A Library of Babel

Born Translated

Just when you think you know what a novel is, Rebecca L. Walkowitz comes along and screws it all up.

In Born Translated: The Contemporary Novel in an Age of World Literature, Walkowitz argues that it is becoming impossible to say what the original version of a novel is. That’s because many novels–like those by Junot Diaz, Mohsin Hamid, Jamaica Kincaid, and others–are being released in multiple languages at once. So, as far as readers and the marketplace are concerned, the translations are just as valid as the “native” language version. There are even cases, like with J.M. Coetzee’s Childhood, where a translation (Dutch) gets published before the “original” (English).

In this globalized age, where multiple editions of each novel proliferate, Walkowitz says we have to revise our understanding of what the novel is. The novelist’s work is becoming detached from its native language and turning into something multifaceted and polyvocal, something that nobody, unless they speak countless languages, will ever fully apprehend.

Thanks, Obama.

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What About Jean Louise?

Jean Louise

I almost didn’t read Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman because of what the reviews said about Atticus, who transforms from an ACLU-ish lawyer in To Kill a Mockingbird to a Klan meeting attender in Watchman. But when I read to the very end of page 278, it wasn’t the proto-Tea Party Atticus that irritated me. What bothered me was that early reviews of Watchman allowed Jean Louise to be eclipsed by her father, as if Atticus were the whole point of this story.

I don’t disagree that Watchman is an inferior literary work. How can it not be? It’s possibly a draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, which was among a handful of books that re-defined female possibility for me when I was growing up poor, white, and in perpetual fear of losing my mother to an illness that eventually killed her. Scout Finch showed me what it meant to be brave and to thrive in absence of a mother. In my sometimes-bleak girlhood, Scout was both who I wanted to be and who I wanted to become: independent and able to transcend the limitations that life handed me.

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Straight Man by Richard Russo


FA review tag

Guy in Your MFA may be all the rage on Twitter these days but he first made an appearance in Straight Man, the 1997 novel by Richard Russo. The book is the story of William Henry Devereaux, Jr.—Hank, for short—a professor in the English Department at the Railton Campus of West Central Pennsylvania University. In Hank’s workshop, his student Leo is unshakably confident despite his mediocre writing skills. Like Guy in Your MFA, he thinks that he and Hank are “after a fashion, team-teaching the course.”

From the author interviews Leo devours, he has learned that the worst thing that can happen to a talented young writer is to be given too much praise, so Leo is grateful to me for protecting him. I don’t know whether he’s grateful to the other students in the workshop, who have been even more determined than their instructor not to ruin him with too much praise. Or any praise.

This novel is like a masterclass in itself. Other peripheral characters, much like Leo, are given such concrete characteristics that it remains easy to keep track of all of them as the English Department, which Hank chairs, faces the threat of impending budget and faculty cuts. Right at the start of the book, we meet Teddy, one of Hank’s colleagues. Continue reading

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The Boomstick Film Club: Headhunters


The Boomstick

Watch it with us: Netflix streaming

Headhunters (2012) has been on my radar for a while now, partly because it’s a slick, stylish foreign thriller and that’s kind of my jam, and partly because it involves a few people who went on to achieve much greater notoriety. These include the director, Morten Tyldum, who also helmed last year’s The Imitation Game, and costar Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, better known as Jamie Lannister from Game of Thrones.

It begins as an art-heist movie: Roger (Aksel Hennie) uses his position as a headhunter for a large corporation to scout his potential targets: wealthy executives with expensive art lying around. There’s a humorous sequence at the beginning in which Roger brags about the expensive piece of art on the wall behind him and challenges the worth of his client’s art collection. When the client retorts that he owns an even more valuable piece, all Roger has to do is ask a few follow-up questions about the client’s personal life to find out if anyone’s likely to be at his home during the day.

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Straight Outta Normal: Six Thoughts on the David Foster Wallace Movie

FA review tag

Last Friday, the New York Times Sunday Styles page published “A Brief History of the Tough Star Profile,” reviewing notable celebrity press takedowns from Lillian Ross’ 1950 New Yorker piece on Ernest Hemingway, to Tiger Woods telling “puerile and sexist jokes” in GQ in 1997, to the most recent (and orders of magnitude less interesting) Esquire piece on Miles Teller. I don’t know who Teller is or why he’s famous, but he was quoted this month comparing his penis to a highball glass and being generally dickish. He’s probably more famous now because of it.

