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.
New music! Sometimes old music. Music that we love!
We all know Bowie. Icon Bowie, that bowie, androgynous Bowie, crooner Bowie, teethy Bowie, gross-stop-it Bowie, and yes, even… this Bowie. Dude knows how to craft a persona.
Something about this horribly recorded demo track off the B-side of “Hunky Dory” really strips all of that down for me, and reveals a guy focused on writing a kick-ass song. Still weird of course, but the song comes before all those extra layers.
- Brook Reeder
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.
NYRB Classics has just released a new edition of William H. Gass’s In the Heart of the Heart of the Country. Gass, one of the greatest prose writers of the past century, only has one short story collection, this one, which was originally published in 1968.
Of the five stories, written over the course of a decade or more, three—“Mrs. Mean”, “The Pederson Kid”, and the title story—are among the best you will ever have the chance to read. Masterpieces of language and introspection, the stories have a unique cadence and complete aesthetic that, once you pick it up, carries you, like Beckett, like Faulkner, like Shakespeare (the Murderers’ Row of language lovers), through its idiosyncratic passages to the end.
Gass is, hands down, the greatest living essayist in the English language. He writes essays like poets write poems: not a word out of place, not a phrase unpolished, still thematically taut and as swift and adhering to the logic of argument as any. Continue reading
New music! Sometimes old music. Music that we love!
Esperanza Spalding is such a talented musician and performer that it always seems a little unfair. Check her out in this incredible rendition of Lauryn Hill’s “Tell Him” performed at the White House.
Now, the nice thing about performances at the White House is that they are all available to download. There’s some great stuff on their site, in between horrendous press briefings…
Check out Esperanza Spalding’s performance of Stevie Wonder’s “Overjoyed” here.
- Brook Reeder
Watch it with us: Netflix, Hulu
Read it with us: Powell’s
Devil in a Blue Dress (1995) is a great example of a genre I’m already a sucker for: detective stories. It pays loving homage to its predecessors but doesn’t feel derivative or tired.
Denzel Washington plays Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins, a recent WWII vet who finds himself out of work and with a mortgage to pay. Easy gets a job offer from a shady character (Tom Sizemore) that’s too good to pass up, even though he knows it’s trouble.
One of the eternal problems of the detective story is how to account for your protagonist’s involvement in whatever shady dealings are about to unfold. The easiest route is to make him or her a cop or a private investigator. There are other options: I’m partial to the amateur sleuth, even though that device has more or less gone out of fashion; or you can tell the story from the point of view of the criminal, but that takes away the most obvious locus for suspense since we already know whodunit. Once in a while you get a story in which a regular guy (or gal) gets drawn into a mess and has to untangle it and save the day, which is what happens here. Coen brothers fans will recognize this device from The Big Lebowski, where it heightens the absurdity of the hero’s situation rather than his humanity, as it does here. The trick is to convince your viewers that your hero or heroine is the perfect person for the job, whether or not they have any formal training.