- In defense of Kim Kardashian’s book of selfies, which is “arguably emblematic of the disruptions in image production and consumption that have taken place over the past decade on a significant, even revolutionary level”: “Though their circumstances are hardly comparable, the Kardashians, like the Brontës, are a family of creative women, in the business of conducting narratives in which men come and go, but female relationships remain constant and meaningful.”
- Harold Bloom presides over a tour of his stuffed animals: “Well, there’s Valentina, the ostrich, named after Valentinus, second-century author of The Gospel of Truth … this little baby gorilla, well, we call Gorilla Gorilla. And there is that famous original A. A. Milne donkey, Eeyore, and the last of our boys here, Oscar, the duck-billed platypus, named in honor of my hero, Oscar Wilde.”
- We’re not in the habit of dispensing financial advice—we’re a nonprofit, after all—but if you’ve got 3.25 million quid just lying around, and you’re an extravagant person, you could do worse than buy this old manor house, once featured in Thomas Hardy’s The Trumpet-Major.
- You could also do better, though. Say, by preserving one of America’s stately, nineteenth-century mental asylums, of which only fifteen remain. New Jersey’s Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital, for instance, built in 1876, is on the verge of demolition, despite its obvious historic significance.
- Faulkner got the idea for Pylon, his underrated novel about daredevil fliers, from a conversation with Howard Hawks, in Hollywood: “I said, ‘Why don’t you write about some decent people, for goodness’ sake?’ ‘Like who?’ I said, ‘Well, you fly around, don’t you know some pilots or something that you can write about?’ And he thought a while, and he said, ‘Oh, I know a good story. Three people—a girl and a man were wingwalkers, and the other man was a pilot. The girl was gonna have a baby, and she didn’t know which one was the father.’”
A letter from Eudora Welty to Jean Stafford, September 2, 1949. Faulkner and Welty had met once before, when she presented him with the National Institute of Arts and Letters Gold Medal for Fiction.
William Faulkner took us sailing on his sailboat on a big inland lake they’ve cut out of the woods there—waves and everything, big. We were late getting there—got lost and went to Blackjack, Miss.—and then when we found the lake there was Faulkner, cruising around, and headed right for us, through the dead cypresses and stumps and all, pulled down his sail and took the oar, and hollered, “You all better take your shoes off and get ready to wade,” which we did, sinking—got pulled on board and then we all sailed around, all quiet and nice—what a wonderful person he is, the most profound face, something that nearly breaks your heart though, just in the clasp of his hand—a strange kind of life he leads in Oxford, two lives really. We never, either time I’ve been with him, talked about anything bookish of course—it’s his life, not his opinions,—that seems to be with you all the time. He can do or make anything, and can sail beautifully. We got in his 20 year old Ford touring car which he hunts and fishes and goes over the farm in, with holes in the floor (“well, I know where all the holes are”) and when we couldn’t open a back door he said, “There’s a cupboard latch on it,” you ought to see that car.
There’s a moment in “Car-Crash While Hitchhiking,” a story by Denis Johnson that first appeared in The Paris Review, in 1989, when a woman learns of the death of her husband and unleashes a terrible scream. The narrator, instead of expressing the expected sympathy, leans out of the page a little to offer this unnerving confession: “It felt wonderful to be alive to hear it! I’ve gone looking for that feeling everywhere.”
Reading Young Skins, Colin Barrett’s debut story collection, can leave one with a similar sense of disturbed gratitude. The stories blend moments of horror with moments of hilarity, shocks of joy with shocks of despair, and no matter how grim a given scene by Barrett can get, it’s a thrill to be alive to hear him. In a restroom, under a naked bulb, we find “a lidless shitter operated by a fitfully responsive flush handle.” In a field, “crushed cans of Strongbow and Dutch Gold and Karpackie are buried in the mud like ancient artefacts.” A “big brown daddy-long-legs pedals airily in the sink basin,” its movements ”describing a flustered circle,” and a character named Bat cannot enjoy his dinner because a clan of kids is “eyeing the bulky hydraulics of his jaw.”
The vitality of Barrett’s prose—the special intensity of attention he’s able to draw from details of small-town life—has already helped win him the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, the Guardian First Book Award, and the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature. To mark the U.S. release of Young Skins this month, I talked with him about his allergy to “lethally competent writing,” the details of character and language upon which he builds a story, and how a work of fiction—like the community it describes—can develop “its shibboleths, its customs and codes, its own way of talking to itself.”
Were your earliest efforts as a writer very different to the stories collected in Young Skins?
