Watch it with us: Netflix streaming
The idea behind 13 Sins is a cool iteration of one of my favorite movie tropes: the impossible ethical quandary. Elliot (Mark Webber) is your average Joe Niceguy. Strapped for cash, he has a pregnant fianceé (Rutina Wesley), a disabled brother (Devon Graye), and a horrible elderly dad (Tom Bower) all depending on him. While driving around and fretting, he gets a mysterious phone call offering him a thousand dollars to kill a fly buzzing around the inside of his car. He does it with no hesitation, and the money is immediately wired into his bank account. Then the caller offers him $3,266, the exact balance on his fianceé’s credit card, to eat the fly. The caller explains the rules of what becomes known as simply the Game: Elliot will be given thirteen tasks of increasing difficulty to complete. Each task is worth more money, and the last will be worth a fortune. The hitch is that he has to complete all thirteen tasks or he loses everything he’s won so far. He’s also forbidden from telling anyone else about the Game or trying to interfere with it.
What I like about this twist is that it explains immediately why Elliot is so committed to seeing the Game through and completing all thirteen tasks. If he had the option to walk away at any time and take his winnings with him, it would be easy for us as viewers to think “I’d never do that, I don’t care how much money they offered me.” He’s clearly not a guy who’s driven by avarice. But even the second task, eating the fly, is unpleasant enough that you understand why he’s committed after enduring it. So he has no choice but to keep going, even as the tasks go from uncomfortable to horrific.
Pages Read: 50-64, then 50-100, then 50-100 again
So, the plot: basically, our heroine Kate is the last woman––nay, living being––on earth. Or, she thinks she is, according to the summary on the back of the book. The doubt is borne of her recognition that for periods of time over the last decade, she was insane, but she doesn’t seem to think she is now, or at least she doesn’t mention it. Her speech is what I might call schizotypal, but nothing about the way she behaves––as far as a reader can tell––might qualify as crazy—that is, within the context of being the last person on earth.
It’s unclear exactly when everyone disappeared, but based on the information she releases in little bits over the course of the first one hundred pages, it seems that it just happened one day. Poof. Everyone was gone. She was living in SoHo, then in a loft, working as a painter. First she picked up and moved to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, burning paintings for warmth and coating giant canvases in gesso (is it color or the absence of color? Nemira asks) to pass the time. That whole section reads, to a relatively young person like me, who knows her idea of joyful solitude is the folly of her youth, like a grown-up version of The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Leaning your own paintings against the wall like it’s your guerrilla art fair! Racing around the big entrance hall in a wheelchair! If hell is other people, then heaven… well, you get it.
Sometimes I just want to start walking. To pick a direction and continue until there isn’t land to walk on anymore. I’ve had this itch in the soles of my feet for a long time and am usually able to ignore it but sometimes it flares. When I hear of a friend completing the 800-kilometer Camino de Santiago across Spain, for example, or of coworkers cycling across Cuba on their vacation, I can feel it in my feet. And I’m not the only one. Just last year the idea of a woman walking was narrative enough to drive Reese Witherspoon in Wild and Mia Wasikowska in Tracks. You don’t really have to be escaping anything to justify picking up and leaving your life. You might just be the type of woman who is always looking to go.
Emma Hooper speaks to this desire in her debut novel Etta and Otto and Russell and James. Etta is a woman of 82 living on the Saskatchewan prairie who begins to walk toward the ocean. She has never been to the water and though the Pacific is closer, she goes east. She leaves a note for her husband Otto, promising she’ll try to remember to come back. Etta is accompanied only by a coyote whom she meets along the way and names James. Complicating it all is Etta and Otto’s neighbour and lifelong friend Russell, who decides that if Otto won’t go after Etta, then he will. As Etta walks, Hooper reveals the origins Etta and Otto and Russell’s connections with one another. We learn how the three came together and what they lost along the way.
Assuming that love actually did take place—that the love between two City Hall employees (one from Sewage and Disposable Income Studies, the other from the much-less-heralded Bikes and Bike Rack Division), was indeed a manifestation of actual love, of throw-your-arms-around-it-and-cry kind of love, and not a by-product of lonely-office, interdepartmental ballyhoo (see: one-night stand)—then the current variables, social media studies, and other weights and measures can be correctly applied.
For ease of this study, the male (Bikes and Bike Rack Division), will herein be known as Kenneth. Or Ken. Or, “Don’t stop, faster harder my hot piece of City-Hall ass,” as indicated in the relationship vernacular established by the female, who, from this point on will be referred to as Francis. Or Franny. Or, “My little ball of wet love,” as indicated by the reciprocating, passion-induced awkwardness of Kenneth.
