- Guess which living luminary has a new essay out? Hint one: it involves California, the seventies, and a certain inimitable brand of world weariness. Hint two: the author is an anagram of “Dad Join Ion.” “I see now that the life I was raised to admire was infinitely romantic,” she writes. “The clothes chosen for me had a strong element of the Pre-Raphaelite, the medieval. Muted greens and ivories. Dusty roses. (Other people wore powder blue, red, white, navy, forest green, and Black Watch plaid. I thought of them as ‘conventional,’ but I envied them secretly. I was doomed to unconventionality.) Our houses were also darker than other people’s, and we favored, as a definite preference, copper and brass that had darkened and greened. We also let our silver darken carefully in all the engraved places, to ‘bring out the pattern.’ To this day I am disturbed by highly polished silver. It looks ‘too new.’ ”
- Remember that golden toilet I told you about a few weeks ago, the one that’s being installed at the Guggenheim? Well—there’s no easy way to say this—there’s been a problem. And now the toilet is delayed indefinitely. I share in your outrage because I, like you, can’t really “produce” on any toilet without at least a little gold in it. But remember, it’s not everyday that a foundry is called upon to cast a solid-gold throne. You can’t rush quality. A spokeswoman said of the wait: “It’s not days, but I can’t be more specific than that right now … The foundry encountered technical difficulties which they are working to resolve … To the museum’s knowledge, this kind of casting process has never been done before.”
- Today in boundaries and demarcations: Give up. They don’t exist. Felice Frankel, a science photographer, has used her images to seek edges, the point where one thing definitively becomes another. “If you really, really get down to things,” she says, “what looks like a clean separation from one place to another, when you investigate it microscopically or macroscopically, is not as perfect as it appears … I believe strongly that we need to have a conversation; or part of the display, the depiction, has to be some sort of description about how the picture was made. We have to create standards, not only in the making of the pictures, but in understanding what the pictures are saying—and to really be aware of image manipulation, for example. My concern is that all scientific images are clumped together in one big happy family of honest representations, and that’s not necessarily the case.”
- Of the twentieth century’s many extinctions, the moths—sixty-two species of which have disappeared in the UK alone—have perhaps not been properly mourned. Cue John Burnside: “Many years ago, I was a volunteer moth-hunter. I wasn’t a collector (I’ve always been puzzled by the impulse to capture a live creature, gas it and then pin its motionless corpse to a board); I was just another helping hand for a number of surveys aimed at estimating the variety and size of local populations … Even the names are cause for delight. ‘Garden tiger’ and ‘snout’ are self-explanatory, but who came up with ‘Brighton wainscot’ for an exquisitely beautiful creature that looks like nothing so much as a tiny bride in her wedding gown, or ‘Clifden nonpareil’ for that astonishing specimen whose underwing—a very dark blue, fringed with silvery white and streaked all the way across with a sky-blue stripe—is actually a defense mechanism, startling any predator that might descend upon it with a riot of unexpected color?”
- If American popular culture from Roseanne to Beyoncé has taught us one thing, it is this: don’t be a Becky. “The quintessential Becky character we know and loathe today was thrust into the mainstream cultural lexicon in 1992 when she appeared in Sir Mix-a-Lot’s booty-shaking anthem, ‘Baby Got Back.’ In the song’s intro, a white woman gossips to her friend about a black woman’s behind. ‘Oh my god, Becky, look at her butt. It is so big. She looks like one of those rap guy’s girlfriends’ … Throughout movies and television of the 1990s and 2000s, Becky is often characterized not only as promiscuous, but also as image-obsessed. She appears frequently as a pageant queen, a vapid shopaholic, or an irresponsible teenager … Over the last decade, some of the most detested characters on television have all had one thing in common: they are in high school, and their names are Becky.”
- So you published one of the most lauded, beloved, fiercely debated novels of 2015—what now? A new thrill can be hard to come by. Hanya Yanagihara has elected to follow her success by swimming across Martha’s Vineyard. Just because. “Swimming,” she writes, “is the writer’s sport, because it is the sport most like writing. To swim, as to write, is to choose an intense state of socially acceptable aloneness. You can be a serious runner or bicyclist and still have to occasionally nod at a passerby or negotiate traffic. Swimming, however, precludes interaction with the world. When Anne Sexton won a fellowship from Radcliffe in 1961, she used the money to build herself a pool, which has always seemed to me a sensible artistic decision, if those two adjectives can ever be paired … There is no better place to unkink a complicated piece of invented logic than in the water—there is little else to do, in fact, but confront your problems.”