I wrote and drew lots of gory comic books as a young kid and as a teen. Then I discovered and wrote lots of poetry around college age. Awful, sub-Ashbery, sub-Muldoon, sub-Eliot stuff, but at least it was writing. Then I attempted a few novels—multinarrator, genre-splicing Pynchonian or Foster Wallace sprawlers, usually set in alternate futures, though I never got more than a couple dozen pages in. I only started really writing stories at twenty-five. The early stuff was all, obviously, awful—but awful in a vital way. The wonderful thing about being completely inexperienced is the impregnable purity of your ignorance. You are utterly insensible to any conception of your own crippling and patent limitations, and so you try anything and everything. Read More
- After Faulkner won the Nobel Prize, he was a hot commodity abroad—he traveled to many foreign lands to bang the drum for the U. S. of A., which would’ve been fine, had he not been such a lush. The State Department circulated a memo called “Guidelines for Handling Mr. William Faulkner on His Trips Abroad,” designed to help agents curb Faulkner’s drinking. Their advice ranged from the obvious (monitor his liquor cabinet) to the subtle: “Keep several pretty young girls in the front two rows of any public appearance to keep his attention up.”
- Twenty-five years late, a novelist has at last completed and delivered her tenth-grade term paper on Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Her (perhaps convenient) conclusion: it’s about shame. “Like Tess, I spent a lot of time waiting to be found out: I worried that my adolescent failures would be exposed and that people would lose respect for me. Or love me less … Shame depends on an audience, and those who are ashamed become overly self-conscious. I’m aware, even now, of compensating for past mistakes.”
- Why are there so many more aspiring writers than aspiring readers? “I try to take a philosophical, and I hope empathetic, view of it all. I mean, we’re all going to die, and we have a short time here on earth, and we all want to achieve distinction of some sort while we’re here. Meanwhile, we all have Microsoft Word installed on our desktops. We all already spend a lot of time typing. One way to leave one’s mark would be to, say, write a great symphony, but most people don’t know how to read music. Whereas more or less everyone does have the means to put down words on a page and save them and share them. That’s a great thing—I’m all for technology eliminating barriers to communication and expression—but it can lead to delusions. Just because you’ve written it doesn’t make it worth reading. And it’s depressing when people forget that you can’t be a good writer without first being a good reader.”
- Paul Beatty has an enviable gift: he “can turn a sacred cow into hamburger with just one sentence.” His new novel The Sellout takes on race in America, sparing “no person or piety”: “The only tangible benefit to come out of the civil rights movement,” he writes, “is that black people aren’t as afraid of dogs as they used to be.”
- René Magritte, comedian: “It’s noticeable that many of the techniques Magritte uses for creating his mysterious images are to be found in comedy writing. His pictures are frequently structured like jokes … relying upon a simple (almost mathematical) function, like reversal or negation.”
From December 1921 until October 1924, William Faulkner enjoyed a famously disastrous tenure as the University of Mississippi’s postmaster. He’d arrive late, leave early, play bridge, and work on his fiction—all while losing mail or simply throwing it away. (“I will be damned if I propose to be at the beck and call of every itinerant scoundrel who has two cents to invest in a postage stamp,” he wrote in his brief, pungent resignation letter.)
During these years Faulkner wrote regularly for The Mississippian, the school newspaper. Of his contributions, the strangest and most apocryphal is the mock-advertisement above, for the Bluebird Insurance Co., which offered to indemnify students “against professors and other failures.” It goes on to discuss feet, heartbreak, and hollow logs, none of them very coherently.
Faulkner, minus the u, is listed as one of the company’s three presidents, and apparently it’s never been clear whether he helped write the ad or was named without consent. Whatever the case, in the weeks and months to follow, more ads for Bluebird appeared in The Mississippian and the Ole Miss annual. One of them took a (self-deprecating?) jab at Faulkner’s job performance: “It is a gross injustice to say that President Falkner has permanently retired in the Post Office. He merely takes temporary naps—during business hours.”
- Faulkner and Hemingway had a famously snippy rapport—Will was all like, “He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary,” and Ernie was all like, “If you have to write the longest sentence in the world to give a book distinction, the next thing you should hire Bill Veek [sic] and use midgets”—which makes Faulkner’s one-paragraph review of The Old Man and the Sea all the more surprising in its candor and courteousness. “Time may show it to be the best single piece of any of us, I mean his and my contemporaries.”
- The case for compact discs, which are, at this juncture, the least hip medium in music: “There’s a lot of pressure in our culture right now to essentially imagine CDs out of existence … CDs currently exist in a cultural no-man’s-land recently defined by singer-songwriter Todd Snider as ‘post-hip, pre-retro’—the format is passé, but not so passé that it qualifies for reclamation.”
- “No matter how many buildings, spacecrafts, and sentient robots Michael Bay explodes, the director can’t seem to get any respect.” So why do they perform so well at the box office, and what, exactly, motivates Bay’s style? “This video may at least help his detractors articulate their distaste with a greater degree of specificity.”
- The artist Mark Dorf’s new series, “Axiom and Simulation,” attempts to illustrate how “the human race is constantly recording data and transforming elements of our physical surroundings into abstracted and non-physical calculations.”
- Offices across the land are under the thumb of that insidiously vague dress code, corporate casual. “No one was quite sure what corporate casual meant. We googled it. The gist of every article is that no one knows what corporate casual is.”