In the halcyon days of September 2015, when the weather was mild and Trump’s candidacy was moderately less terrifying, we published interviews with Eileen Myles and Jane Smiley. Our print subscribers have long since read, digested, and discussed them, and would no doubt greet any mention of them with “That is so two quarters ago”—but now, five long months later, the interviews are freely available to everyone. Read More
I like the idea of writing a poem I could have written thirty years ago. I’m the factory. My writing fears manifest more on the order of my inability to stop being Eileen Myles. I guess I don’t worry about my poems so much. I worry about me.
Myles also shares a few of her favorite artworks in our portfolio.
And our managing editor Nicole Rudick discusses the Art of Fiction with Jane Smiley:
One of the things I love about novels is that, in addition to offering good stories and having ideas about how the world works, they’re also artifacts about the details of the time in which the author lived … I would imagine somebody in a hundred years reading one of my novels and going, Are you shitting me? The shingles were going the wrong direction? Or, What are shingles?
There’s also one of James Salter’s final lectures; new fiction from Ottessa Moshfegh, Patrick Dacey, and Deborah Eisenberg; the second installment of Chris Bachelder’s novel The Throwback Special, with illustrations by Jason Novak; poems by Ange Mlinko, Eileen Myles, Michael Hofmann, Stephen Dunn, Kevin Prufer, Geoffrey G. O’Brien, Nathaniel Mackey, and Linda Pastan; and an essay by Robert Anthony Siegel.
- Today in reevaluations of problematic twentieth-century philosophers: Heidegger’s predilection for tragedy and poetry informed his yearning for a grand narrative, a story that could encompass all of history. That yearning, in turn, is part of what led him to Nazism. Even so, “Heidegger’s tragic, overblown interpretation of Nazism may have been unique to him, but he was certainly not the only twentieth-century philosopher to think that poetry and tragedy might preserve something integral to human experience that was in danger of being swallowed up by the forces of reason and demystification … Maybe academic philosophy today has conceded too much ground to demystifying argumentation, to judgment and quantification. Maybe we do need more poetry in our lives. Maybe films really do represent a last gasp for tragedy and grand-scale thinking in the modern world.”
- Jane Smiley, whose Art of Fiction interview will appear in our Fall issue, discusses her cluttered office in Carmel Valley, California: “I have never objected to mess, since mess reminds me that I can choose to write or I can choose to clean, and I have always chosen to write … I have never liked privacy in a writing room; I have always preferred noise and traffic and phone calls and people walking in and out.”
- Remembering New York City’s hardcore scene, some thirty years later: “The insight boiling up, across all of these records, is: the world doesn’t care about you. There are no merit badges awarded for normalcy and complacency for the likes of us in straight society. It’s a long slog, and some days you are just a piece of living meat unhappily compelled to work and eat and sleep and go through the motions of your relationships, just because it is too much trouble to do otherwise. Hardcore starts from the minimal, almost entirely swallowed-up spark of human life, maybe just the faint, unwanted heartbeat whose persistence means, ‘I have to go to work today.’ The young Marx thought that mankind would attain its ‘species-being’ in the free time obtained for human development after the attainment of communism. Hardcore says: our species-being is a pretty ugly thing, for now, but we have to own it. It—we—can’t wait.”
- For the past several years, an experimental genre of creative nonfiction has been quietly thriving online: one-star Yelp reviews of national parks. Don’t let the unsophisticated and often ungrammatical prose fool you; these works have taken the pulse of America. Read on as our nation’s treasures and all manners of natural beauty are cast aside as garbage: Death Valley is “the ugliest place I have ever seen,” Yosemite needs more parking lots, and Carlsbad Caverns appeals only if “you find big caves and rocks overwhelmingly fascinating.”
- Geoff Dyer revisits Raymond Williams: “Borders—how they are constructed and recognized, how they impede and are crossed—are central to his thought … [he] entirely reshaped my sense of life and literature and the way they were related … Before that, in a way that now seems hard to credit, I had no understanding of the social process I’d lived through even though it was, by then, a well-documented one: the working-class boy who keeps passing exams—exams that take him first to grammar school, then to an Oxbridge college—and discovers only in retrospect that there was more to all this than exams, or even education.”