These kinds of profiles represent the extreme version of what David Foster Wallace was fixated on and deeply fearful of during five days he spent with Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky in 1996. The possibility that Lipsky could pick and choose from hours of conversation to portray pretty much any Dave Wallace Rolling Stone wanted came up again and again while the two men were together. We know because, while Lipsky never ended up writing a profile, he ultimately chose to publish the vast majority of the conversation as Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself. The book has since been made into the movie The End of the Tourwhich I had a chance to see this weekend. Rather than add to the many straightforward reviews done by people who do that better than I can, here’s what I want you to know:

The movie is really good. It’s especially good if Continue reading


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HITTING SHELVES #23: Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh


Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh comes out today!

It’s the story of Eileen Dunlop, a young woman in 1964 cloistered in her secretarial job at a New England correctional facility for boys. A new counselor shows up and pulls Eileen out of her bizarre interior life, into a startling crime.

Moshfegh, author of the world’s least likely literary masterpiece about a pirate, is being hailed as “The Next Big Thing” and we couldn’t agree more. Nobody writes such unsettling stories with such poise. Reading Eileen is like hearing Flannery O’Connor, Shirley Jackson, and Alfred Hitchcock sit around a fireplace and one-up each other.

We asked the author one question.

How are you celebrating the publication of Eileen?

I’m leaving California and driving across the country back to Boston, my home of origin, in September. I haven’t lived there since I was half my age. I must say I’m excited to be getting rid of nearly everything I own. On August 18th, the day Eileen comes out in stores, I’ll email my heartfelt appreciation to the wonderful people responsible for its publication, and then I’ll probably lug some more stuff to the charity thrift store up the street. Probably just dishes, and this silk pillow that has started to creep me out. It’s hand painted and very pretty, but the painting is of this really uptight Japanese woman’s face. I always felt sort of judged by her for not having a fancier apartment. So I’ll donate her, let her terrorize the next jerk. Then I’ll go for a walk around the cemetery. Continue reading

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Crowd Cover

Infinite Jest turns 20 in 2016, and to mark the anniversary, the book’s publisher Little, Brown is asking readers to give the book a facelift by submitting a new cover design.

IJ Cover

Submissions will be accepted starting tomorrow and running through September 15, with the winner to be chosen by the Wallace Literary Trust (meaning they probably won’t choose your design featuring  Jason Segel as Wallace). The winner will get a $1,000 American Express gift card and “the opportunity for your original cover to be used as the front cover of the 20th Anniversary edition” of the book.

Wallace himself was ambivalent about the book’s cover, according to his interviews with David Lipsky in Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself:

[Closes it, looks at cover. Clouds and sky.]

This was my major complaint about the cover of the book. …Is that it looks — on American Airlines flights? The cloud system, it’s almost identical.

[On safety booklet for 757]

Oh, that’s funny. What did you want instead?

Oh, I had a number of — there’s a great photo of Fritz Lang directing Metropolis. Do you know this one? Where he’s standing there, and there are about a thousand shaven-headed men in kind of rows and phalanxes, and he’s standing there with a megaphone? It wouldn’t have been…Michael [Pietsch, Wallace’s editor at Little Brown] said it was too busy and too like conceptual, it required too much brain work on the part of the audience….

Because you were making a metaphor on the cover?

No, I just thought it was cool —

There has been some truly great artwork created to honor Infinite Jest over the years, and it should be really cool to see what people come up with for this contest.

And if you’re interested in what’s inside the cover, check out our Infinite Jest Liveblog.

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Non-Fiction by Non-Men: Margo Jefferson

Margo Jefferson

In the fifth of her series of interviews with women who write nonfiction, E.B. Bartels speaks with Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Margo Jefferson.

Margo Jefferson has been a staff writer and cultural critic for The New York Times and Newsweek, in addition to having essays and reviews in Harper’s, Vogue, and New York Magazine, among others. Along with a Pulitzer Prize, Jefferson has received a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Rockefeller Foundation/Theatre Communications Group grant. She is the author of On Michael Jackson (Pantheon, 2006) and Negroland: A Memoir (Pantheon, 2015). Jefferson teaches in the Writing Program at Columbia University.

EB: Why were you, as a writer and also a woman, drawn to writing nonfiction in the first place?

MJ: I really liked the idea of that intimacy with books but also the authority that being a literary critic meant. I later spread out to other forms. Once I really started to write, that variety is what I wanted. I liked the challenge; I liked the sense of being engaged with all the arts and with so many aspects of the culture. That was important to me.

When I look back on it, I really admired novelists—when I came along, the novel was the ideal form—who wrote criticism, and I really admired women who took charge of that voice.

EB: And all of the nonfiction you wrote at first was criticism? Continue reading

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