
- Today is supposedly Blue Monday, the saddest day of the year. And Jude the Obscure, 120 Days of Sodom, Germinal: these are among the fifteen most depressing books in literature.
- And yet The Day of the Locust lands on a list of comfort reads.
- Ship first, ask questions later. Amazon’s latest stratagem: “anticipatory shipping,” a program in which the company preemptively sends you products it expects you to buy, “based on previous searches and purchases, wish lists, and how long the user’s cursor hovers over an item online.”
- Not unrelatedly, here’s a roundup of socially resonant dystopian fiction. “These dystopias, I think, speak to a different kind of anxiety … one of widespread helplessness in an unfathomably complex world.”
- “Using science to explain art is a good way to butcher both.” A scorched-earth takedown of Jane Austen, Game Theorist.
- This roundup is looking pretty bleak. In the name of balance, a celebration of literary rule-breakers.