- 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.”
- Plenty of adjectives are fit for Norman Mailer—insecure, misogynistic, overrated—but the one people seem to settle on, as a kind of euphemism, is pugnacious. Yes, here was a man whose ears always pricked up for the call of combat, a man who’d ask you to put your dukes up even when no one was watching: “Imagine it: Mailer is living in small-town Connecticut. He takes his dogs out after midnight to relieve themselves. He chances to stroll past a few young men sitting on a porch, one of whom points out the obvious: Mailer’s well-groomed poodles were probably queer. Mailer must have seen the implication: Who would own homosexual dogs, if not a homosexual man? In the middle of the night, with no one there to impress, one of the world’s most famous authors demanded satisfaction … Fearing for his life and bleeding from both eyes, Mailer surrendered and dragged himself home. Laid up in a dark room for days afterwards, he didn’t feel too badly about himself: there was only dishonor in flinching from a fight, not in losing decently.”
- Joan Didion, meanwhile, has been held up as the embodiment of feminine cool, even with her wincingly elitist, antifeminist politics: “It’s interesting to think about how Didion would have fared had she come to New York in 2015 rather than 1955. She is, after all, a writer for whom feelings (especially her own) are inherently unreliable sources. She assailed feminism’s ‘invention of women as a “class” ’ and wrote dismissively of the oppressed ‘Everywoman’ who ‘needed contraceptives because she was raped on every date … and raped finally on the abortionist’s table.’ She never got involved in the women’s movement, because, according to a friend, ‘she was beyond that.’ Didion is, for all her sensitivity and curiosity, more than a little bit of a class snob.”
- “The Contemporary Novel,” an 1927 essay by T. S. Eliot, is finally seeing publication in English, nearly ninety years later. Of novelists like Woolf, Lawrence, and Huxley, he writes, “I can find unity—or rather, unanimity—only in the fact that they all lack what [Henry] James seems to me so preeminently to possess: the ‘moral preoccupation.’ And as I believe that this ‘moral preoccupation’ is more and more asserting itself in the minds of those who think and feel, I am forced to the somewhat extreme conclusion that the contemporary English novel is behind the times.”
- Some twenty-five hundred words of a lost F. Scott Fitzgerald novel have been found languishing in a box in the Princeton library. They’re from an unfinished work called Ballet School—Chicago, which is about, sure enough, “a ballerina trying to make her way in Chicago. She has an attraction to a wealthy neighbor because he can get her out of this tough existence … and she can have a happy life with him. The story goes into the very hard training for ballet dancers. But then something quirky and unsuspected happens that changes her impression of him.”
- Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate, otherwise known as “the Bean,” has been a major attraction in Chicago since 2006, which is maybe why in China, the city of Karamay, Xinjiang, has just ripped it off with a new, shiny, surprisingly Bean-like sculpture of their own. “A spokesperson from the Karamay tourism bureau went on the record to defend the sculpture, telling the Wall Street Journal that while Kapoor’s sculpture was ‘a bean shape,’ the sculpture in Karamay ‘looks like an oil bubble.’ ”