Two–thirds of Jane Smiley’s Last Hundred Years trilogy has been published—the second volume just came out a month or so ago—and if you haven’t started it yet, it’s not too late to begin. And you should: they’re so good. Smiley’s process is additive—three books’ worth of Langdon family history, a long recitation of individual lives with history and politics playing out in the background. They remind me of another book of hers I love, The Greenlanders, a medieval saga that follows the travails of a small community over some nine hundred pages. Smiley’s writing in all three books is spare and lean; she resists adding authorial commentary and is content, instead, to stand back and watch her characters make their own way. I wondered whether the second volume would be as satisfying as the first. It is and it isn’t: the story is utterly addictive and only left me wanting more. I’m grateful there’s a third one on the way, but I don’t know how I’ll cope after that. —Nicole Rudick
In last year’s profile of William Vollmann for The New Republic, Tom Bissell remarked of Vollmann’s forthcoming 1,300-page tome, The Dying Grass, “It sound[s] a bit like William Gaddis, except more insane.” I’m happy to report that it is, in fact, insane. This demented opus is book five in his seven-volume (!) series concerning the settlement of North America; The Dying Grass focuses on the Nez Perce War of 1877. After years of broken treaties and strained relations, the Nez Perce refused to give up their ancestral lands and move to an Indian reservation in Idaho, deciding they’d rather to take up arms against the “Bostons,” led by the devoutly Christian, and possibly inept, one-armed Civil War veteran General O. O. Howard. Though outgunned, the Nez Perce manage to slip Howard’s grasp at every turn, dragging the war though Oregon, Idaho, and much of Montana, for five months. The book plods along as the campaign must have, but it’s filled with vivid characters and rich history. Its layout can mystify: the left side of the page features dialogue occurring in real time, and right side of the page contains what must be these characters’ thoughts as they talk to one another. But if you’re interested in entering Vollmann’s headspace, The Dying Grass is worth it, even if you sometimes suspect he wrote the book faster than you can read it. —Jeffery Gleaves
- “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.”
“From the outside it was clear that the building known generally as ‘Old Meats’ had eased under the hegemony of the horticulture department.” So begins Jane Smiley’s 1995 campus satire, Moo; from that first sentence I knew it was the only book I needed for the weekend. It had that tone—that late-century Midwestern tone. You hear it in Jonathan Franzen’s first two novels, and in Infinite Jest, too. It’s the sound of an omniscient narrator who is sophisticated and slightly wry and who, at the same time, belongs to a safe, stable, neighborly community, the sort of place where things can be “known generally.” Maybe because I grew up on the East Coast, in a city—or maybe just because it is so manifestly pre-Internet—that kind of sentence is as soothing and inviting to me as “Once upon a time.” And Moo lived up to its promise. —Lorin Stein
What happens when myth becomes reality? For the residents around Maine’s North Pond, a legend about a hermit became strikingly less legendary when the hermit, a man by the name of Christopher Knight, was found and arrested last year during a burglary attempt. For twenty-seven years, Knight had lived in the woods of Maine in a tent, never communicating with the outside world (except once, when he passed a hiker). “Silence is to me normal, comfortable,” he tells Mike Finkel, a journalist for GQ. “I’m not used to seeing people’s faces. There’s too much information there.” What’s remarkable about Knight’s story is that there wasn’t any particular reason he chose to disappear. He merely started driving one day and didn’t stop until he came across his camp in the woods. “I found a place where I was content.” Thoreau couldn’t have summed it up better himself. —Justin Alvarez
Sixty years ago in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the NYPD pinned a crime spree on four innocent men. What else is new, you might say. Well, a researcher has brought the malfeasance to light, and a collage by Robert Rauschenberg helped solve the mystery. Specifically, it was “Collection,” which Rauschenberg composed in the mid-fifties from newspapers containing accounts of the crimes. The Observer tells the story, which is full of crooked cops and falsified documents and botched autopsies and noirish goings-on under the Williamsburg Bridge; Rauschenberg’s involvement, however peripheral, makes the whole thing impressively surreal. —Dan Piepenbring
Many clichéd things can be said of the stories in Justin Taylor’s new collection, Flings. They’re hilarious and heartbreaking; there’s an existential loneliness to their characters; there’s a stark beauty in their sentences. But these sentiments smooth over the messy truths that Taylor works with—he’s managed to gather up all the confusion, repressed aggression, and misplaced acceptance of growing up in the nineties and becoming a young adult in the twenty-first century. Taylor isn’t afraid to place his characters squarely in our place and time. The narrator of “Sungold” manipulates his boss—a coked-up, alcoholic, trust-funded man-baby who owns an unnamed pizza chain—into not being so much of a fuck-up. In “Mike’s Song,” a brother and sister and their divorced father attend a Phish concert together. But behind his contemporary premises, Taylor is practicing a brand of acute, oblique realism that stretches back to Carver and Yates and even to Sherwood Anderson, in which events act as triggers for memories that are the real story. —Andrew Jimenez Read More