In the opening sentences of The Wallcreeper by Nell Zink, a young American woman living in Europe has a miscarriage when her husband swerves the car to avoid hitting a bird in the road, and crashes into a rock instead. He rushes outside to save the bird—a wallcreeper, a common gray thing with brilliant crimson wings, a “species of least concern”—and eventually they take it home and make it their pet. Not much is said about the miscarriage. Which gives you a sense of the priorities in Tiff and Stephen’s marriage, and a clue to Nell Zink’s writing: she’s always burying the lead.
Outside of the Babysitter’s Club, has there ever been a literary protagonist named Tiff? Not even Tiffany, but Tiff? It’s as if Zink is daring us to see Tiff as someone flighty and inconsequential. Which is true. Tiff doesn’t have a job. (At the start of the novel, Stephen earns enough for both of them as a medical engineer, building a “contraption” for hearts.) Tiff isn’t faithful. (The first of her European affairs is a working-class Albanian lothario named Elvis.) Tiff can’t focus on any productive enterprise whatsoever. (Unless it’s productive to sabotage a German river by slowly removing rocks from its banks.) But dear god, it’s fun to be inside her head. Tiff is piercingly intelligent, and she does this thing that certain intelligent, insecure people do, where they constantly put themselves down in clever, entertaining ways, in a sort of cry for help. Continue reading
Ben Lerner’s 10:04 is a great book for those of us who enjoy a sense of déjà vu, as so much of it is about his previous novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, and so many selections from his new book have been disseminated in major publications: The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Paris Review. To increase the sensation of eternal recurrence I gathered with my fellow nebbishes in the Sunset, in the new Green Apple Books (which resembles a slightly misremembered version of the original Green Apple Books) to hear Lerner speak.
My friend Chris and I arrived in time to get premium seats, three rows deep and centered, ready to believe that lightly fictionalized versions of ourselves might appear in a future Lerner novel or, at the very least, a poem. The talent walked directly past us, pausing to kiss the cheeks of some adoring septuagenarians in the first two rows. We’ve all looked at Lerner’s author photo and let me tell you—his eyebrows are really like that: a cartoon villain’s, a malevolent badger’s, the arched backs of two startled black cats.
The parts of the sidelines not taken up by the walkers and wheelchairs of Lerner’s kin filled with fresh-off-the-High-Line hipsters, adjusting square-framed glasses on their sweat-slick noses. The current fashion calls for stern, two-toned frames, a style from the 50’s, or rather from Brad Pitt in The Tree of Life. There was a woman with a breaching whale tattoo that you realized was not just a breaching whale but Penguin’s Moby-Dick.
Good news, feminists! Not all hope is lost! Pick up a copy of this slim book and carry it with you to be reminded that yes, really, yes, things might get better one day!
Just look! A book by a woman whose cover shows nothing but a bold white typeface on a blue background – no soft-focus photograph of laundry on a clothesline in a field of wildflowers, no black high heels, no pink font, no cursive, none of that shit. Not even a picture of Solnit with her long, lovely hair and some sexy, smoldering look in her eye. We’ve come so far!
At least, that is the impression I got after finishing Men Explain Things to Me.
But, wait, don’t get me wrong. Solnit’s essays are depressing as hell.
image by Bastien Grivet
The new Penguin edition of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Tales doesn’t come right out and say it, so I’ll say it: Washington Irving is America’s Tolkien.
If you Google the phrase “America’s Tolkien” you’ll find a bunch of references to George R.R. Martin. Those references are wrong. Writing a hugely successful epic that involves swords and legends and fantastical beasts while you happen to be an American citizen does not make you America’s Tolkien. What makes you America’s Tolkien is… you’ll see.
Even though he is best remembered for only two short stories—“Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”—Washington Irving almost singlehandedly put the “American” in American literature. By making a careful study of his own neighbors—common people of mostly Dutch descent, living in farming hamlets along the Hudson River or down in the new borough of Manhattan—Irving turned the denizens of our new nation into literary types, familiar people with distinctly American characteristics. He was fascinated by the Revolutionary War, which was still a recent memory, and by the widening rift—an ocean, you might say—between the cultures of England and America. With his stories, essays, and literary “sketches,” Irving reached into a richly imagined, hyper-local American past, and created the first stirrings of our national mythology.
More than a century later, Tolkien did the same for Britain, weaving Norse and Germanic myths into a distinctly British tapestry. Both Irving and Tolkien had a particular vision of their nation’s character, and they used old-seeming stories to grandfather them in. Embedding these visions in an imagined past allowed the stories to become part of the nation’s shared memory. In her introduction to the new edition of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Stories, Elizabeth L. Bradley makes a convincing case that without Washington Irving, we would not have Hawthorne, Melville, Poe, Whitman, Twain, or Thurber. We would not have the Hudson River School of painters or the New York Knicks. We would not understand Harry Potter, Planet of the Apes, or The Daily Show with Jon Stewart in quite the same way.
Dave Van Ronk did not mean to write an autobiography. According to Elijah Wald—writer of the book’s epilogue, friend of the author, and guitar student during the slow denouement of Van Ronk’s musical career—Van Ronk’s book was supposed to chronicle the folk music boom in Greenwich Village in the 1950s and 1960s. The Mayor of MacDougal Street was meant as a history lesson for those interested in music, or New York City, or both. Van Ronk thought he could describe the scene’s political turmoil, auditory deconstruction, and social revolution without paying too much attention to his own influence. But his story was the one that needed to be told; his story encapsulates the time when the Village bred musicians and folk music defined a generation.
Van Ronk begins the story of the “Great Folk Scare”—a term coined by his friend Utah Phillips—with his own story of how he first discovered music. He recalls growing up in Queens in the 1950s and his deep appreciation for jazz. He distills his childhood into a string of “swells” and “trading licks” that make “boring… perfectly miserable” Queens tolerable, if not quite picturesque. He remembers taking guitar lessons from “Old Man” Jack, a local jazz aficionado, well known in the music community, who taught Van Ronk techniques he would adopt as his own. Jack also instilled in Van Ronk the ever-more-important lesson of listening.
The trailer for Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice is here. Been looking forward to this one for a long time.
Inherent Vice was “the Pynchon book I was the least interested in reading, and the one I flat out enjoyed the most.” It also strikes me as the most film-adaptable of his novels, especially at the hands of Anderson, who also did There Will Be Blood, Magnolia, Boogie Nights, and one of my personal favorites, Punch Drunk Love.
You can read more about his love of Pynchon and work on Inherent Vice in a recent New York Times story.