- The Coen brothers are back with Hail, Caesar!, which, as you’ve probably heard, is about a brutish studio fixer in the golden age of Hollywood. Richard Brody sees it as a meditation on faith: “The Coen brothers are into belief systems—big and seemingly backward ideas that overcome contradictions with a leap of faith—and Hail, Caesar! is full of them … The Coens see the absurdity and the narrowness in the grandeur of the Hollywood mythology on which they were raised. Movies are different now because the people who make them don’t—and can’t—exercise the same sort of plenipotentiary power; because studio heads are no longer godlike; because studios as such, with their closed complexes of soundstages and paternalistic control over actors’ lives, no longer exist. Yet the Coens look back upon those movies with a specific nostalgia for a lost faith. The religion that the Coens grew up with wasn’t Christianity, but it was the American religion—Hollywood.”
- Hey, they made a new movie of Arabian Nights! Imagine the pageant of exotic images to come as Scheherazade tells his stories! And then stop imagining it, because Miguel Gomes’s Arabian Nights, as Adam Thirlwell writes, has another set of references in mind: “There are no sherbets, no hunting parties, no silks: this movie employs a different vocabulary of cigarettes, drizzle, plastic signs, and metal fences … The movie lasts more than six hours, and is divided into three parts—‘The Restless One,’ ‘The Desolate One,’ and ‘The Enchanted One’—each of which is in turn divided into three or four named stories, which vary in length but which each last roughly thirty to forty-five minutes. It’s a long film that is also a series of shorts. To make the movie, Gomes set up a troupe: a mini office of investigative journalists, whose job was to come to him with raw material from Portugal’s recession.”
- How did Joan Didion make the leap from litterateur to legend? That’s the kind of rhetorical question only Vanity Fair could answer. In the process, Lili Anolik probes the recesses of Didion’s marriage to John Gregory Dunne: “Dunne wasn’t Didion’s match artistically. Not so much a slight as it might sound. Dunne was a fine writer; Didion just happens to be more than that. And he seemed to have accepted his second-best status … ‘John told Brian [Moore, the Irish novelist] he was walking on the beach one night and he ran into Jesus and Jesus said, “I love your wife’s work!” ’ … That Didion could wipe the floor with Dunne anytime she chose must’ve been disturbing for him. And confusing. The girl he’d married, a slip of a thing, bookish and wallflowerish, turned out to be this spooky genius, a poet of paranoia or possibly a clairvoyant of paranoia fulfilled.”
- As e-books sales begin to slump, one digital publisher is doubling down by putting out “unprintable books”: “People like to talk about how physical books have qualities that don’t transfer well to digital … We want to show that digital books can have narrative and visual qualities that champion writing but can’t be transferred to print. You wouldn’t really sit and read a novel while at your desktop would you? You’re more likely to curl up on your sofa or armchair and read a book—and you can do that on your phone just as easily as you can with a paperback.”
We’re away until January 4, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2015. Please enjoy, and have a happy New Year!
The widening gyre of heavy-handed allusions to Yeats’s “The Second Coming.”
A recent Russia Today headline suggests that Europe is “slouching towards anxiety and war.” According to the title of Robert Bork’s latest best seller, the United States is Slouching Towards Gomorrah. A new book by W. C. Harris, an English professor, claims we’re Slouching Towards Gaytheism. A casual reader might wonder why the nations of the world have such terrible posture; is it that the earth is slouching towards bedlam? Have things fallen apart?
The only thing not doing any slouching these days is the “rough beast” in W. B. Yeats’s “The Second Coming,” the 1919 poem from which the phrase originates: “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
But Yeats’s beast, it must be said, isn’t deteriorating or dying in its slouching, as the many references to the phrase would have you believe; rather, it slouches in steady, dedicated progress toward a goal. It’s actually a terrifying sight: the poem’s narrator intuits that the beast is coming to wreak some untold havoc. (At least one blog got this subtlety right in a headline about the 2012 election cycle: “Romney slouching toward GOP nomination.”)