Furthermore, their place of residence, or Quickly-Acquired Domicile, will herein be referred to as the Apartment. Or, when used in conjunction with common catch-phrases adopted in passing by Kenneth and Francis, as Home (see also: “Take Me Right Now, Right Here, Right Inside This Fucking Apartment.”)
When we come out of the evening and into the Kinsmen Field House, people are mostly sitting in their seats. I drag Paula up front to the stage. I look back, and everyone is draining down the aisle toward us, like we’re a bathtub plug that’s just been pulled.
The hall goes black, then the lights come up on treble chops. Twelve.
There he is. Feet planted together, right leg jerking with each chop like he’s trying to stomp change out of a hole in his pocket. Pointy-toed Docs, black jeans, pink socks. Cowboy shirt with the sleeves cut off, white star in a red circle on the t-shirt underneath.
When the bass line comes in, it rolls up like a hearse.
Paula thrusts her mouth to my ear and screams, “Oh my God I want to fuck him.”
I’m thinking, “I want to be him.”
Watch it with us: Netflix streaming
I was so charmed by the German comedy Wetlands (2014) initially that I didn’t think I had much to say about it. It has a whimsy and sprightliness that reminded me of Amelie, except that it centers on a sexually and hygienically adventurous teenager instead of a shy woman in her twenties. It’s easy to get caught up in its charms and spend the movie wondering what this weird, adorable girl is going to do next. Early in the movie, the main character, Helen (Carla Juri), announces that her hobbies are having sex and growing avocados. She also undertakes several cringe-inducing experiments on her own body, which we later learn are acts of rebellion against her parents for splitting up. When a freak shaving accident lands her in the hospital, she uses it as leverage to get her parents into the same room together in hopes that they’ll reconcile. But in the course of her hospital stay, which she drags out on purpose, she also remembers a traumatic incident from her past that changes the way she looks at her parents, and she becomes attached to a young (male) nurse named Robin (Christoph Letkowski).
Pages Read: 1-50, David Foster Wallace afterword, and 1-50, again
“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”
This is one of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s most famous dictums; it’s also, without a doubt, his most easily understood, with just about everything else he wrote falling under the category of “WTF.” (Case in point: “An expression presupposes the forms of all propositions in which it can occur. It is the common characteristic mark of a class of propositions.” Duh.)
The aforementioned piece of Wittgensteinian self-help is perhaps something I should have considered before asking for a forum in which to write about my attempt to read David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress and try to say something meaningful about it. As to why I wanted to do this, I can only say that like many writers, I have always looked to books–fiction, non-fiction, travelogues, medical texts, whatever, really–to decode the world for me. It seemed that perhaps, and I’m fully aware that this sounds insane, if deconstructed and diagrammed painstakingly enough, certain texts actually could be stripped away to reveal guidelines to reality, perfectly self-contained and achingly clear. (The “magical book” trope, i.e. The NeverEnding Story, is, therefore, the closest I’ve ever come to understanding fantasy as a genre.) This same impulse to shred, re-assemble and endlessly comment on a single text until one finds the singular answer is nowhere more apparent than in the Jewish rabbinical tradition; David Foster Wallace–rebbe to many young writers, myself included, as well as a lover of Wittgensteinian philosophy and Markson’s novel–famously shared that same urge to cite his citations. So put a different way: beneath every good novel lies a complete and unique Shulchan Oruch. And if it kills me, I’m going to figure out what Markson is trying to tell me about life, if, in fact, it’s anything at all.
Near the beginning of Jurassic Park, the scientist played by Laura Dern plunges her arms into a gigantic pile of triceratops shit. When I first saw this, I had a gut reaction: “Ew, no! Don’t touch that! It’s shit!” But as the scene goes on, Laura Dern makes it clear that her character is a professional. She studies shit for a living. This is her milieu. We viewers are—like the triceratops shit itself—in good hands.
The Sellout is a novel about racism. Huge, steaming, stinking piles of racism. Racism so ugly and insidious that you want to shiver and walk away. But as readers we are in good hands, because Paul Beatty is a professional—knowledgeable, passionate, and easygoing. Characters in Beatty’s novel call his protagonist a “race reactionary” and a “race pervert.” But you and I might call Beatty the world’s foremost connoisseur of racism.
The Sellout has a plot, which I will describe for you because plots are an important way to begin a conversation about a story, but honestly, the plot of The Sellout is a shambles. It’s a wreck. Scan any page of The Sellout and, if you’re lucky, you might find a couple of paragraphs with topic sentences that mention the overall plot. Everything else will be the kind of extended, wisecracking riff that has characterized Beatty’s fiction ever since his first foray into prose (he started out as a slam poetry champion) with The White Boy Shuffle. But with The Sellout, surely, Beatty’s style of back-talking his own story has found its apotheosis—if this novel were any more digressive it would crumble like the clumps of lint in your dryer.