“The Second Coming” may well be the most thoroughly pillaged piece of literature in English. (Perhaps Macbeth’s famous “sound and fury” monologue is a distant second.) Since Chinua Achebe cribbed Yeats’s lines for Things Fall Apart in 1958 and Joan Didion for Slouching Towards Bethlehem a decade later, dozens if not hundreds of others have followed suit, in mediums ranging from CD-ROM games to heavy-metal albums to pornography. These references have created a feedback loop, leading ever more writers to draw from the poem for inspiration. But how many of them get it right? Read More >>
I watched the 1972 film adaptation of Play It As It Lays the other day; the whole movie is streaming on YouTube for free now. I wanted to reject it outright because its mood was not exactly the same as the novel’s—the quality of the bleakness was different. But, I mean, when you think about it, what would you want a movie of Play It As It Lays to look like? Read More
Joanna Walsh’s writing enacts what Chris Kraus has called “a literal vertigo—the feeling that if I fall I will fall not toward the earth but into space—by probing the spaces between things.” Walsh, a British writer and illustrator, is fascinated by liminal spaces, especially in the many varieties encountered by tourists. She’s sometimes known by her French nom de guerre, Badaude, loosely translated as “gawk,” and suggesting the perambulatory figure of the flaneuse. Her work trades on the literary genres of the miniature—short stories, essays, even postcards—reminiscent of Marcel Schwob, Clarice Lispector, Roland Barthes, and Lydia Davis. Her 2014 Twitter initiative @read_women is an archival who’s who of modern female writers, extolling in its tweets the distaff works of everyone from Leonora Carrington to Elena Ferrante. Aside from her abundant online presence,Walsh’s prolific output includes three new books: Hotel, Vertigo, and Grow a Pair: 9½ Fairytales About Sex, all of which run from the bantam lengths of fifty-five to 170 pages.
Among her seemingly disparate subjects are hotel architecture and etiquette, sexual politics in twentieth-century psychoanalysis, the perils of family vacations, the fantasias of cinema, and fables of transgendered witches. In Walsh’s feminist cosmogony, all are brought to bear as inscrutable souvenirs of the everyday mundane. She elucidates the slippery, gendered in-betweenness of everyday ritual in a manner reminiscent of Derrida’s disquisition on the chora—that most mysterious and mundane of spaces, not unlike the anonymous corridor of a hotel.
I reached Walsh, appropriately enough, at a hotel in Mexico. She and I shared a lively discussion about hotel culture and theory, travel fantasies, and the contemporary potential of fairy tales.
- The Internet is awash in devastating, graphic personal essays—young writers are encouraged, maybe more than ever, to monetize and sensationalize their grisliest experiences. So … now what? “The Internet’s confessional impulse has been fully codified. Every site seems to have a first-person vertical … But for all the different house styles these pieces accommodate, it’s striking how many of them read like reverse-engineered headlines, buzzy premises fleshed out with the gritty details of firsthand experience … This is a key problem with the new first-person economy: the way it incentivizes knee-jerk, ideally topical self-exposure, the hot take’s more intimate sibling.”
- The Joan Didion that people adore these days is the Didion of The White Album and Slouching Towards Bethlehem, not the Didion of Democracy—but that novel is remarkable, too, and to read it is to enter a fecund and too often neglected phase of her career: “There’s something in Democracy that you’ll find little of in Didion’s nonfiction: It’s the book in which she does the most thinking about a formative subject in her life, the Vietnam War, yet it’s a book that rarely enters into current discussions of her work … A more useful understanding would recognize the later nonfiction as an extension and amplification of the early nonfiction’s achievements. It would also see the novels as vital continuations of the same project, workings out of problems in style and sense painted on blank canvases. Such an understanding would turn Democracy from a bookshelf ornament to a central work about Vietnam, the other historical hinge in Didion’s career.”
- Roland Barthes wrote well about TV, and professional wrestling in particular—meaning he was also, thirty-five years ahead of time, writing well about Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency. “The key to generating passion, Barthes notes, is to position yourself to deliver justice against evil forces by whatever means necessary … But why can’t voters see that what Trump offers is just an act? As Barthes illustrates, that’s asking the wrong question. ‘It is obvious that at such a pitch, it no longer matters whether the passion is genuine or not. What the public wants is the image of passion, not passion itself. There is no more a problem of truth in wrestling than in the theater.’”
- Today in fact-checking: the most error-prone movie of the year thus far is Jurassic World, which boasts an impressive nineteen continuity blunders, plot holes, and factual mistakes. “Errors in Jurassic World reportedly include a mobile phone that appears to magically fix itself … and the ability to start up an abandoned Jeep that has been parked, fully exposed to the elements, on a tropical island for twenty years … The all-time record is held by 1979’s Apocalypse Now, with a whopping 561 mistakes.”
- The typographer Adrian Frutiger, who designed the font for London’s street signs, has died at eighty-seven. “I learned to understand that beauty and readability—and up to a certain point, banality—are close bedfellows,” Frutiger said. “The best typeface is the one that impinges least on the reader’s consciousness, becoming the sole tool that communicates the meaning of the writer to the understanding of the reader.”